(This book review was first published in Business Standard.)
“The one-horned rhinoceros is endemic to Assam. The rhinoceros is also known for its thick skin. Over the years, I too have become thick-skinned, I think,” writes Teresa Rehman. Her new book, Bulletproof, is a first-person account of her experiences as a journalist in Guwahati, reporting on conflict in the north-eastern states of India. This work spans over two decades, and has won several awards. Her book is worth reading for its nuanced exploration of a region that is under-reported and widely misrepresented.
Instead of merely compiling the most exciting stories of her career, Rehman places them in a wider context to help the reader understand why the north-east is a challenging region for journalists. They operate in an environment where several militant outfits are active, editors have been killed, bombs have been delivered to newspaper offices, reporters have faced the wrath of security agencies as well as non-state actors, and media houses have been compelled to publish press releases.
Rehman reflects on her vulnerabilities, enriching the book with a perspective that is deeply personal. Recalling a crossfire at a remote location in Nagaland, she says, “As I lay low in the bushes, I thought: Would I survive? Would it really matter? Would I be reduced to a number on the long list of statistics of journalists killed in the region?” The reader is led to wonder what makes journalists put their lives on the line, and go after such perilous stories with single-minded determination. Is it idealism or masochism or just another day at work?
Rehman also writes at length about how her work took a toll on her mental health. This is perhaps the most courageous part of Bulletproof. After covering a ‘fake encounter’ in Manipur, her story was picked up by international publications, and reinvigorated the debate around the draconian Armed Forces (Special Powers) Act that has been abused to cover up extra-judicial killings. She was repeatedly summoned by the authorities, and made to feel like a criminal.
This harassment made Rehman increasingly irritable. She became an insomniac. She started having nightmares, screaming at her daughter, and talking to herself. One day, she hit her daughter over a petty issue, and her husband suggested seeing a psychiatrist. Rehman was diagnosed with post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). She had to take antidepressants, apart from dealing with the social stigma around visiting psychiatrists. This book makes a strong case about the need for support systems to “deal with physical dangers, legal rigmaroles and the psychological trauma that a journalist goes through.”
Rehman reveals that her training as a media student at the Indian Institute of Mass Communication in Delhi did not prepare her for the ground realities of conflict reporting. She had to learn a lot on the job about keeping herself safe from surveillance, intimidation and sexual assault. She did not want to be limited by her gender, so she had to go the extra mile to do well in a sub-field of journalism that “seems very masculine — full of stories of artillery, statistics, guns, weapons, soldiers, militants, peace talks and often dry press releases.”
Rehman makes multiple references to how her gender identity influences her negotiation of space on the field. This includes decisions about what to wear, where to meet informants, and whether to use a particular toilet or not. However, the protagonists in all the chapters are men. Women make only fleeting appearances. They might have agency but the reader does not get access to their ideas, lives and dreams. It is unclear whether Rehman chose not to highlight their stories or if she did not find them interesting enough for the purpose of this book.
Amidst the harshness surrounding her, Rehman humanizes the narratives of militants, poachers and sharpshooters. She describes a meeting with ex-militants from the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) who are trying hard to rebuild their lives but have been unsuccessful. Rehman approaches them with an empathy that is rare and endearing. She notes how difficult it is to re-enter mainstream society “after having spent years in solitude in the jungles, engaging in violent combat with the state.”
Rehman presents tender portraits of people who are the castaways of society but at the risk of romanticizing them. Her conversations with her interviewees reveal an ability to catch them unawares, and make them warm up to her. “Any good reporter’s kitty has a whole range of sources — a pan shop owner, the president of the taxi association, a top cop, a criminal lawyer, an anganwadi worker, a ward boy, a chef, a gardener, a domestic help, a mechanic — almost everyone has secrets to share, if you know how to cultivate them,” she says.