Truth or dare?

Point of politics is not to change things but to distract your attention away from your miseries

Farrukh Khan Pitafi January 13, 2024
The writer is an Islamabad-based TV journalist and policy commentator. Follow his WhatsApp channel ‘Farrukh K Pitafi’ for the latest updates


The news that Elon Musk had named platform X’s AI companion ‘Grok’ came as a surprise. The name comes from Robert A Heinlein’s 1961 novel Stranger in a Strange Land. That is not the surprising part. Nor that the term grok was frequently used by the Manson family, especially by Susan Atkins. No. I am surprised that despite his claims that the AI is modelled after Douglas Adams’ The Hitchhiker’s Guide to the Galaxy, the book he considers a work of philosophy disguised as comedy, he overlooked a better name within the guide’s own world — Prak. To understand what Prak is about, perhaps this quote from the book may help.

“I was covering a trial. The case is now immaterial, but there was a witness… a man… called Prak. A strange and difficult man. They were eventually forced to administer a drug to make him tell the truth, a truth drug. They gave him much too much. And when the trial continued, they asked Prak a most unfortunate thing. They asked him to tell the Truth, the Whole Truth and Nothing but the Truth. Only, don’t you see? They’d given him much too much of the drug! Oh, he told it all right, for all I know, he’s still telling it now. Strange, terrible things … terrible terrible! Terrible things, incomprehensible things, things that would drive a man mad!” Now, think about an AI called Prak. Apparently, the name is taken by another company. But has that ever prevented him from acquiring and ruining companies before? Case in point: X, formerly Twitter.

Prak, incidentally, is also a convenient metaphor for every journalist you know. Throughout their careers, journalists pick up facts of the most gory, blood-curdling nature. And they cannot even report them. Journalism, in other words, is like language. It hides more than it can ever aspire to reveal. No, you need to be a fiction writer or a poet to convey the horrendous nature of the human condition around you. Fiction writers because there is always an element of plausible deniability. Poets because they are known for their poetic licence. Need proof? Here is one provided by Faiz.

Anginat sadiyon ki taareeq bahemaanaa tilism/ Resham-o-atlas-o-kamkhwaab mein bunvaaye hue/ Ja-ba-ja bikte hue koochaa-o-baazaar mein jism/

Khaak mein lithade hue, khoon mein nehlaaye hue/ Jism nikle hue amraaz ke tannooron se/ Peep behti hui galte hue naasooron se/ Laut jaati hai udhar ko bhi nazar, kya keeje?

(Blighted in dark magic, of years beyond count, young flesh, draped in silk, satin and brocade, is up for sale in alleys and marketplaces. Bodies emerge from furnaces of pestilence, dragged in dirt, bathed in blood. From leaking ulcers, pus flows untapped; my eyes cannot look away; what should I do?)

And journalists keep it all inside them. Where is the platform? Who will listen? There is an art form involved — the art of self-censorship. Don’t tell me it is something invented recently in the less democratic parts of the world. It is a form of caution that journalists have learned to exercise since the dawn of their profession.

But now and then, like Prak, when in its infinite wisdom the system force-feeds them large dollops of bitter medicine, they can tell the complete and absolute truth. Ever wondered what that might be like? You will be surprised. You had no idea how bleak things have been since the beginning. There are moments when Prak may speak unrestrained, this isn’t the one. But that doesn’t mean you will be deprived of the choicest highlights or, more appropriately, teasers.

Elections are coming. They always offer hope. But as they say, it is the hope that kills you. What are the likely outcomes? The PML-N wins a comfortable majority. Or the PTI defies all odds and returns to power. Or the PPP surprises everyone with a remarkable victory. Or a hung parliament produces a weak coalition government. Or elections do not take place, and the current stasis becomes our permanent reality. Or something extra-constitutional happens. Then what? What changes?

The point of politics is not to change things but to distract your attention away from your miseries. You have an abusive employer who pays you a pittance? Your body is falling apart due to the lack of adequate healthcare? Police and lower judiciary destroyed your life? Come, obsess about politics. Please do not dismiss this statement as pointless cynicism. We are talking about a well-maintained record here. This country never had a dearth of politics. Yet, the only era mentioned for modest progress is Ayub’s. Wait till Ayesha Jalal shows you receipts regarding the cost that East Pakistan had to pay for this nominal progress.

And where are the questions about our recent past? Why is it that despite warts and all, our eastern neighbour has consistently gained in the past decade, and we have known neither progress nor stability? What happened between 2014 and 2022 when our economic indicators took a nosedive despite GSP+, numerous FTAs or PTAs, the CPEC and an infusion of cash from the IMF and friendly countries?

What was the Faiz-Bajwa tiff about? Who is responsible for the mess created by the insane concessions given to the TTP? Did Modi return to power without any help? Why was our system trying to penalise those who criticised him only a few years ago? Why were we bullied when we opposed the Taliban takeover of Kabul? Beyond cliched binaries, grimmer truths are waiting to be told. And why is it that despite all the fanfare and drama surrounding the judicial system, it still understands the language of affluence and influence?

These facts are relevant because they are neither resolved nor there is evidence that they will. The ordinary folks are stuck in a time-dilation bubble, while the rich and the state’s sweethearts keep going places. If you want to understand the dilemma that this state faces, it is that it hasn’t been able to resolve differences between the two sets of its favourites. Each one tries to use the state against the other. And when it doesn’t work, they turn around and attack the state. When the state gets an opportunity it spares no expense to woo them back.

In this fight between the two chosen groups, the common folk are asked to either be willing pawns or roadkill. Media ethics prohibit you from acting as a pawn. Roadkill you are, then.

But what happens when Prak has had enough of the medicine? Ceteris paribus, you are about to find out in a few weeks. And man, it is going to be a whopper. Don’t worry; you will get a front-row seat to the book launch.

Published in The Express Tribune, January 13th, 2024.

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