To retain an official London correspondent for any Sri Lankan newspaper Group with a fixed salary and maintenance was not at all feasible considering the insignificant activities that took place among the Sri Lankan community, except to report on various social activities organised by numerous Sri Lankan associations and religious functions at Buddhist temples. Sri Lankan newspaper editors were only interested in affairs related to the country and coverage of any VIP or VVIPs visit to London.
Nose for news
A London correspondent, therefore, had to have a ‘nose’ for various topics rather than confine oneself to a particular area. For this purpose London was an ideal mine of information. I found that light reading (free from politics) always struck a chord with the majority of Sri Lankan readership on a variety of subjects ranging from health issues, behavioural patterns and life in the west, immigration controls and royal stories which always appealed to Sri Lankan readership like Jim Reeves songs in Sri Lankan Radio!
My commitment to journalism as a hobby turned me into what can be labelled as a ‘gypsy’, where I seized every available opportunity to ‘jump’ from one group of newspapers to another, like a monkey on a tree, looking for wider experience, exposure and better reputation.
In such a back drop I befriended the brother of Vijitha Yapa at the Kingsbury temple who persuaded me to write to the Sunday Times. Vijitha Yapa was well known at the time having floated The Island newspaper initially and launched the second newspaper, The Sunday Times where he functioned as its Editor.
I seized the opportunity of writing to Vijitha Yapa expressing my willingness to contribute to The Sunday Times. The response was inspiring when he wrote back to me not only expressing his compliance to accommodate me as a ‘scriber’ from London but also emphasizing that I should consider it as an opportunity to write (I quote), “to the most prestigious newspaper in Sri Lanka”!
I commenced writing to The Sunday Times with my own Column – Letter from London; I was also privileged to interact on a few occasions with ‘Kamala’ who appeared in the 5th Column (Ryp Nan Winkle) on “Back at favourite Past time - May 27, 1990); ‘Dos’ and Don’ts ’ (January 6, 1991), ‘Help from the devil’ , and ‘Faxts’ from London (Maggie’s metal fatigue and Major push for Bush – 13.01.1991) etc.
The most heart rendering interview I had was with R. K. Herath, the caretaker of the main shrine room (Udamaluwa) at Anuradhapura Sri Maha Bodhi about whom I wrote in The Sunday Times on November 27, 1991.
In a graphical account Herath described the apprehension that suddenly built up when LTTE terrorists surrounded the Dalada Maligawa and started spraying bullets to kill indiscriminately in cold blood. Having heard the gun shots at first, his reflex action had been to close the two doors of the shrine room where the large statue of the Buddha was placed.
Moment of anxiety
He had managed only to close one side of the door when a fanatic in camouflage uniform had approached him at lightning speed pointing an AK45 gun at the Buddha statue.
When the terrorist was about to pull the trigger Herath had pleaded with the brute not to shoot at the Buddha statue but the barbarian attempted to blast the statue and kill Herath as well, when this brave man had hung on to the barrel of the aimed gun yelling “Budu Mahattayo Okatanam wedi thiyanna epa” (My good Sir! please do not shoot at the Statue).
Could Hearth have expected any compassion out of a dissenter who had come to kill....? Disregarding caretaker’s plea the brute had started spraying bullets nonstop, but Hearth’s sheer determination and courage had managed to divert the barrel of the gun away from the Buddha statue.
Minutes later he found blood oozing out from his left thigh. Several bullets had pierced through his thigh making a gaping hole of about seven inches long.
When I met with him he had recovered and showed me the scar on his thigh. Subsequently the Buddha statue has been protected with a bullet proof glass screen.
In 1990 something unfortunate occurred when a well researched nine column article under the caption 'When barriers of immigration came down’ inadvertently had touched a ‘sensitive nerve’ which affected around 250 cases of a certain group of Sri Lankans who were protected under the diplomatic umbrella.
All of a sudden all hell broke loose and it became crystal clear that I had brought the whole hornet’s nest upon my shoulders (despite the article being factual and balanced)!
It was a time The Sunday Times editor came under heavy pressure from the very top about its most popular political Suranimala column.
Vijitha Yapa remained undeterred, which ultimately made him decide to throw the towel in and stretch his business tentacles elsewhere to finally become the most successful entrepreneur by establishing his own Vijitha Yapa Books conglomerate in Sri Lanka.
At the same time, the late Harold Peiris, editor at The Ceylon Observer, extended an invitation for me to write to his paper which I accepted and enjoyed for a period of one-two years, before once again going back to my old haunts (The Island).
Urge to purge
When there’s an urge for writing in one’s blood it becomes somewhat like you are suffering from low blood pressure from time to time. Then writing becomes part and parcel of one’s life similar to that of a pencil that needs sharpening every now then to stop its point getting blunt!
This perhaps paved the way for me to enter the boundaries of The Sunday Leader for a while where I continued with a satirical column - London Kopi Kade by Farrier (1995); in addition to it, with some fascinating interviews (while holidaying in Sri Lanka) with Kamal Addaracchi (May 21, 2000) who openly discussed with me his ‘ rape case’ which was pending at the time, and on Gangarama Viharadhipathi Ven. Galagoda Gnanissaera (12.3.2000) highlighting how he nurtured thousands of little orphans to face a very realistic world (Rehabilitation of beggar children – giving them food clothing and finding them schools ).
What I have learnt out of my journalistic studies in London is that in universities and schools of journalism students are trained to be objective. They are trained to encourage ‘what is sound in man and to discourage what is base’. When a journalist is expending much energy on establishing the positive within the hearts of receptive readers, he is burning up much energy on combating the negative simultaneously.
In England journalists are educated to be invaluable ‘public servants’ and to use media as a weapon to expose (through constructive criticism) when anyone (even the Royalty) who is accountable to the public falls out of line; when there are flows in organisations or abuse of power and privileges. Equally an element of error or an irreparable damage to a society or country could arise sometimes if a journalist is 'bought-over' and/or influenced by corrupted personnel or authorities!
After all, journalists are also weak human beings who are vulnerable to such bad influence, depending on their economic circumstances in the society.
What a society expects out of journalism would be unbiased, constructive and objective view points in the interest of the society. Such reports will always be appreciated and recognised as high standards of journalism and will benefit the profession and humanity as a whole rather than the journalist himself becoming a liability to his society.
Well! To put it in a nut shell, I am still sharpening my journalistic tools to prevent them becoming blunt or getting corroded!