An unfinished reading of Anita Pratap


anita.gif (22122 bytes)
Anita Pratap

After waiting for several months to get an interview with him, after watching several video documentaries about the LTTE and its leader, when Anita Pratap finally met Prabhakaran face to face, she had been disappointed. In real life, he didn’t seem to be the idealistic macho man (romantic and revolutionary) that came across in the video. He had appeared not as the powerful, confident, camouflage-uniformed guerrilla leader in the video, but as short, stocky and ordinary, indistinguishable from a million other Tamil men. In fact he might have been just another businessman or government employee. Still, after the interview was done, she had realised that he was one of the most remarkable men she had met and was ever likely to meet.

This is how Anita Pratap describes her first impressions of the intransigent and most ruthless terrorist this country has ever known in her book "Island of Blood" which consists of stories gathered, digested and written about "from Sri Lanka, Afghanistan and other South Asian flashpoints". The flap of the dust cover gives the following blurb about this journalist: "Anita Pratap has worked for leading Indian and American newspapers and magazines, including Sunday, Indian Express, India Today and Time. Until 1999, she was the New Delhi Bureau Chief for CNN, reporting news from South Asia. She has won several Indian and international media awards... She is currently freelancing, making television documentary films and writing columns for magazines".

When I interviewed her at the Galle Face Hotel where she was staying during her recent visit to Sri Lanka to launch her book, I believe I felt a little like how she felt when she first met Prabhakaran. She was easy going and pleasant. Her demeanour and the way she responded to my questions did not for a moment betray her considerable status as a celebrated journalist. Maybe that’s always the case with high profiled individuals. They are less than the image portrayed. First glances can never reveal the extraordinary and/or vile character of a given individual. Conversations reveal. So do statements. I talked with Anita Pratap. I can write down what she said and my impressions of the woman. I purchased the book a few hours ago. I glanced through it. I will reserve comment until I do a full read.

She describes Sri Lanka as part of her destiny. It was actually in 1981 that she first wrote about this country which she has since visited many times and written countless articles about (and now a book too, one should add!). This was when the Jaffna Library was burnt down. "During my first visits I got the impression that the Sinhalese were anti-Tamil and therefore I was not optimistic about solutions. By the end of the eighties, Sri Lanka had suffered so much and the Sinhalese felt things have to change. So I felt there was a chance. You have such a beautiful country with abundant resources, very talented people, excellent social indicators, and you have gone and screwed things up. Both sides have to show wisdom and generosity, if there’s to be a solution. Civil society should be active and aggressive. They have to get governments to deliver on the economy and on peace."

I put it to her that if you ask anyone if he/she is for war and peace, the chances are that 99 times out of 100, the answer would be "peace"; arguing that it is easy to talk about peace in an abstract sense, but we cannot forget that it is as political as "war", and that it is proposed and executed in an expressly political context, that it involves concrete political things. She agreed. "I only propose peace because I have seen and been too close to too much suffering. I have described this in my book."

"Prabhakaran and the LTTE has gone on record to say that all peace proposals, cease-fires, negotiations, etc., are viewed through a military frame," I offered. She did not disagree. I asked her if her impressions of the man had changed since 1983 which was when she first met him. "He had tremendous foresight, clarity of mind, was sharp, and totally devoted to his cause. These things haven’t changed. From the first meeting I knew this is the man to watch out for." She admitted that neither had his ruthlessness undergone any transformation over the years.

She insisted that in her professional life she has always attempted "impartial" inquiry. "During the Indo-Lanka Accord, I was in constant touch with Lalith Athulathmudali, J. N. Dixit and Prabhakaran. They all knew this and still were prepared to say things ‘off the record’. This is because they trusted my professionalism; they knew I wouldn’t pass along to anyone else that which was said in confidence." Her investigative exploits and descriptions of the human condition as it revealed itself to her in her travels are probably all laid out eloquently in her book.

I asked her about how she got interested in journalism. "I never wanted to be a journalist. I just wanted to write. I studied English Literature in university and after I graduated I wanted to take up a job which would allow me to write. So I joined a newspaper. I worked in several newspapers until I joined CNN. I loved reporting. It is tailor-made for my personality, for I am very curious by nature. The unpredictability is fascinating. It is like having a ring-side seat to history.

"I need change every three years or so, so I wanted to go international," she said, explaining why she joined Time. "It was a tremendous challenge to compete internationally. Also, there was little space. You can’t take the knowledge of Time’s readership for granted. It is difficult to break the barriers of ignorance and disinterest and also do this in a smaller amount of space. So my writing improved. I had to do homework."

Clearly a job which involves taking off to the strangest of places at a moment’s notice necessarily causes tension in the household. "The family is always supportive to begin with, but if after some times things can become very bad," she said referring to her first marriage. She talked with the typical pride of a mother shining in her eyes about her son Zubin, who is now a law student at the National Law School in Bangalore, "a school modelled on Harvard and where entrance cannot be manipulated".

"I live ‘today’ to the full. I’ve lived enough at the cutting edge to know that it can all end in a moment. So I have learned to appreciate normalcy and relationships. The few people that are close to me provide all my inner strength."

Perhaps it is something restless about her nature that makes her change jobs. Two years ago she had quit CNN and devoted to write this book for Penguin. "It has been described as an ‘Instant Best Seller’. Perhaps it is because of the timing (it came out on October 3rd, just a few weeks after the attack on New York and the Pentagon), but it went into its second print in six days, which is unheard of."

She is due to begin work on her second book for Penguin next month. It will take her all over village-India. "It is not a fictional book. I am not into fiction, reality is dramatic enough."

Right at the beginning of our meeting, I asked Anita how it felt to be interviewed for a change. "Very strange. For I am usually sitting where you are sitting. I am dying to ask questions of my own!" During the course of the interview, she did. I have no doubt that she had reservations about the opinions I expressed. Still, she continuously maintained good humour and never betrayed any agitation. I do not believe Anita Pratap is a being apart from the rest of us. She too is a political animal. She has built a reputation as a "journalist". Such a reputation can be constructed only through a deliberate cultivation of "neutrality". This makes her effective politically. I believe she knows this very well. Maybe her book will reveal her better.