Wednesday, April 19, 2017

Some goodbyes are for remembering

It all began with a phone call more than a year ago. Back then I was writing to another newspaper, penning about five or six articles a week. Someone wanted to get an article done on an old woman. She was, this person told me, an actress, a singer, and a performer. I didn’t know who Edna Sugathapala was. This person had another contact, by the way. A lady. She knew Edna. She wanted a write-up done. I obliged.

Those were easy days. Not-so-hectic days. I went, interviewed, and came back. I didn’t know Edna before I met her and I am still not sure whether I know her or the worth of what she's done. Either way, I liked the interview. One thing led to another, however, that newspaper I was writing to closed down, and we were in need of another publication and outfit to get it in. I personally felt responsible, because of Edna and the fact that no one had written on her before. She seemed nice. And she had done something.

In the end we found an outfit. Daily News. This was in November 2015. One phone call followed another, the contacts were made, and the article eventually got published. I was still a student then, so I had time to kill. That is why, when I got to know that the article had merited enough attention to raise the possibility of me doing an entire series of other men and women like her, for a weekly column, I was thrilled. I couldn’t have known of the pressure entailed in such an enterprise, but I couldn’t have cared less. The second article, on Swineetha Weerasinghe (another forgotten artiste), soon got published. The column had a name by then: “Stars of Yesteryear”.

Initially I focused on films. That was easy territory. The names kept on rolling: Douglas Ranasinghe, Lester James and Sumitra Peries, Anoja Weerasinghe, Chandran Rutnam, Dharmasiri Bandaranayake, Malini Fonseka, and even long gone, lamented stars: Tony Ranasinghe, Gamini Fonseka, Rukmani Devi, and Vijaya Kumaratunga. For reasons even I can’t comprehend, I had met or "done" these people before. I had time to kill, after all. That time proved crucial for me, as the column kept on expanding and as I moved on to other streams: music, theatre, dance, literature.

I stopped counting after a point. It’s not hard to come up with four or five articles a month and I don’t think it’s a feat to be proud of. There were people who advised, who helped. There were also exams and other commitments. All these factored in. In the end I met a horde of people. I’d like to think they improved my writing.

“Stars of Yesteryear” was not just a column, by the way. It was unprecedented in that no English newspaper here before the Daily News had the guts to start archiving those who’d enriched our cultural landscape. People talked of Lester James Peries but no one really took down what he was saying. People sang praises of Premasiri Khemadasa and Ajantha Ranasinghe but no one really took down their way of looking at the world. That is why, as a column on its own right (forgetting your humble columnist, me), it merits praise and attention.

Last week I wrote my last article to that column. On another, as unheard of artiste: Premaranjith Tilakaratne. Premaranjith was, ever since I first met him years ago, an advisor to me, one of those people who brought newspapers not to peruse the advertisements or employment sections (as most do) but to read what was actually in them. I remember a prominent journalist telling me, “Uditha, people don’t read.” I remember arguing with another prominent journalist over this same issue: all he had to say was, “Uditha, you’ve got to move on with the times.” I prefer the first to the second, needless to say. And Premaranjith, Chandran, Sumitra, Lester, and this column taught me why.

This is hence not an anniversary, but a farewell. Farewells usually merit remembrance. And gratitude. I will hence remember and be grateful.

First and foremost, to my editor and benefactor, Sachitra Mahenda. Sachitra and I kept in contact with each other through thick and thin. There were times when I forgot his guidelines (happens) and sent an article on the wrong (kind of) person. I did that once and I ended up thinking, brainstorming, and coming up with another article within one hour. That article, on Vijaya Kumaratunga (“Revisiting a Monument”, May 2016), remains a favourite because it taught me about deadlines and the importance of time in general. He helped me, in his own special way, to improve, to learn to craft, and of course to stick to the brief. He did much more, I’m certain, so much so that he remains a friend (though we’ve never met in person, yet). So Sachitra, I am grateful. Thank you.

I would not have got to know Sachitra were it not for Rasika Jayakody. Rasika also, I have not met. He saw my article on Edna, read it, and asked me to continue. I know Rasika is a fervent follower of the arts and I know that, despite his political essays and insights, he is very much at home with literature. Such a quality is hard to come by in an industry which prefers the 500-word puff-piece over a proper, cohesive review. For that alone, I am happy that I made his acquaintance. So Rasika, I am grateful. Thank you.

Then there was that other man and lady who got me in contact with Edna. Let me start with the lady. I never met her in person after that first encounter, but I know she’s in a completely different industry and one in which the arts take a backseat to profit. Sandra Mack, designer, photographer, creative soul, and conversationalist has always been another keen follower of the arts. I have come across those her age who don’t know of Amaradeva and I am happy that she is different. She knows how to talk convivially and how to explain. She enthrals. In more ways than one, with her knowledge and friendliness. She got me into this column and, whether or not she acknowledges it, she was responsible. So Sandra, I am grateful. Thank you.

What of the man? That of course was my mentor, Malinda Seneviratne. To keep a long story short, the paper he was editor of, which I was writing to like a convalescent, closed down. I was a homeless waif, an orphan with a pen which had ink but no parchment. When I think of those unemployed, no-writing-done days now, I can only smile (because those were also let’s-kill-time days of wine and roses). Malinda taught me a lot. Like Rasika, he is an avid follower of the arts. Again, rare. He moreover knows enough of the West and East and he has been in both to have the right to comment, on politics or the arts. For all he taught me and continues to teach me, through argument and conversation, I will hence be happy, for I will learn. So Malinda, I am grateful. Thank you.

Some of these people I’ve written on are still alive. Some have gone away. Others went away long before we knew they had. Consequently, I can’t pick on a favourite. I value what each of them had to say and I value the many other readers I befriended (some of whom I have met in person). It’s impossible to think of a column doing all this, but then people do read. It’s just that those who value the written word tend to read more. And that those who tend to read more are older and wiser than the young who (usually) do not.

So what now? I hope “Stars of Yesteryear” will continue or be resuscitated soon. I am sorry to say that I will be unable to continue. These past two years saw the death of so many of our past masters. No archive or fancy building will be enough to salvage their memory, if all we do is forget. Perhaps what every newspaper needs, then, is its own “Stars of Yesteryear” column. Not because it will give aspiring writers an opportunity to write, but because, in archiving names long forgotten, they will be resurrected for remembrance and gratitude.

Those let’s-kill-time days have gone. I am busier in a job that pays my rent, though whether it’s my passion or whether I like it is another story altogether. Writing, however, remains a habit, an obsession. So I will write. I can only hope that others write too, for everyone else to read. Not puff-pieces, but real, substantive, archival observations. In the process and along the way, if they revisit the past and pay tribute to those who enriched that past, my countrymen will only be pleased. Daily News taught me this much, I know.

And with this, I wave goodbye.

Written for: Daily News TOWN AND COUNTRY, April 19 2017