Book Review by Nabina Das
Title: Bulletproof: A Journalist’s Notebook on Reporting Conflict
Author: Teresa Rehman
Publisher: Penguin Random House India, 2019
Conflict journalism is a term that evokes certain hard-hitting images in the head. These are mostly to do with the news coverage of militaristic activities, hyper-masculine behavior and code of conduct, and a breakdown of order in a state or society. And the immediate corollary that follows is that a male journalist must be at the helms writing about wars and skirmishes across countries and continents, an extraordinary brave and exclusive act. This nearly is a post-colonial post-truth — if one may use such jargon — even in the 21st century. The first thing that comes in the reader’s mind after reading Teresa Rehman’s Bulletproof is the sense of foreboding laced with hope and empathy. Unlike a lot of war or conflict journalists we have known and read, she shuns frills or any show of sensationalism. More than conflict, her focus is peace.
An award-winning journalist specializing in combat reporting from the Northeast and Kashmir, Rehman recounts in this book her dangerous forays in a matter of fact tone. The chapters are each devoted to major assignments she undertook as a fulltime journalist. The book starts with the meeting with Th. Muivah, the vastly charismatic leader of Naga liberation, chief of the Nationalist Socialist Council of Nagaland (Isak-Muivah). It’s a fascinating account full of details one doesn’t see in run-of-the-mill reports on Naga insurgency from especially mainland India. Here one sees Muivah not simply as a militant Naga leader, but as a human being with a sense of humor, and “Uncle” to his followers.
With most accounts of conflict journalism being a male bastion that is also loud and demonstrative, Rehman writes in a remarkably balanced voice sans any overt dramatization. As a woman writing about experiences that normally would have any seasoned journalist all warped and twisted, her accounts flow with grace and human consideration. The reader also gets glimpses of places like Dimapur, its dingy hotels, the alleyways, and even of the accompanying driver or attendant (who apparently had no clue why Rehman was visiting Nagaland).
The touch of humor she injects here and there in the text also helps the reader see beyond just the insipid or startling headlines:
Curious, I had asked Shadang, ‘What did Mr Muivah say?’
He burst out laughing. ‘Uncle Muivah said, “This reporter is very cunning.”‘
And I was thrilled! Quite possibly this was the best compliment I ever received as a journalist — cunning!
The reader is taken through an excellent setting describing the ambiance at the Gauhati Medical College Hospital (GMCH) — it’s antiseptic stench, sultry corridors, and then of course the mercurial and alert top leaders of the United Liberation Front of Assam (ULFA) leaders who had gathered at GMCH “for their routine medical check-up“. The many strands of stories within the larger story where Rehman tries interviewing the ULFA heads make it a refreshing read.
Rehman’s easy-going style takes us through her successive breathtaking encounters, for example, with the Enigma Force of the dreaded ULFA. She draws with ease a canvas containing no thriller-like narrative. The men of ‘enigma’ are only a kind of marginalized people in a state where no star-status has been accorded to them despite the fact that they had operated as key members of a ‘demolition squad’.
Whether it is “Diamond’s Diary” where she presents portions from the ULFA lieutenant Hira Sarania’s journal while operating in Bhutan, the ordinary human side of Sila or “The Sniper” associated with the dreaded National Democratic Front of Bodoland (NDFB), or the boyish tea garden recruit Rituraj Murmu in “Mission Cobra” donning his pop-style T-shirt and fancy jeans, Rehman makes sure that the conflict reporting narrative — each chapter written in essay style — is not for one moment separated from the humane aspect. After all, these militants were only a cog in the wheel of a giant corrupt and inequal system.
It’s heartening to note that Rehman’s Bulletproof outlines the condition of women in this wilderness of human follies and violently tragic events — how they live, eat, clean and cook and simply wait despite being a part of ‘revolutionary’ outfits — as cadres, and as wives or family of cadres and leaders. More than conflict and its continuation, her women seem inclined to what all humans ought to — a life of peace. In fact, the major players she cites throughout her chapters in this fraught geography of the Northeast all turn out to be people trying to come to terms with their existential crises. At the same time, juxtaposing the account of Malati Rani Narzary to the aforementioned ones, Rehman takes us to a world where empowerment replaces militancy as the buzzword. Here, women create and seal their own destiny with the help of Narzary’s NGO that encourages Bodo women to weave their traditional dokhona (Bodo traditional dress), thus escaping the uncertainty spun by violence and conflict. Weaving life forward is the message one wants to read in this tiny tale of Roje Eshansoli (literally, ‘beloved weaving’).
Certainly, there’s more to just combat and loss in this book when one reads in the statement of Holiram Patgiri, the activist brother of an accused ‘poacher’: “Can you believe it? We are citizens of an independent country…” This is an important book Rehman has written which should forward the cause of peace as a bulletproof condition more than any conflict.
Nabina Das is a poet and writer based in Hyderabad, India. Her poetry collections are Sanskarnama, Into the Migrant City, and Blue Vessel. Her first novel is Footprints in the Bajra and her short fiction volume is titled The House of Twining Roses. A Sahapedia-UNESCO fellow, a Commonwealth Writers feature correspondent, a Charles Wallace creative writing fellow and a Sangam House fiction fellow, Nabina teaches Creative Writing in classrooms and workshops.
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