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Malinda Seneviratne Award-Winning Poet, Journalist etc.

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My last meeting with Malinda at his favourite meeting place – The Commons Café in Colombo in April 2023

PLACES, PEOPLE & PASSIONS (3Ps)

Dr. Chandana (Chandi)
Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
chandij@sympatico.ca

A New Column

3Ps, which is a question-and-answer type column, will appear in the Sunday Island over the next ten weeks. This series will feature ten outstanding and versatile Sri Lankans, who have made significant contributions to their chosen fields. Today, we feature below a multi-talented and fascinating personality, whom I call my friend and mentor in creative writing, Malinda Seneviratne.

When I told him about my idea of 3Ps, Malinda was very supportive, but did not want me to write about him. “Chandi, writing about other people is what I do as a journalist”, he told me during our last meeting in Colombo in April 2023. After some gentle persuasion, he agreed to participate, but told me, “Chandi, please feature me on your tenth and last episode.” Today, he would be displeased with me for commencing the column, with the article about him.

Profile

Malinda is a journalist, political commentator, poet, translator, and a chess coach. He was educated at Royal College, Colombo, University of Peradeniya, Carlton College (Minnesota), Harvard University, University of Southern California, and Cornell University. A student of sociology, Malinda entered journalism in 2000. He has contributed articles to many English newspapers and Sinhala newspapers. He won the Gratiaen Prize for his poetry collection, ‘Edges’ and the prize for the Best Literary Translation offered by the Gratiaen Trust on two occasions. He has worked as an advertising copywriter and has devoted much time to chess, as a national player and a coach.

My First Meeting with Malinda

Twenty years ago, soon after I arrived from Canada with my wife and kids in November 2003 for a month-long holiday in Sri Lanka, my father called me at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. “Chandana, Malinda Seneviratne wishes to meet with you soon.” I asked, “who is Malinda?”. “Malinda is a brilliant young journalist. He is highly qualified, and you should meet him for a chat.” My father encouraged me.

Malinda met me for lunch at the hotel. He was humble and had a laid-back approach in interviewing me. He went with the flow, but when I said something that sparked his interest, he quickly asked several follow up questions. Within a week, Malinda published a half page article about me. It was very well written, and I was impressed with Malinda’s outstanding writing skills. I liked his style. After I returned to Canada, occasionally I kept in touch with Malinda.

Planting a Seed

In 2012, during my annual visit to Sri Lanka, Malinda met me again at the Mount Lavinia Hotel, to interview me for another article. At the end of that meeting, Malinda told me: “Chandi, although you don’t live here, you are a known brand. You have interesting experiences and fun stories. You should write a series of articles.” I laughed and rejected that suggestion, but later thought about it. Because at that time, I was very busy working as a college dean responsible for a team of 60 professors in three post-secondary schools in Toronto with a student population of 3,200. I simply did not have free time for such an undertaking.

Eventually, in early 2020 I decided to write an autobiographical column themed: ‘Confessions of a Global Gypsy’ but had to find a newspaper in Sri Lanka which would be interested in publishing it. I contacted Malinda and sought his advice. “Malinda, I am now ready to do something you suggested eight years ago. Can you recommend a newspaper for my column?” I asked him. Malinda explained his unorthodox working pattern: “Chandi meet me at the Commons Café, opposite Ladies College in Colombo, tomorrow morning. After I drop my daughters at their school, I spend the whole day at the Café, doing my work.”

Action

When I arrived at the Café, Malinda was busy in the open-air garden section, answering calls on his mobile phone, playing a quick game of chess on his laptop, smoking a cigarette, sipping a coffee, and giving advice to a young journalist, all at the same time! Then Malinda called one of his former assistants, now a Feature Editor of a major English newspaper, and suggested that I meet him immediately. I took a tuk tuk to the newspaper office and the deal for my column was finalized within an hour. However, soon after that, the global pandemic arrived and, unfortunately, that newspaper had to reduce pages and not accept any new columns.

A year later, in the middle of the pandemic, I e-mailed Malinda from Canada, and sought his help in finding another newspaper for my proposed column. “It is a bad time for my industry. All newspapers are affected by the pandemic, but I will speak with my former boss, Manik de Silva, the Editor of the Sunday Island. Chandi, send me a sample article. Write it about you hosting Fidel Castro in Jamaica,” Malinda suggested.

A week later, Malinda informed me that my article about Castro did the trick. He kindly introduced me to Manik de Silva, and the rest is history. I published 100 episodes of my column in the Sunday Island from early 2021 to March 2023, and am now getting ready to publish a book based on that column. Thank you, Malinda!

Q: Out of all the places you have visited in Sri Lanka and overseas, what is your favourite and most interesting place?

A: The Abhayagiriya Complex is a composite of history, architecture, scholarship, Buddhism, heritage, and politics: subjects that fascinate me and of which I have been a student, albeit in an informal sense. When I visit Abhayagiriya I obtain a sense of location and something of the sweep of historical processes. It tells me where I’ve come from, where I stand and where, ideally, I could go. I appreciate each and every brick of each and every artefact and I am duly humbled by the sweat, blood and tears that are congealed therein. A place for meditation on many things, including self.

Milinda congratulated by his mother at the Harvard Convocation

Q: Out of all the inspiring people you have met, who inspired you most in creative writing?

A:My father, Gamini Seneviratne, a published poet whose work is read in our universities, has inspired me most, partly because it is with him that I have had the most extensive conversations on literature, but as importantly, because his poetry opened me to a kind of creative expression that was, at the time, new, exciting and, to my mind, potent. In his comments on my early attempts at writing and in his poetry itself, I learnt the absolute and non-negotiable need to be transparently honest, regardless of the consequences. He opened the doors of my mind to metaphor and economy.

Q: At the present time, what is your key passion in life, other than writing and chess?

A: Being. That, more than anything else, has been my key concern; I am reluctant to use the word ‘passion’ here for my signature is ‘sobriety.’ I have appreciated history and looked towards preferred futures, but I’ve always strived for honest and conscious ways of inhabiting the moment. So, I try to affirm the truths I’ve come to believe, subject of course to the limitation of knowledge, informed by my understanding of the greater good and tempered to the extent possible, given frailties, by the conscious consideration of the possibility of error. In this way I do things to make myself happy.

Q: From your time studying in five universities, which experience stands out as the most memorable?

A: My time at the University of Peradeniya without a doubt was unforgettable. It was my first encounter with academe. Although I completed just one academic year over a period of three years, the fact that I was young and perhaps wide-eyed, that storms beyond the strength of my group of friends had to be resisted out of conviction, that despite insurmountable odds we choose to be resolute in the defence of integrity and that there was still space to love, write, engage in intense debate and explore the wonderful world of theatre, made ‘Peradeniya’ a profound and utterly memorable experience.

Malinda with his three bosses – Wife: Samadanie Kiriwandeniya and two Daughters: Mithsandi and Dayadi

Q: What was the most rewarding experience you had as a journalist, political commentator, poet, and a translator?

A: I met Saji Coomaraswamy, then 80 years old, in the strange intersections of orbits set in motion by the hand of God, as she might say, or by reasons that really do not require investigation because what matters is intersection alone, as I would say. She responded to something I wrote. We corresponded, met, and became firm friends. She was one of my most insightful critics. She was absolutely civilised when pointing out errors or critiquing positions I chose. She was kind and gentle even when her objections were harsh. I loved her much and miss her so much, still.

Malinda (far right) with the Sri Lanka chess team at the 2014 Olympiad held in Norway

Q: How do you describe the four years you spent as the Editor-in-Chief of ‘The Nation’?

A: In a word, exhilarating. I enjoyed working with a team of very young journalists to produce the best weekend paper we possibly could. ‘The Nation’ had acquired the unenviable reputation of being a ‘kept rag’ of the then government. The archives would demonstrate the commitment of my team to provide balanced political coverage and commentary, over and above publishing innumerable touch-me-not stories, excellent news features and insightful commentary on business, sports, arts, and literature in an elegantly designed weekend newspaper. It was particularly pleasing since I was part of the original editorial staff and had given the newspaper its name.

Q: What was the biggest advertising campaign you were involved in, as a copywriter?

A: I do not know about size or impact, but the campaign I was most proud to be involved in was on domestic violence, child abuse and sexual harassment at the workplace, commissioned by UNHRC. I wrote the copy for the print ads, based on which radio and television commercials were designed. Phoenix O&M won multiple SLIM awards as well as several Abby Awards for this campaign which was supervised from beginning to end by the Executive Creative Director Ruchi Sharma, who was principally responsible for getting my creative juices working with a simple suggestion, ‘think about marital vows.’

Q: What was your key contribution during your last permanent job as the Director/CEO of Hector Kobbekaduwa Agrarian Research and Training Institute?

A: I observed that brilliant research on agriculture, particularly the social and economic aspect of this vast and complex sphere, has been conducted and is being conducted, generating a vast archive of knowledge as well as policy recommendations. Unfortunately, there are no formal conduits for the knowledge thus produced to inform policy making forums. To correct this, I signed memoranda of understanding with all universities which had agriculture faculties, thereby setting in place a framework and mechanism for collaborative research and training. It was a necessary first step in mobilising the scientific community to help shape agriculture policy in Sri Lanka.

Q: Can you explain your key achievements in chess?

A: The records will show that I was in the team that represented Sri Lanka at the Asian Team Championship in 1986, that I was the manager of several youth contingents taking part in world and Asian age group events including the Junior Olympiad, and that I was the non-playing captain/manager of the team that won a category gold medal at the 2014 Olympiad held in Tromso, Norway. Nothing however comes close to the nurturing of young chess players, primarily students at Royal College but also players of all ages, schools and regions I’ve mentored over a period of 40 years.

Q: I have seen you very happy using the Commons Café as your informal office in Colombo. What does your schedule look like on a normal workday?

A: There are no ‘normal’ workdays. There’s nothing ‘normal’ about my life, my days. The plus side of being unemployed or under-employed (‘freelance’ gives it a bit of dignity of course) is that one can never really be a prisoner of routine. So ‘the day’ is determined by the indeterminate. In other words, the lives, and priorities of people who knowingly or unknowingly ‘lance’ me on account of the ‘free’ (yes, I’ve written an article on this subject!). I do get around to must-do writing somehow, though. As for ‘happiness,’ why have a long face, why spread the bad news around?

Next week, 3Ps will feature the best-selling female visual artist of Sri Lanka…

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