Journey of a Journalist (Part 4C) -PILING HIGH AND DEEP IN JOURNALISM—AN EXCURSUS
Posted on September 20th, 2009

By Shelton A. Gunaratne©2009

I returned to Ceylon on Aug. 14, 1971″”‚five years after I left on the WPI fellowship. More than six months later, on Feb. 27, 1972, after collecting all the data I needed, I left Ceylon for the second time to land in America to complete my quest for the degree of doctor of philosophy in a hybrid field yet unfamiliar to many. [N.B.: The dominion of Ceylon became the republic of Sri Lanka on May 22, 1972″”‚less than three months after my departure.]

 From my 1971-72 clippings

Clippings of letters and articles I wrote to the Ceylon newspapers during these six months show that my impressions about what I saw in my motherland after five years in America were very critical.

I, “Weligama Podda” of yore, was upset about the lack of cleanliness all around.

  • “Do something soon to keep the city clean,” I yelled in the Times Weekender (Sept. 26, 1971). I denounced the widespread habits of littering, spitting, begging and hawking. I was disgusted to see the unsanitary conditions in our public markets, the filthy public toilets in the Fort Railway Station, the lack of ability to queue up to use public transportation, and a host of other social problems. I appealed to the central and local/provincial governments “to put their heads together and device a solution to eradicate these social ills.” I pointed out the example of Singapore, which I admired.

I was clearly disillusioned with the political games played by some SLFP MPs within the United Front to pressure Finance Minister N.M. Perera to withdraw the price increases on flour and bread.

  • “Budget criticism must be above politics,” I asserted in an article in the Daily Mirror (Nov. 17, 1971).  I made several things clear concerning “the recent budget proposals”: that some senior politicians are ignorant of Parliamentary procedures; that many of them still do not understand the primary reason behind the country’s economic crisis; that many politicians, both in the left and in the right, are still not willing to place national interest above petty politics; and that the government does not understand how to carry on an effective information campaign.

I was also unhappy with the substandard transportation facilities of the country.

  • Give a “better deal for the commuter,” I demanded in the Daily Mirror (Feb. 18, 1972). I observed that our public transportation system “does not appear to be designed for the convenience or safety of the traveling public.” I made several suggestions to improve the prevailing situation: Stop the harassment of commuters by beggars and hawkers; stop overloading buses and trains; allow commuters to buy their tickets in advance at central transportation stations; make bus and train schedules readily available; set up a chain of clean cafeterias at central transportation stations; and initiate a new hydrofoil system of transportation as in Hong Kong and Macau.

The need to give a better deal to the Ceylonese movie-goer also mattered to me.

  • In a letter to the Observer Magazine Edition (Sept. 21, 1971), I called for the abolition of “the unwieldy Board of Censors as constituted today” and its replacement with a board of fewer than 10 qualified people. I also asked the authorities to stop the “stupid system of releasing movies suitable for general audiences only.”

I saw a discrepancy between the licensing of radio receivers and Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation’s primary objective: “to gear radio to the needs of the people in a changing society.”

  • In a letter to the editor of the Ceylon Daily News writing under the penname Marconi (Feb. 9, 1972), I exhorted the government to “scrap the licensing of radio receivers and thereby encourage the possession of more and more receivers … though this would mean the loss of the major source of revenue for broadcasting.” I quoted a UNESCO mass communication expert F.L. Goodship to support my point of view.

I expressed concern about the delay in releasing the report of the commission on CBC submitted to the government in June 1971.

  • “Whatever happened to that CBC report?” I asked in a letter to the Sun (Feb. 15, 1972). “Do the authorities realize that we live in a parliamentary democracy? [Therefore] there is no need to be scared of publishing a report [of a public commission]”

 From my 1971-72 diaries

To further my horizons on how others live, a childhood ambition of mine, I engaged in a month-long tour of Honolulu, Tokyo, Hakone, Seoul, Hong Kong, Macao, Bangkok, Chiengmai, Kuala Lumpur and Singapore before landing in Ceylon to begin my fieldwork. The bonuses included running into three former Lake House journalists””‚Tarzi Vittachi in Hong Kong, Errol de Silva in Kuala Lumpur, and Ernest Corea in Singapore.

At the Asian News Service office, Tarzi, Eric Ranawake and a few others took me out for lunch. Tarzi talked to me about the progress of ANS and its history. Fast forward to 1991: When Observer editor H.L.D. Mahindapala tagged me along to see Tarzi at Galle Face Hotel in Colombo on a short stop, neither Tarzi nor I knew that we had met 20 years ago””‚proof of anicca again.

I met former CDN subeditor Errol de Silva at the Straits Times office in Kuala Lumpur. Errol and a Chinese colleague took me to the Bistro for a snack.

I met former CDN editor Ernest Corea, who had joined the editorial staff of the                                                         straits Times in Singapore, at a lunch arranged by Amic secretary-general Lakshmana Rao at the Ming Court Hotel. Ernest said that he quit Lake House in January but we did not go into details””‚more proof of anicca and dukkha. Thus I had some knowledge of the turmoil and power changes at Lake House well before I landed in Ceylon.

I had to spend the first night in my beloved motherland at the Katunayake Airport because a curfew was in effect. The next morning, I boarded an Air Ceylon coach to Galle Face Hotel and then took a taxi to our then home in Mount Lavinia.

The next six months turned out to be hectic with greeting and meeting friends and relatives from Pathegama and elsewhere, avoiding the many marriage-brokers (imagine “Weligama Podda” turning into a 31-year-old eligible bachelor!), making arrangements to visit the four selected villages to conduct my research, and attending to the correspondence that all my activities required.

On the Monday after my arrival, traveling by bus from Mount Lavinia to Colombo, I lost Rs. 32 to a pickpocket. But as if in compensation for that I had the good fortune of meeting with Bonnie Fernando, the long-time CDN features editor who edited my “Village Sketches,” at Cargills. We had a long talk.

A week later, I had lunch with CDN journalists Nihal Ratnayake and Indres Alalasunderam at Chop Stick in Fort. I ran into Lake House photographer W. Piyadasa, with whom I had done numerous assignments, at the National Restaurant. I also met with D. C. Ranatunge, who had quit Lake House and joined Lever Bros., at Mount Lavinia Hotel. Anton Gunasekera, a former CDN reporter who had become the information officer of the Family Planning Association, joined me for lunch at the Chinese Restaurant in Cinnamon Gardens.

Early on, I visited the USIS, where I met with Fred Welty’s erstwhile colleagues Diana Captain and S. Chettiar who had been extremely helpful to me from the time I was a reporter. They were quite interested in the research project I was doing in the country.

Harold Peiris, who trained me as a CDN reporter, joined me for lunch at Hotel Samudra on the last Friday in November. We discussed developments at Lake House. A few days before Christmas, I had a chance to talk with Esmond Wickremasinghe, the one-time Lake House supremo, at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. ANCL chairman Ranjit Wijeyawardene (Esmond’s bother-in-law) had also agreed to meet with me but failed to pursue the matter; however, we met two decades later in his nƒÆ’-¾marƒÆ’-¦«pa as chairman of Wijeya Newspapers. 

A highlight of my stay in Ceylon was a dinner on Jan. 2, 1972, at the home of D. C. Ranatunge at Balahenmulla Lane. Former Dinamina editor M. A. de Silva, who graced the occasion, observed me with his piercing eyes probably to analyze the changes in my non-verbal behavior that irked his Confucian sensitivities in the Dinamina newsroom episode (narrated in Part 2 of this series).

[Going by two letters I received from M. A. de Silva””‚in his capacity as publicity director of the Ministry of Planning and Employment””‚in May 1973, he was pleased with my progress and behavior. In one, he requested a copy of my dissertation. In the other, he solicited my interest in the attempt by Vidyalankara campus to organize a course in mass communication.]

Subsequently, D. C. Karunaratne, the Dinamina colleague who covered Sirimavo Bandaranaike’s 1965 election campaign with me, joined me for dinner at the Green Cabin. Chris Gooneratne, my former colleague at CDN, also invited me for dinner at his home in Colpetty on my 32nd birthday.

I also got to know a Fulbright-Hayes scholar from the U.S., William Starosta, who was conducting his doctoral research in Ceylon. I often joined the Starostas to try out local cuisine. A week before Christmas, on an invitation from Lake House journalist Neville de Silva””‚the very same fellow reporter whom I stopped to see in Berlin five years ago””‚they attended a party, and asked me to join them to surprise Neville. However, Neville seemed to have contacted a sudden bout of Alzheimer’s and failed to recognize me, the “Weligama Podda”! His demeanor was all too obvious: “Keep out the hoi polloi,”

During my stay in Ceylon, I also gathered information for writing a book chapter on broadcasting. I conducted interviews with CBC Director-General Susil Moonesinghe, as well as with former CBC boss Neville Jayaweera, in January

The logistics of commuting from my home headquarters to Peradeniya (close to the village of Wattappola), Bible (close to the village of Bulupitiya) Nikaweratiya (close to the village of Elagammillewa) and Horana (close to the village of Pelpola) kept me quite busy during the six-month period.

Gananath Obeyesekera, professor of sociology at Peradeniya, helped me with accommodation at Lower Hantane Guest House and allowed me to hire his sociology undergraduates to interview the Wattappola sample. However, Gananath’s counterpart on the Colombo campus, Laksiri Jayasuriya, showed hostility when I sought similar assistance to do the survey in Pelpola.

The focus of this series is on journalism, not on the problems I faced and the methods I used to carry out my research project. Suffice to say that at the end of my sojourn, I left Ceylon with a stack of computer cards which contained the data I collected to write my dissertation.

.After leaving Ceylon for the second time (on Feb. 27),  I took a three-week tour of New Delhi, Tehran, Ankara, Istanbul, Athens, Geneva, Majorca, Madrid, Lisbon, New York, Washington, D.C., and Carbondale, Ill. I returned to Minneapolis on March 20.

My stopover in New York enabled me to rub shoulders with Lake House journalist Thalif Deen, who had come to New York on a Fulbright-Hayes scholarship to attend the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism. Deen and I graduated from Peradeniya in 1962 and got into    Lake House the same year.

I went to see Deen at the International House on a Thursday (March 9) evening. We talked about Lake House affairs and exchanged views on the changes that have taken place. On Saturday, Deen and I toured the school of journalism and went to look at Harlem. On Tuesday, I ate breakfast with Deen before my departure.

Little did we realize in 1972 that Deen would make New York his future home after getting his master’s degree from Columbia.

BTW, I managed to escape all the marriage brokers in Ceylon.

 Next: Part 5A””‚Global Citizen: Drifting from America to Malaysia

[The writer is a professor of mass communications emeritus at Minnesota State University Moorhead]

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