July 05, 2020
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Burning Ambition

John F. Burns, NYT's man in New Delhi, already has tow Pulitzers, and is looking for his third in India.

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Burning Ambition

MORE than three decades ago a young John F Burns approached the news-editor of an Ottawa daily and asked him for a job as a reporter. The summer jobs he listed on his curriculum vitae included tree-cutting and private construction. "Have you done any writing at all?" the news-editor asked him. "No," answered Burns. The news-editor called his editor to share the oddity that Burns seemed to represent. The editor took one look at Burns and said: "Well, let's give him a week's trial without presumption."

Burns survived that trial, graduating from local to national and then to international reporting. Posted for the last three years in New Delhi as the New York Times correspondent in South Asia, Burns shot into the news last fortnight when he won the Pulitzer prize once again--his second in five years--for excellent reports from Afghanistan during the early days of the Taliban rule.

The first story he filed--datelined September 29, '96, Islamabad--described how even Pakistan, the main supporter of Taliban, was shaken by the student militia's brutality. On October 3, Burns reported the suppression of women's rights as Taliban fighters beat up women whose ankles showed below their obligatory head-to-foot shrouds. On October 6, he detailed the exodus of the middle-class from Kabul in a poetic and chilling tone: "Their destination has been a stretch of broken ground lighted only by the glow from a crescent moon. There, flanked by miles of rubble that is all that is left of much of Kabul, doctors, lawyers, and engineers and their fearful families wait for daylight and the minibuses that go east across the mountains to Jalalabad...

His most riveting story, however, was from Kandahar about the stoning of a couple caught committing adultery. Drawn from interviews with the local religious police, witnesses and family members, Burns detailed the Taliban's stringent adherence to Islamic law. Over the next few weeks he crisscrossed Afghanistan, reaching Sar Cheshma to piece together the razing of that village by Taliban forces infuriated over its being used as a rival base. The article evoked haunting images: of a devout Muslim carrying the ashes of his family's burnt Koran; of the bloody shroud of a woman killed with her sons in a rocket attack; of a man sifting through charred remains for scraps of usable grain.

For Burns, used to covering the harsh realities of war-he was in the field during the siege of Sarajevo by the Serbs and the Gulf war--it was imperative not to take the Taliban at its word, an inclination he thinks other reporters had. Says he: "I'd been in situations like that before. Regimes driven by a kind of ideology that had answers to everything and, of course, a total monopoly of power." It was in China, however, that Burns learnt not to trust government spokesmen. Says Burns: "An editor advised me that since I was really an outsider I shouldn't make too much of an effort to sync in as 1 would still remain an outsider. That was the worst advice I ever got. I would just report the government side of things. In nasty places there is always a conspiracy to conceal the central reality. I missed the real patterns. " Eighteen months into the job, Burns met a garage mechanic in the Canadian embassy who told him on his face: "So you're the guy who writes all that rubbish. This place is one big goddamn prison camp.

If that encounter changed Burns' reporting sensibilities, his report 1,000 Ways the Chinese Have of Lying caught the fancy of the NYT editor, and he soon made the switch. If Afghanistan was the kind of story that wrote itself, India for Burns presents a more enduring challenge. Says he: "The real coup would be to pull a Pulitzer out of reporting in India. You nearly never get page one but the insides." But in the same breath he dismisses the Pulitzer by seeing "a certain amount of nonsense to that". "I can make up two football teams of fellow journalists who deserve the Pulitzer as much," he says.

Among the challenges of reporting from India, the greatest he finds is that of sifting the "fair voice out of the babble of emerging voices". The India he sees has no dearth of information and an incredible array of stories on offer. His own favourite of the many he has done so far is the AIDS story he reported from Calcutta. He calls the AIDS ward at the Calcutta Medical College, the oldest in Asia, one of the most depressing places he has been to. In the course of his reporting in one of Calcutta's red light areas he chanced upon a sex worker whom he calls one of the most decent, compassionate ladies he had ever met. "That encounter made me realise that what went on out there was not evil," he says. He also commends the way the IAS handled relief operations after the Andhra cyclone last year. Says he: "I've never seen a disaster relief operation handled better. The administration, for a change, was not the barrier it usually is." What Burns likes best about his job in India is the easy accessibility to information Indian dailies provide. Says he: "'They do a great job of mining out the truth. The reporters are not paid well or classically educated for the profession they follow, but they are good at not letting many things remain hidden from the readers.

What did remain hidden from Burns till he met his editor was the news of his second Pulitzer. While in New York for a medical check-up and for receiving the George Polk award for foreign reporting, including Afghanistan, his editor Joseph Lulyveld beeped him a luncheon invite at his residence. He greeted Burns at the door with a "you have done it again". An hour before going out for dinner with his editor on the night the United Front government in India fell, Lulyveld told him to file 2,000 words. "You must be joking!" Burns exclaimed. But Lulyveld wasn't.

Meeting such deadlines has been part of Burns' job profile for nearly three decades now and most of it in alien environments. Burns does not list knowledge of the local language among the top five abilities a correspondent must possess when reporting from abroad. Before that he puts some plain Christian virtues-willingness to learn, openness, curiosity, energy and the spirit of goodwill. He also has an aversion to the post-Watergate ethos (called the 'gotcha' journalism in England) prevailing in the field. Says Burns: "I feel very uncomfortable with journalists who feel glad at having nailed somebody. We're not and shouldn't be prosecutors. Whatever we do haste be tempered with restraint.

WHILE that ethos puts Burns in the older generation of journalists, his own battle with cancer gives us deeper insights into the man. Ignoring a badly-swollen ankle in Baghdad during the Gulf war, Burns returned home only to face the grim diagnosis that he had cancer. "No amount of intelligence prepares us for these situations," he says. Resigned to spending his last few days on the beach listening to music, he found in Jane Scott Long a wife full of faith in his recovery. Subsequently, he attached himself to her faith and the cancer went into regress.

Realising that reporting would be the best therapy for him, Lulyveld sent Burns to Bosnia. Says he: "I didn't feel fixed. I had great doubts I could do the job. I couldn't even walk to the corner drugstore." But 24 hours into the job, mingling with Serbian thugs who were pounding shells on Sarajevo, he made a miraculous discovery. So engrossed had he been in his job, he failed to notice that his pain had disappeared. "The pain left me never to return. I realised that day how true this mind-body connection thing is."

Sarajevo also gave him insights into human character in crisis situations. Facing a barrage of 10,000 shells a day he witnessed many unreported acts of heroism. "Shells fall in a pattern. And if one falls in a busy square you can be sure that half-a-dozen would be falling in the same area. Yet, people who weren't injured with the bursting of that first shell wouldn't try to get out of the area. They would stay, helping the wounded."

His three years in India haven't given him a single unpleasant memory. "if I've to describe India in a single word I'd use 'amiable'." So enamoured is he of the country that he wants to continue here forever. Says he: "People don't get mad here. In traffic jams or anything. Maybe, if they got mad a bit more they would be able to rectify a lot of things. Rut I guess that wouldn't be India anymore. People are so tolerant here." He feels exasperated when westerners ask him questions like 'will democracy survive in India?'. Says Burns: "That's a stupid question. The question they should be asking is how effective the democratic system is going to be. I can't see this place as anything but democratic. If there are two countries that can survive very bad governments, they are the US and India."

The one moment Burns cherishes most from India is the vision of people moving through the mist on a tea estate in Kerala during elections last year. Says he: "It was morning. They were all dressed up and going out to vote. And I suddenly realised that as long as they had this power to throw out governments there was hope for them. Deny them that right and there's almost nothing they can do.

Burns filed a story based on that vision. He thought his paper back home might consider it naive. They didn't. Neither should we.

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