Indian journalists make news in Pakistan
Unguided missiles over the border
Even for a journalist privileged to have visited Pakistan more than a dozen times, this trip is a novelty. We are guests of the Pakistani government, part of a new round of media exchanges (there is a group of Urdu-paper editors headed to India this month), who are being given 'guided' tours of various cities.
I am particularly grateful to have gone to Pakistani-Kashmir on this trip, off limits to Indian journalists in general, and to the beautiful Swat conflict-zone, all on Army helicopters. We also spent a day at Punjab University in Lahore and an afternoon at the Institute of Strategic Studies in Islamabad.
I hear the term for us is JCBMs (Journalists for Confidence Building Measures), but since we really are no good at pushing peace agendas, maybe we should be likened to ICBMs (unguided ones at that)!
Making Heavy weather out of Light issues
Despite many people-to-people delegations criss-crossing the border, Indian journalists always make news in Pakistan. In the old days, one would have minders follow our every move, and every Indian reporter has stories of how their 'shadows' have helped out with directions and shopping. But we also get followed around by media, who published photos of our group in meetings with Interior Minister Rehman Malik and others, and quote our interviews (sometimes getting us into trouble with those officials). Sometimes we get them into trouble though- a PTV show at the Government College created quite a buzz for the very candid views expressed by Indian and Pakistani journalists, and also by the students on it. However after the show went on air PTV bosses ordered an enquiry into why the lighting on the show 'favoured' the Pakistani journalists- and left the Indian journalists darkly lit. In an act of remarkable, but unnecessary 'fair-play', 6 PTV staff were even suspended for the bad lighting.
Most of us first heard about Pakistan's austerity measures when the Shoaib Malik - Sania Mirza wedding ran into trouble over restrictions on their reception at the Pearl Continental in Lahore. They include shutting off electricity, even generators by 10pm and allowing only one dish on the menu. But getting to see the restrictions at work first-hand is something else. After all, this is the subcontinent, where people save up all their lives and still go into debt paying for their children's lavish weddings. And surely these rules can be waived with a bit of clout or a 'facilitation fee'? Not so. At the high-power wedding of a senior Punjabi politician's son, I was quite dazzled by the clothes and the jewellery, not to mention spectacularly beautiful Lahori women, but I was completely floored by the menu, which in fact contained only 1 chicken dish, rice, roti and ice-cream for dessert! The guests arrived by 7pm, and everyone, including Federal ministers were ushered out by 10pm sharp.
Many lessons for us in India - and of course our former colonial masters too - William and Kate's royal reception had more than 10,000 canapes on offer, 8 hors d'ouvres, 7 entrees and 8 desserts including smoked salmon, quails' eggs and fillet of beef, all washed down with Pol Roger Champagne. Top 5-star hotels in Pakistan, on the other hand offer specially priced single-item menus- no alcohol, obviously. And of course, the hosts more than make up with their trademark hospitality and warmth.
Pakistani expressways, especially the Lahore-Islamabad speedway are famous for their efficiency, allowing motorists to whizz through them at a steady 120 kilometres per hour. So it came as a surprise when were slowed down shortly after entering the Lahore ring road to a speed limit, or so it seemed. When we drove further on, though, we realized that the reason everyone was slowing down was because of a donkey cart race. The contenders were dead serious - every Tonga had a driver and a little boy (to keep the weight at a minimum)who would quite mercilessly prod the donkey along, jostling with other donkey togas down the road, cheered on by crowds that drive alongside. Apparently donkey and camel road-racing is quite common, a sport that attracts bets worth Lakhs of rupees, even though its patently illegal.
Among the most relaxing television programmes in the world are definitely Pakistani breakfast shows. Several news channels have breakfast TV- each with a beautiful, designer-dressed anchor, who guides her patently all-female viewership through the intricacies of fashion, cooking, beauty tips, throwing in a smattering of the day's news as well. My favourite is a segment called 'Ask Harris' on News1 TV. Harris is the numerologist-gemologist-astrologer who answers callers on their future prospects. What's nice is every caller is given hope- "wear a amethyst ring, and your problems with your fiancée will end," "after next week, your property matter will be solved." No matter how hopeless the person who calls in seems, Harris always ends his advice by saying "Issues hain, lekin masla solve ho jayega, Inshallah." On this particular morning the hostess reads out the news of bomb blast in Karachi, and then turns to Harris, expressing concern about the future of the nation. Harris dutifully pulls up the nation's chart, born August 14, 1947,describes its astrological problems (Venus is in Mars, etc type of thing) and then in the most reassuring way possible adds, "Issues hain... solve ho jayengi, Inshallah..."
More about Suhasini HaidarSuhasini Haidar, is a Sr. editor and prime time anchor for India's leading 24-hour English news channel CNN-IBN, also hosting the signature show, 'World View with Suhasini Haidar'. She is a regular columnist on Indian Foreign Policy and Strategic Issues for national dailies such as The Hindu, Business Standard and The Indian Express. Over the course of her 17-year career, Suhasini has covered the most challenging stories and conflicts from the most diverse regions including Pakistan, Sri Lanka, Libya, Lebanon and Syria. In India, she has covered the external affairs beat for over a decade and her domestic assignments include in-depth reportage from Kashmir. In 2011 she won the Indian Television Academy-GR8! Award for 'Global news coverage',and the Exchange4Media 'Enba' award for best spot news reporting from Libya. In 2010, She won the NewsTelevision NT 'Best TV News Presenter' Award. Suhasini is the only journalist to have interviewed Indian Prime Minister Manmohan Singh and his family, a show that won the prestigious Indian Television Academy award as 'Best Chat show' for the year.
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