21 September 2014

When foreign correspondents had a ‘bad-sole’ day

Facts are sacred, comment free. That’s the line. In the year 2014, however, it seems that nothing, not even the most tragic of stories or the dullest of dull reports of dead markets, can escape capture and subjugation by King Entertainment. Tragedy is newsworthy only if it has entertainment value. Similarly, that which is dull or dead can be sold if properly spruced up.

News, folks, is fun. War is theater. Disease, famine, drought, floods, calamities of any kind, plane crashes and indeed all manner of tragedies decorate (not ‘make’) the evening news. They have good markets. They make good money. Just like a movie.

Just the other day, there was a historic visit to Sri Lanka by Chinese President Xi Jinping. Any idiot with even sophomoric understanding of global political economy, regional power struggles and Sri Lanka’s efforts to secure respite from the most pernicious sections of the international community would have some sense of the visit’s significance. But what caught eye and was considered the mother of all newsworthiness was the fact that Sri Lanka’s Cultural Minister T.B. Ekanayake had walked into proceedings sole-less. Now who caught this? Those who reported tell us ‘A hawk-eyed photographer’. Who reported? The Foreign Correspondents’ Association of Sri Lanka (FCASL). It’s gone ‘viral’ we are told.

Make no mistake it is not that we don’t see the funny side of this. No minister is so poor that he/she has to tip-toe when calle to sign an important bilateral agreement because he/she could not afford a decent pair of shoes. We don’t know Ekanayake’s story so let’s not play the guessing game. There are things we do know, though.

Anyone who has worn shoes knows of soles. Soles wear out. They sometimes come off totally or at the toe-end. Sole-less or bad-sole days are days of discomfort, days of awkward walk. It has happened to me and I am pretty sure to many others as well. I’ve learnt that it’s best to remove shoes and go barefoot wherever one happens to be. If someone notices, I explain. If people frown upon seeing someone walking barefoot carrying a pair of shoes in his hand, that’s their problem.

We don’t know Ekanayake’s story and we don’t know what kind of logic he draws from when dealing with bad-sole days. But I remember seeing a child tossing trash into a garbage can in one of 500 plus shanty communities in Colombo; I remember a single shoes dropping into the can along with other waste. I remember wondering what happened to the other shoe. I remember my thoughts straying to the child’s grandfather, my friend Suppiah Vijayan from whom I would at that time buy my daily bulath vita (betel chew) and talk of this and that, an old man who lost a leg courtesy an LTTE bomb attack targeting then Minister of National Security Ranjan Wijeratne.

I remember my sister once telling me, ‘if you are shaved and your shirt is clean and ironed, no one notices anything else’ and wondering why people don’t care about feet. That was because a few hours before someone told me that about Ruth First, wife of Joe Slovo, one time leader of the South African Communist Party and how, after she was blown to pieces in a parcel bomb blast in Mozambique the only they found of her were her feet.

None of these stories went ‘viral’. Suppiah died a few months ago and I didn’t even know because his sons didn’t have my phone number. He didn’t have shoes. He didn’t have soles and therefore there was nothing to ‘come off’.

But the FCASL found this matter of Ekanayake’s ‘wardrobe malfunction’ funny and newsworthy. It says a lot about the ‘foreign correspondents’ stationed in Sri Lanka, the kind of world they live in, their pet peeves, their outcome preferences and most of all, their values. Let’s not talk about their work!

At some point, in some way, T.B. Ekanayake tripped. He made a spectacle of himself. I have little sympathy to spare for politicians who embarrass themselves. I wouldn’t make a song and dance about it though, especially when there are more important things to talk about. But perhaps I am old-fashioned. Perhaps the FCASL got it right. They are not interested in any of the things they claim are important to them. They are here to entertain, ladies and gentlemen.

T.B. Ekanayake lost his soles. That’s a made-for-pun line and one that could easily undress these foreign correspondents. One doesn’t have to do that though. Right now, they look less-dressed than Ekanayake. Truth be told, Ekanayake actually looks stunning!