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DateLine Wednesday, 29 August 2007

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[henry Jayasena column] THEATRE: Things were running smoothly for us but not for long. Our fate at Rupavahini was not unsimilar to the fate of the country in general. There were momentous ups and downs. Amidst all that we carried on courageously - if I may say so.

We were witnessing ‘structural’ changes too at Rupavahini. I forgot to mention that I fell ill in August 1983 - barely six months after I joined the institution. It was very much like a heart attack. Up to this day I don’t know what it exactly was. Whether it was a real heart attack or a very nasty case of gastritis.

I say that because the ECGs did not show any vital changes. One morning I felt a constriction like pain starting from the abdomen and going right up to my back. There were several heart attack ‘specialists’ in the Corporation in the sense there were several who had undergone heart attacks earlier - including the Chairman himself.

When I complained to A.M. Ubeydullah - our Director of Administration [who himself had had a heart attack some time back] he immediately put me in a vehicle and was going to take me to the Cardiology Unit of the General Hospital.

But I insisted that I see my physician Dr. B.P.N. Jayasekera first, to get his opinion. So I was taken to his clinic at Dickmans Road first. The time was around 12.30 in the afternoon. He asked me a few questions. Mind you he too was a heart attack ‘specialist’ having had more than one heart attack! He said it might be the ‘strain’ of my new job.

I made a strange request from him - he was my friend. “Doctor, give me a drop of brandy if you have some at home.” I told him. He looked at me, raised his eyebrows and simply said “Not a bad idea.”

And fetched a thimbleful of brandy for me. “It will do him good for the moment.” Dr Jayasekera told my friend Ubeydullah, who was watching the proceedings open mouthed! “Anyway you had better go to the cardiology unit and get yourself checked,” Dr. Jayasekera told me.

And so I was taken to the Cardiology Unit. I believe Ubeydullah had called them by phone earlier. A trolley was ready as we took the vehicle under the porch and I was promptly wheeled away. It was a relief to find that one of my actor friends from my “Janelaya” days in 1959 - Dr. Upul Wijewardena - was in charge.

Upul played the part of the young dreamer - ‘Comasaris’ - in my very first production of the play with medical students, way back in 1959. The other Doctor in charge was Dr. D.P. Atukorala - the very famous healer.

By some error I was taken to Dr. Atukorale’s ward and Upul was furious about it. Finally the issue was settled and I was put in Dr. Upul Wijewardena’s ward. I thought that was a bad beginning where two doctors were ‘fighting’ for the ownership of a patient!

Stress test

Anyway the result of it was that I spent nearly three weeks at the Cardiology Unit and after the usual stress test etc. [if it is now, I would fall flat on my face!] was sent home eighteen pounds thinner! There is a side story to this episode which is not very pleasant but worth recording.

Just the night before I was to be released from hospital some chap with a demented sense of humour had phoned Rupavahini and informed them that I had passed away - he had pretended to be calling from the hospital.

The News Room was preparing a news item when M.J. Perera had called them and asked them to verify from the Cardiology Unit itself. The Cardiology Unit had informed them that I was very much alive and was in fact, ready to be discharged the next day! Thanks to Perera’s foresight a very embarrassing situation was avoided for Rupavahini.

Much later, Richard de Zoysa, who was on duty that night told me that his hands shook as he was typing out the news item! So, as I said we had our ups and downs.

When I came back to Rupavahini after about another week, the Duty Room office on the ground floor had been prepared for me so that I would be saved the risk of climbing up and down the stairs. I took it for about one week and got back to my office upstairs.

By the time I came back several changes had taken place at Rupavahini. M.J. Perera had broadened the duties of the Educational Programmes division under Mrs. Indrani Guneratne and had transferred some of the Units of the General Programs Division - such as the Documentary Unit and the Research Unit to the new Division.

“You have too much work. So I tried to give you some relief,:Perera told me. I did not mind. I still had enough on my hands.

About this time, Perera also had decided to bring in a Director General for the Corporation. He wanted to be relieved of the duties of the D.G. and concentrate on Policy Matters as Chairman.

The present new wing of the Corporation was also coming up including accommodation facilities for the drivers of the Corporation who were often required for very early morning duty.

New DG

So Anura Gunasekera, who was a Director of the Information Dept. was brought in as our new Director General. M.J. Perera moved into the new wing - to the furthest room in the building. We carried on. I was unhappy that I lost my beloved boss and guru. Perera and I had got along very well having known each other for a number of years.

Gunasekera was a young S.L.A.S. man who had just returned from the United States with a Doctorate in Communication. M.J. Perera had thought he was the right man for the job. How right he was I do not wish to discuss especially as Anura Gunasekera is no longer with us.

We got along quite well except for minor differences of opinion such as whether there should be ‘special’ privileges for the artists.

I will not discuss them in detail. About this time, I think early in 1986 - I cannot record the exact date because I have lost my diaries - our transmitting station at Pidurutalagala was attacked by the terrorists.

The attack had been repulsed by the military presence there but the enemy had caused considerable damage to some of our transmitting equipment etc.

Somebody from the Head Office had to go there and bring an assessment of the damage. It was the D.G. who had to select the team that would visit Pidurutalagala for that assessment.

Gunasekera called me to his office that morning and told me that I should head the team with an Engineer and a Technician, to accompany. “A senior person should go there and I think you are the ideal person.” I made no protest.

I was 55 years old at that time and according to medical men I had undergone a heart attack two years before. I took it as a challenge. My companions were an Engineer by the name of Heartley Fernando and a technician by the name of Gunadasa - both rather stocky men.

Climbing Pidurutalagala nowadays is no big deal because there is a tarred road that could take you right up to the top. But those days there was no road. One had to climb in the beaten track amidst tea bushes etc.

I remember breaking journey in Kandy - staying in one of our circuit bungalows - and setting out early next morning. A technician from the Pidurutalagala sub station had come down to show us the way. His name was Santin Gunawardhana [not my actor].

Uphill climb

I think it is an uphill climb of about seven miles and very tough at certain points. On the way we were shown a stone pillar put up there in memory of Buell - one of the pioneers who climbed Pidurutalagala to put up that station - even before Rupavahini came into being. Buell had climbed the hill together with Thevis Guruge and a few others and fallen and died at that spot. That was inspiration indeed.

We climbed and climbed and reached our spot on top of Pidurutalagala around 10 or 11 a.m. It was windy, misty and cold. We were shown the damage caused by the attackers. Some control panels and equipment were damaged. But the Army boys who guarded the station had done a good job.

They had retaliated and repulsed the attackers. Some or at least one or two of attackers had been wounded. They showed us blood stains in the nearby ‘mana’ bushes. We found a few spent bullets and other pieces of shrapnel inside the transmitting room. I collected some of them as souvenirs to be brought back to Colombo.

Engineer Hartley Fernanado and Senior Technician Gunadasa had discussions about repairs to the damaged equipment. I concentrated on immediate contingency plans. Anyway no major damage had been caused to the station and the staff had managed to continue transmissions. We brought back a report which was submitted to the Chairman and the Director General.

Altogether it was a daunting experience. I was rather pleased with myself that I could climb up and down Pidurutalagala at that age. I don’t know what happened to the report. The Engineering Section would have seen to it that things were put right and the Security Division would have seen about tighter security.

I believe all three of us had to re-relate our ‘Pidurutalagala’ experience to office mates and friends, several times over. For a day or two we had become ‘heroes’ within the Corporation!

I showed my souvenirs of pieces of spent bullets and other stuff to M.J. Perera. He simply said: “I was worried when I heard you were sent up that steep climb. Anyway that should give you some self-confidence too. Keep the pieces of bullets etc as a souvenir. You could hand them over to Rupavahini when it decides to have a museum of its own!”

Thought of the week

The rate of crime is increasing at an alarming rate in the country. Take any newspaper, listen to the radio or watch news over TV, it is crime, crime and crime everywhere.

The slightest motive seems to be good enough for a stabbing, shooting or even an abduction. Recently a little boy was abducted for ransom and found killed. Where is this country heading to?

I don’t think there is a single country which has so many Bana Preachings, so much Bodhi Pooja, so much God Worship, so many sermons etc. anywhere else in the world. But crime is increasing in spite of all that.

There must be something rotten at the very core of things. And that I think is the greed for money - money that should be got by any means. That is one of the evils of a free economy where everything is calculated in terms of money and nothing else. After all the ‘morals’ of the citizenry are dictated by those who lead and govern them.

No amount of preachings, sermons and poojas will do any good as long as we plant ‘greed’ in the minds of men.

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