02 April 2016

Prasad Gunawardena left behind some memorable lines

There were many personalities resident in the man known as Prasad Gunawardena.  There were times when he was at war with someone and it appeared as though he had declared war on the entire world.  But there were times when he was one with the universe.  He was a child, a little boy, a naughty young man and a wise old man.  He was also a journalist, a cricketer, a political commentator, a lyricist and a friend.   He was ambitious on the rare occasion and at such times he was insufferably single-minded.  Most times, though, he didn’t care about the next day or even the next moment.  He could be arrogant and hard, but there were times he was soft and kind, especially to the less fortunate (in his eyes). 

I first met him in the year 2000 when I joined Upali Newspapers.  He was a veteran even back then, a name I was familiar with since I had enjoyed his comments on parliamentary proceedings.  Years later I would tell journalists working under me to go to the Archives and read Prasad Gunawardena’s ‘lobby column’.  He was at times an unforgiving ‘boss’ to young reporters and yet he nurtured them in his own way.  He knew his trade and shared his knowledge readily, but I believe those who he mentored, officially or otherwise, learned more about journalism from the countless stories he related than from his ‘hands-on’ instructions in the editorial offices of the newspapers he worked for.

Prasad had lots of stories.  He was hero in some of them, but to his credit he didn’t hold back when recounting incidents where he was embarrassed or rather embarrassed himself.  The latter kind was mostly about his younger days when he enjoyed a drink or two or more with fellow scribes.  It is said in journalistic circles that this was what stopped him realizing his true potential.  He gave up at some point, but perhaps it was too late by then for he had acquired a reputation which was usually referred to along with the darker sides of his character.

But Prasad was not ‘dark’.  And anyway, who among us is a saint, one can argue.  He was full of life.  He laughed and when he did you could read in his eyes the absolute honesty of his mirth in the transparency of his eyes.  He was like a little boy on such occasions. 

There were things he knew and these were what he talked about most -- like cricket, political history and of course music.  He spoke of his cricketing days at S Thomas’ College, Mt Lavinia in the early seventies, how he was dropped from the XI that was to play the Big Match due to some misdemeanor, and how he nevertheless was at hand to offer advice to his captain.  Prasad didn’t write much about cricket, but he talked cricket whenever he felt like it.  It was not about statistics or records; he would dwell on strategy and explain why such and such a plan didn’t work out and offer alternatives that seemed better. 

Prasad was never more enthusiastic than when he spoke of his association with Clarence Wijewardena, Annesley Malewana and other artists of the groups they led.  He was part of the troupe, he said.  He wrote lyrics.  He would recount incidents that inspired some of the songs he wrote, mostly about love; for example all time favorites such as rae thaarakaavo, maeniyani, mama edath gosin, thanivee sitinnai adahas kale and rahase handanaa.  Those were all lovely stories, some about things he had witnessed and others about things he had experienced. 

No one has ever confirmed that Prasad actually wrote these songs, but one thing he said convinced me.  He said that he wrote only the first two lines of rahase handanaa and that it was too much for him to finish it.  He had gone over to the Divaina and told his friend Kithsiri Nimal Shantha to complete it.  Kithsiri, much loved journalist and by all accounts one of the best writers of his generation whose understanding of Sinhala grammar was second to none, was already dead when Prasad told me this story.  Prasad never took credit for anything he had not done, I am convinced. 

He was not just a word-man though.  He could speak to all aspects of music.  He would speak of words, melodies and voices that could do justice to these (and of course voices that simply could not deliver).  He spoke fondly and with great admiration of the artists of his time including Clarence, Annesley, Indrani Perera, Milton and Sunil Perera.  He spoke of voices and about composers.  I learned a lot about the Sinhala music scene of the seventies from Prasad Gunawardena. 

Music, and also film, I should add.  Naturally, he spoke mostly about his uncle, Gamini Fonseka.  He admired that man.  Almost every year Prasad would pen a tribute to Gamini Fonseka.  It was never a copy-paste affair because Prasad never really figured out computers.  There would be similar phrases and anecdotes no doubt, but he was inspired by admiration, respect and love.  I remember how he was upset when he found out that I was editing a lengthy piece on his uncle for ‘The Nation’.  I had simply asked the layout boys to retain the copy on a page (without continuing it on a different page) and to use the pictures as they wished.  The article had about a thousand words.  The required word-count after layout was less than 700.

‘I will never write again!’ he was livid.

‘Go have a cigarette, I will finish this and give you a printout,’ I said.

Once I was done, I gave him the printout and said ‘now see if I’ve butchered it!’

He read it, smiled and said ‘this is fine.’ 

Of course, since we were both journalists, he would tell of his exploits in the industry, the editors he worked under, the stories he covered, the pranks he played and the lengths he would go to in order to get the story the particular editor had tasked him to get.  It was all fascinating.  All educational.  It might sounded as if Prasad was bragging, but he was just stating facts and moreover I suspect his true intent was to entertain an all-ears audience, whether it was just a single person or a crowd. 

He had ‘down moments’.  Many of them in fact.  Children never truly appreciate how much their parents love them.  Perhaps until they become parents they tend to think that their fathers and mothers are/were not the best parents they could have been.  Prasad cared deeply about his three children.  He spoke about them fondly.  He shared with me on occasion his anxieties.  If ever a harsh word had been spoken, it would wound him deeply.  I’ve seen him cry. 

Prasad Gunawardena was always ‘ready to go’ because he was never a here-to-stay kind of person.  But he’s gone now and so we must say ‘Go well Prasad, and thanks for the melodies, the wonderful lines and for keeping things light – most of the time’.   

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who contributes a weekly column titled 'Subterranean Transcripts' to the Daily Mirror.   Email: malindasenevi@gmail.com, Twitter: malindasene