26 Nov 2017


Freed Indian fishermen line up at the Pakistani side of the Wagah Border as they prepare to cross into India | AFP
Freed Indian fishermen line up at the Pakistani side of the Wagah Border as they prepare to cross into India | AFP

Sometime in 2012, Anita Joshua — an Islamabad-based reporter for The Hindu with whom I had frequent telephone conversations — rang me up to find out why Pakistanis don’t call North Indian classical music ‘Hindustani’ music. “Is it a case of some sort of bias?” she enquired.

“The reason is simple,” I told her. “You have two parallel highly developed systems; South Indian Carnatic, and that which northern and central India share with Pakistan and Bangladesh. You call the latter Hindustani music. Since we have only one system we simply call it classical music.” Joshua’s curiosity was satisfied.

One wishes Joshua’s successor Meena Menon had also given such thought to statistics when she writes in her otherwise fine book Reporting Pakistan that at the time of Partition, minorities were 25 percent of the population which “dwindled” to 5 percent or less. She seems to have ignored the fact that, in those days, Pakistan comprised two wings and that in 1947, in fact right up to 1971, the more populous eastern wing had a much larger proportion of Hindus. So the statement is unrealistic, to say the least.

From roadside garbage to babudom, a journalist from India learns that despite the antagonism, the two countries are pretty much alike

Barring this major error, one can say that Menon has done a commendable job writing about Pakistan given that her visa restricted her to Islamabad, she was not allowed to visit even the adjoining city of Rawalpindi and was expelled from the country after only nine months.

Another handicap she doesn’t let hamper her work is her limited knowledge of Urdu. Menon is from the deep southern province of Kerala, where even Hindi is almost an alien language. Before her posting in Islamabad, she was stationed in Mumbai where Bumbaiyya Urdu (call it Hindi, if you like) held sway. What helped her in Pakistan was the hospitable willingness of the people in Islamabad to translate high-flown Urdu into English.

Menon’s approach to her subject — reporting Pakistan — is largely fair. She is critical of both countries’ stinginess in granting visas and how the common people, particularly those with close relatives across the border, suffer. A Pakistani that she and her husband ran into while trekking up the Margalla Hills rued that, “Visa denial is a ploy to keep us [the people of both countries] apart and never discover the truth about each other.”

The author’s fair-mindedness comes to the fore again when she points out cases of distortion of history in textbooks and does not hesitate to reveal that Indian writers and compilers are no less guilty of twisting facts. She laments, “…the textbooks of both countries have depressingly hatred-infusing content to say the least, and there seems to be a curious pride in not knowing the real facts about each other.”

Unnecessary paperwork and babudom [the reign of clerks] are also common in the government offices of both countries, which is perhaps why she writes: “I was a foreign correspondent in a not-so-foreign country.”

She notes that the Pakistani capital city is clean, but — as in the Indian capital — mounds of garbage dot the outskirts. When she regrets that, on crossing the Wagah Border to take up her assignment, she could not get to see the historical city of Lahore, it is no different from the disappointment of Pakistanis who can’t see much of Amritsar and certainly not places such as the Golden Temple and Jalianwala Bagh when they head to Delhi, Mumbai or any other place in India for which they have a visa.

But Menon also counts her blessings: the rented bungalow she inherits from Joshua is large and she notes that her entire flat in Mumbai could have fit into the bungalow’s drawing room. There are no intruders except for a cricket ball that occasionally lands in her lawn when aspiring Shahid Afridis playing street cricket attempt to hit a six. Cases of robberies are few and Menon doesn’t suffer on that count even though she doesn’t exercise much precaution. Ironically, it is the lock on her Mumbai flat that is broken a few months after she returns to India from Islamabad, leading to a loss of precious jewellery.

Two years earlier, as a member of the Mumbai Press Club delegation invited by the Karachi Press Club, Menon went all over Karachi and saw as much as possible on a day-trip to Hyderabad. Karachi seems to her very much like Mumbai: crowded and with a vibrant nightlife. Islamabad, on the other hand, is expansive and sleepy, but Menon is bewitched by its natural beauty and environs and no less by its planned layout: “To walk on real pavements without trampling someone or stepping over vendors was a joy, much as I support the hawkers ... Everything had its own place.” She finds the traffic smooth and the air crisp and clean except when there are thunderstorms.

In Islamabad Menon meets some exceptional people, such as Shoaib Sultan Khan who works for rural development and to alleviate poverty. Another fascinating person is the vocalist Abida Parveen whose popularity knows no bounds, nor does her fondness for India where she has a fairly large following. Menon also acknowledges the contribution of Madeeha Gauhar and Ajoka Theatre in creating goodwill between the people of the two Punjabs. The theatre company, according to Menon, is “wedded to the ideals of secularism, humanism, democracy and tolerance.”

She highlights the plight of fishermen who stray across the ill-defined maritime boundary in Sir Creek and how, as governments of the two countries drag their feet in repatriating even the bodies of people who die in captivity, families of both Pakistani and Indian fishermen face emotional and economic devastation. She writes about the sufferings of minorities such as Ahmadis, Hazaras and Hindus of rural Sindh, but also notes that Hindu traders in Rawalpindi enjoy various degrees of prosperity.

Not many Pakistanis, this reviewer included, are aware of the great job the Karakoram International University in Gilgit-Baltistan is doing in the field of mountaineering. Menon writes appreciatively about the institution and informs that the university has the largest solar power system which supplies power even in winter. She mentions power outages in Islamabad, but in Gilgit-Baltistan, she claims, the power supply is continuous.

Menon is by and large appreciative of the courage shown by the Pakistani press and in the context of their being victimised by the establishment, not to speak of terrorists, she says “Yet the press in Pakistan soldiers on, dodging bullets admirably…” She quotes the late justice Dorab Patel in the context of the Karachi Press Club’s Silver Jubilee celebrations when he applauded the institution for holding elections every year for 25 years: “You working journalists have succeeded creditably where politicians and the like have failed miserably,” and claims that in the club’s long history no military or police officer has been allowed entry.

All said, one can’t help but agree with Menon when she says that the number of deaths of media persons in Pakistan in the last few years shows that the country happens to be one of the most perilous places for journalists.

The reviewer is a senior journalist and author of four books, including Tales of Two Cities

Reporting Pakistan
By Meena Menon
Penguin Random House,
ISBN: 978-0670089086

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, November 26th, 2017