Dr Suresh Venkita, our Group Medical Director, a senior cardiologist and an avid writer, has yet again shared this lovely story from his desk.
You live only twice
She was excited!
She could not believe her good fortune, that this was happening to her.
She, Manju David, a British citizen of Indian origin, serving in UK’s Special Police Forces, attached to Scotland Yard, being invited to MI 6, Head Quarters of British Intelligence! It was too good to be true.
“You come strongly recommended from the Force for your intelligence, initiative, ingenuity, and industry. They assure thatthat you do not stop short of achieving your objective,” said the chair of the panel that interviewed her at MI 6.
His colleague on the panel took it up from there” We expect you to also have the courage, stamina, and determination to undertake and complete the mission we are entrusting to you.”
She did not know whether to gulp, smile, or speak.
The meeting was over with “We take it that you are accepting the mission. The third member of this panel will shortly meet you in the briefing room.”
He was very cryptic “Interpol has located one of the last Nazi war criminals tried in absentia and awarded a death sentence at the Nuremberg trials. He disappeared. But information has now come in that he is at Mussorie, Northern India. He must be nearly a hundred now but reportedly healthy and active. Your mission is to find him, verify the information, confirm and await instructions. I take it that you have no questions. Proceed to Archives Department, and you will be filled in on all background details.”
Staff at MI 6 did not waste words ”Sturmhauptfuehrer Martin Gorman of the German Schutzstaffel (SS) was only twenty when posted to Auschwitz but was one of the most brutal officers on its rolls. He wasruthlessly efficient and was personally responsible for sending at least 20,000 Jews to death at the gas chambers in 1941-42. Hereis a copy of his dossier with the Interpol. The computerized forecast of his present image is attached. Find him. We will instruct you whether or when you will be authorized to liquidate him.”
Manju did not flinch. This mission was close to her heart and mind. Whether MI 6 knew that, and whether that could have been a factor in her selection, she would never know. She had grownup in the very small Jewish community that was once a resident at Mattanchery, Fort Kochi, Kerala. That community was the oldest group of Jews in India, with roots that are claimed to date back to the time of King Solomon, to the 12th Century AD. But her family was a comparatively recent arrival from Europe, desperately seeking refuge from the relentless persecution and certain death at the hands of the Nazis who were seeking the “final solution to the Jewish question” by decimating all Jews of Russian, Polish and German origin. The Jewish community that lived around the ancient synagogue accepted them. Years after she was born, and the family’s migration from India to UK, compelled by the dwindling and disappearance of the Jewish community from Kochi, she had stumbled upon the family archive of personal documents. She had not read the documents till very recently. One icy cold winter night she had huddled close to the fire and read them all. Just before the first light of dawn struck, she finished reading the last shred of paper on the history of the family. Some of them were diaries kept by members of the family who had perished at Auschwitz. The name of Martin Gorman had popped up several times as their primary tormentor.
Also among the family memorabilia was the shoulder band with the Star of David, which every Jew in the community, ghettoes,and the concentration camps were required to wear; most of whom would die laterin the gas chambers of Auschwitz. At least two-thirds of Manju’s immediate and extended family wasgassed to death, wearing the band.
She folded the band and kept that securely in her handbag. She would lookat that often and remember that racial discrimination destroyed the lives of her people,
What was official had now become personal. But she was a professional and determined not to let feelings cloud judgment and come in the way of completion of a mission.
She decided on a whim, as she got off the Shatabdi at Dehradun that while in Mussoorie, she was not going to bond with Ruskin. WithJames maybe but definitely not with Ruskin.
Ruskin Bond, of 85 years’ vintage, has lived there since 1963.He had started writing at the age of 17 and was still writing. He had once explained his Indian identity, "Race did not make me one. Religion did not make me one. But history did. And in the long run, it's history that counts”.
That quotation struck a chord in her. Her history had a lot to do with her being there at Mussoorie.
But this was not just Ruskin Bond country. It was also a beer country; the first beer brewery in India was in Mussoorie in 1850. Later she would learn that this was what attracted Martin Gorman to Mussoorie. Beer was always a major part of German culture. Martin Gorman, in his new incarnation as Mathew George, was the reclusive “Beer Consultant” to the factory ever since he reached the valley sometime in 1945. He had forged British papers in hand and was accepted as a British citizen in a newly independent India and later became naturalized. As he became very old, he retreated into the forest and was very infrequently seen only at the “Company Garden.”
She began her exploration of Mussorie by walking along the “Camel's Back Road." As the name implied,this road took its name from a rocky outcrop in the shape of a camel's hump. There was a cemetery about mid-way on the loop where she would pause and ponder about the family she lost.
She accessed the "Gun Hill," where a cannon sounded out midday for many years, by the cable car on the Mall road. The oldest Christian church in the Himalayas, St Mary's, was above Mall Road, which was also a place she used to go often to meditate or reflect over her choices in life.
But her preferred destination was the “Company Garden" which had a large collection of flowers and plants, which appealed to heras she was a student of Ethno botany, the scientific study of the traditional knowledge and customs of a people concerning plants and their medical, religious, and other uses.
That was where she eventually bumped into Martin Gorman, aka Mathew George.
She was in no hurry. In a small town, strangers and strange questions are out of place. She had learned as a child that patience pays.
Her interest, knowledge, and expertise in exotic plants gradually came to be known and appreciated. Her own gentle and courteous inquiry into local knowledge and customs about the plants and flowers received enthusiastic responses and practical demonstrations of their use in herbal teas, hair dyes, dyeing fabrics, and eco-friendly insecticides.
And then, one day, she turned the corner around a bush, in search of an elusive bird making energetic music, and she almost bumped into a very olderman, making him rock on his feet and about to stumble and fall. She grabbed and steadied him and was profusely apologetic.
That was the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
Much to her surprise, she found him very knowledgeable about plants. Over many days, he took her around nooks and crannies of the garden, which were rarely visited by tourists and spoke about exotic plants unique to the altitude and weather. He lamented about vanishing species consequent of wanton destruction of ecology. He identified for her elegant butterflies and enigmatic insects. He got millipedes and centipedes to march for her. Seeing her amused, he would laugh in a deep, guttural fashion.
The thought did cross her mind that MI 6 had probably known about his interest in plants from a very young age despite his obsession with exterminating Jews and that her background in Botany was also very much known to them!
The mission was very much in her mind. She had,in all probability, found Martin Gorman. She was hoping to make progress in firm identification. The opportunity came when he invited her to his home.
He lived at Cloud End, in a cottage, surrounded by thick deodar forest, which was an outhouse to a bungalow built in 1838 by a British major. The big house was one of the oldest buildings in Mussoorie, later converted to a hotel.
It was there that she began to make definite progress. When she would visit on cold evenings, Martin would arthritically walk to the very small and confined kitchen, turn the gas on and make steaming cups of tea. A large glass window separated the kitchen and the living room. Sitting on the sofa she would watch his intense concentration on the making of the tea. Cups that he would carry from there to her were helpfully taken by her to wash; surreptitiously she managed to extract finger prints from them. He had a silvery mane which she offered to trim and she had deftly preserved strands of hair for later analysis. Laughingly she had offered him a manicure and pedicure service but the nails were not flushed down the toilet but packed and sent for DNA analysis, along with the strands of hair, to the MI6 contact at New Delhi, and couriered to London. She wore a “wire” and conversations were tapped, beamed through satellite, for analysisat the HQ on the bank of Thames near the Vauxhall Bridge.
Often she wondered whether her conviction and concentration would waver. Martinwas an incredibly olderman, with an innocent countenance and an insatiable interest in the beautiful bounties from nature but with an indelible and irrevocable past.
Equally often she would also wonder whether she would ever be able to forgive him. She was getting accustomed to his company, was comfortable in his presence and appreciative of his old-world courtesy and demeanor. When her mind wavered, she would take out from the recesses of her handbag the shoulder band with the Star of David and look at it. Her resolve would return with strength and tenacity.
Eventually,the star showed the way.
That morning the message came at last from MI6. When deciphered,it said “Act at will.”That was the code for concluding a Double O mission;it meant “Execute when conditions are conducive”.
She made sure the new Walther PPK pistol was snugly tucked into the bottom of her handbag and walked to the cottage. She knocked on the door but heard no response. The thought flashed in her mind-had the bird flown? She entered and was taken by surprisewhen he suddenly materialized with a huge garland, made with flowers from the Company Garden, strung it around her neck, held her around the waist, effortlessly hoisted her up with his sinewy and silvery haired arms and sang out “Happy Birthday!”
She, in her confusion, let go of the handbag, which dropped, popped open, and let the contents spill.
Both the Walther and the Star of David band fell side by side.
Martin put her down. She bent down to pick both, but he was faster.
She looked up and looked straight up the barrel of the Walther.
Ian Fleming’s words flashedin her head:
“You only live twice: Once when you are born, and once when you look death in the face.”
Time seemed to stand still.
Abruptly he turned and walked into the kitchen and shut the door.
Through the glass window, she saw him stand near the stove and staring at her through his deep-set eyes, by then almost cadaveric. She saw him turn on the stove.
By instinct, she turned and exited the door.
She first walked and then ran.
First, she heard the shot.
Then came the explosion, and then the house blew up.
Article by Dr. Venkita. S. Suresh
Group Medical Director