Short stories, Travel and Health Information
“Never let the truth stand in the way of a good story”
Tarzie Vittachi (1921-1993).
The story went that when Pope Francis I arrived in Sri Lanka for his Official Papal Visit in 2015, he was provided with an official car and driver – and the man selected for the responsible task of driving the Pope during his stay in the country was a chap by the name of Dissanayake Mudiyanselage Gordon Francis Jayawardena.
Having driven the Pope to all his official engagements in Colombo on the first day, Gordon (as he was called by everybody except his mother – who persisted in calling him Francis, which was the sanctified name of his maternal grandfather) turned up as instructed early the following morning to drive the Pope to Galle. Now Gordon, not being familiar with the protocol of the Catholic church, was not quite certain how he should correctly address the Pope – whether he should say “Your Reverence” or “Your Eminence” or “Your Holiness”. So the first time he had to address this honoured guest, he reverently addressed him as “Your Majesty”. The Pope, in his customary charming manner, smiled at him and said ‘My son, you don’t have to address me in such formal terms. Just call me Francis’ – to which Gordon politely responded, in his best English, “Thank you, sir. Please call me Gordie.”
Now it happened that as they travelled along the picturesque Southern Exressway, the Pope was captivated by the beautiful scenery around him – and after a while he spoke wistfully to his driver. “Gordie”, he said, “I must admit that back home in the Vatican City I have so many cars and chauffeurs and bodyguards – but since I left Argentina, I have never had the opportunity to get behind a steering wheel and drive a car. In fact, I haven’t been behind the wheel of a car in years! I was just wondering if it would be possible for me to exchange places with you, so that I can have a chance to drive for a little while along this lovely stretch of road, with this picturesque green scenery on either side. Do you think it could be done?”
Now Gordie did not want to disappoint the Pope – but at the same time he didn’t want to lose his job either. But then he thought, it would only be for a short while, and it would certainly make the pontiff happy. It would be a bit of a risk giving the Pope the wheel – but after all, this WAS the Pope, and surely if the Pope did not have Friends in high places to protect him, who did?
So Gordie drew the car to the side of the road, got out, opened the door for the Pope, helped him into the driver’s seat and showed him the basic controls. Having satisfied himself that the Pope was confident with the accelerator and brake pedals, he got into the back seat and stretched out in comfort to enjoy the ride.
Pope Francis was thoroughly happy to be behind a wheel again, and soon they were speeding along the road. True, they were going a bit over the speed limit – but Gordie rationalised that they were in Good Hands.
Things were proceeding smoothly (if a trifle fast) when there loomed in front of them a road block. A police sergeant waved them down – and the Pope brought the car screeching to a halt. The sergeant walked up to the car and motioned for the driver to lower the shutter. As he leaned down to look into the car, Gordie said loudly “Just ask the policeman what he wants, Francis”.
“Leave it to me, Gordie” replied the Pope – and turning politely to the policeman asked “What can I do for you, sergeant?”
The policeman looked intently at the driver, swallowed hard, said “Wait a minute Sir” and went back to his guard post. He quickly called his Officer in Charge on the radio.
“Sir” he said when the OIC answered “I have got a small problem. I have stopped a vehicle for speeding and inside is a Very Big VIP.”
“Who is it?” asked the OIC “is it one of the local MPs? Those fellows are always speeding recklessly around as if they are above the law…”
“No sir” repled the sergeant “this is someone bigger than an ordinary MP”
“Then who… Sergeant, have you gone and stopped the Prime Minister?”
“No sir, not him. He only travels by helicopter when he goes down south – never by car like ordinary people. This is someone more important than the PM.”
“Omygod!” exclaimed the OIC “Have you stopped the President himself?”
“Aiyo no sir, not the President. This is someone even bigger than our President.”
The OIC was getting a bit worried at this stage. Who could be more powerful than the Prime Minister and the President? A thought suddenly struck him.
“I say Sergeant, don’t tell me you are trying to book someone like the Chairman of Sri Lankan Cricket?”
“No sir” came the reply. “This person is more powerful than even him. Actually as a matter of fact it is God Himself sitting in the back of the car.”
“Are you sure?” queried the incredulous OIC. “How do you know, men, that it is God in the car? Can you see Him?”
“Can’t see Him clearly, sir” said the sergeant, “but I am definitely certain that this is God. He is sitting comfortably stretched out in the back seat – and He has got the Pope himself driving His car.”
After my story first appeared in a Sri Lankan Sunday paper, I had quite a few messages from readers who had enjoyed the story – including an old friend, a Catholic priest, who reassured me that he knew the tale wasn’t ‘the truth, the whole and nothing but the truth’ because he was well aware that Pope Francis had never been taken on a drive to Galle. “However” he wrote “you had made the story sound so authentic and humorous – I particularly liked that bit about Gordie addressing the Pope as ‘Your Majesty’ – that I am sure even the Pope himself would have enjoyed reading it!”
Which message, I must admit, I took as a compliment to my creativity and I valued very highly. I am a firm believer that one must never let an obsession with the truth stand in the way of a good story.
To balance the bouquets I received, however, I had a different type of call from one of my old classmates.
“I say, you are a fine fellow, no” he began when he got me on the phone.
“That’s true” I observed in reply to this statement “but why have you taken the trouble to give me a phone call just to tell me that I am a fine fellow?”
“No men, you have made a big mistake in your article about the Pope last Sunday, no. You have said that he went by car to Galle when everyone knows that all the time he was in Sri Lanka he only went to Madhu in a motorcade.”
“That wasn’t a mistake” I told him patiently “that was a deliberate exercise of poetic licence.”
“Poetic what, I say?”
“Poetic licence” I repeated “It means the privilege of a poet – or a writer – to write something that is not strictly accurate so as to make the poem or story more interesting. And if you had read the story carefully, you would have noticed there were a few more items in it that were fictitious rather than factual.”
“Then why did you write them if they were not true?” he asked again “You are becoming just like our politicians who are all the time telling us things that they know are not true.”
I spent a few minutes explaining to him that the truth is not always interesting or entertaining – and that the really interesting stories are those that often make up in entertainment value what they lack in veracity. It’s a bit like the old story about the two major newspapers in the USSR, named Pravda (which means ‘Truth’) and Izvestia (which means ‘News’). The Russians used to often say that there was no izvestia in Pravda and no pravda in Izvestia! I recall that famous journalist Tarzie Vittachi advising me many years ago in simple and blunt terms “Putha, sometimes we journalists have to add a bit of pepper and salt to make a news story interesting.”
And that is the whole point I tried to make to my erstwhile classmate, who has a sense of humour that would have made Queen Victoria seem like a laughing jackass. My objective in writing this story was not to accurately report the news, but to put a smile on the faces of my readers and perhaps a chuckle on their lips – and leave them in a good mood to face the coming week.
One of my dear friends Dr Nimalsiri Mendis, a popular and respected GP in Panadura, used to tell me “When a patient comes in to see me with a woebegone look on their face and appearing to be carrying the whole weight of the world on their shoulders, my objective is to ensure that when they leave my consulting room I have put a smile back on their face and given a lift to their spirits.”
And if occasionally I have to add a bit of salt and pepper and chilli powder to my stories to achieve such a worthy objective, could it not truthfully be said that it is all done in a good cause?
If you liked reading this story, more such stories can be found in my book Tales From my Island – available as an e-book from Amazon.com