New Delhi: Writers and reporters from the “developing” subcontinental regional bloc of South Asia found intellectual vitamin at the foreign theme section of the World Book Fair 2014 in New Delhi (February 15-23) where Poland, the guest country, brought the best of the Polish School of Reportage with a showcase built around the founder of the genre, Ryszard Kapuscinski.
An exposition, “The Poet of Reportage — Ryszard Kapuscinski (1932-2007), introduced the Indian audience — especially the emerging breed of non-fiction writers and reporters — to the Polish School of Journalism that holds “pride of position” in setting the contemporary trend of creative journalism in an age of instant news by using literary devices in reportage to make news stories nuanced, well-researched and engaging — like the raconteur’s art.
The highlight of the “educational” capsule at the fair was the launch of Ryszard Kapuscinski’s “Shah of Shah”— a political account of Shah Reza Pahlavi of Iran and his ouster — in Hindi. The Hindi avatar, “Shahahon Ka Shah” translated by Prakash Dixit has reproduced 22 censored pages that were deleted from the English translation of the Polish book.
“Kapuscinski was not only a journalist, a writer and a commentator on political events. He was also a poet, photographer and a philosopher — but first and foremost he was the interpreter of culture and an active participant in the dialogue between civilisations. He was also a very keen listener,” Piotr Klodkowski, envoy of Poland to India, said.
The exhibition chronicled Kapuscinski’s oeuvre with panels of photographs and texts from his political biographies — in the context of the contemporary trends of world journalism.
Kapuscinski, born to economic hardship in Belarus, graduated from Warsaw University in 1955, saw life’s vagaries from Ground Zero, developing in course a panchant for mass stories. A freelance writer of political articles since early youth, Kapuscinski published a “critical article” about the construction of a Nowa Huta — a Cracow conurbation built on the site chosen as the first Municipality of Poland- which brought to light the inhuman working conditions of the labourers involved in the project. The reportage was received with “resentment” and anger by the Comunist regime in POland but eventually won the favour of the regime. It earned Kapuscinski the golden cross of merit at the age of 23.
In August 1956, he was sent to report from Kiev and then to India— an epic journey which he documented in a six part article, “India From Close”. He returned via Afghanistan and Moscow. During his subcontinental trek, Kapuscinski photographed the terrain extensively, which were published a year later. Subsequently, he went to China and Japan and them all over the world — including Siberia on the Trans-Siberian Railways and Africa. Many years later, he returned to India in an autobiographical account, “Travels with Herodotus”.
Kapuscinski’sa strength was digging out “unusual stories” that brought to light the broad composition of a place and conflicting situations.
In his books, “The Emperor” (on Haile Selassie, the last emperor of Ethiopia) and Shah of Shahs (the last Shah of Iran), Kapuscinski hunts for characters from within recesses the “monrachies'” power corridors, who are symbolic of the decadence and corrupt coteries that brings down imperial orders.
In “The Emperor”, Kapuscinski interviews the minister of pillows, who is in jail. The minister was tasked with the job of “placing pillow under the emperor’s feet when the latter sat. The minister was expected to know “the edicts of Selassie’s royal conduct – and his governance”. Narrating Kapunscinki’s process of building his story-telling, Polish envoy to India Piotr Klodkowski recalled that Kapuscinski in an interview had once admiited that “he found it difficult to begin The Emperor”. “Kapuscinski said he had lot of trouble in introducing the book. He was browsing through the photographs — he had clicked hundreds — and came across a photograph of a small dog – Lulu – often and often. It became the beginning of Kapuscinski book. In the image of Lulu, there was a tragedy, Kapunscinki had told interviewers”.
Kapuscinski’s style of reportage that went beyond the “spot” was a cult for legion of journalists in Poland like Witold Szabłowski, Wojciech Tochman, Hanna Krall, Anna Bihont, Mariusz Szcygiel, Jacek Hugo-Bader and Zofia Nalkowska – who used literary elements of fiction for their nonfictional journalistic narratives.
“The humanatarian element of story-telling where the observer is looking at the story through the lens of the intellect of the heart – of the normal person on the street and not from the highest political level – the micro-perspective of a revolution or a war (often disputed because the versions differ) make Kspuscinski unique. Authors of this oeuvre often use non-fictional narrative and construct —like a fictional person in the centre to make a hero. It makes the narative more relevant,” explained Anna Tryc Bromley, director of the Polish Institute in India- the cultural arm of the Polish mission.
The spotlight on Kapuscinki at the World Book Fair 2014 brings the discourse to the need of print journalism to chart “creative frontiers” beyond the “time-bound” spot reporting to analytical and story-telling reportage in an age of Internet and television, which has made the process of news dissemination shortlived, instant and “eyeball -grabbing”- oriented at commerce.
In the last three decades, news in print has been slowly moving out of the confines of five “W” and one “H”— of institutionalised word counts and mandates — to assimilate from literature. Story-telling, often derided as magazine journalism — is central to good contemporary reportage with “anecdotes”, “imagery”, “people”, metaphorical analysis, socio-cultural, economic and political contexts and news to present a holistic picture of an issue in discussion or in place under the lights.
Journalists like Ernest Hemmingway, Graham Greene, Gabriel Garcia Marquez, Mark Twain — have dominated literary story-telling space for more than a century with their eye for the “grassroots details” and “unusual odd features” that have carried their jorunalistic accounts – non-fictional and fictions based on facts — beyond “dry treatises”. They are treated as classics both in the publishing industry and on the “book worm’s” counters.
If the west has sustained on literature crafted from “real life stories” — in India, a handful of non-fiction writers has scripted their Kapunscinski tales with a combination “gripping story-telling, litetrary idiom and a nose for factual authenticity and analysis.
The foremost on the list include the country’s top writers of non-fictional accounts — like Jawaharlal Nehru, Shashi Tharoor, Ramachandra Guha, Mark Tully, William Dalrymple, Arundhati Roy, Arun Shourie, Amartya Sen, P.Sainath, Suketu Mehta and Nayantara Sehgal— to name a few who deploy literary devices to narrate “facts” about the country and world— covering a wide range of issues on culture, politics, economy, history and even personal accounts of worth.
One of the books that made a mark in recent times — harking back to the tenets of the classical literary reportage— was William Dalrymple’s “The Return of the King: The Battle for Afghanistan (1839-1842)”,a story about the last Anglo-Afghan war and the ruler Shah Shuja, who was exiled. He establishes through historical story-telling the connections between the 19th century Afghanistan – a hotbed of intrigue, ethnic conflicts and political rivalries — to the country under president Hamid Karzai and the threat of the hardline Taliban forces. The story despite being embedded in history is still relevant today. In a similar manner, Shashi Tharoor in his last non-fictional account, “Pax Indica”, uses “India’s history ties with the west and the eastern spheres of the globe” to identify the country’s position in the prevailing contemporary world order — in the process becoming a journalistic investigator of the country’s foreign polity and the course it must chart. Writer Ramachandra Guha, in his sequel “India After Gandhi”, assimilates from the craft of reportage and offbeat narrative formats to “chronicle Mahatma Gandhi’s years in Rajkot as a child, in London as a young student and in South Africa as a civil rights activist and lawyer— where the seeds of the struggle of Indian Independence were sown in the father of the nation.
In contrast, writers like Khushwant Singh —a veteran journalist and columnist and novelist Amitav Ghosh — the leading protagonist of the “non-fictional novel”— a distinctive genre of fiction based on facts, history and documentary evidence — use real life stories and history to build narratives in the traditions of classical literature complete with a “hero” and a cast of supporting characters to retell history, describe geopolitics and comment on the socio-cultural politics of regions across which they run their pens.
Ghosh’s “Ibis Trilogy” about the Indian opium trade and Khushwant Singh’s “Train to Pakistan” (stories about Partition) remain classics of this reportage genre of books.
“The feature pages of newspapers and magazine reportages have more loyal following than daily news pages,” says a senior editor of Hindustan Times. The primary reason is that the media in India is relatively free- when compared to many countries that have been exposed to repressive regimes. The inherent Indian love for stories keeps the tradition of literary “reporatge” alive but with one essentail difference — most of the Indian non-fictional stories are written about India in the global backdrop unlike the Polish school that write largely about the world than about Poland — itself. Blame it on the curfews of modern history.