At 22, Anjan Sundaram wanted to see the world like many young people do and chose to go to Congo to become a reporter leaving behind promises of a stable career.
The intense period he spent in the country working for the media organisations like the Associated Press and the New York Times that took him deep into the shadowy city of Kinshasa, to the dense rainforests that still evoke Conrad’s vision, and to the heart of Africa’s great war, culminating in the historic and violent multiparty elections of 2006 is what his book Stringer, published by Penguin, deals with.
‘My book Stringer would interest anyone who has ever dreamt of dropping their office job and pursuing their passion. It would interest people who would like to learn about and explore the worst war in the world – one that has killed more than five million people (from the violence and war-induced hunger and disease),’ says 29-year-old Sundaram, a Chennai native.
‘I travelled through many of those conflict zones, and met some of the worst murderers. It narrates the life and story of a rookie reporter - learning, seeing, doing for the first time. So the reader gets to learn with the reporter,’ the journalist-writer says.
He says the journalist in him came about gradually.
‘I went to Congo looking for a job as a journalist, but it wasn’t until I was robbed at gunpoint – of all the money I had – that I found a job, just in time. Even then it was difficult. Initially I was able to publish only very short stories about plane crashes and deaths in the war – these barely earned me enough to live on.
‘I was also taking care of the Congolese family I lived with, paying for their food and other daily expenses. It took me more than three months of trying, and learning how to write news stories by myself, to begin to support myself. It was a very difficult way of learning how to become a journalist, but it taught me a lot.’
But why Congo? ‘I was 22 at the time, and like many young people I wanted to see the world. I had read that four million people had died in Congo – the death toll is now at five million – and that not a lot of reporters were covering the war.
‘When I found my job as a journalist in Congo I became one of four international reporters reporting on the country. Four journalists covering an area half the size of Europe (that’s larger than France, Germany, Spain, Portugal, all put together)! There seemed a lot of work to do in Congo, and not many people to do it.’
‘Congo has always been consumed by the world seeking of modernity. A European king committed genocide there during the automobile revolution to pillage it for rubber. The country’s recent conflicts have been heightened by the world’s growing demand for tin to make conductors. The world now needs cell phones and Congo contains 60 per cent of known reserves of an essential metal called tantalum. It is a country racked by civil war that heads every conceivable blacklist and whose children have the bleakest of futures. But it is also full of wild energy and vitality.
When Sundaram first wrote to the AP, inquiring about working for them, he was asked to prove himself. It took him more than three months of travelling, at his own expense, to learn how to write a news story.
The NYT job came by chance. It was after the presidential elections in 2006 and all the foreign correspondents had left the country when suddenly a deadly battle broke out in Kinshasa between the winner and the loser. The NYT called him up and asked if he could report on the battle for them.
Does any Indian location interests him? ‘My instinct tells me that I would perhaps like to go to the northeast. The conflict there seems underreported – even though one regularly finds it in the news one doesn’t get a sense of its reality.’
Sundaram, who has a Masters in mathematics from Yale, sees a link between mathematics and his passion. ‘My specialisation in mathematics was algebra – which is a fundamentally creative field. You build mathematical objects, one upon the other. Or you take two mathematics objects and try to find a relation between them, try to show that they are two manifestations of the same underlying form.