Highly recommended book - Aboard the Democracy Train By Nafisa Hoodbhoy

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Pakistan through a journalist’s lens
Reviewed by Zubeida Mustafa, Dawn, June 26, 2011

Aboard the Democracy Train: A Journey through Pakistan’s Last Decade of Democracy
By Nafisa Hoodbhoy, Anthem Press, London

Aboard the Democracy Train — a title borrowed from Benazir Bhutto’s campaign by train for the 1988 election — is an account of politics in Pakistan through the experiences of a female reporter, Nafisa Hoodbhoy, working in a predominantly male environment. As a Dawn staffer from 1984 to 2000, she had access to people and places which gave her a ringside view of politics in Pakistan. It goes to her credit that she put her knowledge to good use. What has emerged is a remarkably readable and anecdotal account of events in Pakistan.

For the author’s contemporaries, the book is a journey down memory lane. By skilfully weaving in the story of her own life in journalism — the society she grew up in, her westernised upbringing in an elite and privileged family, her English medium school education and her disconnect from her Sindhi linguistic antecedents — Hoodbhoy provides an excellent perspective to a foreign reader of life in Pakistan when, in spite of many dichotomies and contradictions, people co-existed in relative harmony.

Hoodbhoy puts forth her opinion on why Pakistan failed to develop as a stable democracy: “the over-indulged state had, since the creation of the nation, taught political leaders one simple lesson: when they fell out with the military, they could be shaken down like dates from a palm tree.” The period covered in the book was a unique era of transition from press controls to relative freedom that came with the abolition of the hated Press and Publications Ordinance.

Those too were not easy times for journalists who faced the hazards of physical violence. The focus shifted from institutional control to a system that tried to keep individuals on leash. Hoodbhoy gives a thrilling account of how she narrowly missed being attacked twice when her reporting angered the wrong people. On one occasion she had to leave Karachi for a few weeks to allow tempers to cool. In the section “News is what the rulers want to hide” she gives a graphic account of the intimidation of the press and its members.

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