Meanwhile my work at Imprint had been taking some strange turns. The original idea seemed an admirable one: Western books in India were prohibitively expensive, so Imprint would condense four or five bestsellers and publish them in a magazine which, because of its advertising, would cost only one rupee a copy. It would overcome nationwide distribution problems by soliciting subscriptions by direct mail. The direct mailing shot, one of the first ever done in India, produced an enormous response, something like a 25 per cent success rate. We even had letters from people complaining that we had not been in touch with them. “My neighbour, a Jain, has had an offer from you to subscribe to your new magazine, Imprint, the best of books each month. I have had no such offer. Is this because you are discriminating against Muslims? Please advise.”
|Lasting Imprint Was the magazine nothing more than a CIA operation?|
It was pleasant, relaxing work and the editor, Glorya Hale, and her husband, Arthur, who ran the business side of the venture, were amusing, cosmopolitan Americans and fun to work for. They lived on the fifth floor of ‘Bakhtavar’, a modern, high-rise apartment block, more luxurious than most London or New York flats, that looked out over the approaches to Bombay Harbour. They installed Imprint on the sixth floor and, since there was plenty of space, suggested that I should live in one suite and turn it into an editorial office by day. Sitting on the balcony one evening after everyone had gone home, enjoying a quiet beer and watching the light of the small fishing boats come on as the day faded, I became aware that someone in the next block was doing the same thing. We nodded to each other and raised glasses. Then he called across the gap, “What are you drinking?” When I told him it was beer, he said, “Come over and try vodka.” I went down in the lift, across the courtyard and up the lift in the next block to the sixth floor where I noticed that a sign on the bell that I was about to ring said SOVEXPORT FILM.
Inside I met Igor—I never got to know his other name and even if I had it was probably not his real one. Ostensibly Igor represented the Soviet film industry in India. He tried to persuade Indian distributors to show Soviet films and kept an eye open for Indian films that might do well in the Soviet Union. He was not very busy, which was fortunate because he also had another agenda which slowly revealed itself over the next six months. He would invite me to Soviet consulate parties to celebrate various national days, or just to get drunk. One of his colleagues, who lived in some style on Malabar Hill, one of Bombay’s better suburbs, had been a tank commander in the battle for Moscow and could tell gripping stories about the Great Patriotic War. The drinking at his parties was, even for India, formidable, and would go on longer after all the women guests had left and the sun was beginning to creep through the slats of the venetian blinds. The Indians would pass out first, quietly crumpling to sleep in armchairs or on rugs on the marble floors. The British would creep off to find unoccupied bedrooms until, with unconscious bodies everywhere, the whole flat looked like a first-aid station on the Western Front circa 1915. Finally, there were only Russians and Australians upright, and then the Australians crashed where they stood, Roy Dalgarno on one occasion bringing down with him a heavy brocade curtain complete with all its rods and drawstrings, and crushing under him an elaborate, pierce-carved Burmese side table. It was the only time I saw the tank commander angry. As we carried a semi-conscious Dalgarno through the front door, apologising for the accident, the commander kept saying, “Not accident. Deliberate anti-Soviet act.”
Eventually Igor came to the point. He invited me to his flat, sent his wife out of the room, put a bottle of vodka, two bottles of mineral water and two glasses on the table and said, “I have something to confess to you. I want to be journalist. I want you to teach me.” I said I saw no problem, but I knew nothing about Soviet newspapers or magazines or what sort of articles might interest them. “Leave that side to me,” Igor said. “You and I will write articles on India. Political articles. True stories with inside information. I will sell them to the Soviet press and we will divide the income equally.” We shook hands on the deal. Our first article was about the India that Bulganin and Khrushchev would not see on their impending visit—the poverty-stricken shacks, the notorious caged prostitutes of Bombay, the illicit liquor stills, the villages given over entirely to gold smuggling.
“You and I will write articles,” Igor told me. “I’ll sell them to the Soviet press, we’ll split the money.” Alarm bells rang when he asked me to sign.
Igor placed it in a Soviet magazine with surprising speed. Again he invited me to his flat where he showed me the tear sheets. Then he produced a small wad of rupee notes and a sheet of paper with several sentences typewritten in Russian. “I must send the editor a receipt showing that the fee has been received and properly divided. You know bureaucrats. Please sign here.” The faint tinkling of alarm began deep in my head and I hesitated. As I did so, Igor looked simultaneously eager and shifty. “Look, Igor,” I said. “I don’t really need the extra money.” As I said this, I took a quick look at the figures, the only part of the receipt I could read. The amount was large enough to be tempting but not so large as to create suspicion. This confirmed my decision and I pressed on. “Please give my share to the children’s hospital.” Igor looked very disappointed but was professional enough not to press me. We finished the vodka and I left, promising to meet again soon. He never invited me anywhere again and dodged all my invitations to him.
I learnt later that Igor’s pitch was typical not only of the KGB but of most intelligence services. If I had accepted the money then, I would have crossed a barrier. The next payment would have been bigger and the third bigger still, until I came to rely on the extra money. If I wanted to pull out, there would have been my signature on the receipts, something I would have found hard to explain. Our joint articles would have delved deeper into areas in Indian affairs that should not have concerned us and if I had complained that the sort of information Igor’s Soviet ‘editors’ wanted was not readily available, he would then have suggested that we try to find an Indian who did have access to such information and pay him for it. I could have found myself a principal agent running a ring of sub-agents for Igor. I had quit just in time.
If I had been naive about Igor’s intentions, I was simply stupid about Imprint. Arthur Hale went to Delhi regularly, in order, he said, to argue our case for an increased newsprint allocation. I thought nothing about these trips. I knew that Hale had been in the American army in Burma during the Second World War in psychological warfare operations. It did not click. Odd Americans dropped by en route from Saigon to Delhi or Hong Kong and stayed with the Hales. I never gave them a second glance. When I look back now over those early copies of Imprint, I see that many of the books we chose to condense lauded the American way of life and painted a grim picture of the lack of freedom in the Soviet Union. I did not notice that at the time.
Then there was this subsidiary publishing operation. At the Hales’ request I was writing short histories of American folk heroes—Johnny Appleseed, Casey Jones, Davy Crockett—which Imprint was publishing as lavishly illustrated children’s books and putting on the Indian market at a ridiculously low price. It seemed a nice, innocent idea. There was one incident that puzzled me briefly, something that stirred a tiny tremor of doubt. I was out sailing one Saturday afternoon with Arthur Hale and we were talking about the rights and wrongs of the Indian border dispute with China. I said that, hard though it was for me to admit it, perhaps there was more to China’s case than we knew. I said I had heard about an Indian academic, a Professor J.G. Ghose, who had been working in the national archives in Delhi when he had accidentally come across a survey map which the British had drawn up in the 19th century. The map clearly showed the disputed territory as being within China’s borders. Hale appeared to absorb this without much interest. But back at the landing at the Gateway of India, Hale said, a little too off-handedly I thought, “That Professor Ghose...what were his initials again?”
I was seated with Rositzke, ex-CIA, when he told me he was in India in the ’60s. So was I, I told him, with Imprint. He grinned: “It was one of my operations.”
Twenty years later I was in Washington working on a documentary film about the exploits of the notorious British traitor Kim Philby, the British Secret Intelligence Service officer who was, all along, an agent of the KGB. The film crew and I had travelled to Virginia to have lunch with Harry Rositzke, former chief of the Soviet Bloc division of the CIA. Rositzke was sitting at the head of the table and I was on his right. I became aware that down at the other end of the table, Mrs Rositzke was talking about India with the production assistant, an Australian girl who was into yoga. I said to Rositzke, “Were you and Mrs Rozitzke in India at some stage?” He said, “1960 to 1964. I was at the embassy under Ken Galbraith.” I said, “Oh. What were you doing?” He looked puzzled—presumably because he thought I would have researched his career before coming to see him. “CIA station chief,” he said. “We were very interested in India in those days. Delhi was friendly with us but in bed with Moscow and that made India one of the few places in the world where we had any interface with the Soviets.”
I told him that I too had been in India in the early 1960s. “Yes?” Rositzke said. “And what were you doing?” I said, “I was with a little magazine in Bombay, a literary magazine called Imprint.” Rositzke grinned. “I knew it well,” he said. “It was one of my little operations. Shake hands with your ex-boss.”
I must have gone grey because he added with some concern, “Didn’t you know?” And then he explained it all to me. The CIA had become concerned about Soviet influence in India in the early 1960s. Not only was the Indian government friendly with Moscow, but the bazaars of India were being flooded with cheap but beautifully produced and lavishly illustrated children’s books about Soviet folk heroes, published not only in English but in many of the regional languages. “A whole generation of Indian kids was growing up to believe that the only heroes in the world were Russian ones,” Rositzke said. “We had to get in there with some American folk heroes before it was too late.” The obvious answer would have been to publish the books in America and then ship them to India. But the CIA did not work like that. Since—as is usually the case with intelligence operations—money did not matter, the CIA decided to set up a publishing operation in India to produce the books. Once that was agreed, the idea just grew. Why not also publish a magazine with a subtle pro-American slant? The spin-offs from having a genuine publishing house in Bombay clinched it: a legitimate bank account which could provide funds for covert activities; a safe house for visiting officers and agents; a listening post for all the snippets of political and social gossip that go to make up raw intelligence. I suppose that, as intelligence operations go, it was one of the more benign ones, but it was still something of a shock to learn that, however unwittingly, I had been an employee of the CIA.
Now Igor’s attempt to recruit me made sense: he was not after an Australian itinerant journalist who was passing through Bombay; he was after an employee of a CIA front. He must have known. It could not have been just coincidence that the KGB’s own front operation in Sovexport Film was right next door to the CIA’s front operation in Bombay, Imprint. What a joke it all was. What a waste of time, money and talent. Or was it? Indian filmgoers got to see some Russian masterpieces, thanks to Sovexport Film. Thirty thousand Indian subscribers got to read a few good books that they would not have been otherwise able to afford, thanks to Imprint. And I got to live for two years in Bombay, one of the great cities of the world.
Phillip Knightley was star reporter in Insight, the Sunday Times investigation team. He has spent a lifetime reporting war and espionage, this excerpt is from his 1997 memoir.