Face2Face with Tilak S. Fernando
by Wimal Alahakoon in London

Journalist Tilak S. Fernando's pen has created a special column called FACE 2 FACE in NewsLanka as well as in the web www.infolanka.com. Tilak has been a freelance journalist since 1988 and has been serving the Sri Lankan English readership through his own columns in The Island, The Sunday Island, The Sunday Observer, The Sunday Times, The Sunday Leader and Satyn, a popular English Women's magazine published in Sri Lanka. Being a journalist who always believes in the dictum, "Facts are sacred and the Comment is Free' he has been an objective, forthright and fearless journalist based in London where those who deserved credit had always got their fair share and the victims equally exposed of their sins by dipping his sharp pen in garlic and ensuring that the writing would stink to high heaven!

Qualifying as a Professional Engineer in London, and working for the National Freight Corporation initially for nine years, he changed his career and became an entrepreneur in many a field. For few years he worked for the British Pharmacopoeia Commission Secretariat as an Executive Office Manager in liaising with the Department of Health Scientists in the publication of The British Pharmacopoeia which is renowned worldwide for the manufacture of medicine.

He was introduced to the Sinhala Drama in 1982 by Namel Weeramuni in Manel and Namel Arts Productions and had his first stage drama debut at the Tricycle Theatre in Kilburn, London, in 1982 in Prof. Ediriweera Sarathchandra's 'Elova Gihin Melowa Ava' play acting the part of the Beggar with Karuna Bodhinayake (Kalu Hamy) who had done her role earlier in Sri Lanka when Prof. Sarachchandra himself produced the play. He later took part in Sarathchandra's ' 'Rattaran' play and also in ' Golu Birinda' produced by Namel and Malini Arts in London.

The renowned film producer G.D.L. Perera introduced him to tele-drama in the first Sinhala tele-drama 'Rata Giya Attho' produced in England. He reappeared on the silver screen once again in a big way doing a prominent role as ' Kirthi' in Sriyani Amarasena's latest tele-drama ' Paaradeesaya' ( Paradise) filmed on location in London which was screened on 6th July as a film version at the Bolyn theatre in London. I took the opportunity this time of catching the man who always writes about others and to reverse his face2face on himself, on the verge of his getting ready to get back to his roots to settle down and engage in ' diversified business'. Here are the excerpts of the interview.

W. You have been writing about others all this while and today I got you under the collar, so-to-speak. Would you like to co-operate with me for an interview about yourself, and shall we say a 'Face 2 Face' reversed?

T. If you insist Wimal, by all means. After all, you are my good fried and how can I refuse any request coming from you?

W. Well! I know that you are a professionally qualified engineer with a University degree behind you etc., but I do not wish to go into the academia in this instance. Instead, shall we concentrate on your cultural and other talents which have been latent as far as the public is concerned to a greater extent. How did you become a journalist?

T. Mr. D. B. Dhanapala, the veteran journalist and the editor of Savasa newspaper at the time published my first Sinhala poem ( 'Ekaswara Bandana) ie. Kavi without any Ispilla, Pa-Pilla, Kombuwa or Ala Pilla which was titled " Agayada Obawa Mata" in the Savasa evening paper published by Davasa Group of Newspapers. I was fourteen years old at the time and that inspired me to continue writing.

W. What happened next? Obviously you did write many more and are still writing!

T. Subsequently I published a few articles in the Silumina, Riviresa, Savasa, Geethanjalie, The Evening Observer ( short stories) and in the Sun newspaper. In London I contributed to the Asian Times, India Mail, New Life, Asian Voice, The Patriot, Silvarrow and The Voice of Lanka. I also became the London Correspondent to Sri Lanka Express newspaper published in Los Angeles. Apart from that I took part in the BBC Sinhala programme Sandesaya thrice. One of which was when Prof. Sunanda Mahinda de Mel was the producer I wrote and read my own article - ' a study of mental disease in the UK'. When Badra Goonetileka was the producer she interviewed me on the Underground Railway system in the UK, immediately after I qualified as a Transport Engineer and during Vasantha Raja's period I was afforded the opportunity to interview on the programme a visiting Sri Lankan Psycho-analyst, Ronald Senaratne who became a consultant to the famous Holywood actress Goldie Hawn. Subsequently, I did a full feature on his psycho reading experience with Goldie Hawn to the Sunday Leader in Sri Lanka.

W. You became the London Correspondent to The Island newspaper later. How did it come about ?

T. That was a bit of a coincidence actually. I had written a feature article in the New Life newspaper, one of London's Asian tabloids, when the Sri Lankan High Commission held an overnight Pirith ceremony at the High Commission building for the first time. The High Commissioner at the time, Mr. Chandra Monerawela who had been highly impressed with my article recommended me to Dr. Sivali Ratwatte when he ( Dr.Ratwatte, Chairman of Upali Newspapers Ltd) was in London and looking out for a suitable journalist as their London Correspondent.

W. Usually correspondents stick to one newspapers, especially in Sri Lanka. In your case you seem to have jumped from one to the other quite a bit, covering the full spectrum of English newspapers in Sri Lanka, how come ..?

T. As you know Wimal, no journalist based in London can work for a Sri Lankan newspaper for a living. It has to be someone who is dedicated to journalism because within the Sri Lankan Newspaper Industry you never hear the word 'a retainer' (someone who is paid and retained by a particular newspaper company to do a full time job). So it has to be someone who has that urge to write or the journalistic element in his blood stream to commit to such a task disregarding the payment which is always paid in Sri Lankan rupees of course, and does not even cover your telephone charges for faxing (those days) or recover your money you spend on the computer ink certificates, leave alone your time, effort and other expenses involved in traveling and covering incidents of interest! I just tried my luck or the capacity with all the newspapers from time to time only to be seen as an accepted journalist writing to reputed newspapers. Some times, of course yes, due to various politics involved and also because of the traditional 'dog eating dog's meat' syndrome prevalent in journalistic industry I needed to change. I must say, however, that the best offer was made to me by the Sunday Times Editor at the time Vijitha Yapa.

W. I know you write Face2Face column for NewsLanka but what was your specialized field in writing to Sunday newspapers in Sri Lanka.

T. It was a mixed basket actually. I mainly concentrated on feature articles. If I can be specific, shall I say I loved the explosive features rather than news items? The advantage of writing features was that unlike with a news item which has a time frame, the same news can be converted into an elaborated form and a feature with a little bit of effort and some research on the subject matter.

W. I have always noticed your special style of writing. I suppose everyone has his own style, but did you study journalism as a subject at all or is it just a natural thing that has come to you?

T. I should think it's a combination of both. As I mentioned earlier, I started scribbling Kavi when I was twelve and thirteen years of age, and after I was given an official responsibility to write to the Island, I did a course in journalism at the London School of Journalism. I have just completed a thesis in journalism based on the theme: "The relation between journalism and Mass Media" focusing on a Degree of Philosophy (PhD).

W. Have you got into hot water at any time with your writing?

T. Oh yes! Twice actually. Once after writing a well researched 9 column article to the Sunday Times under the caption " When the Barriers of Immigration came down"

W. What happened then?

T. Well, its human nature that when skeletons in any cupboard are pulled out, naturally those who hide them get disturbed. It was unfortunate that a particular group of Lankan in London either took a wrong view of the article purposely with malicious intentions or did not read the article completely but believed in hearsay stories about it and appeared temporarily to be a threat to my writing. Standing by the dictum my editor Vijitha Yapa told me when I joined the Sunday Times that 'Facts are sacred and the comment is free' I had the strength and the stamina to withstand and carry on.

W. What was the 2nd incident?

T. Exposing Bank of Ceylon London Branch in The Island newspaper. A constructive criticism managed to upset the hornet's nest at the London Branch and I ended up in receiving a legal writ from the Lincoln Inn Field Law firm demanding an apology and damages from me. Instead I submitted 16 atypical cases of inefficiency of the Bank to the newspaper lawyers in Sri Lanka and it was squashed with only Bank of Ceylon having to pay a hefty bill for Solicitor's charges.

W. Why do you touch on dangerous grounds?

T. Wimal, there is nothing called a dangerous ground for a constructive and objective journalist. An objective journalist does not create a story or news item. He only verifies an incident that has already taken place, and if he is happy with the facts in his possession to substantiate his story, he is not bothered about anything as to who did it, why it was done, for what purpose, who will get the blame for it etc. Only through constructive criticism that things which go wrong or are going wrong can be put right at any level. But as you know, the truth always hurts and everyone wants only the grandeur and not criticism. I remember in your earlier question you mentioned about my style. If I can answer that here, I would say I always like to write in simple language so as not go over 75% of readers' heads. I also like to add some wit and sarcasm and lace with garlic as appropriate to a true story in order that the reader may not get bored in reading.

W. Coming back to your acting, how did all that take place?

T. Initially I responded to an advertisement for an audition for Rata Giya Aththo tele-drama and visited Namel Weeramuni's residence. Namel gave me few lines to read and before I could say Jack Robinson he pulled out a script and said, "I am going to produce ' Elova Gihin Melowa Ava' stage drama and you are going to do the Beggar's character". I ended up doing the Beggar's role in the drama and also acted as a robber in the play ' Rattaran' which was also shown at the Tricycle theatre at the same time on three consecutive evenings. Later I did a village 'idiot's role ( Tikira) in Namel's play ' Golu Birinda. Then a minor role in Rata Giya Aththo of course, and it was actually total fun doing all that and I really enjoyed acting.

W. Let's talk about your latest tele-drama - Paradeesaya which is going to be shown on Rupavahini soon.

T. This was something which happened quite unexpectedly thanks to you Wimal. When you introduced me to Sriyani Amarasena who directed the film I was offered a vital role as Keerthi, the manager of a London based musical band. It was a great opportunity for me, for one thing having had the opportunity to act with such a prominent and popular actress like Sriyani and also to be in the same frame with another veteran actor in the Sri Lankan cinema, Robin Fernando. It was a nineteen episode drama and I understand that it will be shown in the near future through Rupavanini at 8.30 slot.

W. You mentioned earlier about packing up and going back to Sri Lanka. Why have you decided to get back after all these years?

T. If I can give you a philosophical answer to your question it will be like this. A bird may fly freely up and up towards the sky thinking that it won't get tired but at one point it will feel tired and will be looking out for tree branch to perch for a while and take a rest. Like wise I want to get back to my roots to rest a bit and take life at a more relaxed pace, being away from this rat race life in England. That does not mean that I am going to just eat, drink, sleep and rest but I have a different set of programmes planned out.

W. Like what, I suppose writing books? Or producing films and tele-drama?

T. You never know, Wimal, Thank you for reminding me about writing books. I am sure I can write an interesting book based on my life experiences in England covering all these years but for the rest of it you will have to wait and see, I am afraid. Rest assured you will get to know about them through the Sri Lankan mass media.