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Selected Writings by Sachi Sri Kantha
28 February 2001
The first lines of the beautiful poem, 'The Paradox of Time' penned by Henry Autin Dobson (1840-1921) state,
"Time goes, you say? Ah no!
Alas, Time stays, we go;
Or else, were this not so,
What need to chain the hours,
For youth were always ours?"
Thirty years have passed now. I vividly remember the end of the first week of March 1971. The news from New York that my sports idol Muhammad Ali had lost for the first time in his inimitable career to Joe Frazier shocked me. I was sullen for a few days. My school days were coming to an end. I grew up with Ali's heroics since 1964, and I was no exception to any boy growing up anywhere in the world of that era. How many hours I would have spent 'analyzing' with my friends about how Ali punched Liston, Patterson, Terrell, Bugner, Williams and the likes? He was unbeaten until then. I liked Ali's self-confidence, showmanship, political activism and courage for standing up to his beliefs. Of course, I liked his poetry too. I was mesmerized by his poetic logic:
"I don't have to be-what you want me to be. I'm free to be-what I want".
That's the spirit of freedom, with touching cadence and spicy message. It was a gem for a Tamil teenager! None of the sportsmen until then or even hence could stir the emotions with poetry like Ali. That's why he still remains as my hero.
For Sinhalese historians, the year 1971 is remembered as the year of Janatha Vimukthi Peramuna (JVP) Insurgency. Few words and new names were introduced for the first time in the local press and radio since April of that year. Insurgency, terrorists, Che Guevara and Rohana Wijeweera are four which I picked up then. For many years, I personally considered 1971 as an anguished 'wasted year' in my life. Why? I had sat for the G.C.E.Advanced Level exam in December 1970 for the second time and waited for the anticipated final results, for whole year. My parents were not politically powerful or rich like President Chandrika Kumaratunga's to send me to London or Paris or even Moscow. Remember, even Wijeweera had been lucky to land in Moscow on a state-sponsored scholarship. In 1971, Chandrika was in Paris for her undergraduate studies, while I was stranded in Colombo. I was also caught (the second batch to be specific) into the net of Madam Sirimavo's cabinet-instigated, appalling language-wise standardization scheme for entry into the state controlled universities in Ceylon. I wonder whether Chandrika, who seems to be overflowing with sentiments at opportune times like professional actors, even think a little about how she sneaked out of Ceylon to Paris, without facing the university-entrance hurdles in the island.
The mass media in Ceylon saturated the airs in April with the word 'terrorism' - a novel addition to the local lexicon. But, the phenomenon dressed up by that newly introduced word has been dancing around for Tamils since 1956. For instance, 'Honorable wounds of war' - was the sarcastic sound-bite Chandrika's father Solomon delivered in the Parliament, when he welcomed the Tamil MPs, A.Amirthalingam and E.M.V.Naganathan, who received blows to their heads from hooligans. Those who pity Amirthalingam's untimely death in 1989, conveniently gloss over the 1956 physical terror he suffered at the Galle Face. Thus, terrorism in 1971 was like a 15 year-old juvenile delinquent, just christened. In May, I had turned 18. Rather than idling, I joined the Polytechnic business school in Wellawatte for a couple of months and learnt English typing, which became an asset for me subsequently. Also, I asked my father to pay 180 rupees for enrollment in a six-month correspondence course in journalism.
The tutor was Mr.Andrew G.de Silva. [I wonder whether he is still living now.] In the months following JVP insurgency, while waiting at home, I completed the home work assignments regularly and submitted via post to my tutor for corrections. Little by little, I came to appreciate the value of that correspondence course, since it taught me the tricks of the trade employed by professional journalists (such as scooping, capturing attention, masking the sources of information, avoiding libel suit, pretending to be a 'know-all' without bothering to sweat, etc.). One lesson I learnt from Mr.de Silva's study-notes was how to assess the validity of a scoop by scrounging answers for six simple questions - what, who, when, where, why and how. Another lesson learnt was how to search for what is missing in any newspaper report or an opinion piece. His lessons come in handy when I scan the editorials and features published in the Sri Lankan newspapers. As Tamils are aware, balance is one commodity which has been sadly lacking in the sermons on terrorism penned by the editorialists. Here is an example:
"The US has already proscribed the LTTE as a narco-terrorist outfit. It is her own security concerns that the US must have had foremost in mind in banning the LTTE. The LTTE has been capable of concern to the most powerful nation, the US. Why it has not caused the same concern to the less powerful nations is puzzling." [editorial in the Island newspaper, Feb.26, 2001]
The editorialist is wondering "why". It is a fact that LTTE is currently placed in the American list of proscribed organizations. But has it caused any harm to American citizens or American interests anywhere in the world? To verify the assertions made in this smutty editorial, I checked the recent New York Times report [Feb.8, 2001] by James Risen which described the testimony of CIA director George Tenet to the US Senate Select Committee on Intelligence. This report directed me to the complete statement made by Mr.Tenet entitled, "Worldwide Threat 2001: National Security in a Changing World" [07 February 2001], accessed at the website maintained by the CIA.
Mr.Tenet had described the transnational issues, nuclear proliferation, information operations and space, narcotics and regional issues (including South Asia). CIA's usual targets of attention, like Saddam Hussein, Usama bin Ladin, supreme leader Khamenei (of Iran), Kim Chong il, President Putin, Milosevic and Taliban receive mention. Even the plight of Sri Lankan government's benefactor Gen.Musharraf of Pakistan is specifically noted. But, not a single sentence or phrase or even a word appears about Tamil terrorism or Tigers or LTTE or Pirabaharan in this 14-page document. I'm sure that this position paper of CIA director would have disappointed Lakshman Kadirgamar, the lead tom-tom beater on 'LTTE terrorism' for Chandrika Kumaratunga's cabinet. Mr.Tenet's testimony to the US Senate also proves how spurious the editorials of Sri Lankan newspapers can be.
I still remember the final exam I had to sit in December 1971 for my correspondence course in journalism. The exam hall was a rented space near the Slave Island (Colombo 2) railway station. There were only six candidates including me. That was the only time I came face to face with my tutor. Few weeks later, I received my diploma in journalism via mail. By then I had become a freshman at the University of Colombo. In hindsight, I learnt something. After all, my experiences during the anguished 1971 had turned out to be a benefit for me in the long run. Thirty years ago, in Ceylon, there were good teachers like Mr.Andrew G.de Silva (even beyond the borders of the university territory) who taught the fundamentals of journalism to youths like me.
Another simple lesson I learnt from Mr.de Silva was to check the original source repeatedly, in case of doubt. Thus, I wish to clarify a statement in my last week's piece, Valor of Dr.K.Visvaranjan. Contrary to what was implied, Dr.Visvaranjan's murder is reported in the book Broken Palmyra, authored by Rajani Thiranagama and colleagues, in page 105, as follows:
"With an increasing number of land mine attacks by the LTTE, the army took to shooting at civilians. Several civilians were shot dead, including Dr.Viswaranjan who was returning home to KKS on 25 April, after working at the Jaffna hospital."
But, Dr.Visvaranjan's name is missing in the index pages (460-464) of the book.