“Over my dead body”
(By Podinilame Dissanayake)
When “Sri Lanka Express” (SLE), the only registered newspaper of Lankan origin in Northern America was confronted with a lawsuit some decades ago for allegedly defaming a Lankan born wealthy businessman in US, the request of theaccuser tohalt legal actionwas to publish an apology. The defiant co-editor of SLE Hassina Leelarathne burst out ……”it has to be over my dead body….. I will sell or mortgage my house to fight it in court, because my act is nothing less than professional journalism”. Fight in court, she did skillfully. The case was thrown away without trial for lack of substance.
A subtle attempt to tame and muzzle a community voice was halted.
Hassina’s character was marked by two distinct traits; passion for journalism and the uncompromising patriotism towards her country of birth. Her actions on both counts were marked by bravery and forthrightness.
Hassina Gnei Sourjah was born on June 22, 1948 to well-known members in the diminutive Malay community in Sri Lanka. Her brothers Baba Sourja hand late Faisal were outstanding Rugby players at Royal College, Colombo and club Rugby thereafter; Faisal being a star place kicker who was instrumental in converting the almost impossible penaltiesfor the Royal College team that “stole”the Bradby shield in the famous 1971 encounter beating the much fancied and undefeated Trinity College, Kandy team by a considerable margin(22 to 3}. The famous Sourjahs at Trinity College (son and father Rugby lions who captained Trinity) too were her distant relatives.
She had her early education at the Girls’ convent in Kollupitiya and St. Paul’s Milagiriya Bambalapitiya and went on to earn a Bachelor’s degree from Peradeniya with English honors. (she completed her Masters in English from San Jose State University, California after immigration to US in 1975). Hassinahailed from a devout and conventional Islam family whoprayed five times a day and had elderly relatives taking pride in exhibiting the permanent scratch marks on their foreheads through having done so.
This form of conservatismingrained in her gradually began to erode during her undergraduate study days when she was introduced to ‘kalama Sutra”; the Budhdha’s charter of free inquiry. The inquisitiveness continued until she became a fully pledged “upasika” and became a vegetarian which she was,for the rest of her life.She could recite”Gathas”that an ordinary lay Buddhist would,yet with full knowledge of what they meant. She knew the “Rathana Sutra”in Pali, by heart and its deep meaning.
Hassinabegan her journalist career at The Times of Ceylon group in early seventies after a brief stint as an English teacher in a school in Maggona, off Beruwela. She had developed an interest in journalism during her early teens; and this was when female journalists were very few and rare and almost nonexistent from the Malay community. She made her mark in the male dominated profession of journalism that which was characterized with neck breaking competitionlaced with aqua vitae.Hassinawas successfully making her way up as a noted writer/reporter when she was introduced to DolamullaGamageDeepthaLeelarathne, a well-known senior journalist at the popular Sinhala newspaper “Lankadeepa”; a product of DehiwelaMadyaMahaVidyalaya. Common work ethics, creativeness and the perseverance of the two towards their profession bound them for life. They were married soon amidst many raised eye brows of colleagues and associates, for such were the days when English journalists rode high assuming super status over the non-English.
Their foreign sojourn began when Deeptha visited the United States on a fellowship of journalism offered by the Stanford University in 1971 and another in 1975, when Hassina joined hm. The fellowship invitations primarily originated from Deepatha’s foray into the literary world of science and the space explorations via the Apollo project; his extensive writing, covering the moon expedition and other series of articles on scientific aspects, in Sinhala.
Their fervor for journalism continued in US when they began the “Sri Lanka Express” newspaper and the radio program “Tharanga” in late seventies from the City of Palo Alto in Northern California. The former was an English by-weekly publication and the latter a monthly bi-lingual (Sinhala & English) two hour program. This was the period of the rotary phone and the cyclostyle machine, decades before the influx of the electronic media. All contents (news & views) had to be typed, cut and paste manually on special boards, transported to the printing shop, stamped and mailed to readers;a laborious task for the couple who were fully employed elsewhere. SLE readers were supplied with news from the world media and through other sources privy to the editors, when the world knew very little of Sri Lanka. It was heartening for the Sri Lankan listeners to welcome Amaradeva, Nanda Malini, Jothipala, Milton Perera and other popular musiciansto their households in California, making their way through “Tharanga”. Wesak, Aluth Aurudunakath, poya ceremonies, Daladaperahara etc were brought home to an eagerly awaiting diaspora whose travels to their homeland were not frequent as present.
The couples’ skill sets were complementary to each other. Apart from the strengths they derived from diverse societal backgrounds, there existed among them the capability and flexibility to switch roles between the conceptual and technical roles, as the situation demanded.
Leelarathnes moved to Southern California in mid-eighties and continued with SLE and a shortened version of “Tharanga”; radio program being curtailed due to State budget restrictions. Both had their own employment engagements and now a happy addition to the family; new born son Sahan.
The post eighties was a challenging period. The devastating separatist war in Sri Lanka in particular had many facets to report and write on. The assassinations and the brutal annihilations amidst political swings back at home were covered in SLE. News worthy local community developments in Los Angeles were given equal Importance. The publication carried on for more than 25 years; Hassina carrying on the task single handedly after the passing away of Deeptha in 2006.
SLE openly campaigned against separatism in Sri Lanka, which included the disclosure of suspected terrorist moles hiding behind the veil of benevolent activities.She bared the hidden agendas of the dubious fund raising activities of “Operation USA” which was allegedly in cahoots with the TRO.The agitation campaign in front of the office of “operation USA” while a fundraise was on, by the “Sri Lankan Patriots” (SLP) organization is memorable.
Hassina was the live wire behind the SLP’s (Sri Lankan Patriots Organization) bold and creative plans and strategies. The organization’s motto “simply patriotic” was her suggestion. The last act of the organization which was the construction of a 3,000 sq.ftlibrary and community hall for the first “Rana-virugama”, in “Pangolla” offKurunegalawas her bright idea, which saw fruition in record time. SLP members had visited the location to donate computers to the children of the Ranavirugama, when Hassinaabruptly promised them a community center, when she witnessed the lack of facilities to house the computers.
Hassina strategized the peaceful invasion of a Congressman’s town hall meeting with more than hundred SLP activists questioning him on his alleged involvement with separatist activities in SrI Lanka. The Congressman’s responses were childish at best; he left the meeting through the backdoor, leaving behind his bewilderedconstituents.The congressman has been silent on this issue for a long period thereafter until he resurfaced with the new regime of President Bidden with his support for resolution 413, which again failed to be enacted.
When the separatists organized a walk from Canada to appear on the famous “Oprha Winfrey” show in US it was Hassina’s strategy that ended the publicity stunt. When the Sri Lankan born popular rapper MIA took the opportunity in the PBS talk show with Tavis Smiley to sanitize activities of Sri Lankan terrorism as those emanating from freedom fighting,Hassinalost no time in taking active measures to counter same and to instigate a response via the same show; MrPalithaKohona, the permanent representative of Sri Lanka to United Nations responding to false propaganda.
She challenged some mushroom program activities under the auspices of the United Nation that were aimed at destabilizing developing nations; activities of WIDER, UNHRC etc.
There were numerous other disclosures that Hassina made public and acted against which could only be detailed through a research on same. Equally important is the stand she took over the growth and development of the expatriate community she lived in, the greater Los Angeles area.
She was critical of personal aggrandizements at the expense of public and religious affairs, and other developments detrimental to the society at large.
She along with others travelled to Washington DC to campaign for a Sri Lankan Consul General’s office for Los Angeles, during a visit there, by the minister of foreign affairs of Sri Lanka. When the good minister MrKadiragamarqueried whether the project would be financially feasible she replied boldly…..”yes, through trade”. Yet in later years she was highly critical of the office when it became an aid mechanism for political favoritism and trade was virtually extinct.
The reporting she did uncovering the acts of a honorary Consul General of Sri Lankain LA (before the Consular office was instituted)to evade a traffic ticket and the emergence of a Sri Lankan gang are two cases among many,worth mentioning here. The former incident disclosed how far a very learned person held in high esteem who was entrusted with honor would traverse to avoid a petty errant committed by the ordinary. When his claim of rush for an urgent surgery was proven otherwise he claimed diplomatic immunity, which was also found not to be.Some readers opinionated this reporting with disdain, as bringing disrepute to the motherland by the disclosure!
The story of the emergence of the “Sri Lanka gang” is the pathetic tale of a situation when responsible institutions in the community fail to nip unhealthy developments in the bud. The gang was gaining momentum influencing the youth. Hassina’s requests to religious organizations to intervene fell on deaf ears. She took upon herself to disclose the story in SLE with some catchy photographs and a write-up on probable adverse effects. Few weeks later the gang leader with his friends were seen at a Sinhala New Year festival in a public park. When he introduced himself for a handshake withHassina, she spurted out “you don’t deserve a handshake from me…. I do not extend my hand to gangsters”. She was not ruffled by the mini scuffle that ensued. Later when she left the event before its conclusion she refused a friendly escort to guard against the gang who were making merry at the gate. “I am responsible for my actions and no one else should”; there were no murmurs or catcalls thrown at her by the seemingly inebriated gang when she walked through them.
While being a practicing Buddhist she also took up causes that others would dare not comment upon. Her open stand against the subtle incursion of scientology to Sri Lankans through Buddhist institutions and cultural events is noteworthy. A “wealthy” attempt to force feed scientology material to a captive Sri Lankan audienceat the nation’s independence celebration was brought to task and subjected to open criticism by her when there was none to stand against it, let alone speak about it.
At the time of her death Hassinawas writing a book on the early Sri Lankan settlers in US, on which she did extensive research. She was fascinated by the story of the American philanthropist Marie De S Canavarro who arrived in Sri Lanka to engage in Buddhist missionary work along with the revered Anagarika Dharmapala. Marie was also instrumental in starting the Sangamitta Balika Vdyalaya in Colombo. Hassina painstakingly discovered the tombstone of Marie in the Forest Lawn Menorial Park in Glendale, California. Hassina’s plans to educate the diaspora on the contribution made by Marie and tocelebrate her life on the women’s day in March 2020 did not materialize due to the Corona pandemic.She gave publicity to worthy Buddhist news that came up in the community. The misuse of the Buddhist flag for commercial purposes and thieves entering Buddhist temples dressed in hijab were some of her late coverages a couple of months before she passed away.
She listened to Dhamma talks and observed “ata-sil” and practiced “Samadhi” at home while visiting temple after temple seeking the essence of Dhamma.
When Sri Lanka was shaken by the Easter Sunday massacre a couple of years ago it was Hassina who instigated and encouraged the Sri Lankan Catholic community in Los Angeles to conduct a memorial and a dialog with the multi religious community living in LA. She was personally instrumental in coordinating same with the arch daisies ofTorrance. It was a great success giving an opportunity to all religious groups to express their sorrow and thoughts; our Muslim brethren in particular.She advised the Sri Lankan Catholics to begin a fund in aid of the child victims from the terror blast, which was done instantaneously under the name “Sarana”, and continue to date with monthly remittances to Sri Lanka.
She was an animal lover and her residence had an open gate for stray dogs. Some dogs refused to leave her after the owner arrived to fetch them. There were special categories of friends waiting for her when she visited Sri Lanka; Stray dogs, crows and three wheel taxi drivers. The first two were for the feeding they received and the third for the benevolent tipping she did. She contributed funds to save cattle from slaughter.
It was love of labor for journalism that kept her working long hours on her pet projects. There were no financial rewards; brickbats and gibes were many from those who wished the caravan to continue its aimless merry ride driven by the powerful and abled. Her immense contribution to the community went largely unrecognized in a world of self-centered institutions and beings in hot pursuit of fame, glory and material enrichment.
She kept going heartily till the very last, shunning her rapidly deteriorating health condition. The Financial Analyst of the Department of Veteran Affairs of California breathed her last in the morning of October 17th,2021.
A watchperson who kept vigil on her community’s wholesome developments is no more.The open campaigner for fair play who refused to bow down to the whims and fancies of the mighty is now silent. May sanity prevail in our community despite her silence!
May she attain the supreme bliss of nirvana!