Monday, September 22, 2014

Silumina gets it right, almost

Editorials reflect political position. That’s a given thing. When an election is right around the corner, and if you’re unsure which position a paper has branded itself under, look no further than on what the editor thinks. This is true when it comes to Sri Lanka, and for anyone entertaining the myth that our media is free of political leaning (whether government or opposition) a perusal of editorial rhetoric would knock some sense in. But, as always, there are those (very) occasional exceptions. As is the case, though, exceptions come very rarely. Newspapermen may talk of freedom of expression. Only rarely, however, are their editors enlightened enough to appreciate that there’s more to debate than one’s crass political leanings. Ceylon Today and The Nation win on this count.

Yesterday, the Uva elections ended. The results, predictable as they were, came. Newspapers which didn’t have late morning issues couldn’t make them front page news. None of the four major English-language weeklies, Sunday Observer excluded, made provincial politics subject in their editorials. The Observer being the pro-regime mouthpiece it always has been championed the government for having “won the hearts of a new segment of people who had never voted for the UPFA or the SLFP in their lives”. The reference was to voters in Colombo. One can argue why any context-driven editorial should focus on claims unrelated to that context (which was the implications of the Uva elections), but then again, come to think of it, what can one hope of the Observer?

This is why I was pleasantly surprised to read Silumina’s editorial. Silumina is the Observer’s sister paper. Both are avowedly pro-regime. They should be. They are government-run and government-managed. In recent years, though, my trust in them has been solidified. No thanks to the Observer, which I “gave up” a long time back. Silumina, though, is a different story. That paper has content and context, and is eclectic enough not to sing regime-friendly politics with every word, phrase, and article that get published in it. Let’s look at media ethics here. Should government-control imply government-support? Probably yes. But this doesn’t and indeed shouldn’t mean that every page should conveniently sing regime-praises. Nor should it mean the opposite, of course. A middle path (of sorts) must be struck. The Observer, regrettably, has not reached this path. Not yet. Silumina? The editorial yesterday decided me. In its favour.

පොත්ද? නූඩ්ල්ස් ද?” (“Books or Noodles?”) was the heading. Having read several editorials that day delving into political polemics, I was a little taken aback. My curiosity aroused, I read on. The theme was about the recently concluded Book Fair at the BMICH. The meaning of the title dawned on me soon. There was, the article contended, a sizable crowd at this year’s fair. Children and adults, of whatever age and whatever background, thronged. There were books. Lots of them. Second-hand too. Problem was, had the crowd thronged at BMICH for the books or for the noodles being served at corners? The editorial, presumably, wasn’t just singling out noodles-outlets here. It was including those various other “extra” activities which seemed to drag in more crowds than did certain bookstalls. This implied that the Book Fair really was a “fair” – circus-like, if you can put it that way. “Those who came for the event went away with a few exercise books at most,” continued the article.

I am not cynical over the way things are going. But the Book Fair has, in recent years, become something of an oxymoron/joke.  A certain section of people goes to the Fair because of its appeal. Now that social media has completely allured them, this section finds a sort of “status-premium” in going out with one’s friends for no reason other than the “fun” part of it. “තේරුමක් නැතුව කරක් ගහනවා”, one could describe it in Sinhala. There were books this year. Far more than last year, the way I saw it. Some of them were rarities. But from among those who patronised the event, there was a sizable portion (not a majority) who had come regarding the Fair as a jamboree. There were whole families, months-old babies among them. Not that I’m ringing alarm bells here. Books aren’t indisputable. But when a crowd-gathering, annual event of this nature takes in a number who considers it from a social media point of view, what else can one do but deplore?

Here, however, the Silumina editorial went off-track. It contended that this wasn’t an indication of the event’s failure. That’s true. The Book Fair isn’t a cricket match. Fans throng at big-matches not to take selfies or share gossip over Coca-Cola. The Book Fair is a different matter. The problem with this points more towards book-readership and notions about book-learning in the country than towards event-shortcomings. Surprisingly, though, the editorial refused to tackle this side of the matter, instead taking issue with those who (wrongly) claimed that the Fair had “gone down”. Neither party saw the bigger picture here, obviously. Not surprising, considering that both were intent on proving each other wrong. Naturally enough, the editorial was concerned with one side to the story. Forgotten in this were the larger issues.

There are those who think that book-readership is a function of social background. Their way of explaining this phenomenon would be that most of the squatters at the Fair came from non-book-reading families, implying (rather poorly, I should think) that they were the “less well-off”. Ever since education was made free in this country, the (self-labelled) elite always have had an axe to grind with the (so-called) illiterate masses. According to them, the problem with these squatters is the lack of book-readership (supposedly) inculcated in them by the education system. Unlike those “good old days”, as they term it. The illiterate masses, hence, are to blame. In other words, the Fair as such had built Coca-Cola stores, video game arcades and the like specifically with them in mind. “Idlers”, those elite would call them. I am sure I have met up with people who think along these lines. I am also sure that somewhere out there, disillusionment and a big jolt in the head await them. Let me bring them a little closer here.

Let’s look at their premise, for starters. I don’t pretend to be an expert here. I’m going by experience. It remains a visible fact (that is, visible to everyone but these snooties) that most of the idlers/squatters at the Fair were those who had planned to “spend” time at these places right at the beginning. This does not mean they didn’t buy any book. Others would have come to these places to quench thirst or hunger. The Book Fair takes in a greater crowd to bookstalls in a day bookshops do over a period of time (more than a day, to be specific). Take Vijitha Yapa, for example. There was a time when you just couldn’t get into its Kohuwala branch. It was almost like a Book Fair. That was a time when a “visit” to that bookshop was a ritual in itself; when book-selection was a matter for intense concentration and consideration.

Times change. There are days when only two or three others visit the place the same time I do. This has nothing to do with class distinction. Doctored as they are, economic statistics would prove that we have a greater per capita income level than we did a couple or so years back. That this doesn’t translate into upward income mobility, I know. But one would at least expect bookshops to see more patrons than they do now. For those of you who think that this is an “outside-city” phenomenon, visit the Colombo Vijitha Yapa branch opposite Thurstan College and see for yourself. The point is, we as a nation have become less and less the book-readers we once were. “We” implies a collective and not just a social segment in particular.

But there’s a bigger lesson for the snooties here. It is a known fact that outside-Colombo residents have no real access to books the way we in Colombo do. They come, by the dozen at times, and they buy. Together. Not very different to what happens at the Fair. That’s one aspect to the event those self-titled “book-lovers” missed. Here’s another: from those who came to indulge in “extra” activities, a significant proportion (again, not the majority) came from the same background to which these snooties belong.

Does this prove anything against them? Not really. But that’s beside the point here. A rough, random comparison of those buying books against those whiling away the time at game arcades would make evident to anyone which “class” engaged in which activity. The thing is, those with lower budgets spent nearly every penny on books. They were cash-strapped. The cash-obese, though, didn’t. They could afford not to. The snooties (mainly the “Colombians”) figure prominently among this crowd. Stands to reason, after all. In my experience so far, those having less money tend to place more value on books.

Bottom line: book-buying is not a function of social background. Never was. Not in Sri Lanka. Snobs who tend to degrade (impliedly, of course) those “less well-off” in the social scale as “illiterate masses” would do well to brush up on some basic economics. Here’s a home truth: marginal utility is greater when commodities are hard to find and enjoy. Think “diamond-versus-water” here. The Book Fair just made books a little cheaper for those who couldn’t buy them elsewhere. Doesn’t mean that these “illiterates” went there to idle. On the contrary, they know thrift. They know utility. And above all, they know book-value. Those snobs and snooties who take their children to idle-exercises in game arcades and the like would have done better to see where they were actually going to without disparaging others. Thing is, they are cash-obese. And privilege-obese. If ever a “redistribution” of sorts should happen, it should be from the cash-obese to the cash-emaciated. In this context, of course. That’s a good way of pumping in money to kids who’ll go to events of this sort for what they’re worth: a nine-letter word called EDUCATION.

Silumina got it right. Almost. It didn’t get its facts wrong. It merely missed them.