Writing from the brink
Within the journalistic world, the foreign correspondent is an elite and exotic breed. And in these times of constant conflict, also highly perishable. According to Reporters Without Borders, at least 110 journalists were killed across the world in 2015, many of them in war zones. To anyone who has never experienced a conflict all stories of conflict are extraordinary, satiating the voyeuristic impulse for danger, thrills and adventure. This collection of remembrances of conflicts in the Indian sub-continent and the Middle East by veteran journalist Shyam Bhatia has all the necessary ingredients that of a thriller. But he injects a somber note in the introduction by naming some friends and colleagues who lost their lives in service of this uncertain profession. The book is dedicated to them and “all others who have chosen to embrace the precarious life of the foreign correspondent.”
London-based Shyam Bhatia, who was diplomatic editor of The Observer and editor of Asian Affairs magazine, among other things, has reported extensively on the Middle East and other places. He came into journalism, as many did in those days, by fortuity. He was reading at Oxford in May 1974 when India tested its first nuclear device. Though still a student he wrote a 1,200-word piece on why India had tested the bomb and sent it off to The Times. It was his lucky break. Not only did the piece publish but he was hired on the newspaper’s staff. Out went visions of becoming a diplomat (his father Prem Bhatia, former editor of The Tribune in Chandigarh, did a short stint as a diplomat in Moscow during the ambassadorship of Vijaylakshmi Pandit), a lawyer or an academician. What emerged was a journalist who would spend the succeeding decades travelling to the world’s troubled spots and reporting the events. In his words, he became “a visiting fireman”. This book is a behind-the-scenes account of the stories behind the headlines.
The opening chapter is a by-the-seat-of-the-pants account of his sojourn in Afghanistan, during the early days of the Soviet invasion of the country. Spurred by correspondent Robert Fisk who was scornful of journos writing about the conflict from the safety of their Kabul hotel, Bhatia decided to venture out to Kandahar and ran into a story. His own. The bus he was travelling in from was ambushed by Mujahidin who pulled out and shot all his fellow passengers. He was the sole survivor, captured, tortured and threatened with execution by his abductors, then abandoned after a few days.
His Afghan ordeal sets the tone of the rest of the book – fast-paced and totally engrossing. But before Kabul there was Cairo where he describes an encounter and friendship with an MI6 operative masquerading as a diplomat, falconer and Arab and how the stroke of luck that landed a scoop on the Egypt-Israel peace talks. The high-stakes game of politics and espionage is nicely offset by a self-effacing account of digging up a pavement in Alexandria in search of Alexander the Great’s grave, at the urging of a dubious Greek waiter Demetrius and getting arrested for his efforts!
Misadventures and adventures travel together. And for those who, fed on an unwholesome diet of Hollywood movie caricatures, think of the journalist as a romantic exile, the episode in Sudan is a sobering reminder of the pitfalls of the reporting life. Bhatia’s media convoy drove over well-concealed landmines, which blew up killing a colleague and injuring several others. There are interesting narrations of Bhatia’s coverage of the Iraq war and the execution of Saddam Hussein. A 16-page photo insert shows a picture of the author reclining on the bed of Saddam’s son Uday, whom he describes as “the Sanjay Gandhi of Iraq” admiring his erotica collection and reading a book!
A lot of Bhatia’s reporting career took place in the Indian sub-continent and his account of Pakistan’s megalomaniacal nuclear physicist AQ Khan and Pakistan’s (mis)adventures with nuclear arms technology (which Khan stole in Holland and sold to Libya and North Korea) and encounters with Benazir Bhutto (who was a friend from Oxford) are informative and revealing. Bhatia’s tale of arriving in Delhi to cover the massacre of Sikhs in 1984 is less so, since a lot of what happened is already known to the Indian reader. However the episode when he rode through riot-torn Delhi on a scooter to meet then President Giani Zail Singh in Rashtrapati Bhavan is vivid and gripping. The image of a teary Zail Singh sitting alone in his vast and desolate residence listening to Bhatia’s account of the happenings outside in the capital is memorable.
Bullets and Bylines is a riveting read and Bhatia is a skilled raconteur with a keen eye for detail. He feels for the lands and people he has come across and makes the reader feel it too.