Ajit Dhariwal, at 60 years old, had a thick moustache, meticulously styled hair and piercing black eyes. A former director of RAW, the Indian intelligence wing, he had dedicated years to combating insurgency operations throughout the country and had spent many years in the Indian High Commission in Islamabad. In 1990, he persuaded militants in Kashmir to become counter insurgents targeting hard-line anti-India terrorists funded by Pakistan.

Now, as India’s seventh National Security Advisor, he was orchestrating covert, false flag operations in and around the nation on behalf of the Panther, with the Ghost operatives under his command. They followed his rules to the letter – everyone except Raj, who, to Dhariwal’s frustration, had a mind of his own. But since he was the son of Veer and Shanti, the others couldn’t help but have a soft corner for him. He was exactly like Veer – fearless and stubborn.

And that is what Dhariwal feared. The last thing he wanted was for Raj to end up dead in a mangrove like Veer. He had given Shanti his word that her son would always be protected, and it was only on this condition that she had allowed Raj’s entry into the Panther’s Ghosts. Dhariwal was also answerable to Sniper, who viewed Raj as his own son and had warned Dhariwal and Lala that if anything happened to Raj, he would skin them alive.

“Let him come,” Dhariwal muttered to himself as he paced the room, waiting for Lala to bring Raj to him. “I’ll kick his arse and ground him this time.” Despite Lala having thoroughly briefed him, his nerves were shot. As he took a drag from his cigarette, seeking respite, Lala walked in with a smile.

“Good morning, sir,” Lala said.

Dhariwal looked past Lala’s shoulder with a scowl on his face and asked,

“Where is the rebel?”

On cue, Raj walked in, a big, boyish smile on his face. He swiftly approached Dhariwal and enveloped him in a bear hug before his boss could say anything.

“If you think this elaborate show of affection is going to melt my heart and make me pardon you, you’re mistaken,” Dhariwal murmured through gritted teeth.

Raj, not having let go of the man, whispered back, “This isn’t for show, sir. If there was one person I missed all these days, it was you.”

Dhariwal could see right through Raj’s attempt at swaying his emotions, but he also knew he was a sucker for Raj’s boyish charm and could never stay angry with him for more than a few minutes. Predictably, he softened and hugged him back tightly. “I was scared I had lost you this time. Never do this again,” Dhariwal said softly.

“Never,” Raj promised.

Lala, sensing the need to refocus the conversation, cleared his throat. “If the two of you have finished expressing your love for each other, can we get down to business?” he asked.

Dhariwal laughed and settled into his chair behind the big mahogany table while Raj sat next to Lala on a brown leather sofa. Pressing the intercom, Dhariwal instructed, “Please send AV and Geeta in.”

A smile spread across Raj’s face at the mention of Geeta. Their connection was anything but ordinary. Raj took every opportunity to openly express his undying love for her, but she rebuffed him time and again. It was not that Geeta didn’t harbour deep feelings for him. She held a profound love for him – so deep that she’d sacrifice her life for him. But she believed that an emotional attachment with Raj would make him weak. And a weak Raj would be a liability for the Panther’s Ghosts.

The door swung open as AV and Geeta walked in. Raj jumped up from his seat, hugged Geeta tightly and kissed her on both cheeks. ‘I missed this warmth so much in


“Don’t push your luck,” said Geeta returning his hug and then pushing him off her playfully.

When Raj hugged AV, he returned the hug warmly and whispered, “Heard you put up quite a show in Nepal.”

“Yeah, I had a blast there,” laughed Raj, sitting down next to Lala again.

“A blast, is it?” asked Geeta, who had overheard them. She picked up a copy of the India Times that lay on the table and started reading aloud: “KAS blown to smithereens. Pakistani ambassador’s links to terror exposed.”

“Kathmandu finally decides to crack the whip on terrorism. The terror hub KAS was brought down today by the Nepal Intelligence Bureau (NIB). The NIB had reliable intel that KAS was being used as a training and launching pad for jihadis from Pakistan. In a late evening raid yesterday, the NIB used the jihadis’ explosives to bring down their lair of terror. 56 jihadis and their trainers were killed in the explosion, but the biggest embarrassment for Pakistan came when the body of the Pakistani ambassador to Nepal was found buried with the terrorists in the debris. Numerous documents and pieces of training material corroborated KAS’s reputation as a terror nexus. The Nepal Home Ministry has restricted travel for all officials in the Pakistani embassy and has initiated a probe into this. The Prime Minister of Nepal, Udham Singh, expressed pride in the NIB’s efforts and congratulated the Home Ministry and the police for their impeccable work.” She dropped the paperback on the table and looked at Raj.

“All’s well that ends well,” said Raj with a sheepish look. “Really? My dear, it ended well only because of this article that got published thanks to Pavak Dahiya, who managed the media. The NIB and their PM were initially shocked by the news, but with the world congratulating them, they seem to be taking credit for your false flag operation without batting an eyelid,” said Geeta. Though she tried to hide it, there was an undertone of concern in her voice – she had been worried about Raj’s disappearance.

“You know I love it when you call me ‘my dear’,” said Raj impishly. But when he saw the look in everyone’s eyes, he quickly apologised. “All right, all right, I agree I shouldn’t have gone solo. It’s just that when a situation pops up, I forget the teamwork part. It’s a work in progress.”

Extracted with permission from The Puppeteer, Ajit Menon and Anil Verma, Westland.