For the second time in just over three months, I went to the Colombo general cemetery to bid farewell to a fellow traveller. This is becoming a worrying habit.
Those of us who’ve opted for the path less travelled don’t expect crowds or accolades. At least we have each other for company and inspiration. Suddenly it’s getting a bit lonely: long-standing friends and colleagues are dropping dead in the prime of their lives.
First, it was environmentalist, journalist and public intellectual Piyal Parakrama who left in early March. Now, it’s Palitha Lakshman de Silva — journalist, photographer, cartoonist, puppet animator and television professional among other pursuits and talents.
Uncannily, what I wrote upon hearing Piyal’s death applies – word by word – to Palitha too. I just have to change the name and date: Palitha died so suddenly and unexpectedly on the evening of June 11 that it’s hard to believe that he is no longer among us. Another public-spirited individual has left the public space all too soon…
Both men had just passed 50, and were leading active, productive and busy lives. They had no known ailments, and were in apparent good health. Yet in the end, it was the unseen, gradual clogging of the heart’s arteries that struck them both down: the first heart attack was swift and fatal. Neither man reached the nearest hospital alive.
I had known Palitha for twice as long as I worked with him (in the past decade). Although we weren’t close friends, we shared a passionate, life-long interest in using broadcast television and narrowcast video to communicate public interest messages. Some call it non-formal education, but we avoided the e-word for it reminds some people of school that they didn’t enjoy. We believed – and demonstrated too – that the audio-visual medium can blend information with entertainment in ways that make learning effortless and painless.
Having started his career as a reporter and photojournalist at a leading newspaper, Palitha later moved on to TV, where he blazed new trails in cartoon animation, puppetry and documentary making. He was part of Sri Lanka’s first generation of television and video professionals who experimented with the medium, and found new ways of combining education, information and entertainment.
All this made Palitha a natural ally and partner in my work at TVE Asia Pacific. I just wrote a more official tribute tracing our collaborations over a decade, which the TVEAP website published: Tribute to Palitha Lakshman de Silva (1959 – 2010): Photojournalist and cartoon animator
I’ll write more reflectively once I recover from the shock of another colleague signing off for good. For now, I can only echo the lyrical sentiments in this leaflet distributed at Palitha’s funeral by his artistically-inclined friends. The English approximation (below) is mine, and not particularly good (though bilingual, I’m a lousy translator). I’m glad, however, that the original verse captures one intrinsic quality of Palitha: his gentle, soft-spoken nature which often concealed the creative genius inside him.
The day has arrived
Suddenly and shockingly
When you’ve gone away
Leaving us alone
All by ourselves
To write a verse
And choose an image
In your fond memory.
Flowers bloom and wither
Lakes flourish and drain
Such is the Circle of Life
Which your hasty exit
Once again reminds us
With a soft, little whisper.
We’ll travel to the end of time
If can we see, just once more,
Your gentle and soothing smile,
And listen to your stories
That you told us so gently.
Just once more…