(This book review was first published by Pragati on 15th February, 2018.)
“In the leafy, well-tended lanes of Islamabad, you can be lulled into thinking all is well, and it’s difficult to believe that some distance away, young boys are being trained to become suicide bombers, and the country is ravaged by bombing and sectarian killings.” This remark from Meena Menon’s book Reporting Pakistan aptly describes the bizarre paradoxes she encountered and endured as an Indian journalist posted in Pakistan from August 2013 to May 2014.
Reporting Pakistan is an engaging first-person account that would interest readers who are curious about press freedom and rule of law in Pakistan. Organizations such as Amnesty International, the Committee to Protect Journalists and the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan have frequently highlighted violent attacks on journalists in Pakistan, and Menon has devoted several pages to documenting how many of them put their lives at great risk in order to do their job. She found that it was not uncommon for journalists in Pakistan to be summoned by security agencies, threatened by the military, or killed by the Taliban. Editors were explicitly asked to tone down their criticism of the political establishment, television anchors were shot at, and foreign correspondents were asked to exit the country at short notice. The most high profile cases that find a mention in the book are those of Hamid Mir, Raza Rumi and Declan Walsh.
Alongside these dreadful events, Menon has written about kebab parties, yoga lessons, farmers’ markets, discreetly run Bharatanatyam classes, and milk cartons imported from Australia, not to forget the endless soirees of the well-heeled. If you are looking for more details on this charmed set, there is cinnamon bread and rose-hip jelly to balance the bitter taste of reality. What makes the book utterly delightful is Menon’s sense of humour which shows up in the most unimaginable of moments — for instance, spooks trailing her on treks in the Margalla Hills, banks refusing to let her open an account, fellow journalists pestering her to upgrade her fashion quotient in order to be taken seriously, and Pakistani officials advising her to write about arts and culture instead of poking her nose into the condition of religious and ethnic minorities.
Menon’s nationality determined how she was treated in most of the spaces she entered, and there was quite a range of responses, including refusal of access to official events because she was suspected of being an Indian spy as well as a grand welcome at parties hosted by poets and activists who were in favour of friendly ties between India and Pakistan. Though her life was made difficult by excessive surveillance, she lived in a cosy home and enjoyed the hospitality of new friends who went out of her way to stand up for her, especially when she was expelled from Pakistan at extremely short notice.
This book is an engrossing read because Menon is difficult to classify as either a hawk or a dove. Many Indian commentators on Pakistan tend to belong to one of the two camps, but the perspective framing Menon’s narrative is firmly grounded in her professional work as a journalist. Reporting Pakistan is about the stories she filed, and the back stories that unfolded along the way. It is clear that she is supportive of track-two dialogues, and equally invested in truth-telling about terrorism and human rights violations.
Since she is an Indian national, Menon’s visa restricted her movements to Islamabad, the capital city of Pakistan. This became a big impediment, and she had to let go of several important stories she wanted to track. Within the constraints, she attempted to be inventive. This often meant interviewing people in far-flung places over the phone, or waiting for them to visit Islamabad.
Menon was nominated for this coveted posting by Siddharth Varadarajan, her erstwhile editor at The Hindu, and she readily accepted the offer having visited Pakistan on a previous trip to Karachi in 2011 as part of an Indian journalists’ delegation from the Mumbai Press Club. Her recollections of that trip are scattered throughout the book, which can be disorienting for readers who expect linearity.
This book is valuable right now because it offers a picture of Pakistan and Pakistanis that goes beyond the stereotypes churned out by jingoistic hosts on prime-time Indian television who salivate at the thought of war. Menon is aware of her responsibility as a journalist at a time when Indians who are critical of their government are being labelled anti-national and Pakistani agents on flimsy grounds. Given her experience of reporting on the Mumbai riots of 1992–93, she is also quite conscious of prejudices against Muslims in India.
During her posting in Pakistan, Menon wrote on a variety of topics such as polio eradication programmes, rural development initiatives, rights of transgender people, stories of Partition survivors, bomb blasts, animation series, hunting of houbara bustards by Arab royalty, oral history projects, Afghan refugees, and domestic violence. All of these are captured in the book. Abida Parveen and Intizar Hussain make an appearance in the book, as do Hafiz Saeed and General Pervez Musharraf. Menon has tried to keep it real instead of presenting either a dystopia or a rosy picture.
She was, however, perceived as a thorn in Pakistan’s side. Due to her close contact with the Indian High Commission in Islamabad, she was suspected of being dangerous to Pakistan’s national interests. She was reprimanded particularly for her interview with 72-year-old Mama Qadeer, who founded an organization called the Voice for Baloch Missing Persons. Menon interviewed him on the occasion of a 3300 kilometre-long march from Quetta to Islamabad to demand justice for over 19,200 missing persons from Balochistan. In the interview, he spoke about a possible referendum in Balochistan, and his conviction that people would vote for independence from Pakistan.
Menon’s professional integrity was called into question but she stood her ground. While many individuals and organizations expressed their solidarity, Menon was disappointed that her own newspaper was more worried about whether they would be able to send another correspondent to Pakistan in the future. The book reveals that her then editor, Malini Parthasarathy, did not let her write about a blasphemy issue that she had tracked, saying that it was stories like that that had got her thrown out of Pakistan. Menon’s willingness to talk about the heavy personal cost of professional decisions adds depth to this book. It gives a rich, behind-the-scenes look into the lives of journalists caught in the misgivings between two hostile governments.