Fun times at the Observer with Nihal Ratnaike by Manik de Silva

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The death last week of Nihal Ratnaike, among the country’s most senior English language journalists, brought memories of the fun days at the old Ceylon Observer, then one of two evening English dailies, published here. The other was the once British owned Times of Ceylon occupying what was then the tallest building in the country now dwarfed by the many high-rises that have dramatically changed the Colombo skyline. The Times was by then in gradual decline with many of its journalists joining Lake House.

Nihal began his career as a proof reader at the Associated Newspapers of Ceylon Ltd. (ANCL) and was soon moved upstairs to the Editorial Department of the Observer, possibly during the time when Tarzie Vittachi, one of the most famous journalists this country had produced. About this I’m not too sure although I was privy to Nihal singing a Tarzie favourite of what happened to Aaron aiya’s narang eta deka to the great merriment of all those around.

When I joined the Observer around 1961 as what was known as a ‘stringer’ in newspaper parlance, Nihal was away in Yugoslavia on an extended scholarship but was much talked about. He returned a few months later to the great joy of Clarence Fernando (Clarrie to his staff and friends), the news editor, who was among the best in the trade, and the rest of the reporters on the Observer news desk as well as the features and sub-editing staff. He was a very popular guy. Given his style, conduct and ability, he had to be.

Denzil Pieris was the editor, a superb journalist bred in the “publish and be damned” tradition, whose talents were recognized and extensively used but never trusted by the owners (he was supposed to be a Communist Party member in his youth) to edit the Ceylon Daily News (CDN), the flagship English paper of the Lake House group. But with the editorship of the evening Observer, came the editorial chair of the Sunday Observer which was then the widest circulating English newspaper in the country commanding a great deal of influence.

Denzil was an easygoing man, though a glutton for work, and was addressed by his first name by all his staff. My father who was amazed by this once asked me, “you call your editor Denzil?” Getting telephone calls through the Lake House exchange was painful and reporters used to walk into the boss’s room to freely use his direct line even when he was at his desk. When I joined, Denzil came to work (except on Saturdays) in a tussore suit and tie driving his green Volkswagen Beetle, dispensing with the jacket which was hung on the back of his chair once in his office. Later the jacket was dropped but not the tie.

In those days the publication of racing news had been banned and the Observer which had a very wide circulation on Saturday race days had become an afternoon paper, out by lunchtime to be picked up by office workers in the Fort and elsewhere. The reporters were supposed to be in office by 7 a.m. but there were only a few – me included, but never Nihal, who kept that deadline. Denzil used to prowl the news room looking over the shoulders of his reporters at their typewriters to see what they were writing. He often wrote his front page editorial, running in a single column from top to the bottom on the left hand side of the page by eight in the morning.

The reporters then included the pipe-smoking William de Alwis, whose father R.E. de Alwis, had been a famous ‘scoop’ getter for Lake House in an earlier era; Nalin Fernando – his father J.L. Fernando, political correspondent for the CDN and later Chief Editorial Executive, H.L.D Mahindapala styled “our parliamentary reporter”, Ranji Handy, later Mrs. Maitripala Senanayake (our political reporter), Gamini Windsor (our shipping reporter) who used to say he was an “offshot of the Duke” mispronouncing the ‘o’, Peter van Reyk who wrote both features and the occasional news story, photographers Rienzie Wijeratne, Harvey Campbell, Wally Perera, Neil Moses and the inimitable Hector Sumathipala. And who can forget Neville Weeraratne (Nihal called him “brother-in-law”) and the diminutive LTP Manjusri who once advised me “kasada nang bandinna epa. Hari karadarai. The camaraderie around the news desk was tremendous and the laughter uproarious.

I remember an exchange between Ranji Handy and Nihal round the tea trolley one morning. Ranji was talking of being somewhere the previous evening when she’d been bored stiff. “Who bored you stiff, Ranji?,” asked Nihal smiling mischievously. I won’t write Ranji’s comeback but there were never hard feelings and it was all good fun.

Nihal was a superbly good human interest story writer whose news contacts I remember included Lincoln Abeywira, the Commissioner of Labour, Felix Dias Abeysinghe, Commissioner of Elections, Sylvia Fernando, one of the few women in the Central Bank hierarchy at that time, Bala Tampoe and DG William, the gravel-voiced LSSP trade unionist and later senator who used to introduce himself as “I, the William”. Nihal did what was called the “labour round” but was never styled “our labour reporter.” He was wont to write short crisp sentences, and whether he really wrote it or not, I don’t know, but he was reputed to have once started a story saying, “The train was late. It was always late. But today it was later than usual.”

When Nihal came back from Yugoslavia, he wrote a series on his experiences there that I, the tenderfoot at the Observer, lapped up. I can’t remember the substance, but anything he wrote was readable. I do remember, however, the many references to plum brandy in that series. As his friend Anura Gunasekera has written elsewhere in this issue, he was always a natty dresser with clothes hanging well on a lean and lanky frame. Although he enjoyed his drinks and drank quite a bit, I have never seen him under the influence.

Outside his Lake House friends I remember Freeman Weerasinghe and Ivan (pronounced evaan not eyevan) Ondatjie, an Assistant Commissioner of Labour, Chitrasena and Senator Reggie Perera. Then there was Tinker Dharmapala, Bevis Bawa and a host of other interesting people I met in his company. I once asked Col. CA Dharmapala, Tinker’s father, why the name board at the gate of his Matara home, Seedevi, merely read “Dharmapala” with no initials. The reply after a moment’s consideration, “I suppose there can be only one Dharmapala in Matara.”

Once Nihal came back from lunch at the senator’s home after a meal that Reggie had promised to cook himself. He wrote of the experience: After the pre-lunch drinks, the guests trooped behind the portly host who presided over the stove with a skillet in his hand “like a surgeon at an operating tables.” He would say “onions” and be provided with them ready peeled and chopped, “spatula,” and what he wanted was slapped into his hand, green chillies, tomatoes and many other ingredients needed were similarly provided. Then he assembled the lot over the stove and produced his culinary masterpiece. The punchline of the story was: “As we were leaving the kitchen, the old kussi amma said in an audible whisper, ohoma nam uyanne kata barida.”

Nihal with his easygoing ways was never a workaholic and perhaps a little lazy. Ironically, it was during a time that he had worked very hard as features editor of the CDN under Sisira Pathiravitarana, when a change of government led to his unfair and illegal sacking from Lake House. He successfully challenged the dismissal, and did various journalism connected jobs for many years until the wheel turned a full circle and he returned to Lake House, retiring as editor of the Daily News. In that avatar, he also held other senior appointments including Chief Editorial Administrative Office and Editorial Director.

Fortunately his years outside ANCL were added to his service period for purposes of calculating gratuity. This plus the fact that he retired on a top salary assured him a terminal award assuring financial stability post-retirement. He wrote well, valued good writing by his colleagues and juniors, always helpful, never malicious or unkind and adornment to the Observer in its heyday.

Those were good times on the Observer, and many were the times we crowded into the Morris Minor taxis of the day and drove to the Buhari for a buriyani and fried chicken (porichchi kikili) lunch after a stopover at a watering hole; or to the Nippon which had its own bar. We laughed, we had fun and hugely enjoyed our work. Nihal was very much a part of that time.

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Disclaimer: Fun times at the Observer with Nihal Ratnaike by Manik de Silva - Views expressed by writers in this section are their own and do not necessarily reflect point-of-view

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