Don’t look down!

There were early signs and wake-up calls

Farrukh Khan Pitafi August 27, 2022
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist. He tweets @FarrukhKPitafi and can be reached at

The title of this article is a play on the name of a famous apocalyptic Hollywood black comedy and political satire called Don’t Look Up. I have mentioned the film before and this is no time to reproduce the summary here. You can do it on your own time by either watching the movie or fittingly looking it up. Suffice it to say that it satisfyingly thumbs nose at the culture of apathy and impunity in the face of overwhelming evidence that the earth is about to be destroyed. This piece is not about the imminent destruction of humanity due to an incoming comet. It is about other infamous bodies that cloud our judgment and overwhelm our actions. In short, it is about the elite’s indifference towards the common man. And let’s face it. What other choices did I have for the title? Nero’s fiddle? Marie-Antoinette’s cake? Nah. This one works better as you will see.

One more word of caution. This is the second draft of the piece. The first one was mostly a collection of choicest swear words which I felt were printable. While as a consequence of this dilution, it is not an assortment of insulted injuries, it remains a charge sheet, an indictment of us all and hopefully an eye-opening one at that.

You must have seen them. The scenes of devastation from the floods. A three-foot-tall kid half submerged in water offering the call to prayer as the ultimate entreaty to his maker and a burning rebuke to us all who could do anything about it. A newborn with his umbilical cord attached is being pulled out of the mud as proof of a miracle. Five men stranded on a patch of land surrounded by high water, claimed one by one by the flood. A crestfallen man balling like a baby on a riverbank, telling whoever would listen that his entire family was swept away by the floods. And you did not see it where you should have first seen it. It was on social media. The country’s over fifty news channels had better things to do. Like showcasing Shehbaz Gill’s new moustache.

There were early signs and wake-up calls. A general’s helicopter out on a relief mission went down in Lasbela due to inclement weather. The crisis was already severe. But we let conspiracy theorists have a field day. And no collective interest in the plight of those ruined by the floods. It is as if we want to be led astray.

Uss waqt mujhe bhatka dena jab samne manzil aa jaye (Lead me astray when the destination is before me).

We all had to wake the electronic media up but it did. Now the issue was of the capacity. Decades of monetising precious airtime means cutting down on the expert neural clusters whose job it is to tackle such situations. Consequently, most of us become only an echo chamber of distress, unable to contribute constructively in this environment. If the 2010 floods and the 2005 earthquake are any guide after these two stages (denial and helpless whimpering) comes a third and proactive one. When each channel dispatches its star anchors to the field where to gain ratings they stand on the riverbanks armed with cameras and microphones, stop the flood victims trudging through neck-deep water burdened by their belongings on their heads and ask them silly questions. Some others stand beside wasting corpses, look into the cameras and give long lectures. Start with the telethons mate and help mobilise the local resources to help out the victims.

Now let us meet the affluent class namely the politicians. Traditionally, governments tend to underplay the crisis. But not this one. It knows that already battling a fiscal crisis, it cannot handle such a massive crisis with such meagre resources. What is the point of hiding it then? But usually, it is the job of the opposition to punch holes in the government’s explanations and defence. That is when there is an opposition and it is not entirely self-involved. The PTI which, displaying the emblematic sportsman spirit, has already quit the parliament, heartily agrees that the country is going through an existential crisis. But this existential crisis is of its exile from power. If the media acquires the role of an anxiety pump in such a scenario, the party has acquired the role of an outrage pump. Every microaggression against it is the worst crime against humanity. Its assumed victimhood is the tragedy of the century. But pray what about the real tragedies like the floods? When you shelter a privileged segment of society for too long and then one day it is exposed to the same elements faced by the rest of the population for decades it is bound to think that the sky is falling.

Khuda humko aisi khudai na de, keh apnay siwa kuchh dikhai na de (May God never give us such a kingdom or power, that we are unable to see anyone beyond our egos).

The big cities in Pakistan are the vestiges of colonial rule. Their main purpose was not to bring prosperity to the people but to function as fortresses against the unruly locals. Now in the post-colonial era, they serve as tiny bubbles of relative serenity. That is why with every passing day our politics, our media, our dominant culture and our businesses get more and more obsessed with the cities. Bad that is not where the majority lives. The majority cannot be chuffed if according to an estimate 20 to 30 million citizens are now homeless due to these floods.

And we conclude, let us add one more colour. While the political class was bickering over minutiae, some religious groups like the TLP and the Jamaat shared pictures that they were diligently collecting and supplying relief goods to the victims. This took me back to the traumatised 2005 earthquake victims who had complained that this lot told them that their sins had been responsible for their plight. So no hope there either.

In his Political Order and Political Decay Fukuyama maintains that this decay is important for national growth. For the new to grow the old must go. In his Upheaval, Jared Diamond gives tons of examples of converting adversity into opportunity. But to do that you need to have a handle on things. When the elite is so self-absorbed, so divorced from reality and the majority is left to fend for itself nothing good can come out. So, don’t look down. It is only our funeral.

Published in The Express Tribune, August 27th, 2022.

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