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The Way We Were

When I walked into the offices of The Sunday Leader in January 1998, I told its Editor in Chief, Lasantha Wickrematunge, that I would be leaving in three weeks. I was resident in Australia, and had returned to Sri Lanka two months before, only to finalize the construction of my house.

I would come to stay eleven years.

We were acquainted with each other. We had both worked at The Sunday Times and were both lawyers. At the Sunday Times in 1988, I had just joined as a young reporter, but he was already a senior journalist and the celebrated author of the political column, Suranimala.

Lasantha was head hunting for a newspaper he was helping to launch with Gamini Dissanayake, and one day, while I sat in the Supreme Court, waiting for my cases to be called, he skewed around in his chair and invited me to join. It was 1992 and I was far too enthralled with the bar, to be enticed into a newspaper that hadn’t even launched. I rolled my eyes, and cocked a mental snook.

Ironically, when Lasantha was invited to take over the editorship of The Sunday Leader in 1994, he told the late RanjitAbeysuriya, President’s Council, in whose law chambers he worked, that he was only going to help launch the new paper, and would return in three weeks. He would remain at the newspaper for fifteen years until his death.

There was a love for the newspaper I saw in Lasantha that was at times, terrifying. Terrifying in its passion, its loyalty and its unwavering commitment. He loved all the staff of the newspaper, from editorial to paste-up and printing, and often got into heated arguments with the management, over the harsh and callous treatment of its employees.

The staff in turn hero-worshipped Lasantha. There was nothing they wouldn’t do for him and this included going without bonuses, enduring delayed payments of salaries, minimum or no perks and horrendously bad transport arrangements and a generally chaotic infrastructure. The staff trusted Lasantha, because he was in it with them. They also knew that government advertisements were rare if any, and that state officials often threatened private enterprises into stopping advertising to The Sunday Leader and Morning Leader newspapers.

But The Sunday Leader had a great many supporters and friends in high places – some, who for political reasons, would remain anonymous. Senior lawyers appeared for the newspaper pro bono. Columnists from other newspapers wrote to our group free of charge or for very little remuneration. An ever-growing network of sources and well-wishers kept the dream alive.

Each week we were swept in the updraft of a tornado, and the staff was as committed and as loyal and as passionate. We worked flexible hours on flexible pay, sans rules and cumbersome administrative excess; with one goal – to produce a stellar newspaper committed to the truth, in the interest of the public.

In later years, Lasantha would ask me during difficult months, to forgo my salary as he did, so the other employees could be paid. I saw this kind of generosity and sensitivity only in Lasantha. He listened to the travails of the staff, even gifted sums of money towards their medical bills and other expenses, from his own meager funds. As it often is, with any organization dependent on one personality, when Lasantha was killed, the newspaper imploded. Petty power struggles, distasteful decisions and inelegant manipulations held sway, and within two months of his death, his newspaper had been completely annihilated.

There is a time to give birth and a time to die, a time to plant and a time to uproot. Everything must end and new and different ideas must sprout forth. Newspapers, like people, have to evolve and adapt to survive.

And that is what The Sunday Leader is today – a survivor.

When I was asked to contribute to this 20th anniversary supplement, I ran down to my basement to pull out the boxes in which lived dusty old files from 15-20 years ago. In it were some of my earliest columns, not available on the internet.

As an investigative journalist and political columnist, my subject matter was often grim and depressing. The social issues I tackled either frustrated me or made me want to weep. Even though I was compelled to immerse myself in politics, when writing exposés about corruption and government excess, I felt I was in a crocodile infested swamp. What saved me each week, were my two lighthearted columns, Thelma and Life With Eve.  I designed the logos to depict caricatures of my alter egos, and they allowed me to worship at the sacred alter of humor and satire.

I named Thelma after the dog of a friend and it became a weekly political satire. Thelma was an archly impudent gal and I fashioned her as a sophisticated hamu from the upper rungs of society, accustomed to the finer things in life, but to an alarming degree, given her background, in touch with the needs of the proletariat. From her high horse, she would hold the hand of the common man, in order to feel every week, the pulse of the people.

 

Life with Eve was a column about events in my own life, shopping with my nieces and nephew, going to Yala, surviving my driver Stanley, working at The Sunday Leader.

From a pile of discolored cuttings I now pull out my earliest Life With Eve and Thelma columns, and though many of them were written fifteen years ago, it helps me relive those wonderful days, when we worked in an open, free, joyful and wholesome atmosphere at The Sunday Leader.

It makes me proud to know that the dedicated journalists at the Leader, still strive to fly the flag. I am grateful to Shakuntala for generously inviting me to write to this supplement. This was not always so under an earlier management, after Lasantha was killed. Many of the old guard including myself felt disenfranchised, abandoned and let down by the paper we had so selflessly worked for.

Today, as I see how this newspaper has evolved, I have hope for Sri Lanka, as I have hope for The SundayLeader. I know that one day it will rise again to be worthy of the man who gave his life for it.

I wish the Editor in Chief ShakuntalaPerera and her staff well, from the bottom of my heart.

SonaliSamarasinghe

(SonaliSamarasinghe is an award winning journalist, author and lawyer. She was the former Consultant Editor/Investigative Journalist/Columnist of The Sunday Leader and the Founding Editor in Chief of The Morning Leader. She is the widow of Lasantha Wickrematunge, the Founding Editor of The Sunday Leader)

 

 

 

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