23 May 2014

Pathiravitana’s ‘Cameos’ a tender gaze on nation and citizenry*

I parachuted into journalism.  I didn’t do the hard yards.  I was picked from nowhere by Manik De Silva, Editor, Sunday Island about ten years ago.  He said I could be his understudy.  He did his best to turn me into an all-round journalist.  He tried to impart some reporting skills.  I still remember Manik telling me to write a news story about interest rates.  He gave me the facts.  I wrote a quick comment on ‘fictional commodities’ after Karl Polanyi. Manik said ‘I say, I asked you to write a news story not a bloody commentary’, but carried it anyway. 

We learn from those who came before us.  They clear paths and do it so well that we forget that previously there was thicket.  I am grateful to Manik, my first and best teacher in newspapers. I am grateful also to Gamini Weerakoon (‘Gamma’) who was the Editor of The Island (i.e. the daily paper), who would often call me into his office and give me what he called ‘unsolicited advise’.  Shamindra Ferdinando was another unobtrusive teacher.  I was taught by the layout people, the ‘readers’, the sub-editors, the peons, drivers, the advertising people and Simon, the tea-maker.  And I learnt from those who wrote. And those who write. 

A little over a year ago, Nihal Ratnayake, veteran journalist and one my father’s oldest friends (so old that he can claim to have known me longer than I have known myself), sent me a book to be reviewed.  It was called ‘Cameos of Ceylon and other glimpses,’ authored by another veteran scribe, S.Pathiravitana.  It was a fascinating collection. Easy reading. Entertaining. Utterly, utterly enriching.

It was clearly a carefully selected set of essays penned over a half a century for the Sunday Observer, Daily News and The Island. I flipped through some articles and was flipped by the cameos.  Then I lost the book. Shifted house, lost book.  A chance conversation with an internet reader of my articles ended with me visiting her father, the author of this lovely book, a couple of months ago.  He gave me a signed copy and brushed aside my apologies with a wonderfully understanding smile. 

‘Cameos’ gives us glimpses of a mind dedicated to exploration, a heart unburdened of hard convictions and a human composite that is endowed with wit, patience, humility, thirst for knowledge and that rare ability to touch without touching, inhabiting without appearing to do so. 

The interesting thing about such collections is that you don’t have to read from beginning to end. You can turn to a random page and read.  This is what I did.  As a result I was educated about Buddhism in Western Literature and immediately afterwards I was made to reflect on consumers and consumerism in ways I had not imagined were possible.  The collage of subject, personality, event, history, philosophy, literature and innumerable other ‘things’ that is this book throws a colour-mix never before blended. 

He writes about the most ordinary of things in ways that make your mouth water.  Like the lowly papaw (‘The fruit that tempted Eve’).  ‘One spoonful and you really begin to taste the fruit of national freedom,’ he writes about woodapple jam (the Marketing Department version).  He puts ‘English in its place’.  He writes about penguins, pelicans and ptarmigans. He writes about ancestor worship (in Britain!) and tells us about Munkotuve Rala who gave us the ‘Sangarajawatha’ which, according to him, ‘records the story of the heroic recovery of the Buddha Sasana through the magnificent almost single-handed effort of the great Welivita Sri Saranankara Thero’. 

What struck me most, reading ‘Cameos’ was the erudition of the author, not as veteran journalist but from the time he was a junior scribe.  The reading, reflection, ability to synthesize, and the unlimited curiosity that persuaded him to graze on a wide range of subject-grasses and literatures, are hardly housed in one personality even in fraction today, I realized.  I do understand that a human being gathers a lot of information, sorts it all out in ways that make for relatively easy access and acquires analytical frames that help make sense of things and processes. I do understand that some are endowed with word-skill that makes it possible to lay out conclusions in ways that are palatable to a wide spectrum of readers.  And yet, Pathiravitana remains a stand-out.  I am strained to name anyone among my contemporaries who would not be out of depth in such a range of subjects and also have the ability to treat material with such finesse.  Rajpal Abeynayake comes to mind and that’s about it. 

People ask me often how one learns to write. I never had any formal instruction, except taking the odd mandatory writing course as an undergraduate.  If I am pushed, I would say ‘read’.  Read as much as possible.  Pathiravitana is very well read.  That is necessary but not sufficient.  One needs a reflective mind and needs to resolve oneself to a life-long exploration of the word and its unlimited potentials.  One has to be cognizant of audience, the social, cultural and political nuances and indeed ‘moment’, the need of reader and the need of self to explore, explicate and share.  Pathiravitana’s ‘Cameos’ is to me something that can be recommended as ‘essential reading for the would-be writer’. 

‘Cameos’ shows how language can be used, how economy is exercised, how language and tone are employed to convince without being overbearing.  Pathiravitana is not an in-your-face writer. He is almost like a bystander glancing at his own hand, own pen and the scribbles these produce on paper.  Perhaps it is this distancing-without-leaving quality that makes him such entertaining reading.  We end up concluding with him without feeling we’ve been led. Or had. 

The richness is striking.  I felt that any student of the social sciences or humanities can turn to a random page and find many gems which are crying out for cut-and-polish.  There are so many pregnancies within these 400 pages. So many thoughts that can be birthed and so many off spring from those that this writer has so generously and with so much love delivered for his readers. 

He claims that all he has done (without really planning to do so) was to ‘hold a mirror to our foibles, i.e. those which prevented us from becoming the true heirs to the heritage of this country’.  That’s something (this matter of mirror-holding) that journalists would do well to emulate.  It is not easy to hold up a mirror because we find it tough to stop ourselves from telling what the mirror says and advocating correctives.  Pathiravitana does it gently.  

It is a book I will return to again and again with the conviction that I will learn something new each time I read.  It is a book that every library in every school should have, even in these times of watered down, anything-goes apology for English instruction that is called ‘English Our (sorry ‘Indian’) Way’.  Not just for the English, but for the secrets of essay writing it contains and of course for the edifying potential.  It is a ‘must’ for every media institution and probably an excellent text-book for journalism/mass communication curricula. 

It is a companion for lonely days and a photographic capture of a nation and its many wonders. 

*This was published in the Sunday Observer almost four years ago and about two years before S Pathiravirana passed on.