Birdwatching: a new spy novel too captivating to put down

Against the backdrop of the 1962 Sino-Indian War, what makes Stephen Alter’s book fascinating is the way it includes real events and describes the social context of the time.

‘Birdwatching’ by Stephen Alter (pictured); Aleph Book Company, Rs. 799, 351 pages

Amid the threat of thermonuclear war darkening the horizon, it seems almost futile to suggest that out there, on the forested slopes of the Himalayas, there are birds searching for their future. Yet such is the irresistible power of Stephen Alter’s final invocation of the past in his tangentially named book Bird watching that you are inextricably drawn into its network of stories. Let’s say he belongs to John Masters’ tribe of storytellers, but with a Harrison Ford type of mediation and audacity to venture into situations where others have dared and failed.

Amid the threat of thermonuclear war darkening the horizon, it seems almost futile to suggest that out there, on the forested slopes of the Himalayas, there are birds searching for their future. Yet such is the irresistible power of Stephen Alter’s final invocation of the past in his tangentially named book Bird watching that you are inextricably drawn into its network of stories. Let’s say he belongs to John Masters’ tribe of storytellers, but with a Harrison Ford type of mediation and audacity to venture into situations where others have dared and failed.

Being the son of American missionaries long settled in Mussoorie, Uttarakhand, Alter has a mystical attachment to the region that goes beyond borders. In this he most resembles another partisan interlocutor, Nari Rustomji ICS. In his 1971 account, Enchanted Frontiers: Sikkim, Bhutan, and India’s Northeast Frontier RegionsRustomji identified so deeply with the people of the area that he used to say, “I’m very tribal myself.”

Alter, on the other hand, is more at home in the desert. One of his most famous works, Becoming a Mountain: Himalayan Journeys in Search of the Sacred and the Sublime (2014), captures the ease with which its hero Guy Fletcher, a rookie American ornithologist, stalks the same terrain just before the 1962 Sino-Indian War as a newly recruited spy for the CIA. Some of the novel’s most delightful aspects are the introductory paragraphs that lead each chapter, detailing the plumage and mating calls of a host of avian species in India, the United States, and even Bangkok, where Fletcher sees the Vietcong becoming restless. Coconuts are still hiding under each bed.

Needless to add, every Fletcher needs a friend to pick him up and carry him through the long treks and dangerous recons in enemy territory. This is the splendid Captain Imtiaz Afridi of the intelligence wing of the Indian army. They are not just brothers who bivouac together, but lovers who share the affections of the sensually gifted Kesang Sherpa, educated at the Loretto Convent in Calcutta. She is efficient both in and out of bed and one might even say, well ahead of her time.

What makes Stephen Alter’s story so captivating is the way it includes real events and depicts the social setting with an eye for detail. We may know the end result, but it keeps us turning the page. There are brilliant vignettes of Jacqueline Kennedy’s visit to Delhi in 1962, being wooed by Pandit Nehru; of Hope Cook, the American ingenue, imitating the whispering voice and gloved hands of Jackie marrying the Prince of Sikkim in 1963. Faced with the Bay of Pigs disaster in 1961, Alter then quickly advances the events of Bird watching to coincide with the Sino-Indian War of November 1962. And when all else fails, there is the chirping of birds and the splendor of the snows of Kanchenjunga.

Irene B. Bowles