Wish I had said no
As a rule, I never interview good friends. It’s a sure-fire way of getting your emotional loyalties and professional ethics entangled. Friends don’t want to be asked awkward questions, yet if you knowingly desist you aren’t doing your job. Either way you’re a loser.
But what do you do when someone asks to be interviewed? Is he accepting the risk or is he oblivious of it? That’s what happened when Shyam Bhatia’s publisher rang to suggest I talk to him about his political biography of Benazir Bhutto, Goodbye Shahzadi.
I’ve known Shyam for 40-odd years. Although he’s considerably older, as journalists, our careers kept track of each other long after school and college associations had ended. Amanda, his wife, was my first dental hygienist. The drive to their wedding was the first long journey in our new BMW.
The problem began when I read Goodbye Shahzadi. Though described as a political biography, it contains unsubstantiated personal details that are, at best, rumour and gossip, but, at worst, deliberate sensationalism. I feel they’re untrue. More importantly, they don’t belong in a ‘political’ biography.
At the core is an account of an alleged interview Shyam had with Benazir in 2003, where she reportedly spoke of an incident 10 years earlier when she was Prime Minister. Shyam claims she described how she acted as a two-way courier facilitating a clandestine and illegal nuclear exchange between Pakistan and North Korea. While on a visit to Pyongyang, she carried in her overcoat pockets CDs containing the secret of how to assemble a nuclear bomb. On the return, she brought back the dis-assembled parts of a Nodong missile.
The problem is Shyam has no proof of this. He insists she made him switch off his tape recorder and promise never to reveal the story during her lifetime. This is, therefore, a case of Shyam’s word against those who choose to question it. And given that he’s alleging Benazir was involved in nuclear smuggling you can be sure her husband, party and supporters will.
This ‘story’ — and I use the word advisedly — is both the high point and the weakness of Shyam’s book. So if he wanted to be interviewed, this is what I had to concentrate on. And if the interview was to be done professionally, it also had to be done rigorously. Thus professionalism and friendship were destined to clash.
Aware that Shyam is a friend, I began delicately. How would he respond if Asif Zardari called for proof? I’m not sure if he evaded or didn’t hear. At any rate Shyam did not really answer. So I tried again. You’re accusing Benazir of nuclear smuggling, I pointed out. In today’s world, that’s a heinous crime. This time he was quick to respond. In Pakistan, Shyam suggested, she would be considered a heroine. Perhaps, I shot back, but why would she reveal such details to you? You’re an Indian, a journalist and not a close friend.
I saw Shyam’s lower lip quiver. It was a fair question but, in the circumstances, also a low blow. He could not have anticipated it. At once, I regretted my attack.
Both of us knew there couldn’t be a convincing reply. The question was designed to ensure that. After all, why do people make the most unbelievable confessions to the most unlikely confidants? They probably don’t know themselves. But in an interview, ‘Don’t know’ is an incriminating answer.
Shyam took it like a man. I felt like a heel. Afterwards, he was full of thanks and praise. I might have scored but I could barely speak. Although my skepticism has been echoed by the PPP in Islamabad, and even by LK Advani, who launched Shyam’s book in Delhi, I can’t get over the nagging feeling I’ve set in motion a line of attack that’s snowballed into a problem for a friend. I might have done my job but I’ve also let Shyam down.
The sensible thing would have been to refuse to interview him. I wish I had. Shyam, I suspect, regrets asking me. I guess we’ll both be wiser next time. Meanwhile I hope we can remain friends.