Inspirations are everywhere. We look for role models and inspirations in movies. We look at movie stars and sometimes our parents. But very rarely do we look for inspiration from the person working at the next table. Everyone has a story which has taken him or her to where he or she is right now. We see the people. But we fail to look at them. We fail to look at their struggles behind the success.
Sri Lanka is not short of such stories. A journalist thrives on such stories and never loses the passion to chase them. But how many of the journalists have their own inspirational, rag to riches story? Charles Peter is one of them. He was just an ordinary journalist. That too, after being in menial jobs. As a local journalist he was covering stories, talking to people and bringing their issues to the fore.
Today he is an award winning correspondent who currently resides in Britain, now working for the BBC Tamil and Sinhala services. But his journey to the BBC office in Britain is an inspiration not only to him but to many.
Though he has reached admirable heights, his beginnings were humble. In fact, his parents, Dayalan and Nesamma could not afford to provide him with the basic education.
Both did odd jobs, depending on daily wages. Peter was forced to contribute to the family by selling coconuts for a daily wage of Rs. 10. “I used to wake up early morning at five and go to Bastian Market load the coconuts and sell them around the neighborhood,” Peter reminisced.
This was at a time when all children of his age were attending school and learning the basics. His childhood was robbed by economic woes and he had to fend for his survival.
At the age of 11, he was able to enroll at an institution where he was able to start learning. “They did not have any graded classes. We were just taught to write and do sums,” he recalled.
But he did not rest and sold Sherbet after school hours and was way behind those of his same age in terms of education. At 14 he managed to enroll himself at a school in Grade Eight.
Journey in journalism
Two friends in his new class were working in the dispatch unit of the leading Tamil daily Veerakesari. Peter who was constantly looking at doing new things started working with them. Thus started his journey with the newspapers through which he would later win many accolades.
Six years after working with the newspaper’s dispatch unit, Peter wanted to do more. “I grew up with people who were struggling. I was exposed to a side of Colombo that most people have not seen. So I wanted to bring those issues out through the newspaper,” he says.
He first applied to Veerakesari to become a journalist but was rejected as he did not have the necessary paper qualification and the experience at the time. He was then taken in for typesetting where he had to type out stories written by other journalists.
“I used to type them out and also study the various styles of writing,” he adds. A few years later, the management of Veerakesari was looking for a young and vibrant team to be part of its new paper, Metro News. Peter was among the youngsters to have been recruited into the team but as a typesetter.
Nevertheless this time he utilised his off duty time to go out on his own and talk to people and gather stories. “I knew about the slums of Colombo. I was interested in stories pertaining to the underworld and how they operated. So I would leave office at 5 pm after work and go around on my own,” he says.
The stories he wrote gained prominence in the paper and at one point, the editor recommended Peter to be promoted as a journalist.
“I was interviewed by our boss Kumar Nadesan, who first asked me to write in the day and typeset in the evening for six months. Then he recruited me as a full time journalist”, said Peter.
Despite his gradual rise, he lacked paper qualification. The management of the paper then allowed him to follow a diploma course in journalism which was paid for by the company.
He later joined a non-governmental organisation (NGO) through which he conducted radio programmes for internally displaced persons in the north. He also conducted mines awareness programmes in the North soon after the war. He later got the opportunity to follow a degree in journalism in the UK which he completed in 2013.
This resulted in a call from the BBC where he continues to follow his passion. “I am ever grateful for my colleagues, my boss and the editors who helped me to reach the place where I am now,” he says with gratitude. “My wife has sacrificed a lot for my career and I’m grateful to her.”
Peter’s rise was strengthened by his perseverance and hard work. “I don’t know where I will go from here. But if one door closes, I know God will have many doors open for me.”