The Journey of a Journalist (Part 1) – FROM VILLAGE BOY TO GLOBAL CITIZEN
Posted on September 14th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne ©2009

My great ambition as a 15-year-old child was to become “one of the outstanding statesmen of the world” and to go overseas to “get acquainted with foreigners and their ways of life.” These revelations appeared in a regular “What I want to be” children’s feature published in a Colombo daily on April 1, 1955.

 The story, which carried a one-column photo of mine, called me an “ambitious lad” whose favorite subject in school [Ananda College] was Government, and who concentrated “on writing and caricaturing in his spare time.” The story ended with the following observation by the children’s page editor: “He’s a keen student of Religion, too, and many are the articles I’ve had from him on the Buddhist Way of Life.”

 My interest in journalism emerged in the early 1950s when I started publishing stories and cartoons in the children’s pages of both Sinhala and English newspapers. I revered the occasions when the children’s page editor of a newspaper would allow me to meet with him or her to submit a contribution and keep the personal touch.  Whenever I got into the elevator in the Times Building or climbed the stairs at Lake House to meet with a journalist, I felt deeply honored.

 I still have a dilapidated scrapbook containing the clippings of my stories (e.g., “Birds sang to me,” “Evening in the country,” “A disciple of Buddha,” “Amanapaya,” “Mithurudama,” “Balun bolaya,” “Budu hamuwa”) and cartoons (e.g., “Little John,” “A nasty trick”) published in the junior pages during the three years since I turned 12.

 I was born in the village of Pathegama, off Weligama, in the deep South. Having completed my primary education at the village school, I became a student at Sri Sumangala Vidyalaya, Weligama.  We (my older sister and I) had to walk five or six miles every weekday along a gravel road from Pathegama to Weligama for our education. That was our primary exercise as well as entertainment. Television was unknown then. Only the headmaster of the village school owned a car in Pathegama. Only a few families had access to a gramophone or radio. Those who had the purchasing power made newspaper-reading their entertainment. That’s how I turned into a newspaper addict.                          

 On weekends, I used to eagerly await the arrival of my father from Colombo to read the cartoons in the copy of the evening Observer, which he would invariably bring. I would also await the arrival of Bandarawela Bappa, who worked at the town post office, to read the witty verse and prose in the Kawata Mutta or the humorous illustrated “limericks” in the weekend Lankadeepa he brought home for entertainment. I can remember two of the unforgettable illustrated lyrics I memorized from these publications

 Subachiya pol gahata negeela (Subachiya climbed a coconut tree)

Thelijja muttiya serama beela (He drank all the toddy in the pot)

Hondatama very wee gahen vateela (Having gotten drunk, he fell off the tree)

Gahen vehnu kala kakula kedeela (Upon falling, he broke his leg)

 Kiri Mamage duwa dunna (Uncle Kiri gave away his daughter)

Deweddata ge dunna (He gave his home as dowry)

Deweddata ge dun kala (After giving his home as dowry)

Kiri mamata gus (Uncle Kiri was left with trees)

 All four lines rhyme in the first lyric whereas only the first two do in the second. But their intended humor embedded in rustic Sinhala culture made an indelible impression upon me that moved me tilt toward journalism as an art form. So I dabbled in caricaturing for a period. I liked to see my name in print. When I realized that I wasn’t going to make it in cartooning,      I moved into writing.

 At the age of 12, I moved to Colombo, spending the first couple of years at Carey College, then moving onto Ananda College. At Carey, I had the benefit of learning English from a renowned school master, Austin T. Cooray, who hailed from Moratuwa. Cooray called me “Weligama Podda,” a nickname that fortunately did not stick to me beyond Carey.

 I pushed myself to be in the good books of Principal S. A. Wijetilleke at Ananda College, where I got a public boost from the principal at the morning general assembly each time I succeeded in getting a letter to the editor published in the Ceylon Daily News. V. Thanabalasingham (1930-2007), the English teacher at Ananda, insisted that we write prƒÆ’†’©cis of CDN editorials. Moreover, Thanabalasingham taught us how to appreciate Charles Dickens’s classic “A Tale of Two Cities,” the then required text for the senior examination.

 Our Government teacher was Tilak Ratnakara””‚a buddy of K. M. P. Rajaratne, M.P. for Welimada, and university don F. R. Jayasuriya, who were in the nationalist political forefront at the time. Ratnakara explicated the national politics of the 1950s with good anecdotes. Baldwin Kuruppu, a superb teacher of Sinhala literature, lured me to savor the rustic flavor of the works of Martin Wickremasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekera, both from my own deep South.

 Besides, Ananda provided me the opportunity to hobnob with classmates who showed immense talent in journalism and literature, the likes of J. B. Dissanayake, Sunanda M. de  Mel (later Sunanda Mahendra), Buddhadasa Bodhinayake, and D. B. Nihalsingha. I believe that we competed with one another to improve our journalistic and literary skills. Sunanda had personal connections with Piyal Wickremasinghe, a journalist with the Lankadeepa. Karunaratne Abeyesekera, the famous Sinhala broadcaster, helped Bodhinayake to practice radio broadcasting. Nihalsingha was the son of the renowned editor D. B. Dhanapala.

 Bear with me to savor a witty creative effort of J. B. Dissanayake on the day that Kuruppu introduced us to the poetry on the mirror wall (Kat Bitha) at Sigiriya, and drew our particular attention to the following verse:

            Budalmi (I am Budal)

            Siyowa aami (I came alone)

            Belu-belu boho jana gi liyu bevin limi (I too wrote this verse because many others did) 

J. B. (Jayaratne Banda) immediately submitted his appreciation of the verse by cleverly introducing himself as JaBayami (“I am JB”) provoking a great deal of amusement in the class.

 1958 was a significant year because I got into the Peradeniya campus of the University of Ceylon that year. In the first year, I read all the novels and other writings of Charles Dickens thanks to the inspiring teaching of Thanabalasingham at Ananda. I was so Dickensized that I submitted a short-story written in Dickensian English to the university magazine. Editor Cassian Fernando, younger brother of journalist Philip Fernando, published it thereby subjecting me to a great deal of teasing on the campus for the damage done to Queen’s English. Philip Coorey, an English major two years senior to me, subjected me to several verbal punches in a speech at a farewell social at Jayatilaka Hall.

 In those halcyon years, the Peradeniya campus was an intellectual and cultural haven with an Oxbridge touch. Although the Kultur-Haramanis division between the Westernized elite-school crowd and the rural Mahavidyala crowd spoiled the social fabric of the campus, as much as the black-white division on American campuses, things were getting better with the 1958 changes in the country’s political leadership. Marxists and Trotskyites, who were very active on campus, tried hard to dismantle this division with some success. But everyone had equal access to the multiethnic intellectual elite of the campus, e.g., E.R. Sarachchandra, D. E. Hettiarachchi, F. R. Jayasuriya, A. J. Wilson, H. A. de S. Gunasekera, W. S. Karunaratne, “Tawney” Rajaratnam, H. A. Passe, and many more.

 I was “reading” for a four-year special degree in economics at the university, but my heart and soul was in journalism and literature. I was in a field in which I had only a yawning interest. But university rules were inflexible. Besides journalism or mass communications was not an available option for study under the then university set up.

 Therefore, I diverted more study time to do extra-curricular activities that suited my particular interests, such as editing a literary magazine named “Pratibha”  with an editorial team of three other Jayatilaka Hall mates””‚H. G. “Gaya” Gunawardena, T. P. G. N. “Nandasiri” Leelaratne, and S. S, “Sirimegha” Wijeratne. We succeeded in funding and publishing three issues.

 I graduated with   a lackluster special degree in economics in 1962. However, I willfully avoided the Convocation. I wasn’t born to be an economist. In my heart, I have always been a journalist. Even now, as a 69-year-old retired professor, I cannot resist my journalistic itch although I continue to produce peer-reviewed journal articles for my scholarly satisfaction.  

 In the autobiographical sketches following this introductory piece, I will unfold how my fascination with journalism ended up in an unexpected career””‚a hybrid of journalism, literature, mass communication, teaching, Buddhism and scholarship. I failed to achieve my ambition of becoming a renowned statesman. But I succeeded in making myself a global citizen with modest credentials in journalism and communication scholarship. True to the early expression of the goals of my life, I have realized my “interest in getting to know foreigners and their ways of life” while applying Buddhist principles to resolving problems in Western social science.

 Next: Cutting my journalistic teeth at Lake House

 [The writer is professor of mass communications emeritus, Minnesota State University Moorhead.]

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