The Journey of a Journalist (Part 2) – CUTTING MY JOURNALISTIC TEETH AT LAKE HOUSE
Posted on September 14th, 2009

By Shelton A. GunaratneƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚©2009

I, ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Weligama PoddaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ from Pathegama, was on the way to becoming a global citizen. My knowledge in Buddhist philosophy tells me, however, that ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-IƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ is the wrong term to use because a characteristic of existence is anatta (no-self).ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-IƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ implies a permanent soul. So the reference here is to the stream of consciousness that passes through the ever-changing composite of skandhas constituting my nƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚marƒÆ’-¦ƒ”š‚«pa.

My first stop in this long journey was Lake House, formally known as Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd., where I cut my journalistic teeth for five years almost a half-century ago (from 1962 to 1967). ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ I got into Lake House through the front door. This I did by doing well in a test on current affairs and writing skills, and by impressing a three-person panel. In the test, I recall writing about Ilankai Tamil Arasu Kadchi (Federal Party) and Tamil NaduƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s Dravida Munnethra Kazhagam. Being an avid newspaper reader, I was well informed on current affairs, including the then simmering Sino-Indian border conflict.

Managing Director Esmond Wickremasinghe and two of his editors in chiefƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚Cecil Graham of the Daily News and M. A. de Silva of the DinaminaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚correctly diagnosed my journalistic potential during the interview. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ I suspect that the documentary evidence I presented to prove my journalistic bent was too strong: heaps of letters to the editor (written from the time I was a student at Ananda); free-lance features on people like Col. H. S. Olcott, Anagarika Dharmapala and Munidasa Cumaratunga; and my clippings from the childrenƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s pages of newspapers. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

Having gained a foothold on the precincts ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-hallowedƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ by journalists whom I had hero-worshipped as a child, I was happy that I no longer had to wait at the corner staircase by the lake in hopes of establishing a link with an editor.

WickremasingheƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s plan for the graduate recruits included ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-toughing it outƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ with the veteran Observer journalist Clarence Fernando who had the uncanny ability to squeeze out all the journalistic talent the five skandhas (aggregates) of a person possessed. The trainee had to convert local news copy into the ReuterƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s wire service style for international consumption. A few months of such training transformed the raw trainee into a skilled news writer with a mastery of Western news values and the inverted pyramid structure for presenting hard news. This superb training benefitted me for many years to come.

Initially, Wickremasinghe put me to work in one of his pet projects, the Lake House Economic Research Unit involving a few economics graduates like Sujatha Hunukumbura and Philip Fernando. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-sound and furyƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ of economics put me to sleep. ItƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s a damning reflection on economics that none of the shining stars in the field was able to see the monumental crash of capitalism (tanhƒÆ’-¾ƒ”š‚) and the suffering (dukkha) it has caused.

Within a few months, I began my job as a Daily News reporter under the supervision of Harold Peiris, the news editor. From my childhood, I had the ego-boosting penchant (despite my understanding of anatta) to see my name in print with my own creative work. Now, the credit for all the work done by me or any other staff reporter went to ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-a Daily News reporterƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚a singular term that shielded the identity of the reporters from their individual work. Reporter anonymity was a convention observed by many newspapers published in the ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”60s. However, the two evening newspapersƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚Observer and JanathaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚violated this convention frequently and gave bylines to reward ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-scoops.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ I disagreed with Harold over the Daily News byline policy.

The Dinamina experience

Still in my first year of training, instructions came from the top, perhaps on the request of M. A. de Silva, that I join the news desk of Dinamina for an unspecified period. Perhaps realizing my potential as a bilingual journalist, in light of my ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Weligama PoddaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ identity, the administration wanted to test me in the news environment of its premier Sinhala daily. In Peradeniya parlance, they probably wanted to test my Haramanis credentials, as well as my Kultur credentials. Thinakaran editor R. Sivagurunathan also had to work in the Dinamina news desk for one year as part of his training.

Thus, for several months, I had to work under. D. C. Ranatunge, the Dinamina news editor; and his deputy Pujitha Wijetunge or night editor Bandula Mettananda. I became a temporary member of the Dinamina reporting team of Kapila Piyadasa, D. C. Karunaratne, and E.A. Amarasena whose guidance enabled me to translate English news copy to Sinhala with ease.

I recall a peculiar incident: One day, I was seated on the Dinamina news editorƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s chair with my legs high on the desk oblivious to the fact that my action was under scrutiny by the editor, whose office faced the news editorƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s desk on the opposite side. M. A. de Silva called me into his office and gave me a Confucian critique of my insolent action that reduced me to tears. I became aware of the offence I might cause others by not paying attention to my non-verbal action. However, this incident did not sour our relations.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Learning the ropes

Back on the Daily News, I continued to work under Harold Peiris and his substitute Chris Gooneratne, the assistant news editor. Chris and I were Jayatilaka Hall mates at Peradeniya.

Harold relied on me heavily for translating news documents from Sinhala to English. He selected me as the preferred reporter for covering the important public speeches of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. When too much of translation tired me, he turned to reporter Nemsiri Muthucumara. Nemsiri and I competed to write Buddhist news. Both of us helped with copy for the Aluth Avurudu and Vesak supplements. Nemsiri, who was originally a stringer, had more contacts with the Buddhist clergy.

The Daily News relied on my bilingual competence to cover the election campaign of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike that preceded the general election of March 1965, when the UNP “national government” emerged victorious capturing more than 39 percent of parliamentary seats, compared to SLFP’s 30.2 percent. The results gave Lake House a sigh of relief because an important issue in the campaign was the take-over of the Lake House ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-pacha patraƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ (papers that printed lies). Dinamina reporter D.C. Karunaratne and I were the two reporters who traveled island wide covering the entire Bandaranaike campaign for Lake House despite the hostile and desultory attitude of the prime minister and her coterie toward us. However, I got to know all of our legendary news photographers and drivers during these travels.

Having sensed my childhood ambition to go overseas and ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-get acquainted with foreigners and their ways of life,ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ Harold had assigned me the diplomatic beat and the Ministry of Defense and External Affairs. He put me on to his ministry contact D. A. de Silva, who would only pass on to me banal news fit for PR releases. I learned the hard way that to get a scoop from this Ministry, reporters must cultivate trusted sources who would leak information. I also learned that good reporting required knowledge of the subject even exceeding that of the sources. Non-investigative reporting is equivalent to public relations. Although I did a lot of PR-type reporting in my embassy rounds, the contacts I established with U.S. ambassador Cecil B. Lyon and the likes were immensely helpful to ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-see ourselves as others do.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚

I also had the privilege of working under H. L. D. Mahindapala, the ebullient Observer reporter who succeeded Harold Peiris as news editor when the latter was appointed as Observer editor.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

Another aspect of reporting that I enjoyed was covering the Parliament under the supervision of Bertie Abeynaike, the AFP correspondent who lived in Regent Flats. All reporters liked to eat the lavish food from the parliamentary canteen. Bertie demonstrated the purchasing power of the American dollar in Sri Lanka. His modest pay as an AFP correspondent probably far exceeded his Lake House salary.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Dipping into Literary Journalism

I was not pleased that my job as a full-time news reporter did not permit me to practice my penchant for literary journalism from early childhood. Eventually, features editor Bonnie Fernando, who belatedly became aware of my skills in literary writing, permitted me to use the CDN Saturday Magazine to do just that. Ernest Corea (who succeeded Graham as Daily News editor on the latterƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s departure for settling down in Australia) also seemed amused by my peculiar literary gift. I wrote 25 ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Village SketchesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ under the pseudonym Arcadius for the Saturday Magazine from June 1965 through March 1966. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ I applied my literary skills to give some sparkle to the diverse village personalities and the stories associated with them. Manik de Silva, a Lake House veteran, says that Bonnie Fernando was ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-warmly complimentary of the series.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚

I used my mother as the consultant to extract the needed details. One may encounter characters in the novels and short stories of Martin Wickremasinghe and Gunadasa Amarasekera similar to the ones developed in my sketches. Below is a sample from the sketch on my imperious grandfather, the village headmanƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚the third in the series:

Those were the days when my grandfather reigned supreme in … PathegamaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚liege lord of his territory, displaying a bearing as if to say ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”I am the king of all I survey.ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ The villagers, liegemen one and all, did not dispute that, though a degree of resentment against his omnipotence latently gathered momentum, unnoticed by him…

It was a well-known fact in the village that my grandfather and my grandmother … never got on very well. It was rumored that the Ralahamy had a mistress at Gederawatte [who] was the cause of disharmony at home.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ The following extract from ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-Loku Maama makes the Big-timeƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ (June 12, 1965) dramatizes the relationship between my grandfather and his older son, who joined the Army:

Grandfather worked himself into frenzy when he heard of the caprice of his son, stamping his feet on the floor and shouting imprecations at the top of his voice. The old man was, however, not on talking terms with his son and never showed him any affection.

No wonder he joined the Army!

The whole village was perturbed about Loku Maama. Perhaps his unorthodox association with many a villager had made him popular or perhaps the fact of him being the son of ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”¹…”His Majesty,ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢ the Ralahamy, caused them to think of him in special terms.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ An extract from ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-KankanamaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚and his right legƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ (Jan. 12, 1966):

Kankanama would put his right leg forward and involuntarily impart a slow motion to it. Not that he is trying to shake something off his leg.ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚  That is his habit.

He would then put his arms akimbo implicitly warning that he has something to say. That something, however, is known to everybody. For he has been saying it over and over again. But everybody likes to give him a ready ear because his delivery is most entertaining.

He is a short man, almost dwarfish. Though he is bare-bodied, he has covered his neck with a span cloth. He likes to punctuate his torrential delivery with well-timed peals of laughter though his teeth are not very pleasant to see.

Two of my short stories, originally written in Sinhala, were translated to English by Vijita Fernando and published in CDN. One titled ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-The little boyƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ appeared in the New Year Supplement on April 14, 1966. The other titled ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-The curse of the godsƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ appeared on Jan. 6, 1966.

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ My contemporaries

Other Peradeniya graduates recruited by Lake House in 1962 and remained as journalism practitioners included Thalif Deen (U.N. bureau chief of Inter Press Service), T. ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ…-SivaƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ”š‚ Sivapragasam (editorial consultant to the Monsoon Journal in Toronto), and Neville de Silva (columnist for the Sunday Times until early 2009). Deen received a Fulbright-Hayes scholarship to do a masterƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢-¾‚¢s degree in journalism at Columbia University, New York, in 1972.

At least four other Peradeniya graduates, who were one or two years senior to me on campus, as well as a science graduate from the Colombo campus, had joined Lake House in 1961ƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚Philip Fernando (subsequently deputy editor of the Observer), Philip Coorey (subsequently editor of the Observer), Chris Gooneratne (subsequently deputy news editor of CDN), and Indres Alalasunderam (CDN features). The science graduate was Leila Joseph (Observer).

Lake House relaxed its policy of recruiting university graduates when the same year it allowed in Manik de Silva (who proved to be a superb reporter and still holds on as editor of Sunday Island). Manik completed a 1972-73 fellowship at the Whitehead Center for International Affairs at Harvard.

The next batch of recruits comprised three female Peradeniya graduatesƒÆ’‚¢ƒ¢-¡‚¬ƒ¢¢”š¬‚Calista Ranaweera, Noreen Fernando and Indra Ratnayake (who subsequently married her boss Ernest Corea). They served the Daily News features desk under the direction of Bonnie Fernando. ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ 

ƒÆ’-¡ƒ”š‚ Next: The year that changed my life

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

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