What instantly draws you to journalist Meena Menon’s Reporting Pakistan is its no nonsense, say-it-like-you-saw-it charm. This is a reporter’s diary in the old school mode – a fascinating narrative replete with rather sharp and witty observations which thankfully come minus the trappings of the writer trying to be either pretentious or overbearing. Menon does not approach the book as a Pakistan expert but as someone who made the most of her nine-month stint in Islamabad as the correspondent of The Hindu before she was abruptly asked to pack her bags and leave.
Her sojourn in Islamabad brings the best out of Menon the reporter on a subject that evokes considerable interest. It goes without saying that we Indians are fascinated by Pakistan just as much as those across the border are with this country. We are curious to know how the folks, separated by a manmade fence, are faring. Some of us dismiss the Islamic nation as an enemy – a failed state in which the military throttles democracy and promotes radical fundamentalism. Others are more kindly disposed and are drawn towards its culture, cuisine, charm and cricket. Suffice to say, whatever our inclinations, whenever we meet someone who has returned from Pakistan the first question we invariably fire at him/her is: ‘How is it like across the border?’
Reporting Pakistan addresses that question in detail and at various levels. So, we learn how the better half lives in Islamabad. The soirees where the chapali kebabs come all the way from Peshawar; the malls were everyone “stuff their faces” with fast food; the get-togethers that are organised at the drop of a hat; the parties at which Punjabi songs and poetry laced with scotch (though consuming alcohol is haram) flows freely; the men and women who dress carefully so that they look resplendent with their style quotient suitably reflected in their designer wear, accessories and makeup.
But Menon’s book is not just about the hi-life and the whirl of social events and diplomatic parties that a foreign correspondent cannot avoid. Thankfully, she doesn’t trap herself in the occupational hazards that come with her foreign posting but embarks on several journeys of discovery. These detours are circumscribed by the fact that she has a one city visa which forbids her visiting Karachi, Lahore or Peshawar which are perhaps much more reflective of the collective Pakistani reality than Islamabad.
Nevertheless, Menon is able to bring out the world that hides behind the façade of impressive buildings, wide avenues, flashy cars and bungalows with well-manicured lawns and gardens that is Islamabad. The poverty sub text is not in your face as it is say in Mumbai, which the author considers her home. In fact, upmarket Islamabad is like Lutyen’s Delhi – cut off from the other reality.
The author discovers the bleaker side by setting out on her own. She meets people who survive in the slums in sordid civic conditions, much like in India. Their red-bricked houses, the katchi abadis, a far cry from the luxuries of tony Islamabad. For the ordinary folk, there is no public transport to speak of and no water or power. Firewood has to be collected by wandering the streets of the city. For many water comes from dirty, polluted streams in the neighbourhood.
She meets members of minorities like the Ahmadis, Hindus and Christians who are discriminated against. She interacts with families of those who have been victims of the repressive blasphemy laws that civil society in Pakistan has long been campaigning against. Despite ISI operatives keeping a close watch on her she manages to interview people who otherwise would never make the news.
Thanks to Menon’s innate curiosity, there is a diverse sweep of people that the reader encounters in the book. Thrown into the mix are poets, playwrights, writers, singers, peaceniks, rights activists, transgenders, Pakistan’s first women Everester and rock star Aaron Haroon Rashid – the creator of the popular animation superheroine Burka Avenger, who fights for education using pens and books showing how the former is mightier than the sword.
If all that is not enough, the author tracks down Shahnaz Minallah, the co-chair of the Art of Living Foundation in Pakistan and Indu Mitha, who discreetly teaches Bharatanatiyam in the Pakistani capital. Why, Menon even chances upon a charming lady at the Kutch Khaas market who sells authentic South Indian murukku.
But as a correspondent of The Hindu, trailing trivia was not the author’s main concern. There was the serious business of attending Parliament, keeping track of the various cases in the Supreme Court, covering terrorist attacks, making sense of cross border tensions and Kashmir politics from Islamabad and meeting politicians, bureaucrats, lawyers and journalists. There is no lack in depth of analysis while recording the serious march of events, although the writer thankfully doesn’t fail to throw in a dash of humour. For example, she recalls when her attempts to seek an interview with Nawaz Sharif came a cropper, a friendly official in the prime minister’s office apologetically told her that it was difficult to get time with the PM since she was not Barkha Dutt. Suddenly Menon realised she had a “grave deficiency.”
The funnier moments come as a relief since journalism is a tough and risky proposition in Islamabad with the prying eyes of the ISI keeping a close watch on the movements of journalists, particularly those coming from India who are suspected to be RAW agents. The author had two operatives on her tail; “one a bearded creature in salwar kameez” and the other a younger man “chubby and awkward.” Since she did not know their names, Menon refers to them as Beard and Chubby.
The duo frequently surfaces in the narrative. There is this hilarious sequence when Menon and her husband go trekking in the Margalla Hills on the outskirts of Islamabad on a cold morning. The two spooks follow on foot, huffing and puffing, and occasionally hiding in the bushes so as not to attract attention. The joke was always on them although they took their revenge in the end, when they asked the cabbie dropping Menon to the airport on her flight back to India to overcharge her. But he did not oblige and wished the author well and asked her to ignore the “men from the government” and carry with her “good feelings” about Pakistan and its people.
The author was stationed in Islamabad from August 2013 to May 2014. She was sent back after an interview with separatist Baloch leader ‘Mama’ Qadeer Baloch was carried by The Hindu in March 2014. That irked the Pakistani authorities no end. Menon was summoned and grilled for an hour at the external publicity office. The writing was on the wall. It was only a matter of time before she would be asked to leave.
Perhaps, she should have been allowed to stay on longer…
Ajith Pillai is a senior journalist and author of Off the Record: Inside Stories from a Reporter’s Diary and the novel, Junkland Journeys