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 These, together with previously unpublished images taken over two years (1946-1948), chronicling the death and destruction left in the wake of partition amplify distant shockwaves from a traumatic past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: 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…

BOOK REVIEW: Hira Mandi / Author: Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson

Published in Daily Times Saturday, February 11, 2012

Reproduced on Claudine Le Tourneur Dlson's Website

Translated from French by Priyanka Jhijaria

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

A programme about Hira Mandi did the internet rounds a couple of years ago. It claimed, among other things, that the sons of the ‘dancers’ reportedly end up as lawyers, doctors, artists — a few join politics and some even reach the military. These outrageous statistics may be one of the reasons the documentary was banned from the mainstream media. That and its primary premise — the plight of the fallen women — would prompt the conservatives to howl with dismay before scurrying off to bury any evidence in the backyard along with other bodies.


Claudine Le Tourneur d’Ison embeds such wrenching moments in a bold narrative where its doomed protagonist can hail the brave new world and its genteel patrons from an extraordinary vantage point. The expedition to the underworld with the unfortunate progeny and the hapless…

BOOK REVIEW: Women and the Weight Loss Tamasha

Thanks to Liberty Books for the review copy

Published in Daily Times / Saturday, February 26, 2011
Under the Title: A Play-book for Losers
Reviewed By: Afrah Jamal
Author: Rujuta Diwekar

Master: “You are free to eat.”

Po: “Am I?”

Master: “Are you?” —
Dialogue from Kung Fu Panda (2008)

Po, the Kung Fu Panda, doubted his mentor/master much like readers will doubt a nutritionist guru when she hands over an exclusive pass to eat and, yet, maintain a strategic advantage in the fight against fat.

They need not.

A thriving industry feeds off of ignorance about weight-related issues. And when health and happiness become collateral damage in the mad dash for the finish line, it is time to alter the game plan.

‘Nutritionist to the stars’ Rujuta makes this lonely trek to the promised land a joyful experience where food is not the enemy, and learning the art of making better judgment calls is on the menu. Since she labels the struggle with weight loss a tamasha (spectacle) at the very outset, r…

OPED: The Great Exodus

Published, Global Affairs Feb 2017

The MIG 21 parked in the Pakistan Air Force Museum Karachi is not exactly a war trophy – it belongs to an Afghan defector who flew by one day and landed at Peshawar air base sometime in 1989 / 1990. He was seeking refuge in Pakistan. There had been others before him. Three decades later, young Afghans are still seeking greener pastures – and making headlines because among them is a trailblazing female pilot who had made her nation proud but preferred to stay behind in the United States while on a training tour.

Pakistan has been doubling as Afghan nationals’ second home for over three and a half decades – hosting some 1.5 registered and 1 million unregistered. It ranks amongst the top three largest refugee communities in the world. The stream of defectors, asylum seekers, migrants and refugees kept flowing while the Reds retreated, Taliban invaded and all through the American occupation.

That surge has been unexpectedly quelled.

There’s a migr…

BOOK REVIEW: Outclass Teams: Secrets of Building High-Performance, Result-Oriented Teams / Author: Qaiser Abbas

Thanks to Possibilities Publications for the review copy

Published by Daily Times / Saturday, February 25, 2012

Reviewed by Afrah Jamal

Runaway Teams beware. Qaiser Abbas is an organisational psychologist, author of books like the Tik Tok Dollar and the upcoming Leadership Insights — and one canny facilitator who introduced Pakistan to the concept of ‘Management by Adventure’, or as he likes to call it, MBA. His mission of rescuing wayward teams from doom makes him dash in and out of companies on a regular basis. Prompted by the success of such expeditions, he proceeds to refine these insights for a book on team-building and a lecture on group dynamics.

As someone who specialised in using experiential learning methodology in outdoor training, Abbas swears by well-structured one-day team-building programmes over time spent bonding over social activities. His recent book takes an in-depth look at this phenomenon to determine the value of team-building, show the expertise needed to ensure…

KARACHI DIARIES: MASTERCHEF Comes to Pakistan

Published in Economic Affairs / May 2014 P-20

Last year ‘MasterChef Australia’ S04 contestant came to town. Amina Elshafei, described as an ‘unassuming young lady from Sydney’, had been brought in by the Australian High Commissioner’s office and spread the joy of fusion cooking as part of her good-will mission. Around the same time unconfirmed rumors that MasterChef was headed to Pakistan were floating around. By April 2014, the rumors had officially been laid to rest.


‘MasterChef Pakistan’ is set to go on air by 3rd May 2014. The press conference in AVARI (Karachi) threw together an elegant presentation topped off by a divine hi-tea. The MasterChef franchise is already a household favorite, and makes everyone a judge of culinary prowess, and the lead authority on cuisine. Sidra Iqbal, the host for the evening, had also noted this amusing trend, listing Pakistani food as the ultimate source of drama.


His Excellency, the Australian High Commissioner to Pakistan, Peter Heyworth while …

VIEW: The Man Who Made A Desert Bloom

Published inDaily Times / Saturday, January 01, 2011

By Afrah Jamal

“O Lord! We have crash-landed!” was Hafeez Khan’s first reaction when his aircraft touched down in what appeared to him the middle of nowhere. The plane was one that could land on unprepared surfaces, which is just as well since there was nothing remotely resembling a proper airstrip at that time in Abu Dhabi. Awaiting him was a king with a dream, a desert starved for greenery, and a dusty blueprint of a future that appeared far-fetched.

Today, three things strike first time visitors to the beautiful city of Al Ain — tree lined avenues, roundabouts and the absence of tall buildings. Al Ain, which is the other city in the state of Abu Dhabi, in the past bore an unfortunate resemblance to a gigantic sandbox.

It was not that long ago and Abu Dhabi state had just struck it rich with black gold. But no one could mistake any part of the Trucial state of the 1960s for the ‘garden city of the Gulf’. Khan may have felt that he …