Sri Lanka: the old days of journalism
Nihal with his laid back manners has never been a workaholic and maybe a bit lazy.
by Manik de Silva
The death last week of Nihal Ratnaike, one of the country’s most seasoned English-speaking journalists, recalled the fun days of old Ceylon Observer, then one of two English evening dailies, published here. The other was the once British-owned Times of Ceylon, occupying what was then the tallest building in the country, now overshadowed by the many skyscrapers that have dramatically changed Colombo’s skyline. The Times was in gradual decline by then, with many of its reporters joining Lake House.
Nihal began his career as a proofreader at the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. (ANCL) and was quickly transferred to the editorial department of The Observer, possibly around the time Tarzie Vittachi, one of this country’s most famous journalists had produced. About that I’m not too sure although I was aware of Nihal singing a Tarzie favorite of what happened to Aaron aiya’s narang eta deka much to the delight of everyone around him.
When I joined the Observer around 1961 as a stringer in newspaper parlance, Nihal had gone to Yugoslavia on an extended scholarship, but it was talked about a lot. He returned a few months later to the delight of Clarence Fernando (Clarrie to his team and friends), the editor, who was among the best in the business, and the rest of the reporters in the press office of the Observe as well as the functionality and staff of sub-editing. He was a very popular guy. Considering his style, his conduct and his abilities, he had to be.
Denzil Pieris was the editor, a superb journalist with a ‘publish and be damned’ tradition whose talents were recognized and widely used but never trusted by the owners (he was believed to be a member of the Communist Party in his youth) to edit Ceylon Daily News (CDN), the flagship English newspaper of the Lake House group. But with the editorial direction of the Evening Observer came the managing editor of the Sunday Observer which was then the most widely circulated English newspaper in the country with great influence.
Denzil was an easy-going man, albeit a glutton for work, and all of his staff called him by his first name. My father, amazed by this, once asked me: “you call your editor Denzil? Receiving phone calls through the Lake House switchboard was painful, and reporters used to walk into the boss’s room to freely use his direct line, even when he was at his desk. When I got hired, Denzil came to work (except on Saturdays) in a suit and tie behind the wheel of his green Volkswagen Beetle, dispensing with the jacket that was hanging from the back of his chair when he was in his office. The jacket was later dropped, but the tie was not.
By this time, the publication of race information had been banned and the Observer, which had a very wide circulation on Saturday race days, had become an afternoon newspaper, released at lunchtime for be picked up by office workers at the Fort and elsewhere. Journalists were supposed to be on duty at 7 a.m., but there were only a few – including myself, but never Nihal, who met that deadline. Denzil used to prowl the newsroom looking over his reporters’ shoulders at their typewriters to see what they were writing. He often wrote his editorial on the front page, in a single column from top to bottom on the left side of the page at eight in the morning.
Reporters then included pipe smoker William de Alwis, whose father RE de Alwis, had been a famous “scoop” catcher for Lake House in earlier times; Nalin Fernando – his father JL Fernando, CDN political correspondent and later chief editor, HLD Mahindapala called “our parliamentary reporter”, Ranji Handy, later Ms. Maitripala Senanayake (our political reporter), Gamini Windsor (our maritime reporter ) who used to say he was a ‘offspring of the duke’ mispronouncing the ‘o’, Peter van Reyk who wrote both reporting and occasional reporting, photographers Rienzie Wijeratne, Harvey Campbell, Wally Perera, Neil Moses and the inimitable Hector Sumathipala. And who can forget Neville Weeraratne (Nihal called him “brother-in-law”) and the diminutive LTP Manjusri who once advised me “kasada nang bandinna epa”. Hari Karadarai. The camaraderie around the news office was great and the laughter booming.
I remember an exchange between Ranji Handy and Nihal around the tea cart one morning. Ranji spoke of being somewhere the night before when she was bored to death. “Who annoyed you, Ranji?” Nihal asked with a mischievous smile. I won’t write Ranji’s comeback but there was never any hard feelings and it was a lot of fun.
Nihal was a superb human interest story writer whose press contacts I remember included Lincoln Abeywira, labor commissioner, Felix Dias Abeysinghe, election commissioner, Sylvia Fernando, one of the few women in the hierarchy. from the Central Bank at the time, Bala Tampoe and DG William, the gritty-voiced LSSP trade unionist and later senator who introduced himself as “me, the William”. Nihal did what has been called the “labor tour” but was never called “our labor reporter”. He used to write short, crisp sentences, and whether he really wrote it or not, I don’t know, but he was said to have once started a story by saying, “The train was late.” . It was always late. But today was later than usual.
When Nihal returned from Yugoslavia, he wrote a series about his experiences there that I, the tender foothold at the Observer, lapped. I don’t remember the background, but everything he wrote was readable. I do, however, remember the many references to plum brandy in this series. As her friend Anura Gunasekera wrote elsewhere in this issue, it has always been a neat dresser with clothes that hung nicely on a thin, gangly frame. Even though he loved his drinks and drank a lot, I never saw him under the influence.
Apart from his friends at Lake House, I remember Freeman Weerasinghe and Ivan (pronounced evaan not eyevan) Ondatjie, an assistant labor commissioner, Chitrasena and Senator Reggie Perera. Then there was Tinker Dharmapala, Bevis Bawa, and a host of other interesting people I met in his company. I once asked Colonel CA Dharmapala, Tinker’s father, why the identification sign on the door of his house in Matara, Seedevi, simply read “Dharmapala” without initials. The response after a moment’s reflection, “I guess there can only be one Dharmapala in Matara.”
Nihal once returned from lunch at the Senator’s house after a meal Reggie had promised to prepare himself. He wrote of the experience: After the drinks before lunch, the guests gathered behind the portly host who presided over the stove with a pan in hand “like a surgeon on an operating table”. He would say âonionsâ and get a âspatulaâ already peeled and chopped, and whatever he wanted was slapped in his hand, green peppers, tomatoes and many other necessary ingredients were also provided. Then he put it all together on the stove and produced his culinary masterpiece. The punchline of the story was: âAs we left the kitchen, old kussi amma said in an audible whisper, ohoma nam uyanne kata barida. “
Nihal with his laid back manners has never been a workaholic and maybe a bit lazy. Ironically, it was at a time when he had worked very hard as CDN editor under Sisira Pathiravitarana, when a change of government led to his unfair and illegal sacking of Lake House. He successfully challenged the dismissal and held various journalism-related jobs for many years until the wheel turned and he returned to Lake House, retiring as editor of the Daily News. In this avatar, he also held other leadership positions, including the head of the editorial office and the managing editor.
Fortunately, his years outside of ANCL were added to his period of service for the purposes of calculating the gratuity. That, along with the fact that he retired with a high salary, provided him with a retirement allowance providing financial stability after retirement. He wrote well, appreciated the good writing of his colleagues and juniors, always helpful, never malicious or mean and adornment of the Watcher in his heyday.
It was a good time on the Observer, and many times we piled into the Morris Minor taxis for the day and went to the Buhari for a buriyani and fried chicken (porichchi kikili) lunch after a stopover at a drop-off point. water ; or at Nippon which had its own bar. We laughed, we had fun and enjoyed our work immensely. Nihal was really a part of that time.