Newsman talks of tryst with India continent

It was love for food that drew this man to a career in South Asia with the BBC. Daniel Lak, former reporter with BBC for 12 years spanning Pakistan, India and Nepal, and currently with Al Jazeera, talks to Teresa Rehman about his South Asia sojourn, people, media and responsibility. Above all, he talks of his love, for Nepal

Please tell us about your sojourn in South Asia. What are the things in the region that kept you ticking?

I came here as a traveller in 1989, going through Pakistan and India and becoming utterly bewitched by the openness, warmth and generosity of ordinary people that I met along the way. That feeling continued through my time here as a journalist, between 1992 and 2004. Almost everyone I met who was not a protestor, a politician, a police officer or someone else with an agenda or an objection to what journalists do, treated me as a member of their family and couldn’t have been friendlier. So number one in South Asia for me is the people. Food, history, culture and sheer excitement are also part of the picture and the high levels of intelligent striving that I see all over India and in parts of Pakistan, better doing whatever it takes to better themselves and their children’s prospects.

What are the things about this region that fascinate you?

I think the first answer covers a lot of this but I am constantly in awe of the deep connections between past and present in South Asia, the crucial role of thousands of years of history on culture and reality today. That’s not to say that people don’t embrace contemporary times. On the contrary, South Asians are among the most ‘modern’ people I know, but most seem aware and proud of past centuries and how learning and spiritual values from other times can be relevant today. By the way, this comment refers to all communities in South Asia, whatever their religion.

Which were some of your best stories from the region? Was there any story which left a deep impact on your life?

Without a doubt, the massacre of the royal family in Nepal, June, 2001 was the most spectacular story I have ever covered because of its sheer mythic quality and the powerful impact of those bloody, impassioned moments on an entire nation. Nepal is still recovering and I don’t make light of such a trauma. But for sheer excitement, I don’t think I’ll ever see the like of it again.

Natural disasters and their aftermath are always deeply moving in South Asia. From the Gujarat earthquake, I saw the resilience and generosity of Indians helping fellow Indians. In Orissa’s super cyclone of 1999, I didn’t see enough of that. The response to the 2004 Tsunami in Tamil Nadu was also impressive.

What leaves me least moved in South Asia is the greed and venality of many politicians. While I am a great admirer of Indian democracy and even those moments in Pakistan when it seemed democracy might make inroads against military authoritarianism, too often the practitioners of politics in both countries fell short of the task. That hurt development and the interests of the voters. Often, political figures just don’t seem to care.

How difficult was it to report from Pakistan?

From 1992 until I left Pakistan in 1996, it wasn’t particularly difficult. Nor was it particularly unsafe although we did have one attack on the BBC office by extremist groups in 1995. No one was badly hurt and people rallied round us in a very inspiring way. I travelled all over Pakistan with my young family and never felt a moment’s fear. Alas, things have changed and the country is far more dangerous and inaccessible now.

Was it difficult to understand to the geo-political dynamics of the region?

I had tremendous help and support from local colleagues like Zaffar Abbas in Islamabad and Madhukar Upadhyay and Sanjeev Srivastava in Delhi. Without such sterling associates, yes it would have been difficult. But in the end, it was not.

Please tell us about your early life and people and things that shaped your career.

I have a very ordinary Canadian background and education. There was very little exposure to things South Asian until I was in university and a series of early jobs in Canada. I remember the downing of Air India 182, Operation Blue Star and the assassination of Mrs. Gandhi. In Canada, we saw riots and demonstrations around these events and I covered them. Later I followed the Mandal commission and its aftermath and the return of Benazir Bhutto to Pakistan, Zia’s death and other incidents. In that time, I began listening to BBC World Service radio and began to dream that someday, I’d be a reporter like Mark Tully. It was my great good fortune to be hired by World Service in 1988 and be assigned to South Asia just 4 years later. BBC journalists taught me a great deal and I’m still proud of knowing Mark as I do.

What is it about the Himalayas that mesmerizes you?

More than just the mountainous splendor, I’m fascinated by the Himalayas’ amazing role in culture of the entire region. The people of the Himalayas, in Nepal, India and Pakistan, fascinate me with their myriad cultures, resilience and generosity to outsiders (for the most part). And as an environmentalist, I treasure these amazing mountains and their often neglected role in maintaining the water supply, climate and much else for the whole region.

How do you see the trend of reckless ‘breaking news’ journalism in the region, especially India?

I’m not going to comment on something I have not seen for at least a year now. Breaking news in general is an essential part of our trade but the currency can be cheapened with overuse, whether in India or anywhere else.

Have you ever reported on stories form Northeast India?

Not nearly enough. I’ve travelled a little in Assam and Meghalaya and plan to rectify this one day with an extended reporting trip to the area.

How would you analyze BBC’s reporting of the South Asian region? Do you think that the international media has been successful in churning out the real people’s stories from the region?

Historically the BBC has produced some of the best journalism from South Asia. It still does. But there is much more competition. I do think the international media finds the stories of ‘real people’ compelling and necessary and praise in particular the Los Angeles Times, the New York Times, the Independent, the Guardian and of course, dear old BBC. Al Jazeera, my current employers, are pretty good too.

You have reported from more than 30 countries. How do you manage to settle down and understand the socio-political dynamics in a new country?

I think I answered this earlier.

Please name one country you would like to go back again and again. And why?

Nepal. Because my partner, Manjushree Thapa is from there, and I love the mountains, as well as some aspects of Kathmandu.

Please tell us about the books you had written about the region.

Mantras of Change, published in 2004, was a reporter’s book that many of us have done. We dig out our notebooks and use some of the material we’ve collected in years of work that may not have made the cut with our employers. It’s also an affectionate and occasionally funny book that attempts to show how some aspects of India are grappling with change.

India Express, from 2007, was a more serious book about change in India although I also tried to use first person narratives and anecdotes to avoid becoming too dry. I think the book works well but the topic is so dynamic, so prone to change, that updates are constantly required. Luckily those are being done by others as I’m hoping to write fiction from here on in.


Do you have any tips for the new-generation journalists? Do you believe that certain cardinal rules and old-fashioned values of journalism will never be out of style?

Truth, accuracy, credibility, not taking sides but always remembers your duty to the powerless over the powerful. “Afflict the comfortable and comfort the afflicted”, is my favorite way of summing this up.

Do you think the media today is obsessed with trivia?

Some media always have been and yes, there may be a bit too much of it around these days but newspapers and TV news have to compete for people’s attention with the internet and that’s tough. Luckily there are many who eschew trivial approaches and keep on doing great journalism.