October 10, 2013
Ran into one of the younger guys I once mentored at a news channel. He was a participant in one of those workshops that have become all the rage these days. I was there as a skeptical observer looking for yet more reasons to blast all this nonsense about so-called professional enhancement.
As to be expected he was respectful etc. etc. Still somehow I could not get it out of my mind that all the while he chatted on about how well he was doing and how thankful he was to learn so much from me that there was also a barely disguised look of pity in his eyes for me. This was something I have never encountered before. It irked me no end. Finally, I could not stand it anymore.
I walked up to him and said: "Spit it out. What's on your mind? You're treating me like I have some kind of terminal illness and deserve your sympathy."
He was suitably taken aback, but much to his credit bounced back reasonably quick. "Sir..." he began, "I was just thinking that you have been in the profession for the past 20 years or so and yet you drive a car that needs to be sent to the scrap heap. Your laptop is generations old. I'm amazed it even works. There are other indications that your best time is behind you. I was feeling bad that I have learned so much from you but have nothing to offer you but words of thanks. I wish there was more I could do and maybe there is... if you permit."
Hmmmm... never thought of myself in those terms. I had no answer.
Through the dark cloud of indignity and astonishment that suddenly overcame me I heard him say: "Sir how about dinner tonight? Perhaps we can talk then."
I don't know why, but I agreed.
He picked me up from my hotel room sharp at eight and sped me to a fancy new restaurant somewhere in F-6/3 in his spanking new Honda Civic.
He didn't ask me what I would like to eat, instead rattling off a half dozen dishes to the delight of the waiter to whom he also handed over a 500-rupee note. The waiter's smile broadened.
That out of the way, he turned to me and said, "It is now my turn to bring you up to speed with the way things are these days. First of all, please shed this 'sharif guy/professiorial' image. That might have worked in the 1990's and before, but not now. True I learned a lot from you, but you have a lot to learn from me as well. You will wonder how all this linked to journalism, but it is. Sir this is the new world and you either swim or sink... it's that simple. Right now, sir, you are drowning."
I could feel my hackles rise. This pup, yesterday's bacha was telling me that he was going to teach me how to conduct my professional life. "Teri maa kee..."
"Listen sir, I have only the very best in mind for you. Please sit down and give me a chance."
I sat down.
"It’s a ruthless industry, a ruthless time and one has to adapt. Sir, you have to market yourself not as a journalist but as a media expert, a consultant, an analyst, an event manager, a PR specialist, a man with influential linkages and a network that extends not only to the government, the military and the police but also non-governmental organizations, the corporate world and most certainly the local city administrations. Sir, I know you can write, but if you do not build such a network there is only one direction in which you will head. Do you have the assets I just mentioned?"
I took a moment before ruefully shaking my head.
The food arrived.
He served me, took a few mouthfuls himself, before continuing. "For beginners I suggest you station yourself in Islamabad," he declared.
I began to protest but he cut me off. "Islamabad has it all," he said smugly. "Lahore has become a provincial village."
I put my glass down and gave him a dirty look. He ignored it.
"All the federal government offices are here. The UN and its branches are here. The NGO head offices are here. USAID and other donor agency projects are here. The top media organizations and personalities are here. GHQ is here. Sir, you have to build linkages, meet with secretaries of various ministries on a regular basis, take them out to dinner, do them favors, meet with diplomats, pander to their needs. For example if your American friend's car is giving trouble, you know just the right mechanic. You get it fixed but you don't take money from him. You tell him the garage belongs to you etc etc. You have to align yourself with some NGO or the other. You have to fight for a charity or cause. And sir.... you must put your principles aside and write or produce reports that are beneficial to your friends. If they benefit, they will make sure you do too. That is today's media sir. You have to wake up."
I had stopped eating long ago. I put the piece of naan I had in my hand down on the plate and sat back. "You are saying I should be corrrupt?" I asked.
"I'm saying you need to be realistic," pat came the reply. "You need to weigh your options and see which it is that benefits you."
"But that's not what journalism is about," I spluttered angrily.
"It is now," he said smugly.
There was a long drawn out silence. Then he said: "Can I ask how much you earn?"
"Sixty five thousand," I said sticking out my chest.
He smiled at me indulgently. "It's more than I thought it would be," he conceded.
"And you?" I blurted out even though I had firmly told myself I would not ask.
"Four to six hundred thousand per month," he said. "I have two cars, three homes in Islamabad, one in Gujranwala and one in Multan. I also have a small farm near Kalar Kahar, a restaurant in Rawalpindi and four plots of land in developing sectors in Islamabad. I have visas for almost all countries and I can get visas for anybody I want. I can get people arrested or released and I can most certainly tell my bosses at the channel what I want to do. I dictate to them; not the other way around."
"And you are comfortable with all this?" I asked.
"Is there any doubt," he shot back.
I guess not.
Of course he footed the bill, handed the waiter another 500 bucks, declined having the enormous amounts of left-over food packed and suggested we head to a sheesha joint before he dropped me back at the hotel.
I said "No thanks."
He came up to my room and looked around distastefully. "At least let me get you a better place to stay," he said.
I said I was fine.
Right before he left he did have another observation and then a suggestion. "I can see you need to bolster your income," he began, "What if I suggested we get you a khoka (kiosk) near Poly Clinic... that would help. At least you will be making more than 100,000 per month. Oh no.... you don't have to pay anything. I'll get it done for you. Think about it. How about a khoka?"
I walked him to his car.
"I'll be in touch," he promised before vanishing into the night.
That was 11.35pm. It's now four in the morning and I can't sleep. Been thinking about what he said. Just wondering. I do need the additional cash and I'm not yet ready to be nobody even if more than half the people at the workshop did not know who I am.
"How about a khoka?" his voice rang in my head.
How about it?
The Nation, February 16, 2017