New Delhi: The distinction between the genres of non-fiction and fiction is getting more “mixed” with writers of non-fiction and reportage using more literary tools in their journalistic accounts since the literary reportage made its debut in the writing space in 1960s-1970s, says Polish reportage writer and author Wojciech Jagielski, a student of master of literary journalism Ryszard Kapuscinski. Jagielski, a senior foreign affairs correspondent and the author of four reportage books, is an authority on Afghanistan, Central Asia and Africa.
“All journalists in Poland wanted to end up as writers in the 20th century. News reports have such limited space in our country. To ensure that the traditional Polish brand of reportage has its way, most journalists write books,” Jagielski, said in an informal chat at the World Book Fair 2014 in New Delhi (Feb 15-23).
Journalism has evolved as a “curious medley of reportage and literature for the last 150 years in Poland — since it arrived in the country in the 19th century. Poland was then a hub of classical European culture with large communities of artists, performers and writers for whom freedom and philosophy were cornerstones of creative progress.
“But the arrival of Communism after the second World War and its consolidation for nearly 50 years forced journalists to write in a metaphorical way – about specific issues and specific situations without sounding critical,” Jagielski said. A section of rebellious writers, however, began to write between the lines to convey disenchantment with the regime.
“Writers were writing one thing – but readers knew that they were allegories pointing to some profound truth and exploring connotations behind the scene in the garb of descriptive reportage,” the writer said. This made the writers more literary. “We were all trying to follow wither way of writing. We did not invent things but we used the litetrary structures to write a story,” Jagielski pointed out.
The Polish School of Reportage — as this style of literary journalism — came to be known – has broken through the bastions of conventional journalism with its “verbose style replete with colours, descriptions, analysis and people’s stories”.
One of the unique features of Polish school of journalism is that “reporters write more about the world than about their own country”. They travel extensively and bring home “rich troves of stories and experience”. The tradition traces its roots to the pre-War days when media houses had money to splurge on their reporters for overseas coverage. During the Communist regime, while space shrunk and spends were scaled down, the Communist dispensation “discouraged reporters from writing freely about home turfs— clamping strict censors. All the fall of the Communism in Eastern Europe and in Poland in 1989-1990, media was freed from state control. However, resources continue to remain constrained for reportage style foreign coverage till this day.
“Most of the media houses send journalists to Ukraine because everything that is happening in Kiev is important to Poland,” Jagielski said.
The writer “joined journalism in 1990s- it was the golden era of foreign journalism in the country”. “Now, the Polish media is closing foreign offices worldwide because “they cannot afford to maintain international bureaus or send reports on extended reportage missions for “multiple serial reports about a country”.
“As a result, most foreign correspondents carry their missions to books — to be able to write all that they have gathered and have seen,” the reportage writer said.
Jagielski has been coming to India since 1980s. “I admire the South Asian press. I follow the weeklies,” said the writer, whose account of Afghanistan, “Praying for Rain” was the consequence of 10 years of touring the country for sustained stretches.
Recounting the triggers that led to the book, the writer said there was no space for “stories from Afghanistan in his Polish Press Agency initially”. “Then my employers realised that my reports (edited and shortened) from Afghanistan were attracting several hits (eyeballs) on the Internet. “The immediate result was my book. I continued to visit the country (Afghanistan) till 2009 where I was embedded with the soldiers”. “It took me 10 years to understand Afghanistan- what Afghanistan was all about,” he said.
The writer offers “fresh insights into the future of Afghanistan after the 2014 pullout — “they come from the situations and opinions of common man and scholars across the society”, he said.
“If the west has enough patience to pay president Hamid Karzai (or the one in helm in the future after April 2014 presidential poll) to help the army survive, then there will be enough force to counter the Taliban. If the West is not patient, then the country might fall back to the 1990s situation or worse,” Jagielski said.
The writer like his mentor Kapuscinski looks for unusual metaphors and icons to begin his story.
“They have to be symbolic of the large story I am trying to narrate about a place,” Jagielski said.
‘I was looking for a story in South Africa— a country I had been visiting since the 1990s. There were many biographies of Mandela.I did not want to write another biography. Then I met a soccer fan in 2007, who narrated his life story to me. I realised the soccer fan’s life and Mandela’s life were the same. I wrote a story about the soccer fan, Nelson Mandela and my own self,” Jagielski said. The result was the “Trumpeter of Tembisa”- a portrait of Nelson Mandela and the shaping of contemporary South Africa.
“What I hunt for is an idea of a subject that goes beyond the immediate report,” he said.
Once on a trip to Chechnya, when the writer as a war correspondent (covering the civil war) was travelling through a region known as “Bagestan”, he came across a “large boulder” with an inscription, “You Will Not Be a Hero If You Think of The Consequences”. “It reminded me of the Chechen rebel army commanders— Shamil Basayev and Aslan Mashkadov – one a radical and the latter a responsible and moderate leader respectively,” Jagielski said. The stone paved the foundation for his popular political account.of the Chechnya war “Towers of Stone”. .
Jagielski is now looking for an offbeat story to “script his India reportage”. “Normally people would want to write about Narendra Modi or the Nehru-Gandhi family. But I would like to write about the end of an era – a trademark of India that has become oldfashioned. I would like to write a biography of Rahul Gandhi – how he was laughed at by the people and not so successful any more,. How much you miss the old politics. Something is coming to an end in India. I would want to write about the hippie trail – why it has turned cold. I was in Paharganj (in the old quarters of New Delhi- the favourite haunt of foreign tourists and backpackers) the other day, it is not the same anymore. There is no drug, it is not Nepal – the India people miss and what India to expect…I would like to write about,” Jagielski said.