| Litvinenko: endgame
For Indians like myself, the Cold War was a strangely fascinating thing. Yes, it took the toll of hundreds of thousands of lives in the pawn-countries where America and the Soviet Union fought out their vicious proxy wars; and it spawned most of the new terrorisms we face today; yet, its ending took away from us two important things. The first was the perverse yet very real sense of safety that, say, the powerless feel when there are two big thugs pitted against each other in the neighbourhood, the fragile illusion of security that stems from the fact that each goon is kept somewhat busy by the other, leaving both that much less time and energy to terrorize everybody else. The second was the termination of a great, epic, contemporary narrative. For the collapse of the Evil Empire meant the end of the best novels of John Le Carré and Len Deighton, among others.
When I reached England at the end of last October, Le Carré’s master spy, George Smiley, and his circus of agents was very far from my mind. North London, where I live when in Britain, has been the hotbed of Islamic fascism since the late Eighties, and my eyes and ears were looking out for the next gory act of this new epic to spring an ambush. Would Iraq implode further' Would the Finsbury Park mosque finally explode' Come mid-November, would the American electorate push George Bush to the opposite end of sartorial fundamentalism and reduce him to doing a Full Monty' Whatever I was anticipating or fearing, I wasn’t expecting a Russian hit on an ex-KGB agent in a sushi restaurant in central London.
Some time soon after the first week of November, the stories began to crowd the papers. Litvinenko, a 43-year-old ex-KGB agent, was living in London with his young wife and son; he had blown the whistle on the murder of the Russian journalist, Anna Politkovskaya, saying he had evidence she had been killed upon orders from the very top of the Moscow hierarchy; various other ex-KGB (now called the KIS) agents had met Litvinenko, as has Scarpella, a shady Italian lawyer, and it was surmised that one of these people, someone Litvinenko obviously trusted, had slipped the deadly poison into Litvinenko’s food. A doctor authoritatively pronounced that Litvinenko had been poisoned by thalium and, for a while, he was treated for thalium poisoning, even as older cases of London hits by Bulgarians wielding thalium-tipped umbrellas were pulled out by the press.
Eventually, as Litvinenko slid closer to death, the real thing was identified — a lethally radioactive substance called Polonium 210. Suddenly, there were police in funny jumpsuits crawling through different locations: the sushi restaurant where Litvinenko had met his ex-colleagues for lunch, the bar in the Mayfair Hotel where apparently drinks had been had, the British Airways jets on which the Russians had travelled to London and so on. As Litvinenko died, I followed the case in the papers as if it was happening in a different, parallel country called England, but which was not the one I was visiting.
One morning, out smoking in the back garden, I heard a familiar noise and almost didn’t bother to look up. Police helicopters in London have a certain timbre as they hover and circle, helping cop cars on the ground chase villains, and usually there is nothing particularly entertaining about watching the noisy insect as it noses around above you, except perhaps the odd patterns the chopper searchlight makes on the neighbouring buildings. After a few minutes I did look up — it was strange to see a police chopper in daylight; it was odd that it was still hanging about after fifteen minutes, the British aerial constabulary are usually quite parsimonious with their fuel and a chopper rarely dallies too long in one place; even more curious, when I looked again, was that there were not one but two helicopters right above my head. As I watched them, the helicopters choreographed a peculiar dance: one stayed stationary while the other went for a little circle; the chakkar completed, it returned to its kin, after which the roles were reversed and the stationary machine slid off to do its own circling.
I had never seen anything like it. Watching them, I concluded something big must be going down — perhaps the jihadi brothers of North London were up to something in celebration of the recent electoral defeat of Great Shaitan Bush' Whatever it was, it wasn’t happening far from where I was living but, across the day, I tamped down my over-heated imagination and tried to forget about the non-event. Till the evening news came on the TV. On the screen were shots of the new house where the Litvinenkos lived. A huge yellow tent covered the front garden and the street was blocked off by police tape. Cops and boffins in the fat jumpsuits and helmets were going in and out of the residence which, we were told was in Muswell Hill — our neighbourhood, in other words. Muswell Hill being a fairly large and loosely defined area, I felt no extra excitement beyond the feeling of quiet satisfaction that I hadn’t been so off the mark with my ’copter deductions after all.
The quiet lasted for two days, till the morning when the mother of my children came rushing back from the younger one’s school with some news. One of the school parents MOMC knew was the senior crime correspondent for a major London broadsheet and he had told her where exactly in Muswell Hill the Litvinenko dacha was located. “Osier Crescent! Do you know where that is!'!” Wide-eyed, I nodded. Without further exchange, the two of us, (both Le Carré fans), rushed out of the house and in two minutes we were standing in front of the house with the yellow tent.
The TV crews had gone, but the police vans were still there. Uniforms and officers were going in and out, but we couldn’t see anyone padding about in a space-suit. The area proscribed by the police tapes had shrunk and new mothers were rolling their prams along the pavement across from the house. The house was one of a series of new terraces of the kind suddenly nouveau riche working-class people acquire. It was exactly the kind of place where an exiled Russian millionaire would house a dissident spy. The new, fawn-coloured brick was still wet with the morning rain. The two-car garage had its doors shut. Hanging from the railings of the first floor balcony was a limp and slightly grimy flag — the red Cross of St George on a white background that England football supporters like to put out of their windows on the days their team has an international match. As the crow would hop, the murdered man’s house was 15 seconds from the fence of the back garden where I normally skulked and smoked.
As more and more details emerged of sites irradiated by the assasins’ stock of Polonium 210, I began to worry. If, as some reports suggested, Litvinenko had been a human radiation-transmitter for the few days before he actually went down with the fatal illness, then were we not all at risk' For example, if he’d taken public transport to get into town he would have had to take the only bus that goes out of our area — the 234 to the Muswell Hill crossroads, the same bus that my kids take to school, that MOMC takes to her work, that I took to go anywhere towards town. If the suspected agents who’d flown in to kill him had managed to contaminate two huge British Airways jets, then what price the small single-decker stop-and-go buses that carried us on our daily routes' Could a lamp-post at the bus-stop be contaminated' Was that bottle of mineral water sitting out of place among the cola drinks dangerous or was it the soft drinks themselves that were full of nuclear danger'
By Christmas week, I had stopped looking for signs of radiation-poisoning in myself and my loved ones. We were all in Goa, alive and well, the sun was shining, bathing us in happy tropical humidity. Someone recommended a decent beachside restaurant a few minutes from our hotel, and our entire holiday group went down to eat a ‘French fusion meal’. “It’s a great area there,” the person recommending had told us, “pity about the Russians who are taking over that whole beach and everything around it.”
Sure enough, the food was good, as were the cocktails. But, as I sat sipping my vodka mojito, I began to feel a sense of unease creeping up on me.
Our table was surrounded by them. Unmistakably Russian, tall, lithe, obviously rich, mostly young, not all of them blond, their fat bejewelled designer sunglasses quite often covering more of their bodies than the skimpy beachwear they wore, ordering food and drink in the peculiar English that is the arrogant mix between Yank-twang and Paruski vowels. I felt a slight radiationary chill creep over me despite the heat. Le Carré and Deighton may be spent forces; the current default frisson of danger may have beards and a familiar, brown skin colour attached to it; but between these beach lizards in Goa and the sterile new terrace in winter-time London, I was suddenly sure the old story wasn’t yet completely over.