Thalif Deen in New York
When Daya Perera was our UN ambassador, I had a perennial battle of wits -– and, most of the time, he had the last word. He once dismissed news stories in the Lake House newspapers as largely “bogus”. Defending my old establishment, I told him that people in Sri Lanka read the Daily News, at least for its obituaries. And Daya shot back: “Even those obituaries are bogus!”.
He was right, at least in one instance, when someone planted a “bogus” political obituary in the Daily News in the 1970s taking a pot shot at the then government in power implicitly accusing the Prime Minister of going authoritarian and violating democratic principles of governance.
The infamous obit, in the front page of the Daily News, read: the DEATH OF D.E.M. O’CRACY, BELOVED HUSBAND OF TRUTH, LOVING FATHER OF L.I. BERTIE, BROTHER OF FAITH, HOPE AND JUSTIA, CORTEGE LEAVING ARALIYA WALAUWA, KOLLUPITIYA. But despite an in-house investigation, Lake House was unable to track down the prankster (with the obituary later being re-produced in the widely read US monthly Reader’s Digest under ‘Laughter, the Best Medicine’). The guessing game continued –even though some identified the author of the obit as head of an advertising agency in Colombo.
Speaking of obituaries, an equally memorable story took place in 1976 when a veteran Observer news reporter was assigned the task of interviewing the “average man and woman in the street” —basically to praise a rare achievement: the election of Prime Minister Sirimavo Bandarnaike as the chairman of the Non-Alignment Movement (NAM), the most powerful political coalition at that time. The summit in Colombo that year attracted the largest gathering of world leaders in the history of Sri Lanka.
The story, with quotes from several men and women, made it to the front page of the newspaper. But a couple of days later, a reader called the editor and alerted him to the fact that all those individuals who sang the praises of Mrs. B were no longer living, but dead.
The names had apparently been taken from the day’s obituaries disproving the old saying that dead men (and dead women) tell no tales. When asked for an explanation, the reporter claimed those were the names given by the individuals he interviewed in the streets and at bus stops.
The management refused to buy his story – and he was unceremoniously fired.