Kirthie Abeyesekera , an award-winning journalist and author, died in Ontario Canada, after a brief illness on Tuesday night. As a police reporter of the "Ceylon Observer", he covered some of the major crimes in the sixties and seventies. He is best remembered for his penetrating exposes of the underworld both at home and abroad.
Pounding the crime beat for the "Observer" under the strong and inspiring leadership of "The Skipper", the legendary editor, Denzil Peiris, he covered some of the most sensational murder cases at the time, including the "Kalattawa murders" in which a powerful entrepreneur, Alfred de Zoysa, was subsequently found guilty of and hanged. Among the others was the "Kirimbakanda killing" which captured the public imagination, largely because the victim was a child and the principal accused, Pauline de Croos, a woman, who was vivacious to boot.
Kirthie was not a big man physically. He was of average height and build. Yet, he was feisty and adventuresome and stood out among the bravest in the fraternity. During the first JVP insurrection of 1971 and the ensuing reign of terror, Kirthie was in the thick of the drama. He was the first local journalist to report from the front-lines of action. His reports, complemented with superbly illustrated pictures by photographer Chandra Weerewardena for the "Observer" were prize-winning material by any standards, anywhere.
Kirthie’s array of contacts on both sides of the crime beat was imposing as was his unrelenting persistence to capture the essence of the characters of people who lived on the edge and who usually preferred to remain elusive. He was a brilliant investigative reporter with a inclination for off-beat subjects and an inordinate curiosity for news. Possessed with a fluent writing style, he was trusted by his wide range of contacts among both "cops and robbers", an invaluable asset in journalism.
He toured the underworld in the city of Colombo and provided interesting and entertaining Sunday reading in an era gone by. As a result he won for himself an impressively large readership.
Kirthie Abeyesekera, who had been domiciled in Canada with his family since 1975, has several books to his credit, including "Among My Souvenirs," "The Underworld Of Crime Sex and Drugs" and "Piyadassi The Wandering Monk - His life and Times." His latest book, "The Doughty Dons of Dowa, was launched at a ceremony in November last year, organised by its publisher Sarvodaya Vishva Lekha.
Kirthie had his childhood education at a Roman Catholic Convent in Bandarawela, and later at Dharmarajah College, Kandy and Uva College, Badulla. He held a Diploma in Journalism from the Thomson Foundation of London.
Since his emigration to Canada, he has kept in touch with his readers through regular editorial contributions to the homeland newspapers. Kirthie, who hailed from Uva, maintained close links with his ancestral village, Dowa in Bandarawela, which he visited unfailingly on his frequent sojourns to Sri Lanka.
He will be ranked in the annals of local journalism as one of the brightest stars in the firmament.
He leaves behind his wife, Olga five children and
several grand children.
ABEYESEKERA - Don Kirthie, Husband of Olga. Father of Jayantha & Lathika, Chitra & Dev, Rohan, Anoma & Ruwanal and Charmanie. Grand father of Tamara, Devinda, Dilani, Aravinda, Anita, Seetha and Ashmini. Cremation took place on Friday February 8th in Toronto, Canada.An Appreciation - Sunday Island feb 10 2002
They told me Heraclitus, they told me
you were dead;
Kirthie Abeyesekera, was among those rare persons who had a late calling to journalism. He entered the tournament of the press as a middle-aged bureaucrat from the Local Government Service, unlike the majority of us who were schooled in the art from an early age. I came into journalism around the same time or thereabouts as Kirthie.
But there was a difference. Kirthie was a mature, man of the world, with the demeanour of a person hell-bent on succeeding in his new found occupation. I, as a brash, callow youth, although perhaps inflamed by the same idealism, was carefree and directionless. We came into journalism at a time when the profession boasted some of the biggest and brightest stars in the business. We were under the guidance of "The Skipper," the celebrated Denzil Peiris.
But Kirthie’s ability and talent, compounded by his propensity for hard work, even under the most trying circumstances was soon recognised. He had a natural aptitude for the craft and his faculty of extraordinary quick insights and highly-tuned instincts earned him the reputation as the greatest crime reporter, ever.
His competitors pounding the crime beat for rival newspapers were hardly in the same league. He scooped them incessantly and he did so with panache. But despite his many successes, he did not remain the head-swelled prima-donna. He was aware of the vital importance of being equal to the daily grind. The key to his success was that he did all this with an incredible persistence and unbending discipline, to say nothing of the absolutely crucial need of being at the right place at the right time.
As a police reporter of the "Observer," he covered some of the major crimes in the sixties and seventies. He will be best remembered for his penetrating exposes of the underworld. Pounding the crime beat for the "Observer", he covered some of the most sensational court cases of the time, including the "Kalattawa murders" and the "Kirimbakanda killing".
Kirthie was not a big man, physically. He was of average height and build. Yet, he was feisty and adventuresome and stood out among the bravest in the fraternity. During the first JVP insurrection of 1971 and the ensuing reign of terror, Kirthie was in the thick of the drama. He was the first local journalist to report from the front-lines of action. His reports, complemented with superbly illustrated pictures by photographer Chandra Weerewardena for the "Observer" were prize-winning material by any standards, anywhere.
Kirthie’s array of contacts on both sides of the crime beat was imposing as was his unrelenting perseverance to capture the essence of the characters who lived on the edge and who usually preferred to remain elusive. He was a brilliant investigative reporter with a inclination for off-beat and an inordinate curiosity for news. Possessed with a fluent writing style, he was trusted by his wide range of contacts among both "cops and robbers", an invaluable asset in journalism.
Although he moved around with a vigorous efficiency, most would acknowledge that there was a demeanour of quiet professional solidity about Kirthie, which made his very presence inspiring. Kirthie cut a dash and was conspicuous with his distinguished shock of greying mane and his noble features enhanced by twinkling hazel eyes. He was always elegantly attired. Kirthie exuded a cultured class, rarely encountered among the fraternity, even during those enchanting times. Even when he strode with measured tread along the vast corridors of the Lake House Editorial, entering or making his exit, he exuded the air and walk of a man who knew where he was going — even if he was only heading for his favourite pub.
But for Kirthie, family affection had been the greatest gift in life. Yes, he was essentially a family man, a steadfast friend and both an idealistic and essentially kind person. Still, for a hard-boiled newsman, Kirthie, manifested a singular innocence, a sort of gentle ingenuousness.
In those heady days with the "Observer", there was always the presence of Kirthie’s wry and sardonic humour, compounded by a homey sort of zest. Nearly all of us indulged in the parry and thrust of badinage. Whenever Kirthie became overtly conspiratorial and mischievous, we immediately suspected that someone would become the victim of his rapier wit. He would unleash his verbal thunderbolt with that characteristic twinkle in his eye and a deadpan face. And then he would throw back his head and chortle uncontrollably. His gleeful gurgle sounded like an aqueduct in full-flow, which always prompted an infectious roar from those around him.
Kirthie’s literary gift was but one of his extraordinary endowments. His outstanding record of aesthetic talents include a mellifluous singing voice and the intellect of an eloquent bilingual public speaker. Few were aware that he was a graded professional Radio Ceylon artiste in the forties and sang in his own concerts. Among his contemporaries at the time were Chitra and Somapala, C. T. Fernando and Susil Premaratne.
Few among any of his peers had hardly a quarter of Kirthie’s vivacity, his eager interest in the world, or the ability to stir the feelings of his friends and loved-ones by his sincere and passionate displays of demonstrative emotion.
Goodbye, Kirthie, beloved big-brother, crony and
confidante. Rest assured your many buddies and I all mourn your passing.
We are privileged to have been counted among your friends. For us all you
made the world a better and happier place. Be assured you will constantly
be in our prayers and thoughts. And at every reunion, until the last of
the Knights of the Old "Observer" remain, we will always raise
our glasses to you in a ceremonial toast of thanksgiving for enriching our
lives. And Kirthie, always the merry old soul, certainly would have liked
by Ajith Samaranayake
Kirthi Abeysekera's death in Canada where he had been long domiciled snaps one of the last surviving links with what many would consider to be the golden age of the 'Observer'.
The 'Observer' has every reason to mourn his death for unlike most newspaper people Kirthi Abeysekera never worked in any other newspaper. Even within Lake House itself he never worked even for the 'Daily News'. Joining the 'Observer' rather late in life he gave the best part of his adult life to that newspaper and Lake House until he resigned from that establishment following its appropriation by the United Front Government in 1973.
Born in Badulla Kirthi began life as an employee of the Department of Local Government but yearned always for a career in journalism. Normally it is only starry-eyed adlocents who are bitten by this particular bug but Kirthi was an exception when as a husband and father he gave up a comfortable government job to walk the pavements of what an English novelist has called Heartbreak Street. However the fates looked down kindly on Kirthi. In his case there was no breaking of hearts. From day one he never looked back.
In his memoirs titled 'Among My Souvenirs" Kirthi recalls his interview with Denzil Peiris, the legendary editor of the 'Observer' who like George Orwell made political writing into an art. Denzil Peiris introduced Kirthti to D.C. Ranatunge, the news editor, who later excelled himself at the Ceylon Tobacco Company and still pursues his first love on an inside page of the 'Sunday Times'.
Peiris with that fine sense for the unorthodox which surely characterises all great editors put the cub reporter to work on the Police round to succeed Nalin Fernando who was leaving for other pastures.
Although Kirthi later made a name for himself as a feature writer it was as a crime reporter that he shone. This was the time when the armed services were nothing more than a ceremonial outfit to be paraded on Independence Day and the designation of Defence Correspondent was unheard of.
It was the Police which took the spotlight and the Inspector General of Police was something of a demigod. It was also a time when crime had a certain finesse to it.
Firearms were rarely used and a great deal of subtlety went into the commission of crime. And Kirthi was in the front line to witness some of the most daring crimes of his times and make friends with some of the men who struck terror into the hearts of law-abiding citizens such as 'Cheena' and 'Yakadaya'.
The highway robbery involving CWE cash, the Pauline de Crooz case, the Kalattawa murders and the April 1971 Insurgency were among the major achievements of Kirthi's career. In the Kalattawa case it was a letter sent by the widow of one of Alfred Soysa's victims followed up by Kirthi which led to the uncovering of a series of murders in the dark heartland of Anuradhapura.
And Kirthi and his constant companion the late Chandra Weerawardana created history when Soysa, the terror of the Raja Rata kicked Weerawardene's camera and smashed it in the precincts of the Anuradhapura Magistrate's Court.
In an age such as today's inundated as it is by the media with a particular emphasis on the electronic media it will be difficult to properly assess the contribution made by a crime reporter such as Kirthi Abeysekera in the 1960-70 period. What characterised his writings was both the unravelling and reporting of crime as well as a human interest approach to the underworld.
In his mature feature writing Kirthi brought to bear on the pimps, prostitutes and IRCs who peopled the underbelly of our society an objectivity and a compassion which equalled that of a Daymon Runyon.
It was perhaps no accident that the only other contemporaneous journalist to have done the same was Edward Mannapperuma also of the 'Observer' but better known as M. Edward. Edward who later managed a cinema hall in Kandy was more James Hadley Chase than Daymon Runyon but both Kirthi and he brought a polish to crime writing in Sri Lanka which has not been equalled since then.
Kirthi Abeysekera lived a full life and even in domicile used to contribute to the 'Sunday Observer', 'Sunday Island' and the 'Sunday Times' from Canada. He is survived by his wife Olga, a sister of Bob Harvey, the legendary rugby commentator, and children.
Kirthi's death brings to an end a chapter in Sri Lanka's social life which married high society to the less fortunate of our social system in what was a spacious and leisurely time when the crises which we are undergoing as a nation and people were still in the womb of history.