Sunday, October 29, 2017
Herald Book Review Oct 30, 2017
Book review Reporting Pakistan By Meena Menon Penguin/Viking, India, 2017 Rashed Rahman Pakistan and India have firmly established themselves 70 years after Independence as the terrible Siamese twins, joined at the hip, but unable to live civilly with each other. Into this swamp, insert a journalist from India posted to Pakistan by The Hindu, one of India’s most prestigious and respected daily English newspapers, to report on Pakistan. This is what befell Meena Menon, who admits at the outset that she was not exactly steeped in or well versed in Pakistan’s affairs, apart from a brief visit to Karachi some years ago as part of a Bombay Press Club delegation. Considering this initial confession, Ms Menon has done an extraordinarily detailed and in depth job of documenting her experiences during her relatively brief stint as The Hindu’s correspondent in Islamabad. Meena Menon arrived in Pakistan with her husband in 2013 but was asked to leave in 2014, a mere nine months after landing in Islamabad. The reasons for her expulsion lie in the convoluted red tape and bureaucratic hassles of obtaining, and renewing, her visa. In any case this was a one city visa, confining her to Islamabad and forcing her to rely on secondary sources, witness accounts and research to cover the rest of the country. Considering these limitations, if the book under review is any guide, she did a tremendous job. Meena Menon begins by delineating the minutiae of arrival, settling down in and getting to know her way around Islamabad and the people she met or had to deal with in everyday existence in the capital. If the reader is patient with what appears to be too much of such detail and perseveres, he/she will be rewarded with a wealth of reportage, commentary, narrative and analysis of most if not all the important issues afflicting Pakistan internally, and in its relationship with its bigger neighbour and long standing adversary, India. A mere listing of the topics Menon covers would not do her justice, but detailed discussion of the issues she deals with would be far beyond the space available for this review. Nevertheless, we can indicate the most important of such efforts in précis. Menon informs us that the ‘border’ between Pakistan and India does not begin at Wagah, but along the demarcation lines between Muslim and Hindu communities in her native Mumbai, especially after the communal riots in that city in 1992-3, following the demolition of the Babri Masjid. The ‘othering’ she describes there affixes the appellation ‘Pakistan’ to the Muslim segregated areas of Mumbai. To her credit, Menon’s views are not coloured by such hate-filled prejudices in her native land, and she betrays a remarkably open and enlightened mind in wrestling with the difficult and sensitive task of being a journalist ‘behind enemy lines’. The range of her concerns is breathtaking, ranging from the situation of religious minorities generally, particularly Hindus (of interest to her audience back home), to terrorism, the nationalist insurgency in Balochistan, the fraught state of press freedom in Pakistan, Partition and its lingering tragic legacy, and last but not least, Pakistan’s and India’s bloody unending minuet over Kashmir and other issues rooted in a history of which both countries remain prisoners. Pakistani society’s treatment of women, dissidents and critical voices does not escape her penetrating gaze. Not only has Menon proved the keenness of her observatory powers in this publication, she has also proved the depth of her research before putting pen to paper (the references to her sources is sufficient proof of this). Tortuous and tricky as the terrain of reporting on Pakistan as an Indian journalist is, Meena Menon’s book provides a model of how to conduct such a restrictive and fraught task with impeccable professionalism and objectivity. We in the press in Pakistan could do worse than learn a lesson or two from this intrepid wielder of the pen. P.S. A note of clarification: While I was Editor Daily Times, Ayaz Amir was not published in that paper, as Meena Menon wrongly attributes. The reasons for my leaving the paper in 2016 too are wrongly explained by her as my publishing two columnists whose views were disliked by the military. Although that was one of the issues underlying my departure, there was a broader conflict of policy generally with the establishment, in which regretfully, management did not support me.