Pakistan and India have firmly established themselves, 70 years after their independence, as the terrible Siamese twins joined at the hip but unable to live civilly with each other. Into this swamp, insert a journalist from India posted to Pakistan by The Hindu, one of India’s most prestigious and respected daily English newspapers, to report on Pakistan.
This is what befell Meena Menon, who admits at the outset that before her appointment she was not exactly steeped or well-versed in Pakistan’s affairs, apart from a brief visit to Karachi some years ago as part of a Mumbai Press Club delegation. Considering this initial confession, Menon has done an extraordinarily detailed and in-depth job of documenting her experiences during her relatively brief stint as an Indian reporter in Pakistan.
She arrived in Islamabad with her husband in 2013, but was asked to leave in 2014, a mere nine months after landing in the city. The reasons for her expulsion lie in the convoluted red tape and bureaucratic hassles of obtaining and renewing her visa. In any case, hers was a one city visa, confining her to Islamabad and forcing her to rely on secondary sources, witness accounts and research to cover the rest of the country. If the book under review is any guide, she did a tremendous job in spite of these limitations.
Menon begins her account by delineating the minutiae of her arrival, setting down and getting to know her way around Islamabad and establishing contacts with the people she had to meet or deal with in her everyday existence in Pakistan’s federal capital. If the reader is patient with what may appear to be too much of such detail, and perseveres on, they will be rewarded with a wealth of reportage, commentary, narrative and analysis of most, if not all, the important issues afflicting Pakistan internally. They will also find plenty of useful information on Pakistan’s relationship with its bigger neighbour and long-standing adversary, India.
A mere listing of the topics Menon covers would not do justice to this voluminous work, but detailed discussion of the issues she deals with would be far beyond the space available for this review. Nevertheless, we can indicate in précis the most important subjects the book covers.
Menon informs us that the ‘border’ between Pakistan and India does not begin at Wagah but along the lines that demarcate Muslim and Hindu communities living in her native Mumbai, made especially prominent after the communal riots that her city experienced in 1992-93 in the wake of Babri Masjid’s demolition.
The ‘othering’ she describes witnessing there includes the referencing of segregated Muslim areas of Mumbai as ‘Pakistan’. To her credit, Menon’s views are not coloured by such hate-filled prejudices in her native land, and she betrays a remarkably open and enlightened mind in wrestling with the difficult and sensitive task of being a journalist ‘behind enemy lines’.
The range of her concerns is breathtaking, starting from the situation of religious minorities in Pakistan in general and of Pakistani Hindus in particular (since their living conditions are of special interest to her audience back home) and moving on to terrorism, the nationalist insurgency in Balochistan, the fraught state of press freedom in Pakistan, Partition and its lingering tragic legacy and, last but not least, Pakistan and India’s bloody, unending minuet over Kashmir and other issues rooted in a history of which both countries remain prisoners. Pakistani society’s treatment of women, dissidents and critical voices does not escape her penetrating gaze. Not only has Menon established the keenness of her observatory powers in her book, she has also proved the depth of her research before committing her findings to paper (the numerous references to her sources is sufficient proof of this).
Tortuous and tricky as the terrain of reporting on Pakistan for an Indian journalist is, Menon’s book provides a model of how to conduct such a restrictive and fraught task with impeccable professionalism and objectivity. We in the press in Pakistan could do worse than learning a lesson or two from this intrepid wielder of the pen.
A note of clarification: While I was the editor of the Lahore-based English newspaper Daily Times, Ayaz Amir’s columns were not being published there, as Menon wrongly notes. She also wrongly explains the reasons for my leaving the newspaper in 2016. I did not leave merely because I published the writings of two columnists whose views were disliked by the military. Although that was one of the issues underlying my departure, there was a broader conflict of policy with the establishment in which, regretfully, the newspaper’s management did not support me.
This was originally published in the Herald's November 2017 issue. To read more subscribe to the Herald in print.
The writer is a veteran journalist who has held senior editorial positions in a number of daily newspapers.