28 February 2015

Memories of a memory-man

Newspapers have cultures and sub-cultures, traditions, customs and rituals.  I remember one at the Sunday Island.  Manik De Silva’s erstwhile Man Friday, ‘BNL’ was such a right-hand man that I would call him ‘Manik’ and inquire if ‘BNL’ (Manik) was in or out.  BNL would invite a small group of friends every year for lunch, usually the first Sunday following the Aluth Avurudda.  Shamindra Ferdinando, Clifford Heiller and I were privileged invitees.  It was at one of these parties that I met the brilliant, genial, unpredictable, eccentric and extremely lovable Ravi Ladduwahetty, whose byline was as part of my teenage and post-teen years and who entertained with anecdote as well as Piano Accordion. 

This morning (February 27, 2011), trying hard to remember a particular date related to a specific incident too insignificant perhaps for internet mention, I wished I had Ladda’s memory.  Made me think of the man.   I remembered that first meeting where first I encountered that phenomenal memory, evidence of which laced his comments, blending well with caustic wit, gregarious laughter and occasional temper loss. 

A few years later saw us become colleagues at Rivira Media Corporation.  I was at ‘The Nation’ with him for about 8 months before the inevitable run-ins with the then editor saw me quit.  Ladda, during that time, was diurnal.  He could entertain with anecdote and fact. He was entertaining even when angry and there were times I wickedly irked him into letting off a stream of filth in both English and Sinhala and distinctly remember him chasing me all over the Rivira building in Maradana.  It was easy to get under his skin but very difficult to stay there for extended periods of time. 

I parachuted into journalism at the ripe old age of 35. By the time Ladda had reached 35 he was all over the newspapers.  He didn’t parachute into anything. He walked in. Literally. 

I can’t remember reading Ladda’s first published piece, but I can’t forget his recounting.  He had been working for Ford Rhodes at the time and had been on his way to do the Baur’s audit with Dian Gomes and Suresh Shah, both very successful businessmen now.  Ladda had dropped by at Lake House to hand over a hand-written poem titled ‘The 2nd 45-over international’. 

He had expected it to be carried in the sports section by it appeared in the op-ed page.  I couldn’t remember the match, but found the scoreboard on www.cricinfo.com a short while ago.  It was indeed a match that warranted a ballad and one laments the lack of balladeers to sing praises of our cricket team and nation.  The match was played on February 14, 1982 at a time when no one associated that day with the name Valentine.  Sidat Wettimuny carried his bat out for a patient and innings-holding 86 not out.  England required 14 runs in the last two overs (that’s ‘nothing’ these days) with 5 wickets in hand. They were done in by 4 runouts.  Sidat, Arjuna Ranatunga (42) and others pushed Ladda to poetize.  The readership was entertained, I am sure.

I remember Ladda telling me about his first article for the Island, way back in January 1983.  It was something about how music can help cure psychosomatic diseases. I only remember the title ‘Melody for a malady’.  Ladda, to my knowledge, had not studies music or medicine but he knew how to turn a phrase, pick relevant facts pertaining to specific topic from the ocean of knowledge that he swam by way of reading. 

He was versatile.  He used to tell with no apologies regarding total absence of humility that he is the only journalist in Sri Lanka who can claim to have had lead stories in all sections/pages of 4 different newspapers (he’s written over 700 I believe).  That’s a brag.  It’s a fact.  It probably holds true for journalists across the world and across time.  He could write a business story, a cover for a women’s magazine in a newspaper, a report on a cricket or rugger match, cover a parliamentary debate or a political campaign or write biting satire on any subject.  Ladda the Encyclopedia was never short on facts. 

He would tell you how many editors Trinity produced and name all the cricket and rugger captains of his school (and the better school, Royal, as well!) and what the Bradby scores of each year are.  Ladda is like a google search engine that way.  He would give you fact and some pertinent background. He would make the odd dirty joke too and guffaw like a schoolboy. 

I still remember him commenting about a car sticker:  ‘There was one which read “Yet another Royalist is ahead of you” and I remember saying “that’s ok, as long as it is not a Thomian who is behind me!”’  A schoolboy joke from a man who could get back to school-mode anytime he wanted but would never hold a grudge or judge according to background, curriculum vitae and reputation. 

In 1999 Ladda almost died in an accident. He lost an ear.  He did not lose his memory. I used to tell him that he had been gifted with the greatest memory but that ability to synthesize and analyze had been robbed from his mental make up.  I was being harsh. He knew how to put two and two together and come up with four or twenty two as demanded by relevant realities.  His forte however was fact.  This is why you could count on him to tell as-it-is stories.  He wasn’t interested in editorializing.  That’s rare for a journalist these days.

Ladda would bark but stop short of biting.  He would on occasion call and chide me. ‘I know you would prefer to talk to a chair with a skirt around it rather than talk to me…’ he would start and would go on and on and on about this, that and the other. 

Life passes us by whether we like it or not and life sometimes passes some of us in depressing ways.  Life didn’t take many looks at Ladda but he never dropped glance or blink eye. He caught it all.  He was and is like all of us a mixed bag and it is a pity that few had the patience, generosity and heart to pick his best and subdue the rest in ways that did not seem insulting.

No one has instilled in me the importance of a good memory as Ladda did.  Maybe this is why I remembered, just now, a fact that might mean nothing to everyone except Ladda and those who are willing to entertain the notion that the world is a strange place. 

Ladda’s poem on that 45-over match appeared in the Sunday Observer of February 28, 1982, exactly 29 years ago to the day.  I can’t hold a candle to Ladda’s crisp reporting style and can hardly claim to be a balladeer.  I regret I cannot write the song that would do justice to the man.  I can only give it a title: ‘Ravi Ladda: 29 not out’.  Forget the World Cup, I am waiting to cheer his half-century.  Good luck man!

This was written a few years ago.  It was published in the Daily News of February 28, 2011.  Remembered Mr Memory. Thought a re-post would be interesting to those who know him.