Calling Sehmat by Lt. Cdr. Harinder Sikka (Retd)
Seventeen days ago, I wrote a piece on the film that I have liked most this year: Meghna Gulzar’s Raazi. Today, I’m writing about the book the film is adapted from.
Calling Sehmat is a book I have wanted to read since before Raazi was announced. I am always on the lookout for espionage novels set in India and written by Indians, since that is one genre writers haven’t really gotten deep into, at least in recent times. When I looked for the book online, I found that it was out of stock. Bookshops didn’t have it either. I soon put it out of my head and found something else to read before the film was announced. A film being made on a book written by an Indian not named Chetan Bhagat was something that intrigued me and so I once again looked for the book without much success. Now that the film is finally out and running in theatres, the book’s new edition came out. I watched the film first, loved it. The book, nowhere as much.
The story is pretty much the same: Sehmat is a young girl from the Vale of Kashmir who is pulled out of college after the death of her intelligence agency-source businessman father. She is trained by the Research and Analysis Wing to infiltrate a Pakistani Army family by marrying the younger son of the household, Capt. Iqbal Sayeed. She has left behind a worried mother, a worried mentor and a worried ex-boyfriend (who knows exactly what she’s going to be doing in Pakistan), and gone to serve her country in the neighbouring one as the clouds of war start to assemble over the subcontinent.
Meghna Gulzar’s film pretty much nailed everything. Sikka’s novel is a tremendous mess. We are treated to not one, but two love stories: Hidayat and Tejinder (Sehmat’s parents) and Sehmat and Abhinav (aka Aby, a rather ridiculous nickname, not to mention almost preposterous in the late 60s). Both are quite dull. The protagonist is Sehmat, so maybe the latter serves some purpose but why would anyone care how and why her parents got together? Even her track with Abhinav is stilted: far too cheesy and childish, apart from being boring because the characters are so.
Sikka leaves out the principal relationship in the story – Sehmat and Iqbal. The film showed them falling in love and it was filmed and enacted so well that you felt bad for Iqbal when Sehmat’s secret is discovered. None of that here. There is literally no relationship between them. And what’s worse is that Sikka doesn’t even seem to try and develop one. A scene here, half-a-scene there and boom, party’s over, back to work!
None of the spying bits are thrilling, though I’m willing to let that slide since it could be because I’d watched the film. Towards the fag end of the book, Sikka’s narrative abandons Sehmat to inform the reader of the fates of PNS Ghazi and INS Khukri, both of which are related to the plot. Why write two chapters filled with a whole lot of complex jargon when they don’t serve the story? There is a philosophical bit towards the end, and we also get to see how Sehmat “saves” Malerkotla, the place where she lives after her espionage stint.
The prose, seemingly for the sake of being simplistic and easy to understand, is pretty dry. It’s a matter-of-fact narrative and gets terribly dull after a point. There seems to have been no attempt to get the reader invested in anything in the book.
But none of this comes close to the book’s biggest flaw: Sehmat herself. She is a poorly-written protagonist who is so one-dimensional that you feel glad she stayed in the book. Alia Bhatt’s portrayal of her was layered and complex, but the book Sehmat is nothing of the sort. She is a god-fearing patriot, something that is reiterated far too many times in the book. She is smart and intelligent and beautiful but she isn’t a human being. She doesn’t feel real. She seems to have no flaws and lacks emotions too, except for her country because why not?
Calling Sehmat is – unless you’ve failed to gauge this from the above paragraphs – a book that should thrill but instead trolls you for having bought into the hype around it. Eight years of work it took to be written and this is all there is to it? Really? Trust me, you do not want to Call Sehmat, especially if you’ve watched the film and liked it.
Calling Sehmat is available in Paperback and Kindle formats on Amazon.in.
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