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Rediff.com  » News » The good die young

The good die young

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Last updated on: May 31, 2005 14:50 IST

One evening in the latter half of 2001, at a cool, calm apartment somewhere on Napean Sea Road, I was introduced to Daniel Pearl. It was a surprise birthday party for a friend, and Danny -- along with his wife Mariane -- were guests, as were assorted Frenchmen, a few NRIs, and the people who invited me.

While everyone around us struggled with wine, I asked Danny what he did for a living. "I represent The Wall Street Journal in Mumbai," he said, smiling a clean, beautiful smile. I remember him as a fairly tall, very attractive man. The kind most women would have no problems striking up conversations with. "I live near Theen Buteeee," he went on. I remember laughing, trying to get him to pronounce Teen Batti correctly.

Mariane was as interesting. Curly-haired, colourful, outspoken, easy-going. I could see why they were a couple. They sat, shoulder to shoulder, sprawled on a sofa in a corner of the room. We spoke of journalism, and other things, like music. Danny could, he said, play the fiddle, electric violin, and mandolin. I didn't know what an electric violin was. He enlightened me patiently, while all around us Indians and Frenchmen chatted, white wine-and-vodka-laden.

I decided, the next morning, to do a feature on Danny and how the Internet was making it possible for him to do what he did. I called. He agreed. We set a date, as the year drew to a close.

Then, one evening in early 2002, news reports mentioning the abduction of a certain Mr Pearl in Karachi began to sprout. The friend who had accompanied me to that first party called. "Is it him?" she asked. "Yes," I said. And she hung up, teary-eyed.

It was in Mumbai, apparently, that Danny had begun working on a story about terrorism, tracing the steps of a man called Richard Colvin Reid. Mr Reid was also known as the Shoe Bomber for his attempt to destroy an airliner by igniting explosives hidden in his shoes. Danny's investigations had led him to Karachi, where he was kidnapped by a militant group called The National Movement for the Restoration of Pakistani Sovereignty. They believed he was a spy, and sent the US a list of demands in exchange for his life.

It seemed insane, and completely unreal, that this quiet, well-behaved journalist could take on the role of James Bond. What he loved doing, I remember him saying, is to simply sit back and play music.

Days passed, and more reports appeared, tracking his work, documenting search attempts, reporting dubious leads. It all led to the confirmation on February 21, 2002, of Pearl's death at the hands of four men. A 3.36-minute video titled The Slaughter of the Spy-Journalist, the Jew Daniel Pearl appeared online, depicting his last moments, throat being slit open. Apparently, the last 90 seconds had a list of demands superimposed on an image of his severed head.

It was available for download. Free.

In the midst of the madness surrounding her, I'm told, Mariane gave birth to Daniel's only child, Adam. In the months that followed, stories about his warmth spread. Friends spoke about his charm; colleagues, about his professionalism. The kidnappers were caught, eventually, and convicted of murder on July 15 of that year. And the Daniel Pearl Foundation was formed.

It's been a while since that episode. It still bothers me though, that a story with such promising beginnings could take such drastic twists. Daniel was born in New Jersey and educated at Stanford. He was co-founder of a student newspaper, and then a Pulliam Fellow intern at a newspaper in Indianapolis. He was well-travelled, had joined the San Francisco Business Times, and moved to the Wall Street Journal in 1990. As far as his career went, he could do no wrong. He and Mariane met in 1998, shifted to Paris, and were married soon after. They came to Mumbai in 2000, where he became the WSJ's South Asia bureau chief. It seemed like a quiet, no-nonsense love story. Only this one didn't end well at all.

While looking for stories Danny had written, I found one about a missing Stradivarius violin. There's a love there, a solid affection, for that instrument. I think there were a great many stories he would have gone on to write, but couldn't.

I haven't seen that video of his execution. I never will. What I keep in mind is a smiling, attractive man who told me what an electric violin was. What I keep in my wallet is a faded visiting card. A reminder of how some nice guys never have a chance.

And Danny, wherever you are, I hope you're playing that funky music.

Lindsay Pereira
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