A central concept in the Hindu world is that of maya, or illusion, and it doesn't take long for a correspondent on the subcontinent to bang smack up against it. There's a telephone on the desk, but it doesn't have a dial tone. The impressive air-conditioner on the wall should beat the enervating heat, but can't because the electricity is out. Governments in the region love refusing visas or blocking interview requests, and always with the same breezy assurance: "No problem."
For a full 24 years, TIME's coverage of the subcontinent has beaten the competition because we have a secret weapon: a maya-buster by the name of Deepak Puri. Technically he's our South Asia general manager and photo editor, and his job description sounds basic: he paves the way so that correspondents and photographers can do their work. But it's anything but. Consider these two anecdotes. When TIME sponsored a meeting of American CEOs in the southern Indian city of Bangalore, the street leading to the conference was under construction. Deepak drafted scores of workers (plus a couple of elephants for show) and rebuilt the 1-km road. And in a legendary exploit in 1990, a Time editor and the New Delhi bureau chief were stranded in Srinagar covering the Kashmiri insurgency. To get them out, Deepak cajoled a domestic airline to divert a plane to get them. (That's a story best told over a few beers.)
Deepak has oiled our coverage of countless chaotic stories around the subcontinent. Just minutes after last week's attack on the Indian Parliament, which is a stone's throw from his bureau, Puri dispatched photographers and a reporter. The war against terrorism in Afghanistan has been a whole new ball game. Puri shipped satellite phones, computers and cameras in and out under extreme conditions, managed a primitive banking system for cashless war reporters, and kept up the flow of assignments, news copy and photographs. Probably his biggest chore was inserting people into the war from neighboring countries. "Tajikistan and Uzbekistan, they were such hard nuts to crack," he says. "Ultimately I got correspondents into Tajikistan without [the] visas in their passports. That was pretty good." Staff writer Alex Perry spent four weeks in Afghanistan, but his final eight days were entirely dedicated to trying to get out. "Uzbekistan's stone-faced border guards were probably one of the greatest challenges of Deepak's career," says Perry. "Without him, I'd probably still be shivering miserably in an unheated Mazar-i-Sharif hotel." When Deepak Puri tells you "no problem," you can be sure it isn't an illusion.