Foreign Correspondent | Edited By S. Denyer, J. Elliott and B. Imhasly
Here is another addition to “the India book”—a genre in itself now, with so many foreigners writing about India and the subcontinent. Within that genre, this book is a refreshing change—fewer clichés (though they’re still there) and actual in-the-moment reporting. The editors of Foreign Correspondent: Fifty Years of Reporting South Asia have put together a collection of reportage and photography by foreign correspondents from a variety of publications, covering almost every aspect of the subcontinent from 1949 to 2007. The result is an engaging look at the way South Asia has evolved in the last 50 years.
Four months ago, I became an associate member of the Foreign Correspondents’ Club (FCC)—the organization that produced the book to mark its 50th anniversary. I joined primarily because I love to drink their delicious whisky in the clubhouse on Thursday nights, but also because I’m a lover of the Ernest Hemingway and Stephen Crane brand of fearless foreign correspondents, some of whom have invented the hallowed genre of literary journalism.
In focus: Tribals captured at a Maoist rebels meet in Chhattisgarh.
Some of the writings in this book are brilliant examples of that school. But primarily, for anyone unacquainted with South Asia, this book can act as a history text—a primer on some of the most important events in the past 50 years and tragicomic insights into the people of the subcontinent.
Reuters bureau chief Simon Denyer, FCC president John Elliott and former FCC president Bernard Imhasly, the editors of the book, have lived and reported in the region for a collective 48 years, and began preparations for the book last September. They asked for submissions from past and current members of the club, and received around 400 of them. They also sought articles from other sources to fill the historical gaps left by the submissions. From that, they whittled the number of articles down to 79, covering a wide range—from India’s love of P.G. Wodehouse to an eyewitness account of Rajiv Gandhi’s assassination.
In the introduction, the editors write: “Journalism is the ‘first draft of history’—incomplete, momentary, often opinionated, but history-in-the-making nonetheless.” That history, found in the pages of this book, is its greatest asset. In a 1951 article, Reuters reported the Indian government’s attempt to draw Western tourists with glamorous “tiger-shoots”. While the entire country today worries about the last 1,400 tigers left in India, it is heart-wrenching to read: “Government officials here estimate that between 500 and 1,000 tigers could be killed in the country each year without seriously affecting the general tiger population.”
The collection also mirrors the changes in journalism itself: The earlier selections are dotted with the journalists’ personal musings. In later stories, the journalist is removed from the story, allowing other people to fill it—be it a politician, a social worker or Mother Teresa. The 1971 Pulitzer-prize winning Dacca Diary by Peter R. Kann creates a brilliant, insightful look at being trapped in Dhaka for 15 days during the Bangladesh war of independence. His writing is personal, mixed with humour and wry observation: “What are you supposed to do when a war starts and the cable office is closed? Play poker. Go to sleep.” In 1991, Barbara Crossette witnesses Rajiv Gandhi’s death—she was just 10ft from the bomb blast site. Even though she was very nearly killed herself, she hardly makes an appearance in the story.
Foreign Correspondent: Penguin, 405 pages, Rs695.
To tackle the issue of relevancy, the editors have added footnotes to some of the articles, explaining in a few sentences what became of the main characters or issues at stake in the article. However, not every article has a footnote. For example, in John Rogers’ article, “China Sets the Pace for India in Space Race”, Rogers questions if India could launch its first satellite by 1974, but the reader is never told that India was not able to until 1975. This was one of the few articles in the book not quite as interesting or pertinent as others.
Perhaps because of space constraints, the editors have left out some important moments in history. There is nothing on Indira Gandhi’s assassination, the Russian and US invasions of Afghanistan, or anything on the cultural life of the subcontinent or, for that matter, a profile on Satyajit Ray. However, bemoaning what has been left out only means the book left me wanting more.