Rehan Ansari, a globetrotting Pakistani writer and editor, worked in a major Indian newspaper as the Foreign Editor for three years and translated Paksitani cultural experiences for Indians and Indian experiences for the world. At the moment, he is writing a book on his experience of working in Mumbai, a cosmopolitan rather than a nationalistic city. The News on Sunday caught up with him in Lahore as he was on his way to Toronto to complete the memoir.
The News on Sunday: What led to your joining DNA as a Foreign Editor?
Rehan Ansari: I grew up in Karachi and I have lived and worked in Lahore, Toronto and New York. I have long known in my bones that Mumbai is the first city of media in this region. If someone from Toronto can take up a job in Los Angeles, why should someone living in Lahore not accept a job offer in Mumbai. That means I was mentally prepared for a job in media in Mumbai, even though I did not know exactly what that would be. But there are gigs that led to the job. While living in Lahore I was a columnist for Mid-day Mumbai for three years. Earlier, I also used to go to MIFF (Mumbai International Film Festival) to make contacts. This was made possible by Sajjad Gul, a media baron in Lahore, who wanted to establish a video production house in Lahore and we were thinking of inviting people from Mumbai to train Pakistani film editors, camera people and so on.
TNS: Was the experience of settling in your workplace in Mumbai easy?
RA: In Indian media, as everywhere else in media, all editors know each other, and if they come to a newspaper they bring some people with them. My Mid-day column was my calling card, but I was not known to anyone in any other capacity. The owners of DNA wanted what I offered, which was experience of being a journalist in New York and Pakistan. I also realised that people in the newsroom had moved from all over India and so for many Mumbai was more unknown to them than to me. I had been visiting Mumbai and the offices of Mid-day for several years.
I had already lived in several cities without knowing many people at the time of arrival. I had moved from Karachi to Vassar College in the USA in 1987 to do my bachelors. While I was pursuing my liberal arts degree, my parents decided to migrate to Canada and I became a Canadian citizen with them. Then, in 1991, I moved to Pakistan to work in Lahore, a city where I had not been to school or college. In subsequent years I have lived in Toronto and New York and started from scratch.
I moved to Pakistan to be a writer and then was attracted to Delhi and Mumbai because something about the eurocentrism of the western academy in the late 1980s and early 90s bothered me. Like so many young people interested in cultural studies I was introduced to Spivak, Homi Bhabha, Edward Said and Aijaz Ahmed but somehow I did not feel comfortable with staying out of South Asia and working through the maze of postcolonial cultural studies. So I came back to India. Interestingly, my biological roots had moved to Canada by then. In 1991, I came to Lahore without knowing anybody and started working for The Frontier Post. So all these experiences of voluntary displacement had prepared me for Mumbai.
TNS: What was your role as the Foreign Editor at DNA?
RA: I had several roles. One of them was to cover foreign relations but also in edit meeting to talk in particular about trends in the west that would be of interest to an Indian audience. It is interesting that a major newspaper was willing to have me in that role. Another role was to translate Pakistan for the Indian audience. DNA was the first Indian newspaper which spotted and reported the anti-Musharraf sentiment in Pakistan. It is the first Indian newspaper to have a full time correspondent in Pakistan who is Pakistani.
TNS: While you were there, did you ever feel that people were trying to fit you according to their stereotypical models of a Pakistani?
RA: First of all anyone can google my name and more than a decade worth of columns, journalism and other writing comes up. And, perhaps for this reason, people almost always did not say simplistic or essentialist things to me. I was often invited as the Foreign Editor of DNA to all kinds of media panels. Another important factor was that I was working for a self-proclaimed cosmopolitan newspaper. Even the name DNA (Daily News and Analysis) had no nationalistic baggage. It was not The Times of India or The Hindustan Times. And everyday 260,000 copies were sold in Mumbai alone. DNA refused to take sides in narrow identity politics. If I had an argument with my Editor-in-Chief it was about issues like civil liberties versus policing (in relation to the so-called war on terror). But this was not a nationalistic argument. It was about global concerns.
TNS: What is your view of the usual India-Pakistan bickering?
RA: When I joined a Mumbai newspaper, I was thinking it may be possible to care about both countries without thinking 'either this or that.'
TNS: Let's talk about your work-in-progress. What is the idea behind it?
RA: I am writing a memoir that includes my time working in Mumbai, as a Foreign Editor of DNA. I have written some chapters. I have spent some years thinking what it means to be 'Indian' and to be 'Pakistani,' and looking at how many people use the terms. I think my experience is a bit of an experiment in looking at a third way of feeling and acting. Not strictly Indian, nor Pakistani but being in India and Pakistan.
Published in The News on Sunday
March 15, 2009