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The making of The Island

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by Vijitha Yapa, Founder Editor, Sunday Island

The person at the other end of the phone calling from Nallur was very angry. “Mr Editor, you have killed me in your paper today”. I did not ask him where he was speaking from, as he may treat it as an insult. I did not know what he was speaking about and asked what story he was referring to and after listening to him, told  him to call me back in half an hour. There were no ubiquitous  mobile phones at that time nor easy access to telephones in the eighties.

The story revolved around the Coroner of Nallur, Mr Francis, committing suicide and Dr Watson  performing the autopsy. The call was from Mr Francis who said it was the other way round. I asked the sub editor  for the original story submitted by the Nallur correspondent and what the sub editor had  edited and compared it with what had been printed in the Island  that morning.

Mr Francis was correct. The Nallur correspondent had said that Dr Watson committed suicide and Coroner  Francis performed the autopsy. I screamed angrily at the sub editor and asked him, “What the hell have you done? Why did you do this and what can I tell this Coroner?” The sub editor submitted his lame excuse. “I tried to contact the correspondent and could not get through to Nallur. This seemed a ridiculous story and I felt the Nallur correspondent had got it all wrong. Why should a medical doctor who makes pots of money commit suicide? I felt it is the coroner, a poorly paid public servant, who had every reason to commit suicide and changed the story to reflect that”.

 It was the most incredible explanation and he was a senior sub editor. What could I do? I apologized to Mr Francis when he phoned and said I am carrying an apology to him in the next day’s newspaper. This is the only time I ever apologized to anybody because I am a strong believer that facts printed must be correct and the editorial staff should be fully responsible to see  that the true facts should be   followed to the letter. The story is recollected on the 40th anniversary of the Sunday Island and it is an indication of the trials we faced and the difficulties we encountered.

 Upali Wijewardene asked me to be the Editor of the Sunday Island in March  1981 when I submitted my resignation as the Media Officer at the GCEC (Greater Colombo Economic Commission) he chaired. From  April 1981 I  had accepted an offer from Dow Jones and Co of USA  to look after their interests by procuring advertisements for the Wall Street Journal and also to import and distribute the Asian Wall Street Journal in Sri Lanka.

But even by August  he had not found anyone and he sent his Mercedes Benz to my residence and asked me to come immediately to his home. There he said, ” I want you to be the Founder editor of  the Sunday Island which will be born on October 4,  because I have confidence in you”. I felt very sorry because here was a man who had wealth and power but was frustrated because he could not find an editor.

I told him I will accept the offer for six months until he found another person but as I have started my own business it was difficult for me to devote full time to the newspaper. I asked for a virtually  impossible five figure salary, the highest for any journalist , a car with a driver to take my children to school and since I had some commitments with  some foreign newspapers for journalistic  assignments I requested leave whenever the need arose. He said okay  and “You can  start tomorrow”.  I told him that to start the newspaper I will need to recruit immediately and cannot waste time on red tape. He gave me permission to approach any journalist and where necessary to double their salaries on the condition that they start work immediately from the next day.

I contacted many of the well known journalists and asked them to come for an interview and basically within a week we had the staff. It was a bold move because we were asking people in secure jobs to give up their positions in other newspapers and commence work with us within 24 hours. Ours was an establishment which was not publishing any newspapers except a weekly cartoon paper. The majority of those approached had the faith  to take the plunge and we began work immediately.

Because of the problems we faced there was not even a dummy copy which we could produce before the date of publication,  October 4. But somehow the birth took place that day though the first issues did not reach the public in the morning but late in the evening. I had returned home about 1 o’clock in the morning having finished the editorial work  and was shocked to find that even by the afternoon it had not even  been printed!. I rushed to the press and found that the plates were never sent to the printing press in Homagama because the technical staff  were found wanting. There were blank pages and I ordered that some ads should be repeated and also some articles and sent the pages.

Though late the paper was received very well. It was in colour and we were the first to do computer printing of a newspaper in Sri Lanka. The pages were clean and people appreciated the pictures and layout. Gamini Weerakoon was the deputy editor, Rienzie Wijeratne was the pictures editor and Ajith Samaranayaka was the editorial writer  responsible for features.

Gamini Weerakoon’s wife Rajitha was working for the Sunday Observer and I had to tell Gamini to make sure he does not talk in his sleep.

We also got some people from the Times group.Some of them were the first females to be recruited to the Upali Group head office, an all male domain. The ladies who came from the Times newspaper sought permission everyday to go to Fort about midday. They never explained why and I had to finally ask them the reason for this as our transport was limited to one vehicle at that time. They all appeared as a delegation in my office and said sheepishly,” We have to go to Fort because there is no toilet for women at Upali’s!”. It is an area which we had neglected and I immediately phoned Mr Upali Wijewardene and within 24 hours a special toilet with locks in the male domain was made available to the ladies.

Within one month of our publication Mr Wijewardene came to the office and said, ” I want to start the daily newspaper from November 16″. I was lucky not to have suffered a heart attack as we still had teething problems. The technical office once came and asked me why I could not give Page one and the sports page two days earlier like the feature pages so that he could give the paper on time.

Mr Wijewardene would not change his mind to postpone the commencement of the daily. We gathered the staff together and told them the news, recruited more journalists and the newspaper began as scheduled on November 16, 1981. Mr Peter Harland from UK assisted us in those early days and veteran planter Leslie Dharmaratne was the CEO of Upali Newspapers. He had no experience in journalism and there were practical issues with regard to the staff. The staff wanted a festival advance but the CEO was quite adamant that it could not be done because there were very heavy expenses with the starting of the newspaper and no funds were available. This virtually led to a strike but luckily it was averted though one or two Sinhala journalists decided to leave or were asked to leave.

 It is the exposures of corrupt practices in The Island which caught the interest of the readers and the circulation soared . Mr Upali Wijewardene was the ideal publisher as he did not interfere in running the newspaper. He thought that President J.R. Jayewardene will support him in his endeavour to  become the MP for Kamburupitiya but unfortunately Prime Minister Ranasinghe Premadasa opposed it. This led to practical problems and Mr Wijewardene certainly did not help himself when replying to a query by Mervyn de Silva, editor of the Guardian and said  his hero was SWRD Bandaranaike. J.R. Jayewardene was very annoyed and because of various difficulties, Upali Wijewardene decided to resign as the Director General of the GCEC.

 When Hector Kobbekaduwa was chosen as the SLFP candidate for the presidential election in 1982 Mr Wijewardene felt that since Mrs Sirimavo Bandaranaike had been disqualified from running, the one person who should be contesting the elections from the SLFP was her son Anura Bandaranaike. Anura opposed this and said he could not go against the SLFP. Mr Wijewardene then  suggested that Anura should form his own party and that the necessary finances for that operation could be found. But Anura did not take up the offer though it reached the ears of JR, who was visibly annoyed.

Perhaps one of the most sensational stories that the Sunday Island exposed was how foreign minister ACS Hameed had used funds from South Korea through the Sri Lanka High Commission in London. It was   used to procure bagpipes for schools in Akurana in  Mr Hameed’s electorate. JR and Mr Hameed were on an official visit to China at that time. Mr Hameed told me later it was  an embarrassment to  Mr Jayewardene who queried it and ordered  Mr Hameed to credit all the money that he had in the special account to the President’s Fund.

 Another important story was how cricketer Bandula Warnapura decided to take a rebel Sri Lanka team to South Africa. Officially Upali newspapers  opposed that visit editorially but carried news of it. Minister Gamini Dissanayake was very annoyed by this and phoned me and told me to stop carrying news of  these rebels and said the other newspapers had agreed to his request. I refused and said editorially we condemned the rebel tour but felt we could not ignore the need to inform our readers of what was happening in South Africa.

Mr Dissanayake was very annoyed and said, “If that is your attitude  I am going to speak to you publisher”. I knew Mr Upali Wijewardene was not in Colombo that morning but that evening he phoned me and asked whether Gamini Dissanayake had asked me to stop publicity for the rebels  and wanted to know my reactions to it. I told him the facts and what he said about contacting the publisher. Mr Wijewardene said he had told Gamini Dissanayake that he does not tell the minister  what to do in Cabinet or how to run his ministry. He said  he wanted  Mr Dissanayake not to interfere in the running of his independent newspaper.

Mr Wijewardene then  asked me what news we had of the Sri Lanka rebels in South Africa. I  said that there was a picture by  Reuters of Bandula Warnapura and colleagues emerging  out of the airport in South Africa with their luggage loaded on trolleys. He asked me where I was placing the picture and I replied that it will be on page 14, the Sports page. He laughed and then said, “Why don’t you put it on page 1” . That was Upali Wijewardene, the man who feared no one.

 Many of the journalists achieved fame through the pages of the newspaper. The paper  was a beacon of hope to the minorities, specially the Tamils, who felt they were being hounded. One of the boldest decisions I made was to ask DBS Jeyaraj to begin a column in the Sunday Island and to call it “Behind the Cadjan Curtain,’ an adaptation of China’s  bamboo curtain .The column was well read and well received.

Ajith Samaranayake was another great asset. The editorial he wrote in the newspaper soon after the 1983 July riots and the appeal to people for sanity and to think afresh was read out in full by Mr Maithripala Senanayake in Parliament. It was Ajith who asked Jeyraj who was working at Veerakesari, the Tamil newspaper, to apply for a job at the Sunday Island. I was impressed by the clean shaven Jeyaraj’s performance in the test I gave him and recruited him. Later DBS said  that impish Ajith had advised him  to shave off his moustache and beard as I did not like such growth on the faces of journalists, which he realised later was a complete lie.

 Ajith had his flings through words and once got into an argument with Gamini Fonseka. Initially the articles from Gamini and from Ajith created interest but Gamini’s replies  became a bit boring in the latter stages. I told Ajith the time has come to end the series. He agreed and I allowed  him to do the final column. His final comment was brief but rich with content. He said he was  stopping these arguments  with Mr Gamini Fonseka because trying to convince him was  like playing a Veena to a deaf elephant. Gamini never replied to that because to those who knew his history, knew there was a rich meaning in that one sentence pregnant with opportunities.

There are many more stories to tell but space and time are precious and tributes to the individual journalists who made the Sunday Island a paper the readers looked forward to read is difficult to put down on paper. But the rich history of the Sunday Island which began 40 years ago  has to be recorded and I wish the Editor and journalists of the newspaper all the best for the future.



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Features

Dangerous rail travel by tourists: Why not create an opportunity?

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Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk, Zhangjiajie, China

Before the Covid Pandemic hit Sri Lanka, there was some debate and concern voiced about tourists standing at the door ways of trains and even hanging out, while the train is moving. Some pictures of a young couple hanging out of an upcountry train, while clutching on to the side rails, went viral, on social media, with debates of the ‘pros’ and ‘cons’ reaching fever pitch. While certainly this is a dangerous practice, not to be condoned, If we ‘think out of the box’ could there be a way to make this seemingly popular, though dangerous pastime among some tourists, into an opportunity to be exploited. This paper aims to explore these options pragmatically.

By Srilal Miththapala

Social media, and even some of the more conventional media, were all a-buzz before the CoVid crisis, when some pictures of a young tourist couple appeared, hanging out of a Sri Lankan upcountry train in gay abandon, savouring the exciting moment. There were hot debates about this form of ‘promotion of Sri Lanka’, with many people talking about the dangers of such a practice, and that it would bring negative publicity for Sri Lanka if something dangerous were to happen. This part of the train ride, along the upcountry route, is arguably one of the most scenic train routes in the world.

And quite rightly so, I guess. I myself was one who joined the chorus who vehemently spoke against this.

However thinking out of the box, I got thinking – Can we create an opportunity here ?

The ‘new’, experience and thrill seeking tourist of today

There is no doubt that there is a new segment of discerning, younger, experience and adventure seeking tourists, emerging and travelling all over the world. They are very internet and social media savvy, seeking more adventurous and exciting experiences, and are usually very environmentally conscious. They are most often seen exploring ‘off-the-beaten-track’ holidays, planned out individually according to their needs and wants.

Through the ages, mankind has been pushing the limits of exploration: We have conquered land, sea and space. We have discovered many hitherto unknown wonders of our planet with our unabated thirst for knowledge.

Tourists are no different. To get away from their daily stressful life, they seek something different, even venturing into hostile or dangerous places to experience the excitement of discovery and the feeling of adventure. No longer is a clean hotel room with a range of facilities, good food and some sunshine good enough to a tourist.

According to booking.com, the yearning for experiences, over material possessions, continues to drive travellers’ desire for more incredible and memorable trips: 45% of travellers have a bucket list in mind. Most likely to appear on a bucket list are thrill seekers wanting to visit a world famous theme park, travellers looking to go on an epic rail journey or visiting a remote or challenging location. ()

Drive-reduction theory in psychology postulates that one is never in a state of complete fulfilment, and thus, there are always drives that need to be satisfied. Humans and other animals voluntarily increase tension by exploring their unknown environments, self-inducing stress and moving out of their comfort zones. This gives them a sense of achievement and self-satisfaction. ()

Therefore, unknown thrills, adventures and the ‘adrenaline rush’ does attract travellers.

What have other countries done ?

As mentioned many countries are developing unique , memorable and thrilling experiences into their product offering.

A few are described below

Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge

Walk along Sydney Harbour Bridge

Small groups are taken on a walk along the massive, arched steel structured Sydney Harbour Bridge . The dramatic 360 deg. view from the bridge, 135 meters above ground, of the harbour, and the nearby Sydney Opera house, while being completely exposed to the elements, is, indeed, a rare and thrilling experience.

Coiling Dragon Cliff skywalk, Zhangjiajie, China

In the northwest of China’s Hunan province, visitors can take a leisurely stroll along the walkway attached to Tianmen Mountain — 4,700 feet above the ground.

The glass-bottomed walkway is more than 300 feet long and only about five feet wide, providing an experience that is said to be exhilarating and frightening .

The CN tower Edge walk, Canada

The tallest attraction in Toronto lets people stand right at the edge of the CN tower and lean over. It is the world’s highest full circle, hands-free walk on a 1.5 m wide ledge encircling the top of the Tower’s main pod, 356m , 116 storeys above the ground. EdgeWalk is a Canadian Signature Experience and an Ontario Signature Experience.

A variety of unique trekking opportunities, in Rwanda and Uganda, allow you trek into the jungle to gaze into the eyes of the Gorillas in their natural habitat. It’s a completely unique African safari experience. This moment leaves a lasting and unforgettable impression, coming so close to this majestic wild animal.

These are just a few. So there are already a range of unique, visitor attractions that thrill tourists the world over.

The CN tower Edge walk, Canada

Safety – the one overriding condition

All these thrill seeking, and seemingly dangerous tourist attractions have one common denominator that is never ever compromised – Safety.

Safety is of paramount importance in all these activities and are subject to stringent checks and review, periodically. All personnel who guide and instruct these thrill seeking tourists are well trained and disciplined.

Any equipment that is used for safety, such as harnesses and safety belts, are designed to the highest standards and are periodically tested. Nothing is left to chance and if there is the slightest semblance of danger, due to any unforeseen environmental conditions, the attraction is closed down temporarily. ( e.g when there are strong winds the Sydney Harbour bridge walk is suspended).

Such safety measures are an imperative necessity, because any unforeseen accident can lead to serious and grave consequences of litigation and even closing down of the attraction.

Suggested railings

So what about our train ride ?

The attraction of the Sri Lankan upcountry train ride (most often between Nanu Oya and Ella – the most scenic section) is the fact that a tourist can stand ‘on the footboard’ of the open train carriageway door, and feel the cool breeze against their faces while absorbing the beautiful hill country and tea plantations. This is something most western tourists cannot do back home, where all train carriageway doors are automatically shut when the train starts moving.

In fact I am told that some Tour Agents in Australia are specifically asked by tourists to arrange this ‘experience’ for them, when booking their tour.

So why not be creative and make a proper attraction out of this ?

Cannot we modify one carriage to have an open ‘balcony’ along the side where a person can stand ‘outside’ and ‘feel the open environment’? It could be fitted with proper safety rails and each person can be anchored to the carriage with a harness (like what is used in other attractions where the interaction is open to the elements). A special charge can be levied for this experience.

One factor that favours the safety aspect is that during traversing this stretch, due to the steep gradient, the train travels at a ‘snail’s pace’, unlike in foreign countries where speeds could reach 80-100 kms per hour.

This attraction could be used as an income generator for the Railway Department as tourists wanting to experience this ‘thrill’ can be charged a fee, for a specific time period that they could use the facility.

Conclusion

Although this may seem simplistic, in reality there may be several logistical issues that need to be addressed.

But, if there is a will, and the different departments involved can all see the opportunity, and get on to the same ‘wavelength’, cutting through the inordinate bureaucracy that usually prevails, then surely it would not be at all difficult.

But the overall point in this entire treatise, is that we have to ‘think out of the box’ and grasp at all possible opportunities that are available, especially as we gradually open up for tourists after the pandemic. We are quite used to ranting and raving about all the shortfalls that prevail.. But there’s so much that still can be done if there are a few motivated and dedicated people who can get together.

Tourism after all is really ‘show businesses’ and without creativity, panache, actors and showmanship, what is show business?

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Remebering Prophet Muhammad’s legacy – ECOLOGICAL WELFARE

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By Dr M Haris Deen

COVID-19 came and as yet remains, at the same time the world is plagued with another serious issue, that of global warming and other ecological disturbances. While remembering the birth of Prophet Muhammad (Peace and Blessings of Allah be upon him) let us recall the contributions he made towards the applying Islamic principles of Islamic welfare towards protection of the environment.

The Prophet of Islam (May peace be upon him) advocated during his lifetime the stringent application of Islamic principles in respect of ecological welfare. Prophet Muhammad (Peace be upon him) taught his followers to live on less, neither to be extravagant nor to be miserly and to protect animal and plant life and to worship the Creator by being merciful to His creations. He forbade the killing of any animal unless out of necessity to feed the people. Al Albani reports that the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “If the Hou r (meaning the day of Resurrection) is about to be established and one of you was holding a palm shoot, let him take advantage of even one second before the Hour is established to plant it”. Imam Bukhari reported the Prophet (Peace be on him) as having said that “if a Muslim plants a tree or sows seeds, and then a bird, or a person or an animal eats from it, it is regarded as a charitable gift (sadaqah) for him”. It is also reported in Ibn Majah that once the Prophet (peace be upon him) happened to pass by his companion Sa’ad (May God be pleased with him) and found him performing ablution (wudu) next to a river and questioned him “Sa;ad what is this squandering? And when Sa’ad asked in return “can there be an idea if squandering (israf) in ablution?’ the Prophet replied “yes, even if you are by the side of a flowing river”.

In another Hadith narrated by Ibn Majah, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Beware of the three acts that cause you to be cursed: (1) relieving yourself in shaded places (that people utilise), in a walkway or in a watering place”.

The Qur’an in chapter 56 verses 68 to 70 states “consider the water which you drink. Was it you that brought it down from the rain cloud or We? If We had pleased, We could make it bitter”.

Prophet’s companion Abu Dhar Al Ghaffari (May Allah be pleased with him) reported the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “Removing harmful things from the road is an act of charity” and in another Hadith authenticated by Albani, the Prophet (on whom be peace) said “the believer is not he who eats his fill while his neighbour is hungry”. The Prophet further cautioned as reported by Tirmadhi and Ibn Majah that “Nothing is worst than a person who fills his stomach. It should be enough for the son of Adam to have a few bites to satisfy his hunger. If he wishes more, it should be : one third for his food, one third for his liquids and one third for his breath”.

Imam Bukhari reported an amazing story narrated by the Prophet (on whom be peace) that “A man felt very thirsty while he was on the way, there he came across a well. He went down the well, quenched his thirst and came out. Meanwhile, he saw a dog panting and licking mud because of excessive thirst. He said to himself. “This dog is suffering from thirst as I did, “So, he went down the well again, filled his shoe with water, held it in his mouth and watered the dog. Allah appreciated him for that deed and forgave him”. The companions inquired, “O Allah’s Messenger, is there a reward for us in serving the animals?” He replied: “There is a reward for saving any living being”.

Animals have a huge role in the ecological welfare system. The tenets of the Shariah Law towards animal rights make it obligatory for any individual to take care of crippled animals, to rescue strays and to guard birds’ nests of eggs’.

Sal Allahu Ala Muhammad Sal Allahu Alaihi wa Sallam. May Allah Shower His Choicest Blessings on the Soul of Prophet Muhammad.

Email: deenmohamed835@gmail.com

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Gypsies…to continue

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The original Gypsies, with Sunil (centre)

Of course, I know for sure fans of the Gypsies, and music lovers, in general, not only in Sri Lanka but around the world, as well, would be thrilled to know that this awesome outfit hasn’t called it a day.

After the demise of the legendary Sunil Perera, everyone thought that the Gypsies would disband.

Perhaps that would have been in the minds of even the members, themselves, as Sunil was not only their leader, and frontline vocalist, but also an icon in the music scene – he was special in every way.

Many, if not all, thought that the Gypsies, without Sunil, would find the going tough and that is because they all associated the Gypsies with Sunil Perera.

Sunil receiving The Island Music Award for ‘Showbiz Personality of the Year’ 1990

It generally happens, with certain outfits, where the rest of the members go unnoticed and the spotlight is only on one particular member – the leader of the group.

Some of the names that come to mind are Gabo and The Breakaways (Gabo) Misty (Rajitha), Darktan (Alston Koch), Upekkha (Manilal), Jetliners (Mignonne), Sohan & The X-Periments (Sohan), and the list is quite lengthy….

Yes, the Gypsies will continue, says Piyal Perera, and he mapped out to us what he has in mind.

They will take on a new look, he said, adding that in no way would they try to recreate the era of the Gypsies with Sunil Perera..

“That era is completely gone and we will never ever look to bringing that era into our scene again.

“My brother was a very special individual and his place in the band can never ever be replaced.”

Will Sunil join this scene…at Madame Tussauds!

Piyal went to say that the Gypsies will return to the showbiz scene, in a different setting.

“In all probability, we may have a female vocalist, in the vocal spotlight, and our repertoire will not be the songs generally associated with Sunil and the Gypsies.

“It will be a totally new approach by the new look Gypsies,” said Piyal.

In the meanwhile, Piyal also mentioned that they are working on the possibility of having an image of the late Sunil Perera at the Madame Tussauds wax museum, in London.

He says they have been asked, by the authorities concerned, to submit a PowerPoint presentation of Sunil’s achievements, and that they are working on it.

It’s, indeed, a wonderful way to keep Sunil’s image alive.

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