28 August 2012

Editors and friends

A few weeks after I joined the Sunday Island (my first newspaper job), the editor, Manik de Silva, who taught me the proverbial A, B and C of the profession (but probably couldn’t get past F or so) wanted me to write a series of articles about my experiences while I was a student in the USA.  I called that series ‘Sketchbook USA’ and commented on a wide range of issues, including poverty, criminality and racism as well as more redeeming features of that country and society.  Among the articles was one about teachers and teaching, which I titled ‘My professors and friends’.

The distance between student and teacher is not a constant.  It depends on teacher and on student, depends on education system and level of education, and depends on the culture of education too.   I got along fairly well with my professors and that had little to do with intellect, discipline or scholarly orientation.  It was a human-human thing in the main, like all relationships when stripped of convention-frill. 

It is different in structured hierarchies such as those found in offices, but then again newspapers are different kinds of ‘offices’, quite unlike government institutions or corporate entities.  Even if one counts the usual complement of the lazy, the tale-carriers, the envious and back-stabbers common to all places, newspaper offices (perhaps like advertising agencies and production houses) are more relaxed about distinction.   I called my boss ‘Mr De Silva’ and tried ‘sir’ for a while because he was of my father’s generation.  After a while it didn’t sound right.  I swallowed his name or quickly switched to ‘you’ after an inaudible whatever that passed for ‘address’.  As time went on ‘Manik’ came out more easily and louder too.  A few months ago when I met him at some party thrown by some embassy, he slipped a ‘machang’ on me. 

It was common though among people who had put in decades (not years) in the industry.  Gamini Weerakoon was ‘Mr Weerakoon’ to me, but ‘Gamma’ to his deputy, Prabath Sahabandu and to Prasad Gunawardena, then News Editor, The Island.  Today, some who called me ‘Malli’ or ‘Malinda’ 6 years ago when ‘The Nation’ was launched, add a ‘Mister’.  Some say ‘Chief’.  Some call me ‘Malinda’, some say ‘Malinda Aiya’; and some, even the relatively young, toss out a ‘Machang’ at me now and then.  And I find I am ‘boss’ in an office where there are people who became journalists before I was born. 

In all these places there is something like a chain of command which is acknowledged by and large.  There is humility to take criticism and entertain suggestion.  There are fights, bad days and sour notes.  There are practical jokes and pranks, and there are the occasional malice-driven trap-setting. There are every man for himself (and woman for herself) times and there are ‘together, through thick and thin’ moments as well.  There are all-is-forgotten days as well.   

There are journalists and there are friends.  There are editors too who are friends.  Every friend, every co-worker is a biography waiting to be written, but we are time-constrained and word-limited.  We pick and choose, and to the picking and choosing as relevant to moment. At this moment there are two names that come to mind: Rajpal Abeynayake and Narada Nissanka. 

I remember Rajpal because he, the founder editor of Sunday Lakbima News quit earlier this week.  Rajpal was for many years ‘The Rajpal Abeynayake Column’.  Then a fellow journalist. Then a friend.  We spoke, we crossed ideological swords.  He gave me opportunity to write in his paper and we fought on the same page now and then.  We remained friends.  When I was asked to be the editor of ‘The Nation’ 6 years ago, I said ‘I am not ready, you need someone like Rajpal’.  He was considered but someone else was selected.  Rajpal turned the ‘Sunday Observer’ around.  He was asked to leave for being ‘anti-government’.  Now there are whispers saying he was accused of being ‘pro-government’.  Rajpal doesn’t have political friends.  More importantly he doesn’t give anyone, not even the closet friend, a blank cheque. 

When he was appointed Editor of ‘Lakbima News’ I was happy for him and for the newspaper industry.  He has accommodated in his paper columnists who are virulently anti-government.  He has defended country, not government; he has criticized policy and not personality.  Those who criticize him either cannot write, are jealous of his skill, or read him selectively.  Lakbima has lost, in my opinion.  We have all lost too, for when someone like Rajpal puts heart and guts out to produce a newspaper, that newspaper challenges all other newspapers and helps raise the bar. 

I remember Narada for different reasons.  Happier reasons, I may add.  Narada was appointed as the Editor of the Daily Divaina, again earlier this week.  It is probably a position that took its time getting to him.  Narada is a fighter in his own right.  He is, more than that, a friend.  When I left the Sunday Island in less than happy circumstances 8 years ago, there were many in the Divaina who did not dare say ‘bye’, not because they disliked me but they were scared of consequences.  Most of them had benefitted from my friendship.  Narada never owed me anything.  And yet, he spoke kindly and empathized.  We never met for tea-and-chat, but spoke on the phone occasionally, like a few days ago when someone wishing him on his appointment passed the phone to me.  I was and am thrilled for him and said so.  He said it meant a lot but said ‘podi dukakuth danenava’ (there is a bit of sadness, too).  He didn’t elaborate and didn’t need to.  That’s friendship. 

There are editors and there are friends.  These categories are not mutually exclusive.  Rajpal and Narada in their own ways have enriched me.  They belong to a rare category of people who can take the hits but will not be subdued by the bludgeoning.  They make others look small.  They create benchmarks.  They are invaluable.