Skip to main content

BOOK REVIEW: Witness to Life and Freedom: Margaret Bourke-White in India and Pakistan

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Reviewed by: Afrah Jamal
Author: Pramod Kapoor

Published in Daily Times / 12 March 2011

Margaret Bourke-White came to India to “bear witness to the fall of the British Empire”. Partition was still a year away and her lens, set aglow from its dying embers was trained towards the brewing conflagration that was to set the region ablaze. Margaret, who has been called the “finest woman photographer of her time”, was commissioned by LIFE magazine to cover the “exchange of population”.

Pramod Kapoor, founder/publisher Roli Books, came across a selection of historically significant photographs taken by Margaret in Pakistan and India and decided to weave them into a fresh narrative. Witness to Life and Freedom reopens an old chapter adding facets of the freedom struggle seen from a unique vantage point. These, together with previously unpublished images taken over two years (1946-1948), chronicling the death and destruction left in the wake of partition amplify distant shockwaves from a traumatic past that was shunted aside to make room for (what was to be) a better future.

Margaret’s biographer Vicki Goldberg notes that these images are her most sustained body of work “offering a kind of stately, classical view of misery, of humanity at its most wretched, yet somehow noble, somehow beautiful”. Rare glimpses into the past, fleeting though they are, bring with them an acute sense of loss.

Margaret Bourke-White (1904-1971) described in The Digital Digest as a “trailblazer in twentieth century photojournalism” has impressive credentials and a series of firsts before her name — she was among the first wave of photojournalists taken on board LIFE magazine and her work was featured on LIFE’s first cover. She is also credited to be the first female photographer to cover war (during WWII), and was on the scene of a freshly liberated concentration camp.

The book charts the course of Margaret’s extraordinary career using snippets from her own books and her biographer’s words to showcase the pioneering spirit that calmly walked besides migrating convoys even as death was reaping the souls of people somewhere around the bend. This section is not for the faint-hearted.

Also included are some iconic images of the men who led the movement and Ms Goldberg projects specific characteristics on M A Jinnah, Pakistan’s founding father, and Gandhi, the Indian idol. About one she will declare, “Margaret composes an icon for a secular saint, humble, meditative, graced by light and accompanied by his symbolic spinning wheel much as western saints are accompanied by their emblems.” This would be Gandhi. The other she dismisses as a leader “whose features were as sharp as the creases in his western business suit” and attempts to cast him in as unflattering a light as possible. She casually throws in some provocative lines (“we shall have India divided or we shall have India destroyed”) and concludes, “Jinnah fulfilled the first part of his vow and came close to fulfilling the second”.

Margaret’s own words mirror the bias and seem to imply that the killing fields of Calcutta as a result of Direct Action Day 1946 (when Muslim League’s peaceful protests turned deadly) were part of a premeditated plan when she notes how Jinnah’s press statement “was in the form of a monologue delivered in an icy voice — a forecast of the fiery events to come”. Add to that the sight of him lashing out in “his flat chilled monotone” and the sketch is ready. But it is a poor likeness.

Suddenly, a man of peace known for taking up a principled stance becomes a disturbing footnote in the most important production of the 20th century, while Gandhi gets star billing. Were these words taken out of context or invented? Asif Noorani, who reviewed this book for another newspaper (December 5, 2010 edition), calls out Ms Goldberg for misquoting Mr Jinnah. But, in the end, the camera’s unerring eye turns out to be the most reliable witness. The images convey the triumph and tragedy and while death is the reigning theme, the indomitable human spirit provides the central storyline.

Roli Books; Pp 142; Rs 995
Available in Liberty Books

Comments

Popular posts from this blog

BOOK REVIEW: Quiet Diplomacy: Memoirs of an Ambassador of Pakistan / Author: Jamsheed Marker

PUBLISHED IN Daily Times /February 06, 2010

REVIEWED BY: Afrah Jamal

Jamsheed Marker belongs to an exceptional cadre of Foreign Service officers entrusted to keep things on an even keel on the diplomatic stage. Providence chose him to fill the void brought on by a sudden influx of newly independent nations and the subsequent need to expand diplomatic service during the 1960s. A stellar career in fostering global diplomacy as the longest serving ambassador has earned him a special place in history.

This veteran Pakistani diplomat has a striking resume. With ten posts and nine accreditations, his name appears in the Guinness Book of World Records for being the only person to have served as ambassador to more countries than anyone. He took his curtain call when Pakistan declared him Ambassador at Large in 2004, and has been on the faculty at Eckerd College, St Petersburg — Florida as Diplomat-in-Residence. He ended his tenure with a wry observation, ‘the batting card on the scorecard to M…

OP-ED: What’s In A Name(sake)?

First Published in Daily Times / 2 Sep 2013

A beloved cricketer’s name adorns the billboards but this is not a biopic. The cricketing world it allegedly represents provides a compelling front but it will not be a return to his old stomping grounds. Main Hoon Shahid Afridi (MHSA) draws upon a living legend’s legacy to leverage the passion and throws in a cameo or two, but that is the extent of Afridi’s involvement. Meanwhile, somewhere in a small little village, a disgraced cricketer turned coach who trains a rag tag team will be moved centre-field. And the one thing that binds the nation together and provides the soulful soundtrack will become the anchor.

The newly minted flight is bound for cricket-ville and in some parts of the world that is reason enough to join in the festivities. Humayun Saeed, seen at the helm wearing a number of hats as the producer/actor enlists the classic underdog formula to launch his ambitious vision. The village club is in danger of being shut down, and m…

The Book of Davis - Reading between the lines

Published by Global Affairs / Aug 2017

Raymond Davis is a champ. A team player, who puts the needs of his comrades in arms before himself. He is savvy. He is a man of integrity - a survivor - a trooper. Ray, the epitome of courage runs headlong towards danger and into a minefield - literally. He is all this and more. This is his story after all.

6 years ago, he was a trained Special Forces SF, undercover ‘contractor’, forced to navigate the cramped alleyways of Lahore on a routine mission – the details of which remain a mystery. His book ‘The Contractor: How I Landed in a Pakistani Prison and Ignited a Diplomatic Crisis’ with Storms Reback, revisits the scene of the crime to solidify his innocence and along the way take a few potshots at random players who helped secure his release. It’s a hair-raising ride.

His style is conversational, his demeanor - amiable. The case is still fresh in people’s minds and his intent to set the record straight ignites yet another round of controversy…

BOOK REVIEW: Pakistan: Beyond The ‘Crisis State’ / Author: Maleeha Lodhi

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, June 18, 2011

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Published under the title: 17 Reasons to Hope

“History will be what we make it. If we go on as we are, history will have its revenge and retribution”— from the movie, ‘Good Night, & Good Luck’

A region known for most “terrorist sightings”, a place feared for harbouring medieval mindsets next to progressive thinkers and a nation shunned for having an affinity for nuclear toys. By turns a cautionary tale, an indispensable ally and an international pariah, Pakistan does not fit into any mould — for long. But its name crops up whenever things go awry.

Pakistan: Beyond the ‘Crisis State’ is a compilation of articles put together by Maleeha Lodhi that countermands the grim prognosis. When Ms Lodhi, who has served as Pakistan’s ambassador to the US and UK, acknowledges that “resilience has been part of Pakistan’s story from its inception, obscured by the single issue lens…

VIEW: WOMEN in the PAF: AN ENSEMBLE CAST

PUBLISHED in HILAL (Pakistan Armed Forces Magazine) Feb 2010

By Afrah Jamal

Progressive - Conservative - Contemporary - Professional; separately these terms could apply to any service; together they were reserved for just one - the PAF.

Pakistan Air Force has kept in touch with its roots through its glorious traditions and kept up with the changing times with innovative thinking. Oftentimes, traditions that made it stand apart have also stood in the way of, well - progress. Consequently, the service nimbly skipped past the one proposed change that was going to have a profound effect on the lives of countless young girls and would forever alter the way society perceived their womenfolk.

Before 1994, Lady Officers were a rare sight in the PAF. So rare in fact, that when male cadets donned wigs to represent the female species in annual variety shows, nobody wondered why. By 2010, women have become an indispensable part of the service. While, PAF was no stranger to a woman in uniform, a f…

OPED: The Afghan Policy in Perspective

Published in Global Village Space / Aug 2017

True to its reality show inspired template, the Afghan strategy was rolled out after months of speculations, suspense and dithering. It used memorable taglines and inflated figures. ‘Agents of chaos’, sunk costs described as ‘billions and billions’ and going all in seeking victory against all odds. It offered to be tough on Pakistan, even as it was vague on the outlines and predictable in its deployment.

Reading between the Lines

This is essentially the new, improvised policy meant not just for Afghanistan but also Pakistan and India. With it the U.S. administration appears to have heeded the advice of keeping the enemy in the dark. They have also dismissed the necessity of keeping their allies close and have instead embarked upon a strategic vision that aims to expand the theatre adding India to the volatile mix and potentially widen the gulf between allies.

Yet it is not the public performance of the commander-in-chief that catches the e…

VIEW: GOING DUTCH (2008)

Published in THE POST May 18, 2008

What does Cadbury have to do with 12 sketches and a 17 minute film? Nothing, really. Cadbury is neither Dutch nor Danish. But by now most Pakistanis - if not all - have probably received a text message stating otherwise. And thus begins a boycott campaign of all things Dutch or Danish. The self righteous lot, in their overzealousness, would acquiesce willingly. Yet, few who have received an email or sms that proclaimed the success of this boycott and lobbied for its continuity - or witnessed the demonstrations meant to convey outrage against both Denmark and the Netherlands for their alleged laxity in safeguarding certain religions’ sanctity - will stop to reflect on the virtues of pushing a hostile policy intended to coerce but neglecting to convince. Fewer still will bother to dig deeper and corroborate details of such episodes.

The cartoon controversy returned in 2008 – helped on by the aptly titled film ‘Fitna’- similarly denounced for its unflat…