Review: ‘Calling Sehmat’ Recounts How One Girl Saved INS Vikrant

The book is being republished by Penguin Random House since it served as the plot for the Alia Bhatt starrer Raazi.

3 min read
The book cover of <i>Calling Sehmat</i>.&nbsp;

The setting seems almost unreal. Harinder Sikka’s debut novel, Calling Sehmat, tells the true tale of an Indian spy who was solely responsible for saving the country from losing the 1971 Indo-Pak naval war.

The book is no history lesson; we all know how it ends since it’s a real story – but it still manages to keep you engaged while you’re on the edge of your seat. Note: It was published a while ago, and is being republished by Penguin Random House since it has served as the plot for the Alia Bhatt starrer – Raazi.

A still from <i>Raazi</i>.&nbsp;
A still from Raazi
(Photo Courtesy: PR Still)
The novel opens with the news of Sehmat’s death, long years after she has completed her mission and returned to the safety of her homeland.

Sikka spends the first few chapters establishing that Sehmat is a vehemently patriotic woman.

Born to a Kashmiri Muslim father and a Hindu mother, Sehmat is taught from the very beginning that love and dedication to the country is the highest form of worship. Her father, Hidayat, plays a vital role in establishing a spy network in Pakistan before he sends in his greatest weapon – the affable Sehmat, much to the chagrin of her mother Tej.

These first few chapters are extremely important to understand why the young Sehmat agreed to be married to a high ranking official in Pakistan, even though she loved someone else. It is also important to note that Sehmat is never coerced into the job; she proudly exercises a choice that is probably influenced by her patriotic upbringing.

Eventually, the novel delves into the minute details of Sehmat’s time in Pakistan and her sham marriage to gather information. Sehmat eventually stumbles upon plans that mention the sinking of the INS Vikrant, a vessel that is the pride of the Indian navy. How she gets that information across to the Indian side comprises a major portion of the novel.

India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant.
India’s first indigenous aircraft carrier INS Vikrant.
(Photo: PTI)

How did Sehmat Khan influence the course of the Indo-Pak war of 1971?

Sehmat Khan’s indispensable information, the relaying of which costs lives, becomes the reason why – at the end of the war – the Indian Navy controls the seas around both sides of Pakistan, and is saved from an embarrassment. We are reminded of why the INS Vikrant is such a symbol of Indian pride – its might had provided support and morale to INS Rajput, INS Khukri, etc, allowing a naval blockade to be formed that became vital for the liberation of East Pakistan – now Bangladesh.

Harinder Sikka’s third person narration of what follows, post Sehmat being decommissioned, is what makes for an interesting read. Of course, he’s no Robert Ludlum, but the fact that he seamlessly manages to weave in a love story of a heroic spy who sacrifices it all during the ongoing war with the battles undertaken by the Indian Navy, is commendable.

What could have easily been avoided is the spiritual scene that takes place once Sehmat settles back into her old life in India. The godlike imagery that paints a picture of an angel of a hymn singer who happens to pass along her house, the descriptions and meanings of birth from the holy scriptures, and so on, seem out of place in Calling Sehmat. It is evident that Sehmat suffers from intense PTSD, but it is described in, perhaps, the worst way possible. What could be easily wrapped up in a few paragraphs drags on for a bit.

Calling Sehmat has been made into a major motion film, Raazi, starring Alia Bhatt as Sehmat. The film has been directed by Meghna Gulzar and releases on 11 May.

Watch the trailer here:

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