“I Am More Likely To Be Successful Pitching A 'Shah Rukh Khan Takes Jakarta By Storm'”


Life as a foreign correspondent can be tough. And it can be lonely particularly when you are just about the sole representative from your country. And it does not help when barely anyone at home seems to care much for your dispatches.

In a recent article, published in the Granta Magazine, journalist and author Pallavi Aiyar writes about her life as a foreign correspondent in several places, including Beijing, where she was one of two Indian journalists posted.

The other, she says, was an older gentleman, working for a wire service, who did not learn a word of Chinese despite spending a decade in the country and mostly stayed within his apartment. Notably, there were only two Indian journalists in China reporting the emergence of the great ‘Chindia’ phenomenon, writes Aiyar who is know based out of Jakarta.

Moreover, she writes that the measly presence came at a time when Indian dailies were flush with funds. And yet, on the other hand, viewing developments through her Indian lens gave her a unique perspective, different and far more adaptive than the western correspondents who of course were there in large numbers, hundreds to be specific.

India evidently needs to have its own eyes and ears elsewhere in the world, at least in important capitals.

Boom Live caught up with Aiyar to ask her how she would change things for Indian audiences if she had a chance and why.

Indians learn about other parts of the world via a western lens that distorts (often unwittingly) events and phenomena to a rich country perspective.

Boom: You have written/talked about how under-represented India is in major countries. Why do you think this is so?

Aiyar: It’s a concatenation of factors. In part it’s the cost involved. Posting a foreign correspondent is an expensive proposition and even western media outfits have been closing foreign bureaus for cost-cutting reasons, in recent years. But the financial aspect is only part of the explanation. In India, foreign stories face formidable competition from a vast, renewable store of pressing domestic news. European treaties and Indonesian elections have to compete with communal riots, rapes, massive corruption scandals, a steady stream of local elections, and so on. Moreover, India’s role on the global stage is still relatively limited, which make international events of less immediate relevance to the domestic audience.

Boom: What is India losing out because of our under reporting/presence in countries like China?

Aiyar: Indians learn about other parts of the world via a western lens that distorts (often unwittingly) events/phenomena to a rich country perspective. For example, Beijing’s traffic tends to be remarked on as extremely chaotic by westerners, but extremely orderly by Indians. A western journalist might be shocked at the corruption uncovered when a senior government official in China is arrested for graft.

An Indian journalist is more likely to be shocked at the arrest, rather than the corruption, given our norm of the impunity of the powerful. In Europe, we read much about the hardships that austerity measures are causing in countries like Greece and Italy but little about how even post-austerity Europe’s labour force remains amongst the world’s most privileged. European angst can smack of self-regarding insularity from an Indian point of view. The low priority that Indian media houses give to original reporting from abroad only perpetuates a global pathology whereby the world learns about itself largely through the collection, classification and distribution of the observation of western journalists.

There is also a constant fight to get editors in India interested in even big stories, unless there is an India angle involved. I am much more likely to be successful in pitching a “Shah Rukh Khan takes Jakarta by storm” piece than something to do with the current tussle between Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission and the newly appointed chief of police.

Boom: What are the major frustrations (and the manifestations of those) of being the lone soul despite knowing that you are writing for a potentially much larger audience than most others?

Aiyar: Frustrations include the lack of camaraderie, contact/experience sharing and lobbying-power that reporters from countries with more sizable contingents of foreign correspondents have.

There is also a constant fight to get editors in India interested in even big stories, unless there is an India angle involved. I am much more likely to be successful in pitching a “Shah Rukh Khan takes Jakarta by storm” piece than something to do with the current tussle between Indonesia’s anti-corruption commission and the newly appointed chief of police.

On the other hand, being the “lone soul” also means that you are charting virgin news territory and have privileged first-dibs at any major story in the region that you cover. You can become the Indian “expert” on a country quite easily, since you are most often the only Indian reporter on the ground.

Boom: Do you recall occasions where you've actually been at an advantage because you were reporting for an Indian newspaper?

Aiyar: When you are the only Indian journalist in a foreign country and representatives of that country wants to reach an Indian audience - guess who they will call? As India’s engagement with the rest of the world has grown there is often an interest that governments and corporations have in speaking with Indian journalists. What they complain about is that so few ever contact them.

I also think that a non-western perspective is appreciated. In China, although I was often critical of what I observed, many Chinese officials expressed in private that they believed my reporting to be less “ideologically motivated” than that of my western colleagues.

While I don’t believe western foreign correspondents consciously distort facts on ideological grounds, there is often a tangible difference in our interests, as well as in our interpretation of what we see. For example, they tend towards an automatic ascription of all China’s ills to the authoritarian nature of its political system. But coming from a democracy I am uncomfortably aware of how little this has translated into better governance or less corruption. From the impunity of the powerful and the patchy application of the rule of law, to environmental destruction and yawning income inequalities, India’s problems match, or are worse, than China’s.

Western correspondents in Beijing tended to see their primary role as holding the Chinese authorities to account. I saw my work in China as a way of holding a mirror up to the Indian government; as a provocation to thought and action about our own tussles with modernity and globalization.

Boom: In your current stint in Indonesia, what are the parallels that you see and what are the kinds of issues that Indian readers could benefit from were they to be exposed to more sustained coverage?

Aiyar: Indonesia is India’s doppelganger. It is our civilizational sibling and democratic neighbour. The only country I can think of that is as eclectic, unruly, and “tolerant” as India; as sprawling, complex, and implausible as India, and yet so rarely hyphenated with it, even as India and China have been squashed into the ungainly portmanteau of Chindia. Comparing India and China is like likening apples to oranges; of limited benefit given how far apart they are on most parameters of development, their systems of government, their societal values, their historical experiences and so on.

Indonesia, in contrast, is neck-to-neck with India on most social indicators and governance parameters from infrastructure, to sanitation. A list of the most fundamental challenges confronting Indonesia today, could just as well be India’s list: cleaning up politics and public life, harnessing the nation’s demographic dividend to productive use, fixing creaking infrastructure, maintaining nationalist ideals of respecting religious freedoms, and trying to find the right power-sharing equation between the centre and provinces.

Boom: Your favourite 'Indian' reporting anecdote?

Aiyar: How about my least favourite? This involved being asked by an Indian trader I was interviewing in China, what it was that I was doing in Beijing. When I replied that I was a journalist (something I thought was evident from the fact that I was interviewing him), he’d smiled benignly and asked, “But beta, what are you really doing here?” And so it went until the underlying anxiety of this line of interrogation came to the fore.

“Where is your Mr? And your Papa?” That a young woman could be in China pursuing a career in much the same manner as he was, was so outside of this gentleman’s experience that until I’d established a male relative to whom I was anchored, he’d clung to his “But what are you doing here?” question with terrier tenacity. When I’d finally given in and revealed that my husband worked in Beijing too, the trader had visibly relaxed and switched to Hindi, “To aisai kaho na, beti! (So say that no!)”

In the years I spent travelling to, and reporting from, remote villages across China, I was asked what I did for a profession, and also about how much I earned, by many Chinese. But it was only the odd Indian I encountered who seemed to have an ontological objection to my existence in the country.

Boom: If you were an Editor with resources for a large Indian mainstream daily, what are the kinds of resources you will devote in terms of people and in which places? Let's say 5 foreign capitals?

Aiyar: I would find a single, creative, culturally fluid writer who speaks, or is willing to learn to speak, the language of the country she is posted to. I would support her with travel expenses, since the most interesting stories often need a reporter to move beyond a capital city. I would also pay for a local assistant/fixer to help her navigate bureaucracy, translate local media stories and assist in identifying potential interviewees. I would ensure she has all the proper credentials needed to report from a country – tax registration, residency permits, journalistic accreditation etc.

Five foreign capitals: Washington DC, Beijing, Jakarta, Nairobi, Istanbul (not a capital city but I hope you let that slide!). Honourable mentions: Moscow, Berlin and Hanoi.

Boom: And your dream international reporting assignment?

Aiyar: Nothing too deadline-driven. No wars or physically dangerous areas. In fact, I think covering Indonesia is a dream assignment. It is such a dynamic, plural and politically alive place with such relevance to India. The only problem is that I can’t interest anyone in India to hire me for the job!

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