“Did Alia Bhatt meet the real Raazi?” asked an audience member at the Delhi Gymkhana’s book club event where author Harinder Sikka was sharing the story of the Kashmiri Muslim spy, Sehmat, whom Alia Bhatt plays in the movie Raazi. It could have been an easy question to answer but as we were soon going to learn, nothing in Sehmat’s world was black and white. Sikka went on to paint an image of his muse, a beautiful, 53-year-old, taciturn lady who floated on this earth as a saint. He met her at the turn of the century in the town of Maler Kotla in Punjab and named her Sehmat in the story.
The movie Raazi, based on Harinder Sikka’s novel, “Calling Sehmat”, tells the story of an Indian Kashmiri undercover agent operating in Pakistan during the 1971 Indo-Pak war.
It took Sikka eight years to piece her story together, bit by bit. At each step, he would take the manuscript to her for a “dekho.” He would search her eyes for truths hidden behind sealed lips. She would cross out the facts only she knew were false. Did she really kill her brother-in-law? Her lips would quiver as her eyes betrayed her inner turmoil. Silence is a hard habit to break. In this way, painstakingly, over eight years, he wrote a book on her brief life as a spy. A promise to keep her real identity secret was made. The book was published in 2008. Ten years later, in April 2018, and a month before the movie based on the book was released, Sehmat died.
Daughter of a Muslim father, she was recalled from Delhi University by him to take his place in service to their motherland, India. It was easy for her to cross the Line of Control (LOC). Kashmiri families from Pakistan-occupied-Kashmir and Kashmir continue to live as one. It was still common for families to visit each other and for their children to inter-marry, said Sikka. For his protagonist Sehmat to marry across the border was therefore not unusual. What was unusual was that she married a Pakistani Army officer to provide India with classified information during the 1971 war.
Young and bold, she entered the home of her husband, who came from a high profile military family, snooped on documents and discussions, and relayed them back to her Indian compatriots. At great risk to her life, she went on to single-handedly save India’s pride, the largest aircraft carrier, I.N.S Vikrant, by revealing Pakistan’s plans to destroy it. No other source could provide this crucial piece of espionage, so close to the chest was this secret held by the senior-most Pakistan army officials. All is fair in war. Love did not fare well when it clashed with patriotism. Love for her country drove her.
Sikka wants to give Sehmat her place in the history of patriots. A list, he feels, that is greatly in need of her. He had promised to keep her identity secret but now that she is no more, he is fighting to share the pictures of the real Sehmat with the world. India needs her daughter from Kashmir to be acknowledged.
The family of Sehmat’s son is loath to reveal her identity. Sehmat’s Delhi University classmate, her first love, is fighting hard to keep her identity secret. They feel it would out her son and put him in danger. Her son is with the Indian Army and was the first person Sikka met in a chance meeting in Kargil.
A son who was in her womb when she returned to India. A son she did not abort. A son she gave up as soon as he was born.
A whoosh of breath and “Achaa” escaped the lips of the audience member seated next to me as Sikka reveals this shocking truth. Another audience member expresses her agreement with the idea that the identity of the son must be kept secret, as outing him would put his life in danger.
Sikka, however, is sure he will be able to share her with the world. His face softens and eyes mist over when he thinks of her. “No she did not look like Alia. She was petite. Even at that age there was not a wrinkle on her face. If you see her picture, you won’t believe people as beautiful as her existed.”
Alia, who was going to play Sehmat in the film, wanted to meet her, he tells the audience member. She begged to at least see her picture. “No,” said Sikka. He did not have Sehmat’s permission to show the pictures to anyone. He did, however, ask Sehmat for a meeting with Alia. She came on the set of the film one day but with the express request for it to be a chance meeting.
It had rained that day. Alia was in her makeup van. Sikka sent her a message to come meet him. Alia, unaware it was Sehmat whom she was going to meet, could not come. Sikka saw the headlights of the car light up and the car drive away. With that went Alia’s last chance of seeing the true hero she was playing in the film.
Alia cried when she learned about her loss. “You could have told me it was her,” beseeched an extremely disappointed Alia.
Sikka is hopeful that soon he will be able to show Alia and the world Sehmat’s photographs.
Ritu Marwah is the Features Editor of India Currents and fascinated by stories from India-Pakistan.