PAKISTAN has been described as a dangerous country for journalists. Since January 2010, 15 journalists have lost their lives here. But more than that, it is not a country easy to write about. So riddled is it with contradictions and so strong are the emotions it evokes that a writer must have superhuman capacity to be dispassionate and write without social, political and ethnic biases.

Aboard the Democracy Train — a title borrowed from Benazir Bhutto’s campaign by train for the 1988 election — is an account of politics in Pakistan through the experiences of a female reporter, Nafisa Hoodbhoy, working in a predominantly male environment. As a Dawn staffer from 1984 to 2000, she had access to people and places which gave her a ringside view of politics in Pakistan. It goes to her credit that she put her knowledge to good use. What has emerged is a remarkably readable and anecdotal account of events in Pakistan.

For the author’s contemporaries, the book is a journey down memory lane. By skilfully weaving in the story of her own life in journalism — the society she grew up in, her westernised upbringing in an elite and privileged family, her English medium school education and her disconnect from her Sindhi linguistic antecedents — Hoodbhoy provides an excellent perspective to a foreign reader of life in Pakistan when, in spite of many dichotomies and contradictions, people co-existed in relative harmony.

Hoodbhoy puts forth her opinion on why Pakistan failed to develop as a stable democracy: “the over-indulged state had, since the creation of the nation, taught political leaders one simple lesson: when they fell out with the military, they could be shaken down like dates from a palm tree.” The period covered in the book was a unique era of transition from press controls to relative freedom that came with the abolition of the hated Press and Publications Ordinance.

Those too were not easy times for journalists who faced the hazards of physical violence. The focus shifted from institutional control to a system that tried to keep individuals on leash. Hoodbhoy gives a thrilling account of how she narrowly missed being attacked twice when her reporting angered the wrong people. On one occasion she had to leave Karachi for a few weeks to allow tempers to cool. In the section “News is what the rulers want to hide”  she gives a graphic account of the intimidation of the press and its members.

The forte of Aboard the Democracy Train is its rich repertoire of anecdotes and quotable quotes. The author is strikingly objective when reporting the politics of Pakistan’s first female prime minister. There is no attempt to idealise Bhutto or gloss over her weaknesses.

Take this passage for instance: “I had misgivings about Benazir’s ability to lead. Watching her make small talk, with her manicured nails and matching make-up, I couldn’t help but wonder whether she would be no different from the westernised elites who live in a cocoon in this deeply class-divided country.”

Although the realities of the power structure in Pakistan are pretty well known — the army has wielded power even when a civilian and seemingly constitutional government has been in office — told in Hoodbhoy’s racy style, politics assumes an exciting dimension.

Two chapters — “Where Have All the Women Gone?” and “Uncovering a Murder” — should initiate the uninitiated into the dismal status of women in Pakistan. They clearly establish how doubly disadvantaged women from the economically depressed classes can be and how winning justice is more difficult for a woman in Pakistan than a man.

The book also discusses Sindh’s ethnic politics which shocked the author. She describes the Hyderabad massacre of September 1988 that led to the murder of hundreds of Mohajirs, an “audacious attack” reeking of conspiracy. The retaliatory killing of innocent Sindhis in Karachi touched “a raw nerve,” says Hoodbhoy.

But she appears to have difficulty in getting to the roots of the ethnic problem. For instance, the impression conveyed is that the MQM was a party of the Mohajirs with which the entire community identified itself. Her account also hints at a degree of polarisation between her Sindhi-speaking and Urdu-speaking colleagues in Dawn which is far from true. The fact is that the MQM did not draw all Mohajirs in its fold. Many intellectuals as well as politically astute Mohajirs chose not to throw their loyalties with the party. The book fails to take note of how two Urdu-speaking journalists from the Dawn media group came under attack, allegedly by MQM supporters, in 1991. And in one case, the party blocked the distribution of the paper for three days.

Hoodbhoy left Dawn in 2000 when she moved to the US. The tone of the last two chapters dealing with post-9/11 years is different from the rest of the book. Hoodbhoy’s account of the ‘war on terror’ and politics of the Musharraf years lack the intimacy and personal narration of her earlier writing. Many journalists have covered this period from closer quarters. But for a reader not knowledgeable about Pakistan, these chapters should be educative.

The reviewer is a former Dawn staffer

Aboard the Democracy Train: A Journey through Pakistan’s Last Decade of Democracy (POLITICS) By Nafisa Hoodbhoy Anthem Press, London ISBN 978-0-85728-967-4 236pp. £14.99

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