Sharma has died.
That piece of sad news, posted by a long-time colleague, popped up on Facebook the other day. The odds are certain that you do not know who Sharma was, unless you are one of the many at ABC News who had the good fortune to work with and be guided by this kind, professional and resourceful man. As one former ABC News Correspondent posted, “Equal parts lovable and irascible, Sharma was our beloved friend, companion, and teacher.”
J.N. Sharma was one one of the unsung heroes without whom much of the overseas news you may have seen on World News Tonight or Good Morning America or other ABC News programs may never have made air. He was among the ranks of what are unceremoniously called “local hires” that help American companies conduct business in foreign lands. They are the interpreters, contact points, drivers, intelligence gatherers, arrangers, organizers, transcribers, protectors, adapters and a thousand other “ers.” They are The Fixers.
India was Sharma’s turf. It is a country of more than a billion souls and sometimes it seemed he knew everyone of them personally. He had an amazing array of contacts inside and outside the Indian government. An ABC Vice President called Sharma a “perfect team member.” He could get things done.
But that’s what The Fixers do; get things done. When news crews would vault into a country to cover this event or that story, it was The Fixers who met us at the airports, who made sure we had transportation, who helped us line up interviews, who arranged access to government officials, who knew the lay of the land and who, sometimes quite literally, saved our butts.
Kassam Kassam, he of the double name, was one of the drivers ABC News hired in Beirut during the 1980s. Kassam was also a creative Fixer. He knew how to survive in a time when Lebanon was being torn asunder by civil war, Syrian chicanery and Israeli incursions. He had an instinct that, on one particular day, kept us alive.
Kassam had driven my camera crew and me to Tripoli, Lebanon, north of Beirut. This was where two factions of the Palestinian Liberation Organization had been battling each other for power, as if matters in Lebanon then weren’t already messy enough. There had been a lull in the fighting that stretched into several hours. As the crew and I began to cross an open field on foot, one of the two sides decided that was a good time to lob an artillery round into the other side’s camp. Within seconds the quiet afternoon exploded into a cacophony of rocket-propelled grenades, automatic weapons fire, and more artillery rounds. We were caught in no-man’s land.
Kassam had parked his car, an old but powerful pea-green Mercedes, at the edge of a village about seventy-five yards from our position. The crew and I made a mad dash for the car, which Kassam had already started and was gunning the engine. As we dove inside and slammed the doors shut, Kassam hit the gas and we roared down the narrow, dirt street.
We had gone, perhaps, only about a quarter of a mile when Kassam slowed the car and stopped in the shadow of a small building at the side of the road. Artillery shells continued to explode all around us. My sound man, in the back seat, screamed at Kassam, “What the hell are you doing? Get us the hell out of here!” The screaming didn’t help my nerves, but I recall turning my head to Kassam and said, quietly, I think, “Yes, Kassam. What ARE you doing?”
Kassam merely lifted the index finger of his right hand, pointing it upward, and said simply, “Wait.” Within ten seconds there was a mighty explosion in the middle of the road, forty or fifty yards in front of the car. Dust, dirt and stones flew everywhere, right where we might have been had we not stopped. Kassam then looked at me, grinned and said, “Now, we go.” He slammed on the gas and we resumed our escape from the battle.
How Kassam instinctively knew how to judge our precarious situation at that moment, I’ll never know. But experiences like that are what taught most all of us who reported from strange and distant lands to put our cautious trust into hands of The Fixers. That trust came into play in the former Yugoslavia one day as a producer, crew and I drove into Kosovo where ethnic tensions involving Albanians, Serbians and others were reaching a boiling point.
We were stopped by armed soldiers at a roadblock just outside Kosovo. Our producer, who spoke fluent Serbo-Croatian, said something through the open car window to the young guard. I didn’t understand what was said, but could tell it was not good. The guard suddenly stiffened and adjusted his grip on his rifle. What’s more, Jovan, our driver-fixer, also stiffened and gripped the steering wheel hard. The guard said something back in an angry and aggressive tone. The producer snapped back just as aggressively. This was getting very bad. Jovan then relaxed just a little, casually leaned out the window and spoke quietly and carefully to the guard. There was a long, awkward silence as the unhappy guard looked at Jovan, then at the producer, then at me sitting in the back seat with a large lump in my throat. Then with a scowl, the guard backed up step or two and abruptly waved us through.
As we continued into town, I drew a deep breath and asked Jovan what that was all about. In the rear view mirror I could see his eyes flick over to the producer sitting in the front passenger seat, then look at me in the reflection. He said, “The guard was angry when your producer told him that he had no right to stop us because we are an American TV crew and that he had better let us through if he knew what was good for him.”
“What did you say to him?” I asked. Jovan told me he apologized for the rudeness and made up some story about our being nervous and new to the region and meant no harm. My trust in Jovan solidified at that moment and never wavered in the many weeks we worked together.
The trust was sometimes put to the test because we believed some Fixers were also on their own government payrolls. That was especially true during the Cold War when the Soviet Union and its bloc of countries for years faced off against the US and NATO in a potentially deadly game of nuclear chicken. We just assumed that The Fixers we worked with in Moscow, Warsaw, and other Soviet-bloc countries were reporting back to their superiors about the stories were were covering, with whom we were meeting, what we were saying and so forth. Still, we were all on friendly terms, shared dinners and vodka, and even met their families. It was all part of that Cold War Game.
When you work with someone in close quarters, day and night, meeting deadlines, sharing meals, making plans for weeks and months on end, you all become something of a family, no matter the political persuasions and pressures. Carlo, our fixer in Rome, was an accomplished harness racer at the horse tracks and could just as easily negotiate the sometimes maddening Italian bureaucracy. Jenny was not only our fixer in South Africa, she was also our bureau manager, keeping the books and watching the budget. Out of all these relationships come friendships that are forged for a lifetime.