By D.B.S.Jeyaraj/Daily Mirror
Colombo, November 18: William Shakespeare wrote in his play “Julius Caesar” thus – “His life was gentle, and the elements So mixed in him that Nature might stand up And say to all the world, This was a man.” . Much hackneyed as they may be , these enduring words of the Bard of Avon aptly describe veteran journalist Gamini Weerakoon who breathed his last on 11 November 2023.His funeral was held at Kanatte on Sunday Nov 12.
Gamini Weerakoon known to his friends and colleagues as “Gamma” was an integral part of Sri Lanka’s English journalistic realm for more than five decades. He entered journalism as a news reporter and gradually rose up from the ranks to retire as Editor. He served in many capacities such as reporter, sub- editor, feature writer,news editor,deputy editor, editor, columnist and consulting editor in his eventful career. Until the very end he was in harness as a journalist by writing the weekly column titled “Doublespeak” for the “Sunday Times”.
Though his entry into Journalism was through “Lake House” Gamma spent the greater part of his journalistic life at Bloemendhal road with Upali newspapers. It was there that he excelled as editor for more than two decades. “The Island”of 13 Nov 2023 published an editorial titled “When great Oaks fall” about the former editor. The editorial sums up Gamini Weerakoon’s contribution to Journalism concisely. Here are some excerpts –
“When Great Oaks Fall”
‘Fondly known as Gamma to his fellow scribes, Weerakoon left Lake House in the early 1980s to join the team Upali Wijewardene handpicked to launch The Island. He played a key role in crafting a new brand of journalism, which quickly gained immense popularity. He succeeded Vijitha Yapa as the editor, and his was a memorably long innings in journalism. He elevated the quality and effectiveness of Sri Lankan journalism and inspired others to strive for similar levels of achievement.”
“Gamma excelled in editorial writing. He wrote beautifully, forcefully, and persuasively, and his no-holds-barred editorials were simply out of this world; they were loaded with facts and figures, which he clinically analysed with wit and humour thrown in for good measure; they contained very powerful messages that naturally made the conceited rulers of the day furious. The Island became a marked target as a result.”
“The Island bore the brunt of the fury of violent politicians who acted with impunity, but Gamma was not deterred. He would harden under pressure as all good journalists usually do. It was not occasionally that Gamma had a brush with those in authority. He had the pugnacity of a pugilist, and readily pitted himself against the pompous moneybags and self-important politicians, but he was a kind-hearted gentleman, whose integrity was never in question.”
“Having cut his teeth on journalism during the hot metal printing days, Gamma shepherded The Island into the digital age. He was a multifaceted personality, and his interests were numerous although he basically confined himself to international affairs, politics and economics, as a prolific writer.”
“He tenaciously campaigned for media freedom.Gamma did not officially label himself as a media trainer but he mentored quite a few journalists during his UNL days, and many of them have joined other publications or pursued careers in media-related fields.Veteran scribes who have been enriching journalism for decades are like great oaks that leave lasting voids when they fall. Gamma was unarguably one of them.”
Gamma’s demise revived memories of those happy days at Bloemendhal road for me and several other former Island journalists. Even as we communicated with each other about Gamma, a few asked me whether I was going to write about him. I said that I was working on a political article and that I may write about Gamma later on. My friends wanted me to write on Gamma this week itself. One said” You wrote so many articles about politicos. You must write about Gamma and about yourself. After all he is a journalist and you both were quite close, no?That clinched it. I shelved the article I was working on. This week’s article is all about Gamini Weerakoon.
Gamini Weerakoon came into my life 42 years ago in 1981 when I joined “The Island” as a Staff Reporter on November 16th. As stated earlier he was known popularly as “Gamma” derived from his name Gamini. However Gamma is the third letter of the Greek alphabet and also denotes the third in a position, order or class.
“Gamma” Weerakoon was the third in the editorial hierarchy of “The Island” when I joined the newspaper. The first two were the Editor Vijitha Yapa and Deputy Editor Dalton de Silva. Gamini Weerakoon ranked third as the News editor. However Dalton de Silva quit early to be the Reuters Bureau chief in Colombo. Gamma functioned as both News Editor and acting deputy editor for some time prior to being appointed formally as Deputy Editor. Later he succeeded Vijitha Yapa as Editor. I have worked under him as a journalist in his three capacities of News Editor,Deputy Editor and Editor.
At the outset I would like to relate the circumstances under which I started working for the Island in 1981. I was then a journalist in the Tamil Daily”Virakesari”. Although I was a Staff reporter at the Editorial in Colombo, I had been stationed in Jaffna since July 1981. This was because the “Virakesari”s veteran Jaffna correspondent Sellathurai had been hospitalized with a serious ailment. Since Jaffna was of crucial importance to a Tamil newspaper, I was sent there from Colombo to hold the Fort.
The “Sunday Island” was launched in October 1981. The Daily Island was to be launched on Nov 16. The paper was looking for a journalist to report from Jaffna as a staff correspondent. My friends Ajith Samaranayake and Ravindran Casinader who had begun working for “Sunday Island” had recommended my name. I was already acquainted with Vijitha Yapa when he was the media liaison officer at the Greater Colombo Economic Commission (GCEC) headed by Upali Wijewardene. So I came down to Colombo from Jaffna for an interview at Upali newspapers Ltd.
Life Changing Interview
The interview was a life-changing one. I was interviewed by Vijitha Yapa and Gamini Weerakoon. They wanted me to work as the staff correspondent for the paper in Jaffna. I declined the offer and said that I wanted to work in Colombo and not Jaffna. At that point Gamma got up abruptly and started leaving but Vijitha continued to talk to me and asked me what I wanted to do in Colombo.
Weerakoon tarried at the door and told Yapa “What’s the point in wasting time Vijitha, we want someone in Jaffna but he doesn’t want to be there. So we better look for someone else”. But Yapa replied “That was our idea but he has another idea. We’ll try and work something out”. Gamma just shrugged his shoulders and left but Vijitha continued to engage with me. The end result was that I ended up working for “The Island” in Colombo instead of Jaffna. This was all due to Vijitha Yapa’s accommodative flexibility.
Though Gamma was reluctant to take me on initially, things changed after I starterd working under him. Both Yapa and Gamma wanted me to concentrate on Tamil affairs in writing for the papers. I was hesitant as I feared my copy may be altered due to political reasons. Both assured me that would not happen as long as I reported the facts accurately. I agreed to do the Tamil round.
I plunged in to work and began enjoying my entry into English journalism. I relocated from Wellawatte to Kotahena to be within walking distance of Upali newspapers. With rising armed militancy, the “Tamil round” in news reporting became turbulently exciting. I worked hard and wrote many news stories. Many of them were the lead stories. Gamma as news editor was pleased and began to rely on me very much.
“Peninsula not Island”
One day he joked “My friends are saying the paper is not “The Island” but “The Peninsula” because your by-llnes are dominating the front page”.I reminded him jovially that he did not want to hire me in the first place. He responded by saying that he wanted reports from Jaffna then and pointed out that Iwas writing the Jaffna stories from Colombo now.He added as an afterthought “I didn’t know you were an Old Thomian then”.
Gradually Gamini Weerakoon and I became very close to each other. Even though we had different political views there existed a bond of friendship between us that baffled many.Gamma in many respects was an enigma.
School by the Sea
Gamini Abhaya Weerakoon was born on 19 March 1941. His family was residing in Mt.Lavinia then and young Weerakoon had both his primary and secondary education at the school by the sea. It was as a Thomian that he acquired his lifelong pet name “Gamma”derived from Gamini.
He was a member of the triumphant rugby team of 1961 captained by Tony Sirimanne. Gamma was a unility player in the pack and played in several positions such as lock,prop, second row and wing forward. Among fellow team mates were Wilhelm Koch and Maurice Fairweather. Gamma won a few field events in Athletics too.
He entered the Science faculty of the Colombo University as a BSc student but never completed his degree. Gamma told me once that he engaged in all types of activity in campus except academic pursuits and was notorious for cutting lectures. This was corroborated by a cousin of mine who was Gamma’s contemporary at Varsity. (my cousin too did not get his degree).
Undergrad to Journo
The transition from undergrad to journo was related to me by Gamma himself. When he reached a dead end as a BSc student, Dr. Neelan Tiruchelvam known as Neelan had come to Gamma’s aid. Neelan took Gamma to the then Law Faculty Dean Prof.T.Nadarajah who kindly facilitated a transfer for Gamma to the law faculty. Unfortunately his new avatar as law student did not last long
There was an illness resulting in a throat operation due to which Gamini Weerakoon’s voice got affected. Though it improved greatly later, Gamma was terribly embarrassed in the initial stages. As he told me once “ I wanted to be an articulate advocate like GG or Colvin making thundering arguments in my powerful voice but now it had been reduced to a pipsqueak. So I thought there was no point in becoming a lawyer”. Gamma began exploring other possibilities.
Journalism beckoned! Gamini Weerakoon had displayed a flair for writing at school. He was recruited as a reporter in 1966 by the legendary Denzil Peiris the then editor of “The Observer” published by Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd.(ANCL). It is the practice in newspaers to allocate specific areas or spheres to reporters to cover – apart from general assignments – as part of their journalistic duty.
The second half of the sixties in the 20th century was a period of youth unrest and student turbulence globally. Sri Lanka known then as Ceylon was no exception. The United National Party(UNP) Government under Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake was in power then. The Education Minister was the controversial IMRA Iriyagolla. There were only two universities then in Peradeniya and Colombo and the Education minister was in charge of schools as well as universities. There was much friction among the undergrads,a cademic staff and ministerial authorities. The student unions were highly politicised and inclined towards the left.
The recent undergrad Gamma was assigned the Higher education or campus round to cover as a reporter. It was a very wise and appropriate decision by the Editor. Gamma’s campus contacts were huge and wide. Besides he was able to saunter around varsity precincts like an undergrad. The result was a wide range of news stories many of them scoops and exclusives . Gamini Weerakoon made his mark as a reporter. He also realised that his life’s vocation was journalism.
Apart from the campus round , Gamini reported on other matters including general politics. He also served as a courts reporter and Parliament affairs reporter at times . He wrote news features too.After a short stint at subbing, Gamma became News Editor. In 1973 “Lake House”was taken over by the United Front Govt led by Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandaranaike. There were drastic changes and Gamini became the “Daily News” news editor.
Meanwhile there was romance in the Beira lake air. Gamma wooed and won the hand of Lake House journalist Rajitha Unantenna. Rajitha’s father was PB Unantenna , a member of Parliament representing the Hanguranketa constituency in the Central Province. PB Unantenna had been elected from the Sri Lanka Freedom Party(SLFP) in the 1970 elections. He had earlier contested in 1960 and 1965 and lost.
The newly weds took up residence right across Lake House at Regent flats near the Regal theatre. Their only daughter Surangi was born. It was then that Gamma bought his famous orange coloured Volkeswagon I think.
Lake House Changes
In July 1977 the UNP led by Junius Richard Jayewardene came to power in a landslide victory. However Lake House was not given back to the rightful owners although JR himself was related to the Wijewardene family. In 1978 , Kotte MP and incumbent speaker Anandatissa de Alwis was appointed Minister of State ( this was a cabinet post different to the present ministers of state). The state-owned media came under his purview. Once again there were changes in Lake House, Veteran journalist and the then Reuters Correspondent Clarence “Clarry” Fernando became “Daily News” Editor.Incidently Anandatissa de Alwis was Clarry’s brother in law.
Gamini Weerakoon found himself sidelined and somewhat stifled under the new dispensation.So when Upali Wijewardene launched a newspaper,Gamma perceived it as an opportunity to move out of Lake House. What happened thereafter would be related in the second and final part of this article .
D.B.S.Jeyaraj can be reached at [email protected]