Budding Scriber

As a schoolboy I was fascinated with writing Sinhala Kavi and short stories, some of which got published in Sinhala news papers to my surprise! It was D. B. Dhanapala, the veteran journalist and Editor at Independent Newspaper Group, who encouraged me to sharpen my refractive areas in communication when he published five Sinhala verses composed by me in the Savasa evening paper highlighting it was a rare piece of verse without any Ispilla, Pa-Pilla, Ala Pilla or Kombuwa (Akaswara Bandana) under the caption "Agayada Obawa Mata" ( Do I care for you)!

Needless to say, it was indeed like winning a lottery ticket at the age of 14!

Hobby

This encouraged me to write to Riviresa, Savasa, Geethanjalie, Evening Observer and The Sun news papers. Just prior to my leaving Sri Lanka I was bowled over by a letter addressed me to the Editor (Rex de Silva) at The Sun newspaper which was published.
The text of my letter dealt with a proposal (as young as I was) without having had a clue as to what the British National Insurance system constituted of. My humble proposition had been that ‘if the government (Sri Lanka) made it mandatory to deduct Rs.1 from each employee (both in the Private and Public Sector) Sri Lanka could have strengthened her health care system)!
Upon arriving in London, I continued with the practice of filing news and feature articles to four Sri Lankan tabloids published in London, Silvarrow, Patriot, News Lanka and Voice of Lanka. I also contributed to Indian tabloids such as, Asia Times, New Life and Asian Voice along with Sri Lanka Express which was published in Los Angeles.

Radio experience

At a time I searched for various avenues to earn extra pocket money in London, I decided to gather some facts on Mental Diseases, which was a popular topic in the UK and sent a despatch to producer of the BBC (Radio) Sinhala Programme ‘Sandesaya’. To my surprise I received an invitation to visit the BBC studios at Bush House, Strand, by Sunanda Mahendra de Mel (Prof. Sunanda Mahendra ) where he requested me to edit my article on the spot as the programme had a limited time allocation for broadcasting. Unexpectedly I had the opportunity to read my script live on the programme (a study of Mental Disease) which was written in English.

Inside a sound-proof cubicle I sat alone like a frightened rabbit where a BBC microphone hanged right in front of me and a glass of water on the table stared at me in case my throat ran dry. All I could see was the recording engineer in an adjacent cubicle with the Producer.

Suddenly a voice echoed within my partition: “Watch the green light and get ready; when it goes off and red comes on, start reading the script making sure to place every sheet gently on to a side without making any hissing noises”.

There was no room to feel nervous anymore and I started narrating what I had written on Psychosis, Neurosis, types of Schizophrenia, Dementia, mania etc. I could see from the corner of my eye, the producer walking up and down inside the engineer’s room listening to what I delivered.

Unfortunately, I never had the occasion even listen to my own voice and find out as to how I had performed, but received feedbacks from friends and members of the family subsequently. The strangest aspect of it had been that in Sri Lanka it had made an impact on Psychotherapist Tilak S. Fernando at Dehiwela (Hill Street) to boost up his professional image! Later in the years, of course, I had the opportunity to meet up with Tilak in London, who now lives in the USA and still popular for his professional work.

Once I received a payment of 15 guineas  (for 15 minutes) from the BBC, I kept my eyes open for any such future opportunities. Eventually, when Badra Gunatilake took over as the producer of the Sinhala Programme with its name changed to ‘Tharanganie’ (as I recollect), I had another opportunity in 1984 where she interviewed me (in Sinhala) on the subject of ‘London Underground (Tube) Railways’.

Ultimately when Wasantha Raja took over the programme as the Producer, with the name changed back to ‘Sandesaya’, he afforded me an opportunity to interview a Sri Lankan (Ronald Senaratne) on the programme who used to visit the West identifying himself as a psychoanalyst and became popular. It was rather an interesting interview in Sinhala when I dug into his past experiences including the rare opportunity he had with the famous Hollywood Actress Goldie Hawn on his psychoanalytical experiences with her. Wasantha’s Sinhala was conclusive, in fact he taught me a couple of Sinhala words that I was not aware of at the time!

Access to Sri Lankan Press

With regular articles appearing in London tabloids, a special spread on Sri Lanka’s 32nd Independence anniversary celebrations in London appeared in an Indian tabloid when the High Commissioner, Chandra Monerawela, organised an overnight Pirith ceremony at the High Commission building for the first time in its history. The article with a full coverage and photographs had struck a chord in the High Commissioner’s mind about my aptitude.

On a sunny summer afternoon I received a telephone call from the late Premaratne Abeysekera (1st Secretary) conveying a request from Chandra Monerawela for me to visit the Mission immediately. As I entered HC’s room, I was introduced to Dr. Sivali Ratwatte, the Chairman of Upali Newspaper Group by the High Commissioner who had already briefed the Chairman about me.

Dr. Sivali Ratwatte surprised me by saying: “I say, I want you to write to The Island, we have no correspondent in London; I would like you to write a couple of articles on Privatisation”!

I became rather benumbed and muttered, “Sir I am not a professional journalist and more over not yet qualified to write about complex issues such as Privatisation”!
To be frank, it was an era where Londoners had not much contact with Sri Lanka like at present in the absence of modern facilities while Fax machine being the only magical instrument for fast communication.

Persuasion

Expatriates living in England did not have access to Sri Lankan newspapers till very late, nor did they have access to any e-facilities like now.

In such a back drop and not even having seen the format of The Island Newspaper (except during a flight to Sri Lanka or on holiday in Sri Lanka, which was also done rarely) I thought it was going to be an arduous job. However, brushing aside my ‘tupence’ worth of pleading, Dr. Ratwatte said, “Go to any Bank men, cull some information, and you can do it”!

It took me some time though to write on privatisation, but I made a desperate attempt to learn fast and to be ‘with it ’.

On the job, as it were, I managed to pick up some journalistic tools which gave me adequate ‘power’ and access to many areas after been accredited as the London Correspondent to The Island through the Commonwealth Press Union in London . Finally I ended up with my own column in The Island – The London Diary.

With the help of the CPU Press Card, which was linked to the Scotland Yard, I became somewhat privileged having access to many a place restricted to the general public, including the Sri Lanka High Commission, despite the fact that my job was done more or less as a hobby as opposed to any other professional London Correspondent who made a career out of journalism.

‘‘You don’t become a journalist to be rich, but because you know it’s the fullest expression you can contribute as a human being”.


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