17 May 2013

Lost in Transmission by Jonathan Harley

A book that came out of a dream job

Jonathan Harley worked as Australian Broadcasting Corporation's New Delhi-based South Asia Correspondent from 1998 to 2002. This is his account of his time here. 
Why did I just read a book that’s more than ten years old? Because it arrived in the post for me one fine day, a present from Sri Aiyar who lives in Adelaide, and who (I think) enjoyed the book and thought I would too. I did. It revived memories of interesting, often horrible, times in our recent past. I enjoyed Jonathan Harley’s perspective and the way he’s able to show the funny side of things without causing offence, perhaps because he so liberally pokes fun at himself too. India, he says, is the richest, poorest, most charming, infuriating, beautiful and hideous land in the history of time. And it can be as efficient as it can be chaotic. It is, in fact, a poor man’s America! 
Jonathan Harley writes of Pakistan’s “blokes-only” political rallies; of the cricket obsession of India and the overwhelmingly emotional, rather comic, response to Don Bradman’s death; of the reaction to 9/11 in Kabul where he happened to be at the time. When he enters Wagah’s no-man’s land, it feels like a stroll between two patriotic theme parks. (And Dosti must be the first bus in Indian history to arrive on time.) There’s more.
Travelling with him from one news-making event to the next, I found Jonathan Harley sensitive to what he observes and experiences. His reports are accurate; his analyses shrewd; the patterns he describes creative and discerning. However, his grasp of history occasionally wavers. This naturally makes some of what he writes appear superficial.
Here are some random bits pulled out from the book which will give you an idea of his overall style and approach.
Soon after arriving in India, Jonathan Harley's first assignment is the horrible Staines murder and he sees Gladys Staines very soon after her husband and children were burnt to death by zealots: “India’s latest widow sits calmly, almost serenely, patiently fielding reporters’ questions. Perhaps she has not had time to cry or she’s waiting for some privacy. She’ll wait forever. Like most things in India, grieving is a public event.”
Covering the massacre of Nepal’s royal family, he observes, “I pass a family offering prayers and lighting incense before portraits of the King and Queen at a makeshift mourning platform. While their rituals of piety and humility verge on the poetic, I can’t help but think Nepal would be better off without its royalty. Monarchies have long struck me as a medieval abomination best left to history."
Portraying Mumbai’s dabbawallas, the dabba Jonathan Harley follows shows us more than just the six-sigma precision of this institution – it exposes the middle-aged office workers of the city who still rely on their aging mummies to cook their meals for them.
Of his foray into Taliban country – ‘No-fun-istan’ – he writes, “First came the Dark Ages. Then came Mad Max. And somewhere between, suspended in time, space and sanity, in a whirlwind of dust and devastation, came the Taliban. I’ve landed in an Islamic utopia with Cold War weaponry."
At Rajasthan’s luxurious Neemrana Fort Palace, he sees not just the “beautiful blend of richly coloured Indian art and Euro-chic simplicity” but, directly below, the crowded village with muddy paths and sickly cows. “It’s here that most of the hotel’s cleaners, porters and labourers live. The realities of India’s luxuries are never far from view.”
Daunted at first by his battalion of domestic and office staff, he’s self-critical enough to describe his situation after a few months thus: “I don’t drive, wash or iron, I don’t even make my morning coffee. And I no longer notice. I have become part of the modern Raj – hopelessly dependent, and resentful when ‘staff’ make mistakes or don’t read your mind.”
‘Pakistan’, Jonathan Harley informs us, is actually an acronym: “It stands for Punjab, Afghania, Kashmir and Indus-Sind, with the suffix ‘-stan’, which means ‘land’. Unfortunately for the people of the restless south-western province of Baluchistan, ‘B’ did not make it into the mix – which may go some way to explaining the Baluchis’ keenness to secede.”
The scene that most endeared Jonathan Harley to me is set in Eden Gardens where one very white Australian face stands out prominently in a sea of Indian fans (and they’re not so much cheering as jeering). India is playing Australia and the rowdy fans are roaring as each Australian wicket falls. Far from cowering, our hero shouts, “C’MON AUSSIE!” inviting attack from the passionate fans around him, safe because apparently Indians have an amazing ability to get overcharged without exploding into violence. And Jonathan Harley declares: “As I watch, boggle-eyed at this outpouring of pride and passion, I see a nation united. For all India’s diversity and division, cricket is the country’s one common religion. Across boundaries of class, caste, religion and language, everyone can pray in the temple of cricket. It is glue, binding a country that seems to teeter on the verge of disintegration, offering a shared purpose, playfulness and identity.”
I did like this book, and intend to hang on to it, despite its wobbly bits, as a history/anthropology resource for the future.