They Were My Best Years
By Asgar Hussein Author
The Sunday Leader has now reached adulthood. As it celebrates its 18th birthday, let’s hope it keeps acting like the outrageous kid we have always known.
I worked at the paper for nine years. When I joined, it was an infant (or should I say enfant terrible). Before long, it got into the habit of delivering 5000 volt shocks to the bigwigs and their dogs.
The years I spent at the Leader were the best I ever had. It was a place that always seemed to be in the centre of things. For some strange reason, even Temple Trees and Parliament seemed to revolve around it. However, I can’t describe such feelings further lest readers think I’m schizophrenic.
Anyway, the Leader was known to be a strange place. Inexplicable things often happened (like when a colleague who always talked about God suddenly began rambling about sex). As I can’t reveal such things in detail, I’ll confine myself to an inoffensive description of my early days as a cub reporter:
A typical afternoon in the newsroom (circa 1995)
Clickety-clack goes the typewriter used by a colleague whose handwriting bears a semblance to Egyptian hieroglyphics. And while I’m racking my brains out to finish my copy, the females engage in their habitual girl-talk, creating a cacophony in the process. I’d love to plug some cotton into my ears, but that would make me look like a cross between King Kong and a cotton pod. So I write on, reminding myself that empty vessels make the biggest noise.
Suddenly, an irate sub-editor yells at me – “Where’s your …….copy?” He reminds me that the deadline was 2.00 P.M. YESTERDAY. I stare at my watch and fidget nervously. It suddenly dawns on him that I suffer from chronic procrastination, and he walks away, despair written all over his brow.
After handing in my article two hours later, I turn my attention elsewhere. Plucking some courage, I launch a diatribe against the feminist outbursts of the girls. I tell them that one day I will launch a paper of my own – The Daily Male Chauvinist. They react by plonking me in the head. Then I comment about their vital statistics, and remark that one of them is living evidence of the missing link. They turn violent, and to save myself from a broken jaw or dislocated shoulder, I fight back in mock terror shouting, “Hey, my defence mechanism is running out of control!” I wonder why they want to prove their manhood.
Some memorable assignments
As a young reporter at the Leader, life seemed to be a whirlpool. Events happened and unravelled in rapid succession. There were press conferences and demonstrations, political rallies and cocktail parties. However, what we relished most were the investigations. This was largely due to the influence of Lasantha, who went around sniffing like a bloodhound.
In July 1995, my colleague Ruwanthi and I embarked on an unusual mission. Armed with a mock bomb (wired with batteries), we walked into various establishments in the city to check how efficient the security was. It was hilarious. Among other places, we ‘infiltrated’ the Police Headquarters and the Supreme Court complex. Everywhere, the mock bomb passed undetected. In some places, metal detectors were available but not used (maybe the guards thought they were meant for ornamental purposes).
That story exploded in the faces of many people. Two weeks later, when I called Police Headquarters on another matter, a top-cop thundered over the phone, “You have abused our courtesy”. More interestingly, he promised me a thorough body check if I was gracious enough to visit again. Another interesting assignment was visiting a blue film parlour down Armour Street.
I was accompanied by crime reporter Premalal. Around us sat over 50 lecherous fellows, eyes glued to the screen, watching the recommendations of the Kama Sutra unfold. Some of them looked like corpses stiff with rigor mortis. Anyway, things went smoothly until the TV suffered visual and sound interruptions. Then the crowd cursed and fumed before an operator scurried in to correct the disturbance. He was lucky – had he come a few seconds later, he would have entered our story as a victim of mob violence.
Strangely, the greatest risk I faced was not on some dangerous assignment, but while walking the pavements of London. In December 1995, British Airways flew me and other journalists to England on an educational tour. Unfortunately, I failed to wear enough warm clothing, and stepped out into the biting cold of London. As we walked on, I felt my blood turn to ice.
I jumped into a phone booth to increase my body temperature at least by a few degrees. Had I not done that, I would have crashed onto the pavement, and Londoners would have been amazed to see my compatriots carrying something like an Ice Age fossil into the Charing Cross Hotel.
There are many more things that bump and knock in my head when I think of my days at the Leader. It was a great place to work. There was much camaraderie, and despite the pressures of chasing stories and meeting deadlines, we had plenty of fun and laughter. I wish Frederica and her team all the best in keeping the spirit of the Leader blazing.