The modern Herodotus

Prathmesh Patil
Saturday, 27 January 2018

The world of reporting looks bleak and gloomy at times and why not. When the facts and figures dominate the written passage more than the central narration, the obvious result is a drab and dry copy to be read with your morning tea. But journalism is not just about that. Like any other form of writing, journalism has seen pioneers transcend the boundaries of formats to experiment with narratives, imagery and substance. Ryszard Kapuciski was one of them. It was his death anniversary on January 23.

The world of reporting looks bleak and gloomy at times and why not. When the facts and figures dominate the written passage more than the central narration, the obvious result is a drab and dry copy to be read with your morning tea. But journalism is not just about that. Like any other form of writing, journalism has seen pioneers transcend the boundaries of formats to experiment with narratives, imagery and substance. Ryszard Kapuciski was one of them. It was his death anniversary on January 23.

Ryszard was born in Pinsk, which is now a city in Belarus on March 4, 1932. His father was a soldier and had not returned after World War II had ended. His mother took him along with her to look for her husband, reaching Poland in the process, where they settled down. The allied powers had won. Western Europe remained a free-market, capitalist region and the Soviet Union under Stalin established its influence over the eastern parts. Poland was now under a Soviet-styled closed government.

Ryszard got his education in history at the University of Warsaw and started working as a reporter for a youth journal along with writing poetry. After he filed an expose about mismanagement in a local factory, he was awarded the Golden Star of Merit by the Polish government. He soon started working with the Polish Press Agency, where, as a reporter, he was sent out to other countries.

Soviet-era Poland was a closed country. The communication with the outer world was highly regulated. Ryszard, coming from the poverty of his past, relished this opportunity. In his book, Travels With Herodotus, he compares himself to Herodotus, the famous Greek who is considered the world’s first journalist.

Ryszard compares to how Herodotus travelled with traders and merchants to far off countries and exotic lands like India, Northern Africa and China and brought back stories of those lands for his people. Ryszard finds himself in the same position; a teller of the stories of the world for his people back in Poland.
When he visited India in the 50’s, he found a land that taught him ‘humility’. He writes on returning from India, “India was my first encounter with otherness, the discovery of a new world. It was at the same time a great lesson in humility. Yes, the world teaches humility. I returned from this journey embarrassed by my own ignorance, at how ill-read I was. I realised then, what now seems obvious: a culture would not reveal its mysteries to me at a mere wave of my hand; one has to prepare oneself thoroughly and at length for such an encounter.”

A card-carrying member of the Polish Workers Party, Ryszard developed a keen sense of critique for colonialism and capitalism. His faith in the critique was reinforced after he travelled in more than 27 countries in Africa and many other countries which were coming out of the colonial horrors. In his seminal book, Shadow Of The Sun, which feels like a pean to the continent of Africa, he writes, “People are not hungry because there is no food in the world. There is plenty of it; there is a surplus in fact. But between those who want to eat and the bursting warehouses stands a tall obstacle indeed: politics.” 

Ryszard is credited with giving his journalism a multi-layered and perceptive depth. He was witness to many of the most important moments of history in the 20th Century, which he records not just as an outsider, but as an empath who can feel the pulse of the people undergoing transition. He had developed a technique of keeping two diaries while reporting, one for his regularly wired reports back to Poland and the other in which he wrote his passionate and narrative observations.

He witnessed the fall of Ethiopian dictator Haile Selassie from close quarters. He brilliantly chronicles the persona of the dead Selassie by taking accounts from the closest of the dictator’s servants, exposing the frail old man behind the regal robes of the dictatorship. In the Shadow Of The Sun, he describes his journeys into the deepest lands of Africa and after witnessing violent coups, revolutions and freedom struggles, he is stunned by the vastness of the continent. He writes, “The continent is too large to describe. It is a veritable ocean, a separate planet, a varied, immensely rich cosmos. Only with the greatest simplification, for the sake of convenience, can we say ‘Africa’. In reality, except as a geographical appellation, Africa does not exist.”

But nothing is as relevant to an Indian reader as what remains his most underrated work of all, Shah Of The Shahs, the book in which he reports about the last Shah of Iran and the period between the Shah and Ayatollah Khomeini’s Islamic revolution. He describes in a literary flourish, the nature of the common Iranian and looks at the revolution from their point of view. The Shah, who was benevolent and aggressively modern, was still, a dictator.  

Ryszard notes that the Iranian man, who was traditional and carried great pride, saw that his home was filled with electronic gadgets and kitchen appliances which he had no idea how to handle. The government had borrowed technicians from the US, Japan, etc who entered the Iranian man’s household and taught him how to use them and repaired them. Amidst the forced modernity with the hidden oppression, the collective conscious of the conservative society felt insulted and this insult is what became the fodder for the Ayatollah to build his religious revolution against the sinful modernity.

Ryszard Kapuciski remains an icon to anyone who enters the field of journalism with a passion to see and record the world. He was deservingly voted as the ‘Journalist of the Century’ by the Polish people. His works have been translated into many languages of the world and were even considered for the Nobel Prize. His journalism has been given the name ‘Magic Journalism’ in reference to the Latin American style of fiction called ‘Magic Realism’. A man of empathy and curiosity, Ryszard leaves behind a legacy and words that are needed more than ever in a world increasingly losing touch with its less fortunate brethren and its humanity.

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