By Bandula Jayasekara
Captain Rohan Moonemalle of Etihad Airways a college mate of mine at Trinity College Kandy wrote to me:
“Bandula can you let me know who the publishers of the collection of articles by Ajith Samaranayake are? I would like to buy a few copies. I knew Ajith from the time I was a junior at Trinity. And I used to think he was nuts because he used to sit in his living room everyday and read the newspaper editorial as loud as he could. As an 8 year old this was quite a spectacle because I was unable to understand the English he was reading. One day, I mentioned this to my dad (former High Court Judge C.L.T. Moonemalle) and seriously said that I strongly felt Ajith should be shown to Dr Sangakkara.
My father’s amused reply was that this was Ajith’s way of improving his English. I never understood till years later, when I accidently stumbled on a newspaper editorial. Editorials were boring stuff for us school boys who were only interested in the sports page. Anyways, since then if I pick up a newspaper I never fail to read the editorial”.
Yes that was Rohan\s tribute to Ajith Samaranayake. Both their families were good friends in Kandy.
Ajith was my hero in School and I wanted to follow in his footsteps and did follow him to a point though many of us will never be able to achieve the greatness Ajith achieved in life both as a writer and a human being. In his Alma Mater, Trinity Ajith debated both in English and Sinhala. Students at Trinity listened to his debating skills with amazement. He was very active in the Literary Unions and added colour to the college magazine. He was also a school prefect everyone would respect. Ajith earned that respect both as a writer and a human being until his untimely death in 2006 at the age of 51
Ajith left college and joined The Sunday Observer. I read his articles with great admiration. Two colour pieces I remembered at the time was about a passing out parade in Diyatalawa where 2nd Lt Mendaka Samarasinghe received the Sword of Honour and on Lester’s Madol Duwa and one of its characters Jinna. Later in life I met the two characters featured in those colour pieces by Ajith, Major General Mendaka Samarasinghe and Padmasena Athukorale Jinna from Madol Duwa and struck a friendship with them.
We had so much to learn from Ajith. I wanted to follow his footsteps and become a journalist. He discouraged me saying it was not easy for people like me to come from Kandy and live in Colombo with the meagre salary a journalist was receiving then though Ajith was able to live with it. Ajith said “Journalism is good for people like Marwaan Macan Markar who hail from Colombo (Guess it has not improved much since 1978/79) and journalism and journalists are becoming poor in Sri Lanka with each new day. Not that I earn much as a public servant either)
I first saw one of the most respected editors of Daily News Mervin de Silva at the Orient Club in Colombo when I went there for lunch with Ajith. Ajith was a guest of one of its members. Mervin one of the greats in Sri Lankan journalism was to later describe Ajith Samaranayake as the best English journalist in Sri Lanka.
In Colombo I visited Ajith at the Sunday Observer often and that is where I met Panduka Senanayake his friend and saw many others like Manik de Silva and his scooter (present Editor of The Sunday Island) and Gamini Weerakoon (who opened the pages of The Island for me when he was the Editor of the Daily Island) and saw the workings of a newspaper. He pointed out to various journalists and told me who they were.
Once Ajith published a Talking Point in the Sunday Observer when a high handed Brigadier threw my belongings from my boarding place to help his aunt who owned the place. An inquiry followed and the brigadier backed off. Ajith and The Observer was so helpful to me in finding boarding houses on several occasions since he gave me the advertisers section on Saturday which enabled me to beat others and find a good boarding place. At a later stage we became roommates at the house of Sunil and Sumana Dharmadasa at Sri Sumangala Mawatha in Ratmalana. That is the time I first met the bearded D.B.S Jeyaraj of The Island.
Dharmadasa family had great respect for Ajith and did not even care if Ajith paid the boarding fees on time or not. The late Sunil Dharmadasa a man who hailed from Kandy was honoured that Ajith Samaranayake was staying at their place. That was the time Ajith moved from The Sunday Observer to The new newspaper, The Island. I think it was not easy to get the great but, simple Ajith to join the new paper. It had to be done in style and its editor Vijitha Yapa and publisher late Upali Wijewardane met Ajith at the only five star hotel in Sri Lanka at the time The Intercontinental to make Ajith the offer. I remember Ajith telling me the story that same day after he accepted the offer.
Ajith Samaranayake built a bridge between English and Sinhala journalists because he could write well in both languages and move well among all journalists. I am yet to meet a journalist who could act as a bridge after the demise of Ajith. Ajith wrote as Minerva, Aravinda, or just A.S. He could write anything from editorials to film and book reviews to features to news and obits. May be Ajith was one of the best lobby correspondents we have ever had in this country. Ajith enjoyed the cinema and theater. I was fortunate to get passes from him to see many of the plays.
When many talented journalists and writers flew in search of greener pastures, Ajith Samaranayake stayed back in Sri Lanka. He did not show much interest even to travel out of the country. I remember Ajith telling me once how he finally agreed to travel abroad after refusing 12 offers and that he returned after cutting short the visit.
I was appointed as the Editor of The Daily News in 2005 and I was unhappy to see the way Ajith was pushed to a corner at the business section. He had this title Managing Editor English Publications. A kick upstairs at Lake House where I too was offered once but, refused to accept.
He was my hero and here I was occupying the Editors chair and the best writer in the country kicked upstairs. I asked Ajith to help me. He very graciously obliged. Whenever Ajith came to see me I naturally stood up and told me that he should occupy my chair. I don’t think the writer in him was ever interested in doing the administrative work which comes with the job of the Editor.
I managed to convince Ajith to write editorials and centre pieces and other essays and I still feel good that I was able to do so. Dr Sarath Amunugama one of Ajith’s admirers wrote in a newspaper he edited welcoming it.
I last met Ajith Samaranayake four days before his untimely death at a dinner hosted by Mohan Samaranayake the present chairman of Rupavahini (who was the Press Officer at the UN then) I think it was just four of us Ajith, Mohan, Shamindra Ferdinando of The Island. We discussed many things. Life, politics, art and culture and society at large.
It was a free spirited discussion as always and we parted company agreeing to meet again. It was not to be since Ajith was gone four days later. We had our differences, our own views. But, to me he was the great Ajith Samaranayake though he always looked the other side when I referred to him as the great Ajith Samaranayake.
Sri Lankan journalism will always be sadder since no one will be able to fill those pages ONLY Ajith Samaranayake could have.
(Ajith Samaranayake was the Editor of The Island, Sunday Observer and the Evening Observer. The writer a former editor of “Daily News” is currently Presidential spokesman and international media adviser to the President)