Days after I laughed off a news report about an alleged spy case involving ISRO scientists and a couple of Maldivian women in 1994, I found myself at the centre of it, being tortured by a bunch of Intelligence Bureau men. Enduring the pain—psychological and physical—I made mental notes of this crucifixion; soon after my release from the 50-day custody of Kerala Police, IB and CBI, I scribbled them down. The first draft occupied 18 full pages.
Twenty-four years later, Bloomsbury India brings to you the 372-page book Ready to Fire: How India and I Survived the ISRO Spy Case. The book started taking shape in 2013 after a casual meeting with senior journalist Arun Ram, who had covered ISRO for a decade-and-a-half. Months after we had discussed co-authoring the book, Arun remained non-committal. So, on the night of December 31, 2013, I called him up around midnight. He was at a New Year party with his family, in Goa. I could hear the music and revelry in the background. “Are we doing it?” I demanded. He said yes.
During the last leg of his 2014 election campaign, the BJP’s prime ministerial candidate Narendra Modi sent word that he would like to meet me when he would be in Thiruvananthapuram. I obliged. I thought Modi would ask me about R.B. Sreekumar, the former Gujarat DGP who both Modi and I had (different) reasons to hate. Sreekumar, who took on Modi on Godhra, was earlier part of the IB leadership that cooked up the ISRO spy story. But Modi asked not a word about him.
He sympathised with me over the fact that even after the CBI and the Supreme Court had called the espionage case fake, I had been fighting for compensation for 15 years. He wanted to know more about the case that tried to halt India’s march in space. After trying to explain the web of multiple conspiracies hatched by some politicians and police officers in Kerala along with the IB, I told him I was writing a book on it.
“I will meet you in Delhi and present the book,” I said. Modi soon moved to Delhi as the PM. Now I am ready to keep my promise.
A year after he became the President of India, my ISRO senior colleague A.P.J. Abdul Kalam was sad that I was still fighting cases for compensation and action against the officers who implicated me in the case. “Stop this battle,” he told me. “Those who deserve punishment will get it in God’s court.” I told him I had leading lawyers in the Supreme Court who argued my case without demanding fees. “In God’s court, I am not sure who would argue for me.”
Later, when we were writing Ready to Fire, I told Kalam that the book would include an episode where I saved his life from an explosion during a lab experiment. He was dispassionate about it. I added that it would also have some episodes that may be unflattering of him, especially where it dealt with the solid vs liquid propulsion systems (Kalam worked on solid, I was a votary of liquid). Kalam smiled and said, “That’s the truth, go ahead and write…I will do the foreword for your book.” The great man didn’t live to read my tale, and so we decided to edit out certain portions about Kalam that only he would have approved of.
When I asked my daughter, Geetha Arunan, to read the first draft, she was excited. But half-way through the first chapter, she returned the manuscript. “Appa, it’s like reliving a nightmare,” she said. “I can’t do it.” Some friends and former colleagues who read the manuscript said it would make a gripping movie without adding even a pinch of fiction. The story, they said, had it all—a personal tragedy, a national concern and an international conspiracy, all punctuated by real-life poignancy.
During the five-year labour pain of delivering the book, several film-makers approached me. Many reigning stars sent feelers, but it was finally actor Madhavan who made the cut. He impressed me as much with his commitment as his knowledge of the case and rocketry. Spending long days with me, Arun and Prajesh Sen, who co-authored a Malayalam version of the book, Madhavan listened to my story. At times he welled up, at times he exploded in angst at the torture and injustice meted out to me. At the end of each session I felt he had imbibed me, part by part.
I wait to see Nambi Narayanan on screen.
(The writer is a scientist. He has written the book Ready To Fire: How India And I Survived The ISRO spy case.)