Life & Style | People

Anjan Sundaram: Words of hope

Award-winning journalist Anjan Sundaram tells Suchitra Bajpai Chaudhary how the time he spent in the Democratic Republic of Congo changed his perspective on life and led him to write his first book

  • By Suchitra Chaudhary, Sr. Features Writer, Friday
  • Published: 12:20 February 4, 2013
  • Friday

Anjan Sundaram
  • Image Credit: Aiza Castillo-Domingo/ANM
  • Award-winning journalist Anjan Sundaram.
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I had sensed his presence, his curt movements. But they did not seem malicious. Then he lunged for my table, and I found myself running in the night. I ran with all my force. ‘You have my phone!’ I yelled. ‘Té! I refuse!’ The ground was wet and yielding, covered in waste, cans, wrappers. The smell was rotten. It was like nothing I had known. A landfill in the middle of the city.

‘I’ll give you money.’ ‘How much?’ He wiped his shoulder over his mouth – his face was covered in sweat. A group of children skipped towards us. I reached into my pocket for my notebook and purse. The boy turned, and I saw a wound on a hairless part of his scalp. ‘Keep the phone,’ – I pointed into my palm – ‘I only need the numbers inside.’ He smiled, as if smelling a trick. I felt frustrated at my carelessness. I didn’t have money to hand out, and those numbers were precious. I was new  in the country and had few friends...

Kinshasa, when I first arrived, had felt giant, overwhelming... The phone contained my personal map; and without it I felt lost, as though I had newly arrived for a second time, and was again without connection... My sigh came out heavy and sharp; it startled the boy. Already he was stepping away. I half-tripped forward and yelled, ‘How do I find you? What’s your name?’ ‘Guy.’ And, making a cackling noise, he ran behind a mound. I felt suddenly strained…..”

The stark, graphic opening of Anjan Sundaram’s debut novel Stringer: A Reporter’s Journey in the Congo draws attention to one of the most pressing and disturbing issues facing the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC); its street children. Rejected by society and often abandoned by their parents, they live in the wastelands of the city, robbing, looting, abusing substances and living a life with few rules.

The 30-year-old author, whose novel was released at the 2013 Jaipur Literary Festival last month, is excited about his book. “I hope it will focus the spotlight on a country whose people can come up if they are given a chance,’’ he says. The Congolese are excellent innovators and highly creative people, he says. “They create artwork out of bottle caps, use old car seats as chairs in houses and make bicycles out of wood. But their creativity is limited to small things because of the lack of infrastructure. Given the opportunity, they’ll do well.’’

Life-defining moments

From July 2005 until November 2006, Anjan lived in the DRC’s capital, Kinshasa, and worked as a stringer for Associated Press in the DRC. While there, he says he experienced “life-defining moments” that changed his life and perspective forever. “I came across children who, rejected by their families and left to die, end up on the streets in a life of vice,” he says.

“It starts with families who are deeply superstitious. Some are unable to take care of the large number of children they have, so parents decide to get rid of one. A young child is singled out and branded as evil [based on a minor misdemeanour he or she has committed – like wetting the bed, for instance]. The child is then taken to village doctors who force him or her to undergo barbaric rituals before they are abandoned. “Those who survive are forced to fend for themselves and end up living on the streets in Kinshasa”, says Anjan.

“Imagine young boys and girls living among the rusted abandoned cars, junk and garbage, fending for each other and themselves. When hungry, they become noisy mobs, brandishing whatever weapon they can lay their hands on to raid supermarkets or rob neighbourhoods.’’ Several of them end up as child soldiers as well, says Anjan. “These children, often under the influence of illegal substances, with no guidance from anyone and no chance of going to school, live by their own rules, with no sense of what is right or wrong.

They are typical examples of what human beings become in the absence of any societal norms.” “As a journalist, I initially had many prejudices, but seeing the country at such close quarters I had to quickly reorganise my thoughts and beliefs.’’ A maths whiz, Anjan initially wanted to pursue a career in finance, so he enrolled for an undergraduate degree in mathematics at Yale University, then a master’s degree.

After graduating in 2005, he was offered a job at Goldman Sachs in New York, which he declined because by then he was keen to follow his first passion of writing. “I was hugely influenced by the works of VS Naipaul and wanted to write,’’ he says. It helped that he did a course in creative writing while at Yale. “My teacher was Adam Haslett,’’ he says. “I was looking for real human experiences. I was prepared to see the terrible side of humanity and experience the primal emotions of fear, hunger and pain.

“I remember standing at the Goldman Sachs office, looking at the New York skyline thinking I would be incomplete without exploring the issues of pain, insecurity, suffering, hunger and fear that many people around the world experience every day,” he says. “Having grown up in Dubai until the age of ten and then completing my schooling [at Rishi Valley in Bengaluru, India] before going to Yale, I had been sheltered from it all.

I wanted to see the real world, so I decided to spend some time in the DRC,’’ says Anjan, whose father Sundaram Rangamani is a senior executive with Jotun Paints in Dubai and mother Vasanti Sundaram works for Apco, a US public relations firm. He has a younger sister Sagarika Sundaram who also works at Apco in Dubai.

One of the major influences in Anjan’s life was the Polish journalist and Yale alumni Ryszard Kapuściński, who worked in Africa in the Sixties and was a witness to many coups, killings and revolutions. Anjan remembers meeting him at his Manhattan office. “While there, his secretary gave me a copy of a magazine that had an interview of his, and that completely blew me away.

In it he expressed how exhilarated he felt reporting on the revolutions and being a part of history in the making. That was compelling. It made me want to know more about how people were affected when they were deprived of food and security and what it was like to constantly live in the shadow of fear and imminent death.’’

Why the DRC?

There was a reason that Anjan chose the DRC. “I read a lot about the suffering of the people there. Nearly five million people were killed in the wars there and even today about 1,000 people die every day due to war-induced conditions. I felt I had to experience this place first-hand and since I spoke French, I was sure I’d be able to manage my way around.’’

His decision to go to the DRC was further strengthened by a chance meeting with Anne, a cashier at Yale. “One day when I went to pay my term fees, I happened to ask her where she was from and she said ‘Zaire’ – the old name for the DRC. I told her I planned to visit her country and she remarked, ‘You can’t just go there, you will be killed’. It made me want to visit the DRC all the more. I wanted to experience life in all its fullness, and exposing myself to life and the world was part of this.’’

Anjan admits that he exercised some caution. “I asked a veteran journalist from the Voice of America who had worked in the DRC if I was being silly going to live there, and he said, ‘no, you just have to be very, very careful.’” Keen to get to know as much as he could about the place before he set off, he spent several evenings talking to Anne about life in her country. “Just a day before I left the US she told me, ‘If you want, you can stay with my in-laws Jose and Nana’. I agreed, because it would mean getting a chance to see the real DRC, staying with real people in a real society and not in a hotel as a tourist.’’

In July 2005, Anjan set off for the DRC hoping to experience the real world. Living the frugal lifestyle of Jose, Nana and their extended family in their home in the poor neighbourhood of Victoire helped Anjan experience the country up close and personal. “Jose and Nana lived in a dilapidated home. They were poor and lived a tough life. Nana was a tax collector and earned barely enough to support his family.

“There were frequent power cuts and blackouts and there was very little potable water or food. I followed the frugal eating habits of the household. Breakfast used to be tea with a slice of bread and butter. The only other meal was lunch at about 4pm. “The staple food of the Congolese is cassava [manioc], a starchy vegetable high in carbohydrates. Every part of the plant – leaves, flower and stem – can be eaten, and we would have one of these each day accompanied with peanut sauce for protein.

“On good days Nana would serve fish or a meat stew with bread. There was a newborn baby in the house and she was given caterpillar meat to eat, which is high in protein. “During my one-and-a-half years there, I lost a lot of weight, but that was OK with me. I was living my dream,’’ says Anjan. He stayed as a paying guest with them for the entire time he was in the DRC, although for about two weeks every month he was away travelling throughout the country.

Anjan says there were moments when he felt extremely homesick. “But those moments passed quickly. Life in the DRC is difficult and a constant challenge – for water, electricity, peace of mind and safety. One had to be alert constantly. And trying to tackle those issues quickly took over any thoughts of home.’’

From maths to murders

From crunching numbers to reporting on kidnapping, killings and poverty, Anjan’s transformation was swift. He arrived in the country with no fixed agenda, other than wanting to become a writer. “Within a week of my arrival I learnt that the Associated Press journalist had just left and that the bureau had closed down,” he says. “I managed to get the editor’s email address and I wrote to him to introduce myself and send him samples of my writing. “The editor said he couldn’t promise anything and asked me to keep sending stories. For the next three months I kept filing stories.

There was so much happening – people getting killed, kidnappings, cholera epidemics, air crashes – some of the stories got published. “After about three months I learnt to write extended features after studying other writers’ works. Within six months I was able to finance my travels with my writing,’’ says Anjan. Once he was able to build his contacts, Anjan soon began to hitch rides on UN aircraft, which used to transport food, medical supplies and other aid to remote areas. “That helped me become the eyes and ears of AP.’’

After the elections in the DRC in 2006, the New York Times commissioned him to write a report on the real battle between the political parties. “At the end of my stay, I realised I had gathered enough experiences to put down in a book,” he says. “There were plenty of devastating ones, but there was also the tragic humour. I wanted to communicate this.’’

Anjan is positive that his writing will create more awareness about the issues in the DRC and he feels public knowledge has been increasing. “People like Ben Affleck, who has set up the Eastern Congo Initiative, an advocacy and grant-making organisation helping the people of the DRC, have helped create awareness about the conflict. “If the world creates enough goodwill and the wealthy nations come to its aid, the people will rise. I feel my writing can help create that empathy and generate a positive public opinion.

I am sharing my experiences in my book to help the reader experience a part of what I felt there. “I went to the DRC expecting to see suffering, war and fear. Instead I found courage, humour and even acceptance from people who had learnt to be resilient, laugh at their situation and manage to face the daily tragedies. It completely changed me and defined my life in a very fundamental way,” he says.

In search for more experiences, in 2009, Anjan decided to go to Rwanda. “After the DRC, I returned to US in the 2007, worked at McKinsey as a management consultant for two years, saved some money and moved to the neighbouring country Rwanda, on an assignment by a local newspaper to train young Rwandan journalists.

“Rwanda is a very calm and ordered place when compared to the DRC, but when violence happens it is on a scale that could never take place in the DRC. The DRC is a place with chaos in day-to-day living, but the 1994 genocide in Rwanda claimed an estimated 800,000 lives. “I met many survivors of that genocide,’’ says Anjan, who is now working on a book on Rwanda. “I think of myself as a front-line reporter who does not just want to waste time reading about history later, but wants to watch it unfolding first-hand and live it.’’

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