by D.B.S. Jeyaraj
“Sunday Leader”‘ founder Editor,Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge, who was assassinated on January 8th this year, would have celebrated his 51st birthday today (April 5th) if among the living.
[Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge]
For the first time in many years I will not be wishing Lasantha Manilal Wickrematunge on his birthday.
On this day I can only echo Tennyson with grief “Oh for the touch of a vanished hand and the sound of a voice that is still”.
He and I were colleagues on “The Island” in the eighties of the last century. We were also residents of Kotahena then. Later I was for many years a columnist at “The Sunday Leader”.
But “Lassie Boy” as I called him was a friend in every sense of the word. How I miss him! With the passage of time I realise more and more what a huge personal loss his death has been
Lasantha was a controversial-larger than life-character whose journalism evoked various reactions in various people. Some loved him, some hated him; Some admired him while others condemned him.
But the real Lasantha Wickrematunge was totally different to the “image” many had of him due to negative perceptions. He was friendly and easy to get along with. He was an amiable person with a tremendous sense of humour. As a friend, he was one that could be counted on to stand by his pals.
It was indeed my privilege and good fortune to be closely associated with him for many years. Apart from a brief period of estrangement our friendship endured the trials of time.
This temporary break came in 2007 when I broke ranks from “The Sunday Leader” and switched to “The Nation”. This rift on a personal level lasted only a few months.
He extended his hand of friendship and I grasped it firmly. Once again we were buddies! I am glad and grateful that we reconciled as his loss would have been even more unbearable had there not been this rapprochement.
I used to call him “Lassie Boy”. This was because there were two guys with the name Lasantha at “The Island” editorial those days. To differentiate, I shortened his name to “Lassie” which amused many colleagues.
He objected vehemently saying “Lassie” was a girlish name. To his utter chagrin I compromised by adding “Boy” after lassie to emphasise his masculinity. “Lassie boy” it was forever. Later others at “The Island” also followed suit.
Lasantha Wickrematunge joined “The Island” in 1982 shortly after the Presidential elections in October. Our friendship began and grew while working as reporters on “The Island”.
Also we were residents of Kotahena. I had moved from Wellawatte to Galpotha road to be within walking distance of Upali newspapers at Bloemendhall road. He was a native of Wasala road.
This enabled us to interact more closely. We were young and bachelors then. More importantly Lasantha had a car of his own. Thus we travelled about in his vehicle to many places and events having fun. I was also a frequent visitor to his home.
He revealed to me then his abiding interest in politics. We were alike in that respect but unlike me he wanted to be an active politician. This was due to his family background.
In retrospect, I am glad that he couldn’t shine in active politics. Otherwise he would not have had his “avatar” as Sunday Leader Editor. He grew into his role and was really conscious of the historic role he was playing.
In the finest embodiment of journalistic values, Lasantha Wickrematunge and his “Sunday Leader” spoke truth to power. In the process he did not merely ruffle feathers but stripped the “birdies” bald.
From Chandrika Kumaratunga to Mahinda Rajapaksa, the highest in the land were all targets of his journalistic archery. He was a virtual one-man opposition. Under his editorial leadership his staffers and colleagues worked together as a dedicated team for the common good of this country by upholding liberal democratic values.
He was uncommonly brave or foolhardy depending upon how one looks at it. The fact that he never had bodyguards or sought protection is illustrative of his defiant spirit.
I was always concerned about the danger to his life and would caution him. But he would flippantly dismiss them. “Machang” he would joke, “there are two things where you gotta go when you gotta go . One is the toilet and the other is the grave”.
Professionally, my relationship with him has been of four phases. The first was our working together at “The Island”; the second was when he started “The Sunday Leader” and I wrote for the paper from Canada.
Since I was editing my own Tamil weekly at that time I couldn’t continue for long. But it was illustrative of Lasantha’s innovative outlook and confidence in me that he thought I could write a regular column on Sri Lankan politics from Canada for a Sri Lankan newspaper.
The third phase was when I began functioning in 1997 as the “Roving correspondent” of “The Sunday Leader” writing the “searchlight” column. The fourth phase was in 1999 when I started writing under my own byline for his paper. This went on till September 2007.
The important point in writing for “Editor” Wickrematunge was the absolute freedom he allowed his columnist. He has never bluepencilled me. Except for rare requests he has never asked me what I was going to write upon.
What endeared him to me most was his utter lack of racist consciousness Lasantha was one who had no racist or chauvinist thinking in his psyche. He was fully aware of the problems faced by the minority ethnicities in Lanka. He had particular empathy for the Tamil predicament.
This worldview and mindset was reflected in his journalism and the general editorial thrust of his paper. The newspaper was boldly critical of majoritarian hegemony and strongly supportive of the legitimate aspirations of the Tamil people.
A little-known fact about Lasantha is that he was a good cricketer like his brother Lal. Lasantha played for the under 16 at SBC and shone. Unlike Lal who was a pacey Lasantha was a left arm leg spinner. But he went off to Britain when he was sixteen. Thus he could not continue his cricket. I used to tease him frequently that he was now bowling his “googlies” and “dhoosras” in Journalism.
Lasantha lived for only fifty years and eight months on this planet. Yet , he achieved many, many things in that short life-span. He changed single-handedly the state of journalism in this country.
Lassie was controversial in death as in life. His “editorial from the grave” has made waves around the world of journalism and human rights activism.
His killers may think that the gun has silenced the pen but as a fellow scribe and friend I want to remind his killers that the last word about his death has not been written yet.
There will come a time when justice would be meted out to his killers both the arrow and the archer. Until then, we who loved and admired “Lassie Boy” shall not rest.
This is not a challenge, threat or boast but a simple statement of fact.
I can be reached on