Ajith the colossus
A tribute to Ajith Samaranayake on his second death anniversary.
Ajith passed away on November 22, 2006.
“Once upon a time there was a tavern
Where we used to raise a glass or two.
Remember how we laughed away the hours
And dreamed of all the great things we would do”
Thousands of kilometres between the land Down Under and Sri Lanka and
as many hours appeared to vanish into nothingness as I stared at the
computer screen showing the news from Sri Lanka not so long ago.
As the reality of Ajith’s passing away sank in, some of the lyrics of
Gene Raskin’s song “Those were the days’ slowly filled in a void that
seemed to have opened up in my brain.
They mixed with the images of far away days, to a glass partitioned
section to the left of one of the main corridors leading to the library
on the first floor of Lake House.
It was the `Evening Observer’ Editorial section and overlooked the
Beira Lake and the Regal Cinema with the adjacent Regent flats and
As I walked into the section on that far off day in April 1976, I
noticed the lean young man seated at the desk beside the door. He was
about my age and appeared to be the youngest in the room.
He wrote in large letters on a thick bundle of copy paper. A few
words would fill a page and ever so often he would strike out a word or
crumple the paper and drop it in the wastepaper basket by his side.
He held his head at an unusual angle and his hair frequently fell
across his forehead. And as frequently, he brushed it back with his
fingers. Sometimes he put his pen down and stared at the far wall where
an old hat and coat hanger hung beneath a big round clock. He would rub
the fingernails of his hands against each other before picking up his
“I am Ajith,” he introduced himself.
In the new world of journalism, to which I had entered straight from
school, Ajith became my companion. A year older than I, he became like a
big brother where journalism was concerned. He spoke of his school days
at Trinity and his interest in journalism from very young days.
He spoke of his school boy heroes... of Tarzie Vittachi, Mervyn de
Silva, Esmond Wickremesinghe, S.Pathiravitana and others. One of them,
Manik de Silva who was compared to James Reston now sat across the
aisle, tapping away at a small green typewriter. To us he looked like a
bear bent over a small green box on a large wooden table.
To me, who knew hardly anything about journalism, Ajith was a font of
information. He spoke with authority about it. He had loved journalism
from his school days and had a phenomenal knowledge about the newspaper
editors who had walked through the portals of Lake House. He could speak
at length about most of them.
He enlightened me about the Mecca of journalism, Fleet Street and
explained why it was known as Heart Break Street as we debated the
importance of getting stories published and getting bylines.
Those were the days when sub editors were strict and would determine
the value of a story before publishing it. Bylines were hard to come by
and sub- editors like the late Willie Silva and Anton Weerasinha made
reporters work for their bylines. It was great strength to have Ajith
there to discuss a story before submitting it to the sub editors.
As time passed I began to realise that the sub editors hardly called
upon Ajith to correct his copy. In his early years in the field of
journalism the much experienced and hardened sub-editors had a sneaking
admiration for Ajith. This young man whom many would have passed off as
insignificant in a playing field was a growing colossus in the Sri
Lankan field of journalism.
As I struggled on through those formative years, Ajith was always
there to encourage and support me. I remember him dragging me to the
library to happily point out a translation of one of my stories in a
Sinhala paper published by another group. His excitement was catching as
he pointed out how well the translator had done his work.
Those were the days when we started work at 6. A.m. and finished at
2.p.m. Ajith who was a loner in those days used to spend the rest of the
day reading and writing in office. Much of the afternoon assignments
were undertaken by him and he enjoyed doing reviews of books, films and
Some of his reviews did not meet the deadlines in those early days.
Disappointed producers and artistes had to bide their time till Ajith
was in the mood to write a good review.
Always willing to help those who came to him, Ajith never said `no’.
Very good at translations, he was much sought after by some of the local
correspondents seeking to get their stories into an English paper.
Gradually, I was drawn into his world of the muse. Having mastered
the typewriter I helped type his copy while he dictated. New worlds
opened up for me as I typed his political comments and translations and
grasped the meanings of new words.
“Milieu, bourgeois, oligarchy, Bacchus...,” the words which slipped
easily from his mouth coloured their own picture for the readers. A cub
reporter’s salary was around Rs. 260 at the time and the two of us
enjoyed two days of the month. One was pay day and the other was the day
On both days after work we would visit a Chinese restaurant, the
favourite being the `Nippon’ in Slave Island, followed by a couple more
restaurants in the Fort, share a bottle of beer and talk till our order
of mixed fried rice, savoury omelette and sweet and sour prawn arrived.
Then we would tuck into the meal and round it up with a fruit-salad ice
Bolstered by the meal we would visit a city cinema to watch a movie
and write the review for the Sunday’s paper. On the days prior to pay
day we enjoyed the `Thosai’ in the many cafes that existed in the Fort
Ajith’s influence led me to cover Parliament and write film reviews
on my own. I well remember him pushing me into giving my very first
review, of the film `One Flew Over the Cuckoos Nest’ starring Jack
Nicholson to the `Sunday Observer’ editor the late Philip Cooray whom we
held in awe at the time. I was diffident till the review appeared
without any changes.
Ajith stood by me during a challenging and trying time and almost
became a nuisance in trying to protect me like a big brother.
He also confided in me when smitten by two girls, one a colleague and
the other an outsider. I like to believe he took my advice. Sadly, I was
not there for the wedding, being away pursuing other interests.
They were the days of change and the newly found `Island’ newspaper
of Upali Wijewardene beckoned many journalists. Ajith and a few Lake
House loyalists held on. Then he decided to leave. It could perhaps be
said that Ajith lost his youthful innocence thereafter.
The glass of beer or two that were raised during those early days had
turned to more potent offerings to Bacchus as he joined fellow
travellers in the watering holes inhabited by members of the fourth
A couple of them asked me to influence him to stay away from them but
sadly I failed. Circumstances and distance intervened with callous
individuals who did not care much about the health of the bright young
man with whom they paid homage to Bacchus.
I was happy when he returned to Lake House as my Editor. But the road
he had travelled had taken its toll and the passage of time had left its
mark. He was a changed person in some ways. Both of us had outgrown the
callowness of youth. Experience had tempered us in different ways.
I backed him fully in producing the paper till his kindness was
abused by some unscrupulous persons in a devious way to challenge
Having informed him in advance of such a situation arising, I felt
badly let down. A bad judgment in the choice of words on my part when
inquiring about him following an accident did not help. I will always
wonder whether he understood.
Regular contact was lost as we parted to go our own ways. I hoped and
prayed for his success as he fought to make his way back repeatedly to a
path less travelled in the latter days.
I knew his wife, Mano would stand strong and steadfast beside him. I
wonder whether he thought of those halcyon days as often as I did and
derived the same sense of nostalgia. So long my friend. I feel you would
understand the long silence.
The writer is now domiciled in Australia.