An enigmatic personality

This book is the result of Vappala Balachandran’s sustained effort with a view to unravelling the “shadowy” life of Arathil…

An enigmatic personality

Vappala Balachandran (R) (Photo: Facebook)

This book is the result of Vappala Balachandran’s sustained effort with a view to unravelling the “shadowy” life of Arathil Candoth Narayana Nambiar (1896-1986) whom he came to know in 1980 in Zurich where Nambiar was then living and Balachandran, an ace intelligence officer of the Research and Analysis Wing, was posted with diplomatic “cover” in the Indian mission. The order to meet Nambiar came from Prime Minister Indira Gandhi not for any official purpose, but merely “to keep a discreet eye on the health and welfare of Nambiar”, who was then 84. The Nehru family had an intimate relationship with ACN Nambiar spreading over a period of six decades, and all senior members of the family used to affectionately call him “Nanu”. Considering his health condition in 1983 Indira Gandhi asked Nanu to move to Delhi. “The ground floor of a pleasant house in the upper middle-class locality of Delhi” was taken on rent and furnished for him. Nanu lived there from 1983 onwards under the watchful eye of the Prime Minister and the affectionate care of the author. He died in 1986.

Nambiar was an excellent raconteur and an engaging conversationalist. Soon the author developed a keen interest in the man who was in Europe for more than six decades, had lived in several capital cities, witnessed epochal events, had intimately seen two outstanding political leaders of India, namely Netaji Subhas Chandra Bose and Jawaharlal Nehru, became Indian ambassador in two countries of Europe.

He had, therefore, many things to say; but he would not say much. His movements, his political affiliations were all secret. Under a layer of conviviality he had carefully hidden his secrets. The author, however, could persuade him to write his biography, which is now in the Nehru Memorial Museum and Library, New Delhi, but it contains little more than what he had told the author. But his book has gone for beyond the oral history or typed autobiography. He has searched archives and record rooms of the intelligence organisations of India and Britain, consulted works of serious authors, and interviewed several knowledgeable people in an effort to unravel the mystery of this enigmatic personality. Though the author has not followed the format of academic research, the facts noted in the book have been duly tested and authenticated, and the observations have been formulated with care and without any bias. The gripping tale of the man in “shadow” will be useful as much to scholars and researchers as it will be entertaining to general readers.


While talking about intelligence and security matters, some of Nambiar’s remarks struck as odd to the author because they were so similar to a conversation between an agent and his handler. Balachandran writes, “As the popular adage goes, ‘It takes one to know one’. Nanu had had some experience (of) dealing with my counterparts in Europe”. But the author did not rest with his intuitive knowledge — he looked for more concrete evidence. He came to the conclusion by “piecing together information from a variety of sources” that Nambiar was a spy.

After World War I, Berlin was the centre of the Indian revolutionaries in Europe. The Bavarian girl, Eva Geissler, Nambiar’s first “honey-trap” was ostensibly employed as his “secretary” in running the India Information Center. But with the rapid growth of Nazi depredation the centre had to be closed down in 1930. After the Reichstag fire in 1933, for which the Communists were blamed by the Nazis, Nambiar was arrested. Geissler by that time had left Berlin and married a Swiss called Walter and settled in Zurich. She met Nambiar in a Nazi prison and on his advice wrote to Edwin Bevan, a middleman in London, who took up the matter with the British intelligence authority. “Nambiar was released abruptly from Nazi prison”, and he left Germany for Prague. The author suspects that during the Prague stint (1934-1939) he was perhaps a British spy. If so, his shift to Paris, which fell to the German blitzkrieg in 1940, and then to the south of France can only be explained by his association with British intelligence.

Frau Neidermeyer, the second known “honey-trap” for Nambiar was laid in Berlin presumably in the early part of 1943 when Bose had left for South-east Asia and Nambiar was in charge of his work. The author suspects that she was planted by the German Foreign Office for inside information of the India Independence Center. Nambiar thus became a source of the German foreign office till April 1945 when he left for Austria and was arrested by the British forces a few days later.

Again Eva Geissler (Mrs Walter) came to his rescue through the same channel, though by that time the professor was dead and his daughter took up the case of Nambiar with British intelligence officers. What the intelligence officer wrote is revealing. “He (Bevan) was informed that there could be no doubt that Nambiar had gone over to the enemy. Possibly he refrained from communicating this message to his daughter. Miss Bevan might be informed that Nambiar was one of the leading collaborators in Germany but is being treated with great leniency considering the nature of his activities. She might also be informed that her late father was aware of the nature of these activities”.

Balachandran has dwelt at length on Nambiar’s relationship with Nehru and Indira, who treated him as a member of the family and, true to that, during Nehru’s premiership Nambiar would invariably stay in the PM’s residence while visiting Delhi.

Nambiar’s relationship with Subhas Chandra Bose, though close, was primarily political and official. In 1941 Bose searched for Nambiar because he “knew German psyche well besides the language”, but he failed to locate him for some months. Eventually he was traced “in Foix (southern France) where he was living with his new found love Madame de Sausure”. After considerable hesitation a reluctant Nambiar joined Bose in January 1942 in Berlin. When Bose left Germany in February 1943 he had put Nambiar, in charge of the Free India Center and the Indian Legionaries; but by all accounts, none of these two units could maintain their same mental and physical shape after Bose’s departure. One Dr Ram of the Free India Center while replying to a British intelligence officer said bluntly that the leading people were busy in other activities and Nambiar was spending time with Nedermeyer, and so the inevitable happened.

Nambiar’s last report to Bose dated 12 January 1945, which was, however, intercepted by the British, states, “The general political and military situation from the German point of view now records an improvement” (Appendix-I). Such optimism about the war situation in January 1945 — when “the American troops were on the Rhine and the Russian troops on the Oder and the end of the war was in sight” — was totally misleading. Despite his enormous political clout in India after Independence, he is not known to have even tried to rehabilitate the legionaries, whom he had at least officially led during a critical period.

Still more surprising is Nambiar’s dubious silence about the fact of Bose’s marriage, which fuelled endless gossip and canards in India. Nehru, having heard from an Indian resident of Vienna that Netaji’s wife and daughter were in dire straits in post-war Vienna, wrote to Nambiar for details and also to intimate their address as he was very eager to help them (Appendix-II). Nambiar’s reply to Nehru is not available. But the author states that Nambiar had written to Amiya Bose for details.

In any event, in the middle of 1948 Nambiar visited Delhi and stayed with Nehru in his official residence for a month and before his departure he got his appointment as a diplomat in the Indian Mission in Berne. Yet Nehru wrote to Nambiar on 27 June 1950, “I understand that the lady’s name is Fraulein Schenkl and the daughter’s name is Anita”. It took three years for the Prime Minister to find out the names though in the meantime Nambiar, who knew everything, had stayed in his house for one month. Nehru, however, still expressed his “undying” desire to help the lady and the child in acute distress! In a letter dated 30 April 1951,four years after the subject was raised, Nambiar wrote that he was not present in Netaji’s marriage ceremony!

Nambiar told the British intelligence officer on 27 September 1945 that when Bose received the news of his daughter’s birth, the great champion of women’s rights was a bit disappointed that he had not been blessed with a son. But the brief disappointment gave way to pride and joy once Subhas saw Anita in December. They spent the Christmas in Vienna. Is it convincing that a man making a statement like this did not know about the marriage?

Yet another evidence is his own report dated 12 January 1945 (Appendix-I) that he sent to Subhas in Southeast Asia from Berlin, “I am also enclosing two letters from Schenkl to whom I have suggested to move out from the present place of residence. I have attended all arrangements for stay at a quiet place considered as quite safe”. In this context, Leonard Gordon’s accusation of Nambiar messing up the fact of Netaji’s marriage is not unfounded.

From January 1942 to February 1943 when both were in Berlin, Bose had confided in Nambiar his plans in SoutheastAsia, his disappointment at Germany invading Russia, the question of security of the Indians and the legionaries and his family and friends in case Germany was defeated. For many days in 1941 and 1942, Subhas and Emile lived in the house on Sophienstrasse in Berlin. Is it believable that still Bose did not tell him about the marriage?

Then talking about his probable pledge to keep the marriage secret, if there was a pledge at all, Nambiar made a fetish of it by refusing to divulge it even to the Prime Minister in totally changed circumstances.

Indeed, the author’s research and admirable penmanship have succeeded in bringing to light a life in shadow and in doing so he has also illuminated certain grey areas of history.

The reviewer is former director-general, Intelligence Branch, West Bengal