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Volume 3, No. 5 - October 2003

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An Intellectual Among Journalists
By Sreeram Chaulia

A Review of  M.J. Akbar's Byline

MJ Akbar is a legitimate wearer of several hats. Each hat has plumed feathers that keep accumulating over time. As a scribe, he kick-started the current affairs weekly Sunday in the mid-1970s to launch modern magazine journalism in India. In 1982, his Midas touch was lent to another new venture, the newspaper Telegraph aimed at “those who wanted to change India rather than those who had merely inherited it.” In 1994, he founded India’s first global daily Asian Age and remains its much-toasted editor-in-chief today. As a historian, Akbar’s two books on Jawaharlal Nehru and militancy in Islam and Christianity have received critical acclaim and mass readership. As an astute socio-political commentator, he has authored best-selling books on Kashmir, religious minorities and riots in India. As an intellectual among journalists and one-time Member of India’s Parliament, he has also made outstanding contributions to public life and opinion.

Byline is his sixth full-length book, a collection of short essays and Op-Eds composed over the last decade. Such is the variety and acuity of prose presented here that it is bound to go into many reprints and editions like all MJ Akbar products. So varied is the landscape of themes in Byline that it is impossible to categorise it under one genre. Akbar’s full range of interests, from cinema to limerick to politics to cultural tourism, finds space in this volume.

Journalism has permitted Akbar global travel. His post-September 11 jaunts to the United States capture the many moods of a shaken superpower. Guardians of the West at airports transform into Cassandras seeing Muslim names on passports. Akbar wonders what reaction is apt when his religion is ground for discriminatory treatment. “Glare back? Grovel? Rage? Try the sniffy is-this-the-America-I-once-knew tactic?” (p.5) Speaking in Arabic or wearing a Muslim skullcap is dangerous, an invitation to tough security. “Right now, Americans cannot tell the difference between Islam and Osama bin Laden.” (p.17) Paradoxically, New York seems to have grown into a kinder and gentler place and the “sudden intimacy-wavelength” is back on the streets.

Akbar’s sojourn in Turkey unveils little-known trivia. Biblical Noah’s ark landed on Mount Ararat, making the primeval navigator a “naturalised Turkish citizen.” St.Paul, the missionary, came from Adana in southern Turkey and Paris, the son of Priam in Greek mythology was also a Turk. Even Homer, the balladeer, was a Turk, living most of his life in Izmir (Smyrna). Akbar has an uncanny ability to relate India with whichever part he is visiting through obscure facts. The daughter of the last Ottoman Sultan married into the family of the last Nizam of Hyderabad. The wife of Napoleon’s foreign minister, Talleyrand, was an Indian from Calcutta. The Begum of Awadh sought and received refuge in Kathmandu after defeat and expulsion by the British. Bihari workmen in Mauritius speaking pidgin Bhojpuri-French arouse “volcanic emotions” in his heart. Indians in post-apartheid South Africa are wedging themselves above an emerging African middle class by lapping up posh residences.

In the Arab lands, Akbar dons Islamic historian specs and comments on the “fragrant memory” of Muslim rule over Andalusia that lingers. Spain is “an incessant part of popular consciousness” here, just as the Spanish have constant reminders that Arab Africa is only a few miles of sea away. Nearly 4000 Arabic words have entered Spanish vocabulary and signboards on Spanish highways are written in both Spanish and Arabic, the latter using original phonetics. A parallel influence of the colonised tongue on the former master’s language is Goa, which “continues to live in the Portuguese language.” (p.152)

Japan startles Akbar with its insularity. No foreign mobile phone works there and he sees “invisible Japanese walls to shut off the rest of the world’s economy from their market.” (p.87) Pakistan appears to be sinking in front of the author’s eyes. “When the civilians looted the country, the army served as a bulwark of reassurance. But if the army fails as well…the fundamentalists are waiting with an answer.” (p.120) Bangladesh under Sheikh Hasina was, in contrast, empowering women with jobs, credit and housing ownership, but the social reform work has now run into rough weather with an Islamist backlash under Khaleda Zia. Kabul, Afghanistan’s battered capital, wears a transient look after the Taliban’s fall. “The present lives uneasily between yesterday’s and tomorrow’s wars.” (p.130) When the next war will start is anyone’s guess.

France offers mild shocks. In the classroom, café and coiffure, “a second French Revolution is taking place. The French are speaking English.” (p.157) The British may have lost their empire, but their lingo still lords over the world. Scotland is subject to a new invasion from the Bangladeshi restaurant selling Indian food. Down south in England, Indian cuisine is a chart-buster. Akbar adventitiously notes the problem of new confidence among British Asians that translates easily into belligerence and aggression.

Kashmir enthralls Akbar like no other place. In this greenest of valleys, “time becomes a pattern inside a kaleidoscope”, provided Pakistan gives it some respite. Since 1947, the Pakistan army’s strategy has not changed. “Send in troops, call them freedom-fighters and follow this up with a formal war if the ‘freedom-fighters’ fail to bring freedom.” (p.202) Bitterness against India or complaints against Allah will not give Pakistan answers to its profuse internal afflictions.

Moving to India proper, Akbar wonders what economic liberalisation is doing to the poor. “Indifference to public spending has been converted from an embarrassment into an achievement” by World Bank devotees. Change should not come at the expense of the hungry and democracy has to be a “daily business of incremental benefit” and “an economic fact” that travels in a positive direction for all classes in society. Social inequalities in the name of caste are no less degrading. Akbar quotes the heartless lawgiver Manu, “a man of inferior caste is not set free from slavery; for since that is innate in him, who can take it from him?” (p.211) Caste is a relationship loaded with “implicit violence and explicit cruelty.” Gender violence and “our biased and merciless male-centric culture” (p.385) also come in for some stick.

In one delightful exercise of counter-factual history, Akbar speculates that Hindu-Muslim amity could have survived on firmer footing had revolutionary nationalist Subhas Chandra Bose remained in Gandhi’s Congress and led the nation after independence. “Hinduism is synonymous with humanism. That is its essence and great liberating quality.” (p.237) Indian culture is “so open and flexible that it permits every outside influence some space with its cavernous folds.” (p.318) Akbar has stern words for those threatening inclusive India. Gujarat Chief Minister Narendra Modi ironically deserves the Nishan-i-Pakistan for trying to destroy the idea of an India where every citizen is equal irrespective of her faith.

On the lighter side, Akbar grieves multiple declines in the gentleman’s game of cricket. If cricket between India and Pakistan is a surrogate for war, Australia uses the sport as an “undeclared part of its struggle for independence from England.” (p.290) English fans continue to taunt Australia as their ‘colony’ populated by ‘rejected felons.’ Money is a germ that is sprouting greed in modern commercial cricket, leading to match fixing and other unimaginable crimes. “Cricket is money, not national pride. If money can work over ground, it can also work underground.” (p.312)

Akbar’s love for “our India” shines through the book, though never the blind ‘my-country-always-right’ sort. It is “destiny’s draw whether you are born into a generation of peace or a generation of horror…millions of us can be Indians. That is a lottery worth winning.” (p.333) Humbugs who delight in putting India down are given short shrift. “The instant assumption that Indians mess it up all the time invites suspicion.” (p.172)

The book’s final pages are dedicated to memories of famous personalities and places that are no more. “The present is a flickering illusion, everything lies in the past, for each fraction of time coverts the previous fraction into the past.” (p.367) Akbar recalls a Calcutta that once understood art, loved music and believed in books. With the angel of death going about her business cruelly, he pays homage to a growing list of personal friends-cum-public figures departing untimely. Every death leaves traces of one’s own mortality and impermanence.

Byline is no-holds-barred, quintessential MJ Akbar. Those who have only read his scholastic works may be startled by his rip-roaring sense of humour and facility with puns. Those who love intellectual journeys along unhindered thought chains must buy a copy straightaway.

[Byline, by M.J. Akbar, Chronicle Books, New Delhi, 2003. ISBN: 81-8028-003-9. Price: 450 Indian Rupees / US$ 9.50.  404 Pages]

[Sreeram Sundar Chaulia works for the International Rescue Committee, New York.]

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