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Thursday, 13 August 2009

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In the years gone by

In newspaper production we have had our moments of excitement and intense activity with sudden newsbreaks of shattering importance or something akin happening locally. When my production staff sought permission to leave early, I would first check with the respective editorials prior to saying yes. Cecil Graham would always suspend the Sword of Damocles over my head with ifs and buts. Yet on this particular morning he had barely reached home when he had to rush back to Lake House. I felt elated that I had scored one over his ifs and buts and when I reminded him of this he smiled wrily and said congratulations.

When the news of the assassination of President Kennedy broke out it was well past 1.30 a.m. local time. Fortune however favoured us when Ira Ameresekera rang me up at about midnight and requested me to instruct the caretaker to keep the Editorial entrance gate unlatched as he was working late on an important assignment. Ira had completed his work by about 1.30 a.m. and before calling it a morning, had gone to the Newsroom to switch off the Reuter ticker when he had stood stunned at what was being typed out. He phoned me with the tragic news and using my discretion I stopped the Press until further orders. Ira had alerted Cecil Graham, D.F. Kariyakarawana Chief Sub Dinamina and R. Sivagurunathan Editor Thinakaran.

Papers being bundled up for distribution. Photo ANCL library

They all trooped in morosely to Lake House possibly cursing us inwardly. Fortunately some of our production staff attached to the three dailies were asleep in the dormitory and I rudely pulled them out from their hard-earned slumber and put them on standby. My manager Sumana Gomes too had arrived and I was relieved since I was on the point of utter fatigue. There were over two thousand copies of the Dinamina and over thousand of the Daily News to be printed.

The Thinakaran had already completed its run. With a skeleton production staff available it was decided to carry a single column box in bold letters and the Thinakaran to print a further 500 copies. I am proud to recall even today that it was our group of newspapers that broke the news of President Kennedy’s assasination to the citizens of Colombo and suburbs long before Radio Ceylon came on air. The rival morning dailies missed out badly. And the evening Observer and Janatha completed our scoop. Despite our tired limbs we spared a moment to laugh uproariously when the English headline operator in a sleepy daze set up the headline to read as “Kennedy dead shot” and Cecil Graham almost went through the roof on reading the proof.

In addition to my production duties I had to overlook the security of the company for a short period. The security officer had retired and until a replacement was made the night security was in my hands. There were hardly any hassles as we had a fine bunch of watchers dressed in Khaki coats and white sarongs who were loyal and hardworking men. One night at about 11.00 when we were at the peak of our production, a much agitated watcher came rushing to me and said in a breathless tone that two foreigners were creating a stir at the Editorial entrance. Leaving everything aside I hurried to the entrance. There were two beefy sailors come off a ship and probably having lost their way had come to Lake House.

They were drunk as lords and spoke a smattering of English. They were very aggressive and were demanding two double Vodkas each from a cowering watcher hiding inside the counter and were smashing their fists on the counter probably angry at the slowness of the service. One cannot talk to drunks nor can one reason out with them or even shout at them. The next best thing I did was to telephone the Fort Police and a patrol car arrived and led them away still shouting two double Vodkas, two double Vodkas. The Police later told me that they had mistaken our lit up entrance and wide-open gate to an all night pub and the Police had had a time convincing them of their mistake. We have even had our local pub crawlers and other stubborn night wayfarers creating stirs. They too were mostly drunks drawn to the light, as would moths. They often ended face down on the pavement ejected by the Watchers.

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