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Writing For Publication Under The Sri Lankan Sword Of Damocles

[The Sunday Leader.lk, Saturday, 10 April 2010 22:14 No Comment]

A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do... I have many times considered writing this column and have, thanks to the insistence of those near and dear to me and those whose intellectual input into my thinking I respect, desisted.  All of that advice has, in my opinion, been driven by intelligent and thoughtful consideration of my safety and wellbeing.  Most recently, I received two phone calls from my Editor warning me not to continue an incipient controversy in The Sunday Leader with the Hon. Pathali Champika Ranawaka.  The content of those warnings I will leave to the imagination of whoever reads this column.

But, as they say, “Enough is enough.”

First, it was “Don’t write in criticism of this government and, if you absolutely have to do so, don’t mention any members of the Presidential family, General Sarath Fonseka or Mervyn Silva by name.”

God knows I tried to follow these dicta and, to a great extent, succeeded at the beginning of my journalistic adventures in the Sri Lanka to which I had returned after more than 30 years.

However, there comes a time in the life of someone who has already passed the proverbial “three score and ten years” when one has to cry halt to one’s refusal to state the truth as it confronts you, particularly when that truth has faces and names attached to it.

I began writing a few years ago to several English Sunday papers under a variety of pseudonyms.  The first of these publications didn’t, under one pretext or another, pay me a cent of the measly amount that they should for three consecutive contributions.  To add insult to injury, when I began contributing on a regular basis to The Sunday Leader, the editor of the defaulting newspaper chose to launch a diatribe against me inclusive of some of the most laboured puns it has been my misfortune to ever behold!

I discovered soon enough that this was one of those classic instances when the writer should (but didn’t) stay away from spirituous refreshment and should have, instead, taken the medication he had been prescribed before sitting before his keyboard.

Anyway, this is not supposed to be about those inhabiting the journalistic bazaar, barking at the bidding of their masters.  It is meant to deal with matters a tad more serious: threat to life and limb.

Shortly after my first column appeared in The Sunday Leader, a cousin of mine in Canada, my home for many years until my return to Sri Lanka, sends me a (midnight) telephone message that, based on the information available to him from Canadian and Sri Lankan sources there,  I would be well advised to “cease and desist” any print criticism of the Government of Sri Lanka.  This information he conveys through  another mutual cousin of ours.  By its very nature, this warning was not to be lightly disregarded given the circumstances, but…..

I continued contributing to several Sunday papers with material of different types, inclusive of those with a definite political tinge critical of the government of the day.  I also dispensed with my pseudonyms and wrote to both The Sunday Leader and Montage magazine under my given name, contributing the odd column to the Sunday Island as well.

In addition to my kinsman in that country, I had more than one appeal from friends in Canada, both native Canadians and friends of Sri Lankan birth, telling me to pack my bags and return to the land of my adoption if any sanity still continued to reside in my head!  These were not “diasporic Tamils” incidentally.  The Sri Lankans were all of Sinhalese origin.

What I was being told by mature Sri Lankans both here and abroad, not given to scandal and scare-mongering, was, basically, “Shut up, let the Sri Lankan world go by and cultivate those of your background and class among the governing hierarchy if you wish to live in peace and make ‘progress’.”  This was interesting and, perhaps, very practical advice.  However, as the contrarian that I have discovered myself to be, I find fulfilling this task rather more difficult than I might have anticipated previously.

Old habits die hard and, when one is raised in an ethos that says you are obliged to speak up against those things that are unjust and just plain wrong, that is exactly what you proceed to do, modifying what you say only insofar as considerations of self-preservation might dictate.

“Not wise,” I continue to be told.  “Tilting against windmills,” I am reminded.  “You need your head examined!” I am shouted at by those whom I believe genuinely care about my welfare.

But, as that old hackneyed phrase has it, “A man’s got to do what a man’s got to do” or as used to appear in Sri Lankan autograph albums of yore: “Unto thine own self be true ……”

Let there be no mistake, there have been times when I have looked down the lonely two kilometre approach road which is devoid of any other habitation and leads up to my home, when a solitary vehicle’s approaching headlights keep lighting up various points of its winding trail up the steep and torturous trail.  Worried? Yes!  Concerned for the few (helpless) others in my household? You bet!  That none of these intrusions has led to anything more serious than the occasional lout shouting drunken, unprovoked abuse has been — truly – a relief.

But you come to a point when you take whatever “precautions” you can in a situation where the law precludes you from the possession of so much as a single-barreled shotgun for your protection because you are a retiree.
You speak to people at the bottom of the hill and ask them, without raising too many alarm bells, to call you on their cell phones if a suspicious vehicle begins the ascent of the hill after dark since there is seldom any practical reason for such journeys.

You keep your ear to the metaphorical ground for gossip that may, in any way, sound like you are being singled out for special attention. You thank your lucky stars that you still have “connections” in an area in which three generations of your family led lives of a reasonably community-conscious nature and where there are still people who call you “friend.”

You try to put in perspective the warnings and advice that are showered on you by your friends in urban centres — Colombo and Kandy, in particular — with regard to the risks you are bringing on yourself by criticizing an increasingly-intolerant regime and its lackeys.  This is one of the more complex tasks given the fact that these sources of information, advice and warning tap into sources close to the seats of power and, in some instances, are, in fact, a part of that repressive and intolerant power structure.

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