The lives of the lesser Pakistanis
Most books about Pakistan are chronicles of its dysfunctional democracy, commentaries on the many years the country has been under martial law, the complex civil-military interface or narratives of its complicated relations with India, or the existentialist threat to it from terrorism and religious extremism.
Meena Menon’s Reporting Pakistan touches on all of this, but the narrative also focuses on topics less discussed: the minorities—the Ahmadiyas, Shias, Hindus and Christians; women and the challenges they face; freedom of the press; and the almost invisible link between rural development work in India and Pakistan.
Menon was the last correspondent of The Hindu to be stationed in Pakistan. She, along with Snehesh Alex Philip of the Press Trust Of India, was expelled in 2014. There has been speculation that Menon’s encounter with Baloch rights activist Mama Qadeer Baloch, her interview with him and the coverage of his approximately 3,300km march from Quetta to Islamabad that began in October 2013, to protest against and raise awareness about Balochistan’s missing persons after his son’s disappearance, were the reasons why her visa wasn’t renewed.
Menon’s book essentially encapsulates her experiences during her nine-month stay in Pakistan’s capital city—which she describes as “green” but “unreal”—while drawing from recollections of a previous visit to Karachi and Hyderabad, in 2011.
There are few direct references to the turbulence of India-Pakistan ties, but she brings this out in other ways, in descriptions of the trouble it took to get a visa, or the two spies who would tail her. Neither terrorism nor Pakistan politics is discussed in the traditional way of listing the many terror groups, their linkages with the “establishment”, or the antagonistic and competitive relations between the main political parties. But politics, terrorism and sectarianism make their presence felt throughout the book—when she writes of the attacks on mosques and churches, or the assassinations of politicians like the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa law minister Israrullah Khan Gandapur—giving the narrative a coherence through examples of the sufferings of common people. It is this that will appeal most to readers and acquaint them with the lives of the ordinary people of Pakistan.
Menon’s work brings out how little the two countries know about the other. “Despite war, deep suspicion and hostility I made friends,” she writes, “and I didn’t quite feel I was living in an ‘enemy’ country for most of the time, except when the presence of spooks became hard to ignore and any victory over India was celebrated with unholy glee.” Her travails of “being a foreign correspondent”, the hospitality of Pakistani friends and their curiosity about the lives of Bollywood stars are some of the vignettes that capture the everyday lives of Pakistanis. Of fellow journalists in Pakistan, she notes they have been “bold and brave despite the many threats, and between the security agencies and terror groups life hung on a thread for many professionals”.
A section of the book details how minorities, including Ahmadis and Hindus, live in fear, and brings out the irony in the fact that Abdus Salam, Pakistan’s first Nobel laureate for physics, was from the Ahmadi community. There is also space devoted to a little-known Malayali community who live in and around Karachi and the Parsis of Pakistan. One of the more well-known among the former is B.M. Kutty, a peace activist and trade union leader. And though most people are familiar with Murree Brewery, which produces the region’s best beer, few know that the owner, Bhandara, is from the minuscule Parsi community.
This is a book for those curious to seek information about people in Pakistan outside the exalted and privileged circles.