The Journey of a Journalist (Part 10B) – ‘CONSULTING’ –COLOMBO-STYLE AND SHARING NOSTALGIA
Posted on October 31st, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2009

[N.B.: I wrote part of this installment with my Peradeniya campus contemporaries of the late ’50s and early “ƒ”¹…”60s in mind. Others may not find much significance in the names mentioned.] 

 On my return to Sri Lanka from travels Down Under, my operational headquarters shifted from Happawana to the Lodge, also called the International House, at 5 Bagatalle Terrace, Colombo 3. I was hoping to “advice” the Journalism Unit of the Colombo University on its course structure and direction and deliver pertinent lectures on topics I had specialized in return for providing me rent-free accommodation.

I expected to work with Professor J.B. Dissanayake, who was in charge of the Journalism Unit. But JB, the self-proclaimed “JaBayami” a la “Budalmi” (see the related anecdote in Part 1) whom I knew from my Ananda College days, was on a sabbatical in London. The late Wijeyawardene, who substituted for Dissanayake as the supervising professor of the Journalism Unit, was unable to determine how my expertise and skills would best suit the needs of the unit. 

The Lodge also provided the four SPANers with easy access to me while also enabling me to introduce my 13-year-old son, who accompanied me on this trip, to the landmarks of Colombo. Moreover, I could have access to the computer facilities and the library facilities of the university and at Lake House.

 We (my son and I) shared the facilities of the Lodge with two visiting faculty members from India, S. Singh Gambiar and Ved Prakash, and their wives. Caretaker Thilakaratne Bandara was a raconteur of good anecdotes.

On the first day of my stay at the Lodge, July 22, I visited the Journalism Unit and had a discussion with the faculty involved””‚Romesh Fernando, M.J.R. David and Wijeyawardene. On their invitation, I joined a luncheon to welcome two recruits to the department of Sinhala. It gave me the opportunity to get to know Kusuma Karunaratne, head of the department; and Amara Wickremasinghe, coordinator of the journalism diploma program.

Since the Journalism Unit failed to assign me any specific duties, I scheduled my own itinerary to spend the weekend in Happawana, visit with my relatives in Matara, and return to Colombo Wednesday.

The next day (Thursday, July 29), someone who had heard about my “consultancy”””‚Colombo style””‚came to the Journalism Unit to seek my advice on his admission to Drake University in Des Moines, Iowa.  Thus I played Mahadenamutta to Dimitri Senaratne, who had nothing to do with the unit. I assured Senaratne that Drake’s School of Journalism and Mass Communication had a good reputation.

The same day, I had a telephone conversation with the Kelaniya University mass communication don Sunanda Mahendra, who was a classmate of mine at Ananda College. He was aware that Vidyalankara (renamed University of Kelaniya in 1978) had offered me a senior lectureship in mass communication almost two decades ago. He was perturbed that I had left my decision hanging by neither accepting nor rejecting the offer.

The next morning (Friday), we (my son and I) met with (the late) Professor V.K. Samaranayake, director of the Institute of Computer Technology, who gave us access to the university’s e-mail facilities. On the second Wednesday thereafter, we went to the Computer Services Center to meet with S. T. Nandasara, who showed us the operational dynamics of Wadan Taruwa, the Sinhala word-processing application, and its desktop-publishing companion Ath Wela. This was an unexpected bonus of my “consultancy”””‚Colombo-style.

We spent the end-of-July weekend with the four “Doodles” in Kandy and returned to the Lodge Monday to resume my non-defined assignment at the Journalism Unit.

In retrospect, I feel that the university officials did not want to “consult” with me because they gave journalism studies low priority. They were clearly not enthusiastic about what I could offer. For them, accommodating me seemed to be a mere public relations exercise to please the Sri Lanka diplomats who were trying to bring together expatriate expertise and local needs. Although my “consultancy” with the Journalism Unit was at the disposal of the university until Aug. 19, it accrued very little benefit to the university because of the avijjƒÆ’-¾ (ignorance) of those in charge except for the following token concessions:

  • Discussion I had with lecturer Romesh Fernando (Aug. 3) on starting an all-campus newspaper based in Colombo.
  •  Discussion I had with lecturer M.J.R. David (Aug. 4) on research.
  • Lecture I gave to Romesh Fernando’s 11a.m. journalism class (Aug. 6) on freedom of the press in the U.S. and principles of design and layout.
  • Address to the diploma of journalism students (Aug. 14), moderated by veteran journalist D. F. Kariyakarawana, for which I received an honorarium of Rs. 500.

I paid my goodbye visit to the Journalism Unit on Aug. 18, and had a chat with David and Wijeyawardene (deceased) on Aug. 18).

I also met with Vice Chancellor Peiris on Aug. 11. The brief meeting was “almost disappointing” because Peiris’s body language indicated that he was pressed for time.

After leaving Sri Lanka, I stopped over in London, where I saw J.B. “JaBayami” Dissanayake, at his flat in Colindale (Aug, 23). He was the professor in charge of the Journalism Unit of the University of Colombo. Had he been on duty during my “consultancy,” things would have taken a more positive turn, he confided.

In 2009, Kamal Waleboda coordinated the Journalism Unit (of the Department of Sinhala) comprising two others: Ajantha Hapuararchchi and Samantha Herath. In addition, Colombo University (Sri Palee Campus) has a department of mass media administered by Rector Tudor Weerasinghe. Ranjan Hettiarachchige heads the department. Two of its faculty, Sugath Senarath and Pradeep Weerasinghe, recently completed their doctorates at Wuhan University in China. Two others””‚Dharmakeerthi Sri Ranjan and H Siriwardana are on leave studying for their doctorates. Jayantha Wannisinghe and E.A. Kumarasiri teach English.

 Unawatuna Disaster?

Just the day before I left Sri Lanka, the island’s foremost resident pundit on satellites, the late Arthur C. Clarke told me about the potential of a gigantic disaster hitting Unawatuna in the Galle District as a result of the perturbations caused in the Indian Ocean by the falling debris resulting from collision of spent satellites, which had the gravitational tendency to converge over Unawatuna.

At the time of the interview (summer of 1993), no one could have even imagined the force and thrust of the sea waves that gobbled up the tourist beaches of southern Sri Lanka during the 2004 Indian Ocean Tsunami. The effect of debris from satellite collisions could engender worse tsunamis.

Clarke, who died in March 2008, did not live to see the first major satellite collision. It occurred on Feb. 10, 2009, when Iridium 33 collided with the spent satellite Kosmos 2251 above the Taymyr Peninsula in barren Siberia. The satellites collided at a speed of 11.7 kilometers per second (7.3 mi/s), or approximately 42,120 kilometers per hour (26,170 mph). U.S. space agency NASA reported that a large amount of debris was produced by the collision.

Nalaka Gunawardene, Clarke’s assistant at the time, told me recently that Clarke described this curious phenomenon in the last chapter of The View from Serendip, Clarke’s 1977 collection of non-fiction essays. Opinion seems to be divided on whether or not this is a significant enough threat.

Gunawardene said, “Sir Arthur [Clarke] remained interested in this matter right to the end, but could not find any more info than what he referred to in 1978. So he never wrote anything further about it.”

I, “Weligama Podda” of yore born in the neighboring Matara District, would urge Sri Lanka to take action now to prevent such a disaster rather than waiting for it to occur.  For example, it could initiate an international effort for de-orbiting spent satellites.

Clarke did not feel well enough to be interviewed when we first visited him at his Barnes Place home on Aug. 7, 1993. But on Aug. 19, we had an amiable conversation for almost one hour. He demonstrated the operation of his $500 videophone. It was Harold Peiris who insisted that I should see Clarke before my departure.

 Sharing Nostalgia (with Journos)

My prime location at the Lodge in Colombo for almost a month during my 1993 summer assignment enabled me to contact many of my friends and acquaintances of the past. These meetings helped kindle a sense of nostalgia by revisiting the “good old days.”

First, this visit allowed me the opportunity to meet with Ranjit S. Wijeyawardene, the boss of Lake House at the time I was selected for the WPI fellowship in 1966, and indulge in nostalgic conversation with several journalists of yore. Wijeyawardene was on the selection board that picked me for the award. Although he had agreed to meet with me during my field trip to Sri Lanka in 1971-72, a meeting failed to materialize until toward the very end of this visit (Aug. 18, 1993).  Wijeyawardene, now the chairman of Wijeya Publications, had a cordial half-hour discussion with me in his office.

We talked about how freedom of the press could be enshrined as an unquestionable right. I suggested that political pressure demanding the adoption of a constitutional amendment (resembling the U.S. First Amendment) might be the solution. I thanked him for being on the selection board that chose me, “Weligama Podda” of yore, for the incredible American adventure that elevated me to global citizenship. He responded with his characteristic non-committal laughter and thanked me for the training session I conducted for the Lankadeepa journalists in 1991. After the meeting with the boss, Lankadeepa editor Siri Ranasinghe sprang a surprise by introducing my former Dinamina colleague D.C. Karunaratne as the new consultant to Lankadeepa. 

I also could not resist re-visiting Lake House, where I started my career as a journalist. Lake House issued me a permit to use its newspaper morgue (library of clippings) on the recommendation of Observer editor Mahindapala. Several journalists with whom I worked together in the “ƒ”¹…”60s “”…”A.B. Mendis, N. R. J. Aaron, U.L.D. Chandratilake and Douglas Dias””‚were delighted to share their nostalgia during my library visits. At the Asia Foundation (Aug. 3), I ran into two other Lake House journalists””‚P. D. Ranasinghe and Edwin Ariyadasa. The latter gave us a ride to Liberty Plaza.

Two non-Lake House journalists considered me worthy enough to be interviewed:

  • Kitsiri Nimalashanta, features editor of the Divayina, interviewed me at the Lodge on Aug. 18. He presented me with a copy of his book, History of the Development and Mass-mediation of Column-writing in Sinhala Newspapers.
  • Sakuntala Perera, a reporter for The Island, interviewed me on freedom of the press (Aug. 17) at the Lodge.

As on previous visits, my former bosses at Lake House, the late Harold Peiris, the late M.A. de Silva and D.C. Ranatunge had long conversations with me. Ranatunge and (the former Dinamina editor) de Silva came to pick up my son and me (Aug. 11) at the Lodge for a family dinner at Ranatunge’s Balahenmulla Lane home. My hunch was that although the former Dinamina boss was still very alert with his piercing eyes, he had turned mellow and less assertive.  Just like Ranatunge, Peiris also took great pride in, and respect for, my “achievements” (e.g., winning the WPI Fellowship, getting the doctorate, etc.).  Peiris, former news editor of CDN, joined us for lunch at Kebabish Restaurant in Colombo 3 on Aug. 18. Earlier, he had us for lunch at the Flower Lounge Restaurant.

 Sharing Nostalgia (with Others)

Second, I was delighted to renew my connections with several contemporaries of mine from the Peradeniya days. They included two close friends who co-edited the literary magazine, Pratibha, with me during our days together at Jayatilaka Hall in Peradeniya””‚T.P.G.N. “Nandasiri” Leelaratne and H.G. “Gaya” Gunawardena.

Leelaratne, who had reached the apex of the administrative service as secretary to several ministries, invited us for a grand lunch at the Flower Drum Restaurant before taking us to show his new mansion on Dutugemunu Road, Kalubowila. He made no attempt to conceal his pride of achievement.

Gunawardena, who later resigned from his position as a senior deputy inspector general of police “on a matter of principle,” paid me an unexpected visit at the Lodge. He appreciated my gift of an American shirt. In his retirement, he has become a sort of free-lancer who writes on matters relating to police.

Jayatilaka Hall mate W. P. S. Abeydeera, took us for dinner at his home in Ratmalana, where his extended family showered us with hospitality. I visited the Registration of Persons Department to meet with another Jayatilaka Hall mate, Commissioner D. Ariya “Azad” Samaraweera. Yet another Jayatilaka Hall mate, B. M. Kiri Banda of the Institute of Workers Education,  visited me on my last day at the Lodge (Aug. 19).

I was fortunate to renew old ties with two other Peradeniya contemporaries””‚D. C. Jayakuru and S. Easparathasan. Jayakuru, a former deputy commissioner of Inland Revenue who later joined Coopers and Lybrand, worked with me at Lake House briefly. He had a long conversation with me at the Lodge a week after my arrival there, and again invited us for dinner at his home in Gangadara Mawatha, Mount Lavinia. He died in April 2009.

Easparathasan, who retired as deputy governor of the Central Bank and became a director of John Keells Holdings, studied economics with me at Peradeniya. I inferred from our conversation that he was experiencing a lot of dukkha. Easparathasan’s older brother, Kanesathasan, also an economist with the Central Bank, was a regular news source of mine. Easparathasan died in November 2006.

I made inquiries about another Jayatilaka Hall mate, A.W. Amunugama who helped with faxing copy during my Lake House internship. I learned at Reuters that he had retired from Reuters about a year ago. He too died not too long ago.

 Other Highlights

  • Lion Bala Wickremanayake of the Kotelawalapura Lions Club accompanied my son and me to the club meeting (July 30) at the home of Lion Jayasena Ellawala on Airport Road, Ratmalana. As the then president of the Moorhead Central Lions Club, I presented a check for $100 to the Kotelawalapura Club. A string-hopper dinner followed.
  • We visited the Rupavahini Corporation (Aug. 13). Wansanatha Wickrama, the director (news), showed us the studios and other facilities. He introduced us to Upali Arambawela, the deputy director-general.
  • Kirthi Gajanayake, now a senior superintendent of police, and his son Ravi picked us up about 7.30 p.m. (Aug. 19) to attend a party at the BRC Club grounds on Havelock Road.

  [Note: My wife Yoke Sim and daughter Carmel Maya remained in Minnesota during my Sri Lanka visit described in this account.] 

 Next: Part 11 Teaching composition in Tianjin

[The writer is a professor of mass communications emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead. He dedicates this installment to the memory of the 1958-1962 Peradeniya alumni who are no longer with us.]

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