It’s a dilemma to write an epitaph for the man called Prasad Gunewardene. Each person has a totally diverse dimension of his life and times. The people in the media field have one dimension of having worked or associated with him. The field of show business is another, friends and family is something else. In fact, he belonged to all, but nobody owned him.
“To the bald and chuffing one,” started our News Editor, Ruwan Laknath Jayakody. “This is a confession. Let me then transgress a taboo – To speak ill of the dead. This was a man of great lusts, hi@s days of wine, women and song, long gone, his close friends dead and buried, some riddled with State sponsored wounds and others sodden with drink, the sweet intoxicants of yore having fled his lips, the once besotting busty queens of days bygone now aged hags, the poetry of youth without voice, a wrecked raconteur haunted by the ugly spectre of memory.
A hard man who loved his children, his soul was the altar where demons performed exorcisms over the cold sheets of the marital boudoir. Whatever the turmoil of his being, his appetite for journalism remained unvanquished. Journalism was the cancer of his soul; Writing, the disease in his blood. His silence stentorian. His mirth hearty and wit undimmed. His heart giving and giving, even after it gave out. An odd man and most humane man; it is one of life’s privileges and honours to shoulder the unbridled passion he had for his craft and the unbending standards he set for his work.”
Prasad started his journalistic career, which spanned 40 years, in 1978 at the Sun newspaper and subsequently Dawasa, both now defunct. He was the Parliamentary lobby correspondent and News Editor at The Island, former Asia Tribune Colombo Correspondent, Senior Associate Editor of both Sunday Observer and Daily News, Editor of the then Friday magazine, Acting Editor of Lanka Puwath Agency, Associate Editor of Ceylon Today and at the time of his passing away at the age of 61 on March 30, 2016, he worked as the Senior Deputy Editor of the Nation.
He was born in a TV-less social media-less age when radio and newspapers were the only reliable sources of information. Prasad Gunewardene either worked under or associated with legendary icons like Clarence Fernando, Reggie Michael, Elmo Gunaratne, Vijitha Yapa and Rex de Silva. His contemporaries were Kenneth Amarasekera, Patrick Cruze, Iqbal Athas, Winston de Valliere and Aaron.
Prasad Gunewardene was of the calibre of Premil Ratnayake, Ajith Samaranayake and Richard Silva. They were a different breed who were unafraid to stick their necks out. Prasad Gunewardene had a penchant for controversy. At one time he staked out a cemetery in order to report a controversial exhumation.
He came from a generation of journalists who were beat-trained. “He was one of the best Parliamentary lobby correspondents,” recalls Chief Operating Officer, Mahinda Wijesundara. He knew most of the MPs at the time on a first name basis. His ilk made it a point to visit their sources in person. His tenacity to chase a good story was legendary. And Prasad would be seated chatting with ministers, secretaries of ministries and senior MPs for hours and he would simply refuse to leave without a story. He was familiar with the inner workings of the ministries he covered.
It was a time when the sole mode of communication was a fixed telephone line; no mobiles, no recorders and no computers to undo your mistakes. “Keying was done on the typewriter,” recalled Mahinda Wijesundara. “Parliament reporting was done in shifts. One reporter would take down notes during Parliamentary proceedings and go to one of the offices in search of a telephone, while the other took down notes.”
He had an almost encyclopaedic knowledge on everything from sex to politics. “This is what made working with him so intriguing,” says Graphics Editor, Pushpika Karunaratne. Prasad had a nose for news, was a go-getter and as a section head, a taskmaster. “I remember struggling to write my first news story for hours. Prasad watched me in silence for a few minutes until he couldn’t take it anymore. He came up to me, took one look at my notes and said: “Girl, I will teach you once this time, next time get it right by yourself. Then he started dictating, says Business Editor, Crystal Koelmeyer.
He was a born story teller. They were at his fingertips, literally. He was one of that generation, where keying was done with only the two index fingers. It was intriguing to just watch his one finger symphony, pecking away at the hapless Nation keyboards producing, editing and fine-tuning copy after copy of flawless news. But his stories weren’t tear-jerkers, they were no frill, no nonsense fact-filled copy. He had impeccable memory that paid attention to detail. “His walking pace was in total contrast with his thinking speed,” says Editor-in-Chief, Arthur Wamanan. Prasad thought on his feet.
He was stubborn as a mule, ate what he pleased, refused to see a doctor, take meds and get a medical check-up when it was necessary. He always said: “You’ll know what’s wrong with you only if you get a check-up, not if you don’t.” Prasad chose to be blissfully oblivious to the last.
An alumnus of S. Thomas’ College, Prasad had an excellent command of English, a memory for verse and prose and the Latin he learnt. He often proudly announced that he attended S. Thomas’ during Warden SJ Anandanayagam’s time.
His regal moustache and bass voice complemented his hallmark lean and hungry rugged looks. He was a friendly and jovial figure who did not pull his weight around rookie journalists. He was a father figure who spoilt them rotten with treats. He didn’t value money and would give with hardly any regard to how he would manage the rest of the month. Above all, he was also a good teacher, correcting flaws, explaining nuances of copy writing and editing.
He was not a people’s person. His straight forward ways and short fuse didn’t win him many fans. “He would fire back, in that guttural voice unique to him, verbose quotes that the recipient opponent hardly understood.” Those who had differences with Prasad would know that it was like a cold war afterword. The opponents would refuse to make eye contact for days. Because Prasad could be volatile at times, you wouldn’t know how he would react. But when you met him again, it was always a clean slate, no scratches, no hard feelings. That was Prasad Gunewardene, the man who left with a clean slate. He lived hard, smoked hard, at one time drank hard, laughed hard and worked harder. Mercifully he died easy.
He was a permanent fixture at the Nation editorial, the last newspaper he worked for, often working six days a week, late into the evening. Prasad left a void in the hearts of his colleagues.
A few days before he died, after his sister’s demise and just after his 61st birthday, Prasad wondered aloud, ‘I don’t think there is any such thing as ‘afterlife’. I think we just die and that’s the end of it’. A beloved nephew of veteran actor late Gamini Fonseka, Prasad Gunewardene is survived by wife Soundari Gunawardene and daughters Shavindrani and Suwendrini and son Dilshan.
Wherever he is, may he Rest in Peace.