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 The death of a first born

Sunday Observer, Jan 20, 2002

by Ajith Samaranayake

The untimely death of Kithsiri Nimal Shantha, the editor of the 'Lakbima' daily newspaper at the heart-wrenchingly early age of 46 has sent shock waves through the journalistic fraternity.

Naturally most of the tributes paid to him under these circumstances have assumed the quality of elegy but if we are to do justice to this young newspaper editor (the first among our generation of newspaper editors to die) we have to assess his contribution against not merely the state of the profession today but also the political, social and cultural circumstances of our times.

The cardinal fact here is that the 'Lakbima' is only 20 months old still and Kithsiri's contribution has necessarily to be framed within this brief span. However this period brief though it is spanned one of the most crucial times in recent history extending from the conclusion of the 1999 Presidential Election to the last General Election and the sense of judgement with which Kithsiri proceeded to carry out his work during this time is the measure of the loss which we have sustained.

Kithsiri Nimal Shantha belonged to the post-1956 generation of young men and women who were immensely excited by the intellectual and cultural currents of that eventful period in Sri Lanka's history.

Born in 1956 and educated at Mahinda College, Galle Kithsiri had a privileged ring-side view of left-of-centre politics. His father N. M. Nimal Shantha, a man of some means, was for long the Chairman of the Kodagoda Village Council in the Habaraduwa electorate and at the time of his own untimely death in 1976 the SLFP organiser for the electorate.

Apart from this youthful political immersion Kithsiri was also no doubt inspired to take to journalism by the very magic which was in the air for Koggala in the Habaraduwa electorate was home to many giants of journalism and letters such as Pandit Dharmaratne, Martin Wickremesinghe and in our own times Arisen Ahubudu, that mellifluous 'Hela' poet. In fact the oldest extant Sinhala printing press is to be found in a temple in Kataluwa.

All this doubtless had a hand in making Kithsiri decide to throw up a promising career at the People's Bank and take to the pen.

Though small in stature the bearded Nimal Shantha was destined to do big things in Sinhala publishing. His first venture into journalism was through a mini-size tabloid newspaper 'Irida' published by Multipacks. This was the time that next door at Bloemendhal Road, Upali Wijewardene had begun to take on the Goliaths of politics by launching his path-breaking 'Divaina' and 'The Island' newspapers.

All three papers which were published from that sleazy Kotahena Road were soon been talked about. What was perceived to be the anti-Anura Bandaranaike slant of the 'Irida' made the irrepressible Mervyn de Silva put into the mouth of the portly SLFP leader a perhaps apocryphal line. Commenting on his standing in the various newspapers of the time Anura is supposed to have said 'Never on a Sunday!'

Like some of the ventures of the mercurial Haris Hulugalle 'Irida' soon folded up but the young editor and his band (which included Jayantha Chandrasiri, one of our most innovative dramatists and taledrama makers) found a congenial home next door. It was here that for the next 18 years Kithsiri honed his talents and shaped the opinions which were to take him to the editorial chair of the fledging 'Lakbima'.

At the 'Divaina' Kithsiri rose to be Features Editor and Deputy Editor with virtual control of the daily newspaper's opinion pages. At 'Lakbima' of course he had control of everything which went into the paper and it was here that the quality of the journalist in him came out.

Kithsiri had never been a reporter as such but working without a proper news editor in the early stages of the 'Lakbima' he placed his stamp on all departments of the paper.

This was no easy task for a Sinhala daily newspaper during one of the most turbulent times in contemporary history with enough and more parties, lobbies and interest groups waiting in the wings to cry foul and rush with protest and injunction to the press, Press Council and Supreme Court.

As an editor Kithsiri was keen to uphold one of the cardinal principles of journalism and make his paper into a platform for ideas. While he gave free play to political opinion he was even more keen on giving the widest exposure possible to the arts, literature and culture.

Coming from a post-1956 generation he felt acutely the loss caused by the paucity of English knowledge among this group and he sought through the means of persons such as Hemaratne Liyanarachchi, the recently retired head of the department of English at the Peradeniya Teachers' Training Institute, to bring to the Sinhala reader the best currents of European literature.

In later years Kithsiri rarely wrote under his name but he wrote the editorials in the 'Divaina' and of course the 'Lakbima' and was among the best stylists of his times.

Although no purist in the pejorative sense of that word he valued the prose of Munidasa Kumaratunga and sought to uphold the purity of the language as language. He could be both trenchant and lyrical and as an editorialist it would be no exaggeration to say that he was reaching the heights of a B. A. Siriwardena (of 'Aththa' fame) at the time of his unexpected death.

Like all newspaper editors Kithsiri also had his partialities. Being a Sinhala newspaper he naturally situated the 'Lakbima' at the Sinhala centre (perhaps in competition with the 'Divaina') but was careful to give it an underpinning of cartoonalist ideology. He also took the paper enough to the left so that Patali Champika Ranawaka, Dayan Jayatillake and Gunadasa Amarasekera all found a forum in its hospitable pages.

Any assessment of a newspaper editor has, of course, to take account of his relationship with his owners, whether state or private.

Kithsiri worked for a private newspaper owned by the Sumathipala family which had ventured into big-time newspaper publishing after the success of a stable of light newspapers. Kithsiri therefore had to balance the interests of his proprietors with his own views on life and politics but there is every indication that he made a job of it demonstrating a remarkable maturity which belied his years.

Not even many of those who knew him closely knew that Kithsiri had a heart condition. For one so young he was not only afflicted with a heart ailment but was wearing a pace-maker. Perhaps in this situation it was wrong for him to break himself on the wheel of his newspaper but that too was the measure of the journalist in him.

Kithsiri's love affair with newspapers was the shaping influence of his life and he died as he lived with the whiff of newsprint on his breath.  

Kithsiri Nimal Shantha

I came to know Mr. Kithsiri Nimal Shantha only a year ago when I visited "Lakbima" office in Colombo 14. Although I had known him earlier that was the first time I met him in person. Kithsiri Nimal Shantha, the founder editor of ‘Lakbima" daily died of a heart ailment on January 13, 2002 "Lakbima" the paper he edited gave the news of his untimely death on the following day. So did all other newspapers. I met Kithsiri Nimal Shantha, to discuss a series of articles I had planned to contribute to his paper. He invited me to write a column based on my long experience in the public service and also gave the heading as "On State Service (Rajya Sewaya Pinisai). The warm, cordial and friendly reception I was afforded on the very first day started an everlasting friendship between two of us.

I used to carry my articles to "Lakbima" so that I get the opportunity of speaking with Kithsiri. We had long chats despite his busy work schedules. Some of his friends happened to be my friends as well and the topics we discussed were familiar to both.

Whenever I visited "Lakbima" I used to stay for a while climbing the steep steps leading to the "Lakbima" office Once I climbed the steps at a stretch and feeling exhausted and breathless, stayed at the top for a while. Nimal Shantha, seeing me inquired why I stayed there. I explained why I did so. He said he too used to climb the step stopping once or twice. As a person with heart ailment, the climb to office would have been a problem to him more than the ordinary men.

Hailing from Habaraduwa Kithsiri Nimal Shantha started his journalistic career with "Irida" tabloid paper and incidentally he passed away also on a "Irida" Sunday.

Before joining "Lakbima" he had spent 18 years at "Divaina" as Features Editor and Deputy Editor.

The "Lakbima" newspaper within the 20 months of its existence was able to win the hearts of many Sri Lankans. He turned his paper into a platform for divergent ideas. His editorials were truly patriotic and bold. He stretched his hands to many a new writers.

The untimely death of Kithsiri was a shock only to the journalistic fraternity but also to the general public. Perhaps he might be the only newspaper editor to have died so young on duty. I miss him a lot, as he was so nice and friendly. The large crowd that attended his funeral proved how popular he was. He was loved by all those who came into contact with him.

May he attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana!

Lalith Heengama



Kithsiri Nimal Shantha