How I wish Indian journalists posted to Pakistan paid way more attention to life as they encountered it in that very familiar yet very strange country, becoming the readers’ eyes and ears in the real sense and reported a country in its many colours to a people. Alas, just reporting the politics in our context sharpens bellicosity in the reader’s mind and does not draw in the many dimensions of life.
Western journalists are possibly able to find a more fulfilling mix of subjects as their newspapers or media organisations allow them the editorial space. Meena Menon, it appears, has tried, but succeeded only partially in that respect. So it seems that much of what she might have wished her readers to learn from her reporting has gone into this book, making it riveting in parts, the Epilogue in particular, in which the journalist reports the sights, sounds and thoughts — funny, serious, inducing sadness, anger, relief — everything.
Ms Menon was seriously constrained as a reporter. She had a one-city visa and couldn’t travel outside Islamabad in that fascinating country. Also, her stay was all too short — nine months flat. She and the PTI correspondent were ordered out for reasons of India-Pakistan politics. (The Pakistan high commissioner in New Delhi had made that plain enough at that time while speaking to a large group of Indian journalists he had hosted at the high commission premises for dinner.)
Considering all this, the author has managed to cover a wide range of subjects. But some parts of the book needlessly look like essays or recapitulations (with footnotes and the like) of past events that could have been written even from outside the country, and were really not necessary here.
This seems to be the case, for instance, with the longish chapter not so imaginatively titled “Covering Terrorism”, and the author’s sporadic reflections on Kashmir. The terrorism chapter also deals with empathy with the question of the minorities in Pakistan — the Ahmadiyas, the Shias, the Hindus and the Christians — which will hold the reader.
But for this book, Indian readers would not know about the sterling work done in India, particularly Andhra Pradesh, by Shoaib Sultan Khan, a retired Pakistani civil servant who worked on international projects for world bodies in the field of rural development. This reviewer was surprised to find no mention of the famous social welfare organisation, the Edhi Foundation, established some 60 years ago by a saintly man who migrated to the new country from his home in Gujarat in India.
Pakistan is a lovely place and its people are wonderful too. They more than make up for the dubious charms of official Pakistan. Ms Menon does capture some of this in spite of her obvious difficulties.