I had been wondering for
sometime where my old friend Mahintha Vaikunthanathan was as I had lost contact
with him for years, when I received a call from Sunanda, his wife, telling me
that Mahintha had passed away last August. The news didn’t come as a shock to me
because Mahintha like me was well past the biblical three score years and ten
when septu- and octogenarians begin to find death a constant companion,
I first met him at Lake House in the Sixties where he was a printing assistant and I a sub editor on the Observer. Our duties required that we meet often officially .to see that the pages that were sent down caught the deadlines. He was very helpful and courteous and soon we found that we were on the same beam on many things. Unlike other printing assistants he also took an interest in what appeared in print. He made friends very easily with his carefree ways and I used to find him chatting away often with Jayantha Padmanabha, the Editor of the Daily News, as if they were very old friends..
With me he used to discuss Jayantha’s column, Of Cabbages and Kings. and also points raised by writers like Regi Siriwardena and Mervyn de Silva,. particularly with the lighter column Mervyn wrote under the title, With Malice to None. But his real interests were Bharatha Natyam and Carnatic music. I once teased him for airing his knowledge in a review he wrote by using words like arangetram, only to find that I was the ignoramus, for he then educated me on what an arangetram was by pointing out that it was the official term used to describe the debut performance of either a singer or dancer after their courses of training ended.
I learnt that he had been away from the Island from 1983 so that he may not have known what finally happened to the Works Department, the bowels of Lake House so to say, where we met and he learnt his printing work. The electronic revolution has transformed it beyond recognition. It has swept away the linotype machines, the foremen who made up the pages and patted them down with a mallet, the ‘stone’ on which they made them up laboriously, the block making department which played with a lot of lead while making printing blocks and even the printing assistants into oblivion. The entire work that the Works Department performed then could now be done on a single computer!
Mahintha had left Lake House long before all that happened. I understand that he subsequently turned his talents into becoming a highly successful business entrepreneur. He lived in India for a time where he was close to his life long interest - Carnatic Music and Bharatha Natyam and the happy recipient of an award from the Bharat Kalachar Sabha which honoured him with the title of Rasika Kala Bharathi. He was also happy to see his grandson making his arangetram in the flute at the age of 11 and at 12 his vocal arangetram,
I had a glimpse of Jaffna’s internal problems, at the time the name Prabhakaran was unknown, through the eyes of Mahintha. The social barriers, unlike among the Sinhala people, are very great and difficult to cross. Sometimes I wonder whether the latest turn of events in Jaffna is not the result of those social barriers created by the Tamils themselves rather than any barriers created by the governments of the day. The venom with which the terrorists are eliminating the leaders of the old Jaffna society inclines me to think that in this age of the Kali Yuga, the bottom is now trying to get to the top, by hook or by crook.
Mahintha made s crossing of the social barrier himself in his own style and in a manner not sufficient to raise many eyebrows in Jaffna, when he married a Sinhala girl. They met at the hospital, where she was a nurse, when he was rushed there on having had his fingers severed, rather carelessly on his part, by trying to put his hand into the wrong place in a running machine. He may have lost his fingers but he won a near perfect wife who looked after him devotedly throughout his life. For all his carelessness he was also a very tranquil man. He was rarely flustered.
Even in death he was most tranquil, says Sunanda, and passed away peacefully.