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At times like this, when faith in everything sane and normal and conventional is upturned by events, one is forced to disbelieve prose and escape into the reassurance of poetry.

T.S. Eliot was a British poet whose prose read like poetry and whose poetry read like prose. Whoever has read both can never forget either. His play Murder in the Cathedral (1935) is a morality play, an allegory in which the central figure is the Catholic martyr Thomas Becket.

In 1162 AD, Becket was selected by King Henry II to become the Archbishop of Canterbury. Henry and Becket had been close friends, and when King Henry appointed Becket, he hoped that his former friend would behave as a loyal servant of the Crown. However, to Henry’s chagrin, Becket regards his spiritual office as archbishop as outweighing the king’s temporal authority, and the two fall out. (Any similarity between a former prime minister and his benefactor COAS is purely coincidental.)

Eliot uses the device of four tempters to distract Becket. The first recalls the sybaritic pleasures he shared during his carefree ‘bromance’ with Henry. The second reminds him of the political power — ‘the punier power’ — he exercised as Lord Chancellor before becoming archbishop. The third tries to persuade Becket to ‘stoop to political manoeuvring’ with the nobles against the king. The fourth tempter offers Becket martyrdom. The last he regards as the most insidious temptation of all — ‘the greatest treason: / To do the right deed for the wrong reason’.

Anyone who has been watching the immorality play being performed outside Zaman Park in Lahore and in the judicial courts in Rawalpindi, Islamabad and Lahore must have noticed the parallel between Becket’s inexorable steps to martyrdom and the PTI leader Imran Khan’s dangerous courtship with it.

The Mughal emperor Aurangzeb once described the internecine struggles for the throne at Delhi as a choice between ‘takht ya takhta’ — the throne or the stone slab. He had a point. Modern politics in Pakistan has the same scorpion sting to it.

The efforts made by functionaries of the courts to enforce judicial writ and by various tentacles of the federal government and Punjab governments have been thwarted too often and too effectively. Was their heart at variance with their lathis?

Mr. Khan’s ingenuity in avoiding apprehension reminds one of T. S. Eliot’s poems — the humorous Macavity: The Mystery Cat.

Its lines read: ‘There’s no one like Macavity./ He’s broken every human law, he breaks the laws of gravity./ His powers of levitation would make a fakir stare/ And when you reach the scene of the crime/ Macavity’s not there.’

Our successors will have good reason to wonder why our current leaders find it so difficult to reconcile to economic realities — and to each other — at this fragile time of national insolvency. The British are now — three years after quitting membership of the European Union — voicing regrets over the ill-conceived referendum that has left Great Britain an offshore island off mainland Europe. Within the EU, Britain had a role to play. Outside, it has only itself to play with.

Will we too in Pakistan be tempted to hold a referendum (under the false banner of democratic self-expression) on whether our provinces wish to remain together? Or will we, like other countries which suffer similar levels of incompetent governance, muddle through, depending on God’s mercy and the shrinking generosity of our friends?

Regardless of what the PDM government and its myopic Mr. Magoo finance minister may have us believe, the IMF is not our saviour of the first and last resort. Those with a memory will recall that in 1971, we looked towards the United States as just that, with disastrous results and a festering disappointment the pain of which is still felt today.

The holy month of Ramazan is upon us. To the pious, it is a month of self-abnegation. To the poor, it is yet another of 365 days of unassuaged hunger. To die of exhaustion in a queue waiting for subsidised atta, as too many have already done, is to suffer ‘martyrdom’ entirely for the wrong reason.

At times like this, one needs to turn again to poetry for solace. Our politicians have no time either for poetry or for prose. They prefer to spout slogans that are inedible.

Two centuries ago, in 1813, the British romantic Percy Bysshe Shelley wrote as if anticipating our todays: ‘Power, like a desolating pestilence,/ pollutes whate’er it touches.’ Our politicians may have survived Covid-19. They still suffer from that desolating pestilence.

And to those who wield lathis, Shelley addressed these words: ‘and obedience, bane of all genius, freedom, truth,/ makes slaves of men’.



[Dawn, 23 March 2023


23 March 2023
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