Mission accomplished

FRUIT OF LABOUR Andrew Whitehead believes the stories of everyday people are the most powerful

FRUIT OF LABOUR Andrew Whitehead believes the stories of everyday people are the most powerful   | Photo Credit: Photo: Sandeep Saxena

Seasoned writer Andrew Whitehead feels talking to people brings out the best stories

I had never met Tom Dykes before. You meet a man once, share a coffee with him. Take out a microphone, and then ask him how his parents died. It is intrusive. But… that day Tom recounted stories, which he hadn’t previously shared with his family. He was only five when his parents died. But he remembered images. He remembers hiding behind a door and the door being broken down. He remembers his brother sitting near a pile of bodies.”

Mission Kashmir

It is memories like these, with which Andrew Whitehead weaves a deft account of Kashmir. A BBC journalist for over 25 years, Whitehead’s A Mission in Kashmir adroitly combines history with reportage. This Penguin Viking publication is the cumulative research of Whitehead’s years of reporting, but more importantly, it is one man’s effort to retrieve stories before they die. Striving to outlast the fickleness of memory, a sense of urgency is rendered to his work.

This social historian first reported from Kashmir in 1993 for the BBC. But the idea of making it into a book flashed around three years ago. A chance encounter with Sister Emilia in Baramulla led him to see the link between personal tragedy and the genesis of internecine rivalries. A journalist to the core, what Whitehead found most challenging was “trying to find a voice”. Relaxed yet attentive, he says, “I had to find a voice which did not have too much first person in it, but which did not deny my presence completely.” To attain the balance, his wife, also a journalist, read and re-read the drafts “more times than anyone ever should”!

His foundation and training as a BBC journalist, he asserts, has kept him clear of biases and partialities. “It’s not the job of a journalist to blame,” he explains, “I’ve tried to tell a complex story. Kashmir is not that simple. It doesn’t fit into easy slogans. When there is a resolution, it will have to be a complex one.”

If the principles of journalism have made him fair, its practise has made him thorough. To locate the Dykes brothers he sent a letter to every Dykes in the Edinburgh phonebook. For a five-part radio programme on BBC World Service Radio, on voices of Partition, he did around 90 interviews, across India, Pakistan and Bangladesh. Each interview might have been 40 minutes long, when only 40 seconds of it would have been broadcast.

For Whitehead, the stories of everyday people are the most powerful. He distances himself from the tag of a “subaltern writer”. Instead, he believes, an event can be understood only through the narrations of those in power added to the memory bank of people.

It is people’s memories that have struck him like a thunderbolt. He recounts interviewing a friend’s mother who had worked as a medical social worker during Partition. She told him how they met the trains.

How they tried to get to the women, before the brothels reached them. She recounted the wounds, the teeth-marks. She told him, with fresh anger, “How the ordinary husbands would take their wives back. But the educated ones would not.”

Whitehead will be using such stories in his next book on the voices of Partition. But he screens all stories critically. “People don’t lie,” he explains, “but they mis-remember. They confuse what they’ve experienced with what they’ve heard around.” Back in London with BBC World Service Radio, Whitehead is now enjoying his new administrative and editorial responsibilities. But he confesses, “Sometimes, I get withdrawal pangs and do miss reporting!”NANDINI NAIR

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