The Unsurpassable Wordsmith
by SVD Kesarralal Gunasekera
‘What a beautiful and remarkable human being’ is what comes to my mind every time I think of Dr. Ajantha Ranasinghe. He was an award-winning lyricist, a journalist, a writer and a critic. But what really is etched in my mind is what he was as a human being. There is so much to learn from his life. I am not appreciating him solely because he was a popular personality but because of his unassuming personality that made our lives so complete.
Lyricist par excellence
Dr. Ajantha was a fantastic lyricist. His style, as well as the varieties, are unique. He has been a lyricist for the Sinhala cinema for decades. As a young student, when we watched films ‘Lyrics: Ajantha Ranasinghe’ would appear on the big screen. From ‘Gamey Kopi Kade’ (Sanath Nandasiri) type of upbeat songs, which creates a series of images in our minds about a small coffee stall in a village, to ’Paarami Dam Puramu api denna’ (Neela Wickramasinghe) which speaks about affection of siblings, and to ‘Kalpana lowa mal waney’ (Abeywardhana Balasooriya) which expresses the depths of romantic love, Dr. Ajantha had the ability to select the words suitable for each singer. He had a rich vocabulary from which he culled the right words and turned it into a song.
Not only did he bring Buddhist philosophy into his songs, in ‘Mey Ayurin Api Sansarey’ (T M Jayaratne), but he was equally brilliant in writing “Bodhu Gee” which touched the souls of the people. ‘Nirvana Swarna Dwarayen’ (Sanath Nandasiri) and ‘Uththama Muni Dalada wadammana’ (Dharmadasa Walpola) are two such songs which are still so popular.
In the golden era of the Sinhala Cinema, his songs made each film unforgettable. songs were the thread that kept the entire film together. ‘Ran Kenden Banda’ (Duhulu Malak) is a fine example of packaging the entire film in a song. ‘Mala Gira’ and ‘Dedunnen Ena Samanalune’ (Vasanthey Dawasak) are still popular and memorable. In the later years, he wrote songs like ‘ Villuda Punchi Depa’ (Mamai Raja) which were ideal for the movie. Dr. Ajantha was able to relate to the storyline. His lyrics were the icing on the cake. It adorned the film and enhanced its quality. No other lyricist could even match that capability. Dr. Ajantha has contributed over 300 songs to the Sinhala cinema, starting from 1976.
Generations of lovers have enjoyed his songs for their ability to pull the heart strings. We all remember the song ‘May Mai Gaha Yata’ (Milton Mallawarachchi) which was based on personal experience. ‘Adara Samarum’ (Sanath Nandasiri). He brought his experiences and makes them universal. He was someone who loved deeply and was able to relate to human feelings. ‘Suwanda Deni’ (Rookantha Gunatillake) brings out the uneasy, delightful feeling of being in love. Undoubtedly, this song showed the world what a great singer Rookantha is, as the song required the singer to be so disciplined to deliver the feelings embedded. Love songs are difficult to write unless one has both received and given love in abundance to be able to express it. Also, one must have the language skill and the proficiency to express it in words. Dr. Ajantha belonged to that era of people who loved and were able to share that love.
I have spent time with Dr. Ajantha at various gatherings. He had the mildest of manners. He would address persons as ‘Mahathmaya’ all the time. Irrespective of how close we were, he addressed me as ‘ mahathmaya’ or Mr. Gunasekera. He was someone who always gave respect to others. During these occasions, he would narrate so many stories. He was a warehouse of anecdotes that drew everyone’s attention. Even when we gathered at his home, he recalled story after story about incidents of the past, homourous events and also stories about famous personalities. None of the stories were to slander anyone, but to appreciate and enjoy.
I still recall a story that he said about late HR Jothipala. He said that a cigarette company approached HR Jothipala once, requesting him to appear in a cigarette advertisement.The opportunity would have given him a lot of money for endorsing a certain brand. But his response was ‘Just because I smoke, why should I ask others also to smoke?’. Thus, he declined the offer.
As a human being, one of the greatest things we can do for others is to create peace. Dr. Ajantha had the natural talent and the heart to do so. There was a time, in history, when Dharmadasa Walpola had had a fall out with the SLBC. He had been so disheartened that he had given up singing and had opened a small shop. When Dr. Ajantha had penned the song ‘Uththama Muni Dalada’ and shown it to Sanath Nandasiri, he has said that if there is anyone who can sing this song, it is none other than Dharmadasa Walpola. Dr. Ajantha had gone in search of this fabulous singer who refused to sing the song. Dr. Ajantha, knowing the talent that Dharmadasa had, was determined to bring him back into the music scene. He had given the lyrics and told that Sanath Nandasiri is composing the music. While getting back on the scooter, he had told him the time at which the recording will be done at SLBC and left the sheet of paper with lyrics with Dharmadasa Walpola. His parting words were “Dharmadasa Ayya, remember that there is a universal norm that only one artiste is born among one hundred thousand births, and that one artist is not placed on earth to ‘run a shop’, but to perform for the people!”
On the day of the recording, when Dharmadasa Walpola came to SLBC the Director General H M Gunasekera, personally came out to receive him. And with one take, the recording was done. That is how we regained Dharmadasa Walpola to the Sri Lanka music field, thanks to Dr. Ajantha.
A lessor known fact is that he was also a grade C singer at the SLBC. He had a natural talent to think music when he penned the words. During his time, through all his lyrics, he brought the composer and the singer together. He used his penmanship to bring people together. And there was no competition among the three parties. They all had one goal, to create a song that will live forever.
Dr. Ajantha has written songs for almost all the veteran singers in our music industry, such as W.D Amaradeva, Victor Ratnayake, Milton Mallwarachchi, Malini Bulathsinhala, Indrani Perera, Sanath Nandasiri, HR Jothipala, Nanda Malini, T M Jayaratne, Neela Wickramasinghe, Clarence Wijewardhana, Latha and Dharmadasa Walpola. But it must be noted that he has grown together with the young generation, as well, such as Nirosha Virajini, Rookantha and Chandralekha. The only hit song which Raj Seneviratne had ‘ Sili Sili Seethala Alley’ was also written by Dr. Ajantha. One can only be awed by the variety of songs and the types of songs he has written and how he is able to relate to the feelings of both males and females when it came to lyrics. And he worked with composers such as Premasiri Khemadasa, Sarath Dassanayake, Somadasa Elwitigala and Sanath Nandasiri to bring forth different types of melodies.
Dr Ajantha was also a successful journalist. At a very young age he wrote poetry and short stories for the children’s pages of the Silumina and Peramuna and contributed to programmes on the SLBC. His poetry was frequently published in the Silumina, Vanitha Viththi, and Lankadeepa. Eventually, he was selected as a staff reporter for the Dinamina. He was a both a provincial news editor and local news editor at the Dinamina. He served as an Editor, at Lake House, for 25 years. He also worked as a Features editor of Janatha and also the Editor-in-Chief of Nawayugaya. Dr. Ajantha was well read and he loved working. In his later years, he was a consultant at the SLBC. His journalistic career shows the length and breadth of his experience and knowledge that enabled him to be a great writer.
He has also written short stories and poems which have been published. Landuni Mata Varam Natha (1975),Vinkal Bass (1978), Kristhuni Karunakara Manawa (1995), Sihina Kumara Saha Othamo (2009),Thunpath Rata, Thiwanka Rekha (1964), Janakanthayinge Manakantha Katha to name a few.
Life with Sarojini
Dr. Ajantha’s wife Sarojini (daughter of Kokiladevi Weeratunga) is a lady I always respected. Dr. Ajantha has disclosed that as a journalist he had to interview this singer and that is how fell in love with the daughter. There was such support from Sarojini for his literary works. She was a kind and understanding wife who allowed Dr. Ajantha to write – especially love songs. She never queried about the songs or who he wrote them for. Dr. Ajantha even spoke of his former loves in Sarojini’s presence. She understood him well. Thanks to her supportive nature, we are blessed with hundreds of beautiful love songs. Dr. Ajantha loved her dearly. Their two children Saranga and Devalochana were his life. The children were very close to him. There was such harmony in that house where friends were always welcome.
Humble to the core
Born in Thalammahara in Kurunegala, he went to Pannala Government School and later to St. John’s College, Nugegoda. He remained the same humble human being, even after receiving the President’s Award for Best Song Writer of the Year, on three occasions, and Lifetime Achievement Award in Journalism, Awards for Excellence Programme, organised by the Editor’s Guild of Sri Lanka, in 2014. He received many awards at the film and literary festivals, such as Sarasaviya, OCIC, State Literary, Raigam, Sumathi awards. He always respected everyone all the time. I do recall an instance where a young radio DJ of an FM channel addressed him as ‘Ajantha’. The young woman would have been half his age and not even with quarter of his experience. But Dr. Ajantha took no notice of the way he was addressed. He continued the interview giving full respect to the young woman.
I feel compelled to write about the way his untimely death occurred. Early one morning, a van from the SLBC was sent to his residence to pick him up. He could not get into the front seat, so his choice was to get into the rear. The driver of the vehicle did not get down to support him. When he was getting into the vehicle through the sliding door on the side, he missed his footing. He had nothing to hold onto. He knocked his head on the ground. I feel that if the organization, who was sending the vehicle to him, was mindful of his age and his value, if the driver was either instructed to help the passenger or was considerate, we would not have lost this invaluable human being. It is a lesson for everyone who is handling transport; to be mindful of the passengers when they are getting in and out of a vehicle.
It was our great honour to have known Dr. Ajantha Ranasinghe. We respected him with all our hearts. He was a giant in the fields of music, movies and journalism. He was truly a scholarly man. His contribution to this country is immeasurable. There is no argument that he was a national treasure.
The Unsurpassable Wordsmith, may you attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana.
Minister Gamini Lokuge’s damage to people’s health
Two consecutive editorials, published in The Island on the 7 and 8 May, lambasted the despicable intervention of the Minister of Transport, Gamini Lokuge, for being instrumental in lifting the lockdown, in Piliyandala, against the advice of the health authorities.
A team of health officials, led by the MOH Piliyandala, backed by PHIs, and the DGHS, based on the recommendations of his officers, decided to lock down the Piliyandala town, as it had taken a turn for the worse, due to the rapid spread of the epidemic.
Minister Lokuge is reported to have admitted, at an interview with Hiru News, that he influenced the lifting of the lockdown in Piliyandala, and The Island, of May 10, highlighted the circumstances that led him to influence the lifting of the lockdown. The Minister accepted that he influenced the lifting of the lockdown for the sake of the daily wage earners, a claim which has to be taken with a pinch of salt.
Close on the heels of the Minister’s arrogant countermand, a cluster of 138 patients was detected from the Piliyandala market.
A vendor collapsed in the market itself and his post-mortem proved that he was afflicted with the coronavirus.
The female MOH, who deserves to be praised for the adroit manner in which she has been performing duties in Piliyandala, said over the television that the cluster could have been averted, if the lockdown had not been lifted.
Hence, the Minister’s overzealous attempt to look after the livelihood of the daily wage earner, is certainly humbug, which cannot be condoned under any circumstances.
Readers would remember that the High Courts of Madras and Calcutta lambasted the Election Commission of India for their failure to ensure the recommended protocol meant for Covid-19, and openly said the ECI should be put on murder charges.
Could we reasonably expect that the authorities institute murder charges against the Minister, in the resplendent island, so that legislators, with bloated egos, could be reined in this hour of calamity.
Undoubtedly, idiotic action on the part of the Minister has endangered the precious lives of the people living in the Piliyandala area.
The childish manner in which the Minister responded to the questions, as reported by The Island correspondent, raises a number of issues. The foremost issue is whether he, as a senior Minister of the government, is capable of running an important Ministry, as he has messed up a vital epidemic issue, involving his own constituents.
Secondly, he has caused much embarrassment to the Commander of the Army and Head of the Presidential Task Force who has undertaking an arduous operation.
His argument that if the lifting of the lockdown was wrong then it should have been imposed again, is ridiculous.
All in all, what I could say is that the Minister’s high-handed intervention has left a bad taste in many a mouth, and it has caused an irrparable damage to the government at a time when its popularity is plummeting at a rapid pace.
Non-science used as science
I have read with interest the article on “Science, Non-science and Nonsense” written by Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva in “The Island” of 11.3.2021. In this article “Dr. Sarath Gamini”, as he is popularly known in the medical circles, refers to me (without mentioning my name) and my research and a lecture given by me to the Sri Lanka Medical Association. This is my response to him, particularly, on the issue of glyphosate pesticide.
I take strong issue with Dr. Sarath Gamini’s erroneous characterisation of my research, related to glyphosates, and the categorization of the government decisions and policies related to the glyphosate pesticide. For clarity, let me reproduce the paragraph on glyphosate in toto from Dr. Sarath Gamini’s article, highlighting the area where he refers to me and my research:
“The campaign conducted blaming the weed killer glyphosate as a cause of the epidemic of chronic kidney disease of unknown origin in the farming areas, mainly in the North Central province, was one burning issue then. There was no scientific evidence to prove this, despite the efforts of some professors in the medical field to find some. However, the importation of the chemical was banned mostly due to political expediency. One is not aware of any other country in the world doing so. When a visiting Sri Lankan expatriate doctor claiming to be a researcher in the field was asked, he could name only a small country, still contemplating doing so. He was lost for words to answer probing questions on the matter. His research has since been discredited in the USA. How the ban adversely affected the productivity in the agricultural sector in Sri Lanka has never been assessed or discussed.”
I am an American Board-Certified Occupational Medicine physician, and I have worked as a tenured full professor for over 34 years in the California State University, Long Beach, which is one of the largest and most respected university systems in the United States. Second, I have published more than a dozen peer reviewed scientific articles, and have given over 50 public lectures in relation to the toxic effects of glyphosate pesticide. Except for an unsigned petition sent by some disgruntled supporters of pesticides (the contents of which were found to be completely false) my research has never been discredited in the United States, or anywhere else. In fact, I won several awards for my research, including the Research Accomplishment of the Year award from my university, the prestigious “International Award” from the Occupational Health and Safety Section of the American Public Health Association, and the Scientific Freedom and Responsibility (SFR) Award from the American Association for the Advancement of Science (an award that I shared with Prof. Channa Jayasumana). By the same token. As far as I know, Dr. Sarath Gamini does not have a single publication related to the toxicity of glyphosate pesticide. I raise this issue because one of the conditions that Dr. Sarath Gamini has stipulated, throughout his article, is that one has to be knowledgeable and competent in order to be able to make comments on any issue, within medicine or any other scientific field. Does that apply to Dr. Sarath Gamini, on the issue of Glyphosate as well?
Now, to get on to the content, throughout the paragraph on glyphosate, Dr. Sarath Gamini makes an assertion that the ban on glyphosate pesticide was made without any scientific evidence and “mostly due to political expediency” and he says, “One is not aware of any other country in the world doing so (the ban)”. These statements clearly demonstrate Dr. Sarath Gamin’s ignorance on the subject. Let me state the following facts for his knowledge, as well as that of the general public.
Hundreds of scientific research studies have linked glyphosate not only to Chronic Kidney Disease but also to many other health conditions, including autism, birth defects, inflammatory bowel syndrome and liver diseases. The World Health Organization’s International Agency for Research on Cancer reviewed the scientific evidence in a 2015 report and classified glyphosate as “probably carcinogenic to humans.” Glyphosate – brand name Roundup – is primarily associated with Non-Hodgkin Lymphoma (NHL), a cancer in the immune system. Following this determination, in October 2015, the first Roundup (Glyphosate) product liability lawsuit was filed against Monsanto in San Francisco District courts. In August 2018, a jury awarded $289 million in damages to the plaintiff – Dewayne Johnson – who is a former school groundskeeper for a California county school system when he developed NHL after spraying glyphosate regularly for several years. This amount was later reduced, during the appeals process. During this trial, evidence released by lawyers for the plaintiff tells an alarming story of ghostwriting, scientific manipulation, collusion with the United States Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and previously undisclosed information about how the human body absorbs glyphosate. These documents provide a deeper understanding of the serious public health consequences of glyphosate, and the false advertising related to Monsanto’s conduct in marketing glyphosate.
In a second case, the jury awarded a staggering $2 billion in damages to a couple – Alva and Alberta Pilliod. In court proceedings, the Pilliods testified to using Roundup regularly, starting in 1982. The couple used the consumer version of the weedkiller, whose label lacked any warnings about covering skin or wearing protective masks. Following these successes in courts, more than 18000 cases have been filed by people who developed cancer after regularly spraying glyphosate. According to some legal reports, Bayer – the German company that bought Monsanto in 2016 – has formally submitted a $8 billion for a global settlement. In March 2020, Monsanto also agreed to pay $39.5 million as a settlement for falsely advertising Roundup is “safe” for people and pets. The settlement, which was filed in federal court in Kansas City, Missouri, resolves allegations brought by several plaintiffs who claimed Monsanto failed to warn consumers about the health risks of glyphosate.
Following the lawsuits and the expert epidemiological evidence that was presented in courts, more than 20 countries have now banned, or restricted, the use of glyphosate. Although Monsanto’s new owner, Bayer, is fighting hard to limit these restrictions, the list is growing day by day. Some of these countries include Belgium, Denmark, France, Thailand, Vietnam, Saudi Arabia, Oman, Bahrain, and Mexico. There are many cities and institutions in the U.S., including, New York, Key West, Los Angeles, the Universities of California and Miami who have now regulations to restrict the use of Glyphosate-based pesticides. (For a complete list of these restrictions please see Where is Glyphosate Banned? | Baum Hedlund Aristei & Goldman (baumhedlundlaw.com)
In his article, Dr. Sarath Gamini describes the revocation of the ban on glyphosate for the use in tea and coconut cultivation as a “fortunate” one. In my mind, this was one of the most “unfortunate” Cabinet decisions for several reasons: First, this policy decision was taken without much scientific advice. There was an Expert Committee that was appointed to provide advice on this matter. I was invited as an expert to testify. However, two weeks before the hearings were scheduled, the Cabinet paper was approved hastily. The main argument put forward was that there was not enough of a labour force for the removal of weeds, manually. However, many weeds have now developed resistance to glyphosate, so that one has to use manual labour to complete the process of weed removal. Second, there is no tracking and post-marketing monitoring process available in Sri Lanka to ensure that this toxic pesticide does not end up in the hands of fruit and vegetable growers and in our food. Third, the regulatory costs of protective equipment, biomonitoring and the certification of the tea and coconut products to ensure that their glyphosate levels are within acceptable limits is costly – a cost that outweighs the benefits. By now it should be clear to the reader that I have a completely opposing view on glyphosate to that of Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva.
Furthermore, in this article Dr. Sarath Gamini describes how, over the past few years, we have seen many untruths, hypocrisy and myths being propagated by professionals misleading the ignorant public and creating social unrest and even violence. As examples, the author describes, among others, several recent incidents, including the alleged sterilization of women without consent in Kurunegala, the propagation of a questionable local medicine that was touted as a cure for Covid-19, and the issue of compulsory cremation of deaths due to Covid. I will not comment on any of these issues for two reasons: First, I was not present in the country when most of these incidents took place; Second, I have not studied the social and political dynamics, surrounding these incidents, and the policies.
Therefore, in conclusion, I would like to say this to Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva: Now that you have talked about glyphosate, please “walk the walk” and demonstrate that you have the expertise on the subject and that you know what the “established knowledge” is. Dr. Sarath Gemini’s view of the established knowledge on glyphosate is completely antithetical to that of mine. Therefore, I would like to invite Dr. Sarath Gamini De Silva to a public debate about the toxicity of glyphosate and the appropriateness of using the pesticide in Sri Lanka agriculture.
Dr. SARATH GUNATILAKE
Professor, California State University, Long Beach, California
Diplomate, American Board of Occupational Medicine
Email – firstname.lastname@example.org )
Mindset of Arts Graduates
Hasini Lecamwasam’s article Why are Arts Graduates Unemployable (The Island of 11 May) is an excellent analysis of the topic.
For decades, our universities have turned out Arts Graduates, very well knowing that with most of the basic subjects offered by them, they become unemployable; but what have the authorities done to rectify this waste of government funds which could have been diverted to other educational areas?
In one way, it boils down to falling values, the objective of just obtaining a degree and being a “Upadhi Dharee” being the main purpose. I have come across this myself and have hands on exposure to this.
About a decade ago, the then Government approached some of the large business organisations (Just before a general election) and made an appeal for them to employ at least two graduates, under a special scheme, at a salary of Rs 6,000/= per month. The company I work for, also agreed to consider this, and informed the Ministry concerned accordingly. The Ministry had short listed 12 graduates for us and they were called for interviews. The company wanted me to interview them to see whether we could select two.
All the applicants were Arts Graduates, and seven were over the age of 35 years. Although all our company work is done in English, I made it a point to interview them in Sinhala, just to make them comfortable. All 12 applicants had some avenue of income and some of them were married. There was one who was looking after their own paddy lands (Govithan), another looking after their plots of tea and rubber, selling green leaf and latex, there were two who ran their family grocery shops and businesses, and one other female who had started a small shop (Kade) initially selling eight loaves of bread a day along with other items, and soon ending up selling over 40 loaves of bread and turning the business into a village grocery shop. The others also were engaged in some vocation.
I had one common question for them, that is; why do they want to give up what they were doing at their villages without improving them, and to come to Colombo and get boarded and work for a salary of Rs 6,000.00 per month? You will be surprised that they all had one common answer, ie “Mama Upaadhi Dhaariyek Ne” (Cos I am a degree holder.) My attempt to tell them that the salary would hardly be sufficient to pay for their boarding and food, and that it would be very much more sensible for them to improve what they were already doing, was like pouring water on a duck’s back. This was their mindset.
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