Review: Reporting Pakistan by Meena Menon
Journalist Meena Menon spent nine months in Pakistan before she was expelled for interviewing an activist from Balochistan. Her book, Reporting Pakistan, is a good introduction to the country, its politics, and its people
Having lived in Pakistan for nearly six years, Meena Menon’s “Reporting Pakistan” was an obvious urgent read with that unputdownable feel to it. As I enthusiastically flipped through, I revisited my life and times in the “enemy country” nearly four years after my own unscheduled departure. Menon’s extraordinary recall, love for detail and the rather gregarious tone of the 350-plus book naturally became the reason for my grins, grimaces and goosebumps.
Often the incidents and anecdotes left me with that been there, done that feeling – multiplied by six – as I had spent six years there and Menon less than one. A fact she touches upon more than once in the book. However, even a brief stay in Pakistan warrants a life of adventure, and this is what makes any read from and about Pakistan or vice versa, riveting.
Menon’s biggest adventure was her expulsion after her nine month stay. While she is unsure of the reasons that led to her marching orders, it happened soon after she had interviewed Mama Qadeer Baloch, an activist from Balochistan who heads the Voice of Baloch Missing Persons. She was summoned by the Pakistani establishment and accused of portraying their country in a skewed light. They threatened to not renew her visa. Soon after she was asked to leave Pakistan at a week’s notice.
Menon gets full points for not crumbling under pressure and deciding to utilise her remaining time there well. Between her packing, and selling the refrigerator and the office car, she decided to strike out Pakistan Museum and Bari Imambara mausoleum from her touristy list.
The book captures the meandering thoughts of an Indian in Pakistan beautifully. An Indian who has to deal with minders, the legendary spooks about whom every “mehmaan” (guest) from across the border has a tale to tell.
As resident Indian journalists are wont to, Menon has to rely on secondary sources of information to file stories for The Hindu – even when reporting within Islamabad, the only city she has a visa for. An important point that she brings to the fore is that the two resident Indian journalists in Pakistan – an arrangement that has been annulled since her posting – are seldom granted interviews with people of eminence. When she challenges a Pakistani official who denies her an interview with a minister, he snubs her with a comment about her not being Barkha Dutt.
For people who know little about Pakistan, “Reporting Pakistan” can be a good introduction to the country, its politics and its people. Menon fills in the readers with background information, puts the goings-on in Pakistan into perspective, including its relations with India and the famed backchannel Aman ki Asha diplomacy.
The chapter on “Covering Terrorism”, the longest in the book, details the problems the minority Shia community faces in Pakistan, the threats that the Shia Hazaras live with, and how the community is being rather systematically targetted.
She writes about how Pakistan’s blasphemy laws are misused – citing case after case of citizens who have been killed or assassinated (Punjab Governor Salman Taseer) or thrown into jail, often to settle petty scores. There is plenty of information on how Pakistan treats its minorities – the Hindus and the Christians.
During her stay Menon met both Hindu and Christian families – the latter on the run from Meherabad seeking refuge in an Islamabad slum – and provides an insight into their rather sad lives.
There are other assorted stories of interest such as the one about Dr Shakil Afridi - the man who helped track Al Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden that led to his eventual killing. “... as a suspected undercover agent for the CIA, many believe he has little change of justice...,” Menon writes.
She documents details of Pakistani journalists who have been shot, kidnapped, threatened and abused – 60 killed between 1992-2017. She mentions the case of one journalist who had been beaten and locked up for 24 hours for interacting with Indians.
My favourite story was about the little-known Shoaib Sultan Khan who has done pioneering work to alleviate poverty in Andhra Pradesh. Menon’s profile of picturesque Islamabad, often described as half the size of a New York graveyard but twice as dead, is near perfect. “On a clear day, Islamabad shimmers in a glowing haze from Monal, a popular restaurant perched on the edge near the highest point in the Margalla Hills...”
Unfortunately, Menon overdoses readers with magnanimous descriptions of the city, of Pakistanis’ legendary warmth and their hospitality. A lot of space has been dedicated to the mundane – her reports that were published on the op-ed pages of The Hindu; how good her gardener was; where she shopped for vegetables; who brought her refrigerator when she was saying Khuda Hafiz to Islamabad; her make-up less look; why she didn’t host people at home and so on.
While most anecdotes add colour to the otherwise bland reporting that we see from Pakistan, by visiting or resident Indian journalists, Menon takes her task a tad too seriously. On the one hand, she bats for peace and harmony between the two nuclear neighbours, on the other she unwittingly perpetuates stereotypes from Pakistan and of Pakistanis by accentuating their exceptional hospitality or the arrogance of the establishment.
The stories of spooks from Pakistan, at one time thought funny and - well spooky - have been done to death since the time Menon’s senior Amit Baruah from The Hindu wrote about his minders in “Dateline Islamabad” almost a decade ago. While such stories still make for fantastic drawing conversations, they do not merit any further documentation.
It is only in the last chapter that one gets a feeling that Menon was let down by her Pakistani friends who thought she shouldn’t have reported on a controversial issue such as Balochistan. “Some of my Pakistani friends also privately wondered why I had written it and said there was no need for the paper to have highlighted it,” she writes. Menon displays superhuman qualities by not reacting and continuing with her good-hospitable-neighbour narrative.
“Reporting Pakistan” makes for a compelling read for anyone trying to understand the neighbour next door and what it means to be Indian in Pakistan.
Lamat Hasan is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.