Death anniversary of Dr. C.A. Hewawitharana-Journalist’s intuition foretold a tragedy
Posted on April 2nd, 2014

By Janaka Perera

 April 3, 2014 marks the 85th death anniversary of Dr. Charles Alwis Hewawitharana who was the first Sinhala Buddhist to become a Doctor of Medicine (MD ” Medicinae Doctor) in the British Colonial era after graduating from medical colleges in England and Scotland. He was also a brother of Buddhist revivalist Anagarika Dharmapala (formerly David Hewawitharana).  

 This article however is not so much about Dr. Hewawitharana’s career and services but a journalist’s intuition that foretold the doctor’s tragic death.  Although journalists are sometimes accused of callousness by trying to be first with the news, it is not always the case.

 The experience of late D.W.Senadheera was one such exception.  He belonged to an older generation of Lake House journalists.   Before he became a scribe, he was a teacher at Maliyadewa Vidyalaya, Kurunegala.  

 In 1924 he attended a meeting addressed by Dr. C.A. Hewawitharana at a remote village in the same district. At the meeting in Kurunegala the doctor gave such an eloquent speech that Senadheera reported it to the now-defunct English language newspaper Independent.  To his surprise the story was carried prominently in the paper.  This led him to give up teaching and become a journalist.   And before long he found himself on the Lake House editorial staff – then under its founder Chairman D.R. Wijerwardena.

 The most decisive moment in Senadheera’s journalism career came on April 3, 1929.  On that day Dr. Hewawitharana was on his way to Colombo from Ratnapura by car following a telegram received from his brother, the Anagarika regarding an urgent matter.

 The same evening, Senadheera was on duty as Dinamina night editor.   By 8.00 o’ clock the rest of the editorial staff had left the office.  The last to leave was Chief Editor Alexander Weliwita.  Just before he left around 8.05 p.m. he gave a telegram to Senadheera, instructing him to `box’ its contents on the front page.   It was the news of a serious motor accident at the Eheliyagoda railway crossing.  The car carrying Dr. Hewawitharana had collided with an express train.

 After reading the telegram several times, intuition told the night editor that the doctor’s life could not be saved. But Senadheera had no way of proving it. Yet he was in the habit of acting according to his gut feelings.   So he went to the editorial reference library to gather all facts on Dr. Hewawitharana and write a long story.  

 Thereafter Senadheera phoned the Mahabodhi Society and the Vidyodaya Pirivena to get further details. (At the time limited telephone facilities extended to Colombo and a few provincial towns)  But the only response he received from both places was that the victim’s condition was not critical and that he was expected to recover soon.  But Senadheera was not satisfied.

 He therefore told the night foreman to `box’ the news of the accident on page one, according to Chief Editor Weliwita’s instructions and sat down to write the story he had in mind.  He began with the following sentence.

 “Dinamina announces with profound sorrow that Dr. Hewawitharana met with a fatal accident…”          

 It was just a hunch.

 At the time the Dinamina had seven columns.   After writing the story, Senadheera told the foreman to have it ready under banner headlines spanning all seven. At the same time he was instructed to keep it a secret and handover the proof page to Senadheera without showing it to anyone else.  His story on Dr. Hewawitharana ran into two and a half columns.  But he did not sign the final proof so that printing could begin. It was the linotype era, when offset printing and computer printing was unheard of.

 The Lake House bus service was already in operation at the time.  And the printing manager who was a European came rushing and told Senadheera that the buses should leave with the papers before it is late.   The foreman too said that arranging the pages could get delayed.  Senadheera then told him leave space only for the Hewawitharana story on page one and go ahead with the rest.

 The time was 9.20 p.m.   The printing manager again requested the final proof page.  But Senadheera very kindly told him to be patient. The minutes went by.   Sharp at 9.40 the office `arachchi’ rushed to the night editor’s room with a telegram.  With apprehension, Senadheera opened the telegram.

 It said: “Dr. Hewawitharana dead.”

 Senadheera’s intuition had been proved right.

 He promptly told the foreman to do the pages as instructed. Senadheera too went with him and signed the final page one proof with his story on it.   He watched elatedly as the following day’sDinamina rolled out of the rotary press.

 Radio (then known as wireless) was a novelty that was still largely on an experimental stage in Sri Lanka.  So for news people depended on newspapers, which were not many at the time.   The two major newspaper establishments were the Lake House (ANCL) and the Times of Ceylon groups.

 The morning after the tragedy at Eheliyagoda, the Dinamina beat all other newspapers with the ‘scoop’ on Dr. Hewawitharana’s accidental death. Some papers only reported that he was in hospital. Senadheera had won the gamble. The usually stern Lake House Chairman Wijewardena never called for any explanation from Senadheera for delaying the paper and delaying the buses.

 The wrong information he had received earlier that Dr. Hewawitharana was expected to recover soon proved to be a deliberate lie – not because the doctor died ” but because his body was mutilated beyond recognition in the crash.   When the corpse was brought to `Sri Nagara’ his residence at Kollupitiya, the Anagarika cried like a child and collapsed on a chair. In addition to uncontrollable grief he was filled with regret since it was he who had cabled his brother to rush from Ratnapura to Colombo.  

 It was a strange twist of fate that Senadheera was destined to report the tragic death of the very person who indirectly aroused his journalistic talents.   Senadheera too joined the massive crowd that attended the funeral at the General Cemetery, Borella, where the chief mourner was Dr. Hewawitharana’s mother Mallika Hewawitharana.

 She had the misfortune to face the untimely deaths of three of her sons.  Two of them ” Simon and Edmund Hewawitharana ” had passed away earlier. Following their deaths it was Dr. C.A. who had taken over the family responsibilities after giving up his medical career.   Now only Anagarika Dharmapala was left. 

 Dr. Hewawitharana was an unassuming man although he did much social service and hailed from the well-known business family – H. Don Carolis and Sons.  From 1914 onwards, he devoted his full time for business activities, cultivation, reviving traditional crafts and industries and printing Pali Buddhist texts.   

 He was also instrumental in setting up a Japanese scholarship fund for students and acquiring Heelpenkandura ” a seven-and-half-acre land near Kandy town ” for Dharmaraja College, Kandy.   He purchased the land jointly with Sir Ernest de Silva.  Dr. Hewawitharana also donated a 100 acre-land of tea in Matale to the same school for its welfare.

 He was among those whom the British unjustly imprisoned along with F.R. Senanayake, D.S. Senanayake, Piyadasa Sirisena and other national leaders and patriots during the riots of 1915 during which the colonial government declared martial law in the country, leading to the deaths of a number of innocent people. 

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