Review: Bullets and Bylines by Shyam Bhatia - Hindustan Times

Review: Bullets and Bylines by Shyam Bhatia

ByLamat R Hasan
May 31, 2024 10:45 PM IST

This extraordinary account of an extraordinary life is a must-read for those who want to know what it looks like to be deeply passionate about journalism

Shyam Bhatia, who reported from “the cradle of human civilisation” for close to two decades and has had a few brushes with death, did not really plan to be a journalist.

Afghan Mujahideen fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980s. The invasion started on December 25, 1979. This photograph was taken in Asmar in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. (Pascal Manoukian/Sygma via Getty Images)
Afghan Mujahideen fought against the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan during the 1980s. The invasion started on December 25, 1979. This photograph was taken in Asmar in the Kunar Province of Afghanistan. (Pascal Manoukian/Sygma via Getty Images)

When India conducted its first-ever nuclear test in 1974, he was studying in the UK. On the insistence of friends, he wrote a 1,200 word article about why India had tested the bomb and sent it to the The Times in London. Two days after its publication, the paper’s foreign editor reached out and said he was prepared to back Bhatia if he applied as a trainee journalist.

248pp, ₹499; Speaking Tiger
248pp, ₹499; Speaking Tiger

Thus began Shyam Bhatia’s accidental foray into journalism. In 1977, he got an offer to write for The Observer. A few weeks later, he was in Cairo, his visit coinciding with Egyptian President Anwar Sadat’s visit to Jerusalem in a bid to normalise relations with Israel. Bhatia stayed on and reported on the negotiations for The Observer, and also freelanced for other news outfits.

By 1981, he had a full-time staff job with The Observer in London – flying in and out to file reports on the Middle East until he was appointed the Middle East correspondent. He spent the next decade flitting between the war zones and terrorist-hit capitals of the region.

The nail-biting accounts of his reportage from across the Middle East will give readers goosebumps. The opening chapter entitled Colder Than the Arctic Circle is a vivid account of the shooting down of 35 of his co-passengers on a Kabul-Kandahar bus on the freezing afternoon of February 2, 1980. The anti-Soviet mujahideen, forerunners of today’s Taliban, then abducted Bhatia. Incidentally, Bhatia initially had no plans to visit Kabul or Afghanistan. He was in Pakistan to cover mounting civilian protests on the first death anniversary of the execution of the country’s former prime minister, Zulfiqar Ali Bhutto. That same week, the Soviet invasion of Afghanistan was making international headlines and Bhatia was asked to stop over in Kabul for a few days.

On his return, a few hours into the 12-hour journey after he boarded the bus in central Kabul, the mujahideen stopped it and proceeded to shoot down the passengers one by one. “It was so clinical. I remember wondering what kind of story I would write if I survived? What would my intro be? How would I introduce the personal element?” he writes.

When it was Bhatia’s turn, he was hit across the face and called a jasoos (spy). Then they set the bus afire and asked him to run. He ran along with the mujahideen. “Why they didn’t kill me… is still a mystery to me,” he writes.

This wasn’t the only time Bhatia had a close shave. Reflecting on his career, he observes that he has been lucky throughout. On one occasion, fellow reporters, who weren’t from his organisation or even close to him, stood up for him when he was being deplaned at Khartoum international airport. If they hadn’t, he would have been killed and his name added to the fairly long list of his colleagues who had met a similar end.

Bhatia was also often lucky to be at the right place at the right time. Back in 1979, not a single Western newspaper was willing to predict the outcome of the Egyptian-Israeli peace talks even as international interest in the talks was peaking. There was tremendous pressure on Bhatia to file an article on the issue. He struck gold when the hotel head chef, whose son worked at the government’s metal foundry, decided to help out. He produced a medal which had profiles of US President Jimmy Carter, Egyptian President Anwar Sadat and Israeli Prime Minister Menachem Begin. On the other side of the medal was written: “Heroes of Peace”. Bhatia had got his scoop.

The most heart-rending chapter in this book is on the retaliatory mass killings of Sikhs in Delhi following the assassination of Prime Minister Indira Gandhi in 1984. Bhatia was put on the first plane to Delhi from London to report. Acting on an anonymous tip-off, he headed to the Subzi Mandi in Old Delhi and found that bodies were being dumped there. He counted 119 bodies before the smell of smoke and burnt flesh overwhelmed him. “To this day I am convinced the real story was the violence in the aftermath of Mrs Gandhi’s tragic assassination, the fear experienced in Delhi and their senseless killings that should never have been allowed to happen,” he notes.

Bhatia’s exclusive on how Marsh Arabs – ethnic Arabs who lived in the wetland border regions of South Iraq and Iran – were being slowly poisoned to death won him the Foreign Journalist of the Year Award at the annual British Press Awards in 1994. Iraq’s President Saddam Hussein’s secret agents were pouring an odourless and colourless poison into the headwaters of the marshes to kill and flush out resistance groups. Bhatia sneaked into the marshlands from the Iranian side, and was happy to come out alive.

Author Shyam Bhatia (Courtesy the publisher)
Author Shyam Bhatia (Courtesy the publisher)

The chapter on how he befriended Palestine Liberation Organisation (PLO) leader Yasser Arafat is a riveting read. While his first meeting was interrupted by a bomb blast close by and Arafat was whisked away by security, during the second, he managed to make friends not only with Arafat but also with the Palestinian leader’s newly wed young wife. An aide had told Bhatia that Arafat loved honey and sure enough, it was a gift of a pot of the stuff that broke the ice. From then on, Bhatia always met Arafat with a pot of honey. He also recalls babysitting Arafat’s daughter Zahwa in a pram for an hour along the Gaza sea front with six armed security guards in tow.

His association with Benazir Bhutto, the former prime minister of Pakistan, went back to the time they were students at Oxford University. He knew “Pinky”, as Benazir was known to friends, and her brothers, Murtaza and Shahnawaz. Years later, Benazir called Bhatia to ask for a favour – she wanted to be introduced to Arafat. He also mentions other significant details that she shared with him about Pakistan’s nuclear programme. Following her assassination in 2007, he wrote Benazir’s biography, Goodbye Shahzadi.

The cheekiest portions in Bhatia’s book are about his tryst with secret agents of different countries and a separate chapter entitled Dodging the Spooks is devoted entirely to them. My favourite anecdote is about his hilarious experience with the military secretary to Pakistan’s military dictator, General Zia-ul-Haq. Bhatia was invited to conduct an exclusive interview with Zia at the army headquarters in Rawalpindi and all his questions were readily answered. However, as he drove back to his hotel, Bhatia realised he had forgotten to switch on his tape recorder. Even as he panicked at losing a “world exclusive” and having to explain this to his office, he had a brainwave – what if he could procure the recording done by the army headquarters? When he got in touch with him, the military secretary laughed and said, “We have a tape and you can have a copy, but this is strictly between us.” A curious Bhatia asked him where the microphone had been placed. Snap came the reply, “Mr Bhatia, this is a state secret. All I am prepared to say is that the President likes good quality flowers in every interview.”

This extraordinary account of an extraordinary life is a must read for those who want to know what deep passion for journalism looks like. Bhatia also does a bit of soul-searching in the last chapter and asks himself if the perils were worthwhile. Yes, he concludes.

Lamat R Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.

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