Nepali Times
Here And There
Being John Malkovich


A hazard of this profession concerns intelligence and not the kind between the ears. No, I refer to spooky behaviour involving trench coats, rendezvous on dark street corners and vodka martinis, shaken not stirred. Yes, dear reader, I mean spying. Now that a couple of publications from the squalid end of the local press have suggested that I am an agent for a Certain Neighbouring Country, it's time to lay the cards on the table. How should I start? I was thinking along the lines of "the name's Bond, James Bond," but somehow Daniel Lak doesn't carry quite the same heft. Nor does my mid-Atlantic baritone send the same sort of shivers down (largely female) spines as Sean Connery's Lowland Scots. Then there's the matter of disguise. I have-it is said unkindly but accurately-a face made for radio.

Don't rush to comfort me, and assure me that my passing resemblance to John Malkovich is somehow compensation for not having the unflappable rubbery good looks of the traditional television personality. Malkovich doesn't look pretty on the box either. If anyone should jump at the opportunity to disguise themselves, to at least dawn a toupee and cover up that, that...forehead, well, it should be me. But no, I am as I am. No mask, wig or surgeon's knife will be allowed to change it.

Finally, a good spy craves anonymity-a way to lurk in the background, one day a sweeper at a missile factory, the next a chauffeur to a minister. Being a broadcaster and columnist with at least some facial recognition makes it hard to sneak around unnoticed, especially in our dear small Kathmandu. I can't even miss paying for my round at the pub without drinkers all across town shaking their heads and saying, "Tut, tut, there he goes again."

One does run into the odd spy in my line of work. Generally, they work at foreign embassies and they find it difficult to explain exactly what it is they do. You tend to hear phrases like "a little of this, a little of that", "jack of all trades, old boy, master of none", "oh, I just help out where I'm needed"-words to that effect. One such from some years ago was the "Counsellor, Economic" at a certain European mission in another part of the world. He was a jovial fellow with a good contacts book, but he knew nothing of either economics or counselling. I wasn't surprised to see his name on an list of alleged agents that made the rounds on the World-Wide Web last year.

I have worked in a few places that are reputedly nests of spies-Kabul, Peshawar, Teheran. My last posting, Delhi, was supposed to be a place where you spoke very carefully at diplomatic functions. And you never, never leant too close to a vase of flowers or did anything distasteful in front of a mirror. But in 1998 the Indian capital was found to be devoid of competent intelligence agents when no one-and I mean no one-foresaw that India's newly elected, avowedly hawkish government would use a nuclear test to shore up its coalition in parliament. There were three heart attacks and a midnight disappearance at the American Embassy alone.

But it could be that I am missing the boat. Spying could be the profession of the 21st century, just as computer programming was in the 1990s, and stock brokering in the 1980s. Perhaps this is the century of the freelance spook who spies only for countries or causes that please him. I, for example, could offer some crucial information about Nepal to the Netherlands. Wake up you sturdy folk of Holland, Nepali cheese is as good as Gouda and it's only a matter of time before the Edam on your plate comes from a Yak in Langtang. Perhaps the Maldives needs someone here to monitor and subtly encourage scuba diving or tuna consumption. My own country, Canada, may want to know about the developing ability of Sherpas to play ice hockey, if only on vertical skating rinks. Taking a page from Graham Greene, I could be Our Man in Kathmandu, passing off schematic diagrams of my son's electronic toys as the plans for a Himalayan missile defence system.

Alas though, I am not cut out for such a life. For too long, I've given away my secrets and spread information, not distorted it for malevolent or paranoid ends. And my mother would not approve. I'll stick with forcing my face on an unwilling public, and leave the spying to the spooks.

(11 JAN 2013 - 17 JAN 2013)