A few years back, a young Kashmiri journalist from Delhi came to Lahore to attend a conference. His stay lasted about four to five days. A mutual friend introduced him on e-mail, we met and became instant friends. He went back and started a book on Lahore. I couldn’t believe it till he began sharing chapter after chapter, all so thoroughly researched. I kept joking that he needed to come one more time to Lahore before he gets the book published. He may have taken my advice seriously since the book isn’t out yet.
I met Meena Menon, The Hindu’s correspondent in Pakistan, very briefly after a workshop on journalism in Islamabad a few years back. I later got to know she’d left Pakistan (expelled after nine months to be more precise) and that there was no Indian journalist currently posted in Pakistan. And of course vice versa. So when I got hold of her book, Reporting Pakistan, I marvelled at the prolificacy of Indian journalists (or is it the thriving publishing industry that is acting as a catalyst?).
I was amused because nine months provided perhaps the ripe creative gestation for her to produce a book. Pakistan now has a history of expelling foreign media and Menon is not the first such journalist to have produced a book. Another one by Nicholas Schmidle from the US To Live or To Perish Forever — Two Tumultuous Years in Pakistan begins with a rather chilling account of how the orders of visa cancellation came on “a cold rainy night”. I still have to read all of it.
Menon begins her book differently. She begins with the idea of Pakistan in an ordinary Indian’s mind, in the ‘mini-Pakistan’ in Bombay even before 1992 and in the ghettoisation of Indian Muslims. In a way, she dispels the impression that Mumbai attacks of 2008 changed the way ordinary people think about Pakistan. It happened much before that.
You could be forgiven for thinking that a book on Pakistan may have no value for readers back home, but the fact is it serves many purposes, some perhaps unintended. Menon, who followed two other correspondents from the same paper, sets out to honestly record her impressions of an ‘enemy’ country, where she was quite excited to have been posted in August 2013. While doing so, she has drawn attention to both countries’ media presence (products and personnel both) driven to a virtual absence over the years.
Her pinpointing at the restrictive visa regime, especially for journalists, leading to no free media exchange or reporting is not a platitudinous utterance as you go on to read the book. It’s a testament to how an impartial and balanced account by a seasoned journalist can improve understanding between the two states, and hence why they should host more journalists from the other country and not less.
Menon’s range is amazing, considering that she was confined to the capital city as per her visa requirement. She has weaved in details of an earlier visit to Karachi (2011) and tried to construct a fairly comprehensive picture of a Pakistan from a few years before and after her stay here.
She begins with the capital in a chapter titled ‘Islamabad, Unreal City’. These are her first thoughts of the country and the city as she tries to settle down, often making comparisons with Karachi. Her description of this as a functional city, a city where the government is, a city of migrants, a city where she made friends, is endearing to say the least. At times, it appears too idealistic and idyllic a place, so different from the dull, somnolent city that residents of bustling Lahore and Karachi imagine it as.
As warned by her predecessors here, there were spooks following her everywhere, even to her hiking routine on Trail Six. A prepared Menon takes them in her stride and makes fun of them in the book.
Pakistan’s relations with India is a recurrent theme but she managed to cover a lot during these nine months, starting from the parliament to Jamaat-ud-Dawa rallies to Musharraf’s trial as well as of the Mumbai attack to at least two blasts in the capital to finally interviewing Mama Qadeer in March 2014. She did stories on history, culture, arts and music, ever looking at the connections that unite the two countries and painting Pakistan in a shade brighter than it was known for back home in India; these all form a part of the book.
She has looked at the minority problem in Pakistan in some detail, beginning with Ahmadis, Hindus, Christians and Shias and Hazaras. This is all done fairly correctly except she too falls for a common misperception that “minorities formed 25 per cent of the population at the time of Partition: this figure has dwindled to 5 per cent or less”. The figure at the time stood for a united Pakistan, including a lot more Hindus in the Eastern wing of the country. As the Eastern wing separated in 1971, the minority count fell automatically; though this does not justify the state’s (and now society’s) mistreatment of minorities.
Menon puts together the details of terrorism-related violence with a huge and disquieting impact. Nowhere else do we read this kind of a record of suicide blasts and their human victims.
This was also the time when the Pakistani state mulled over the possibility of talks with the Taliban; here she dwells at length on how the talks eventually failed. Shakil Afridi’s case and US drone strikes on Pakistan too have been amply described.
Broadly, the book is all about both countries engaged in reciprocal madness and at no place in the book do you feel she is condemning Pakistan without bringing in India’s role in similar situations. Her approach while discussing both Kashmir and Balochistan is extremely balanced and that is what makes it such an important book.
Through Reporting Pakistan, Meena Menon makes a convincing case for a much broader media exchange between the two countries. It is time to distribute the book widely in both India and Pakistan.
Author: Meena Menon
This article was published in The News on Sunday on September 24, 2017 under the title A shade brighter for Pakistan.