Memoirs & Tips from An Accidental Journalist #3 : “Tail” of Tilapia

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A cool breeze came through the reservoir. I was slowly walking towards the fishing couple sitting in front of their little hut, mending a net. It was a small fishing community adjacent to the banks of “Rajangana” reservoir- a beautiful man-made reservoir- in north central Sri Lanka. A wooden fishing boat swayed near the water’s edge. I was out for an article about the inland fisheries.

The fisherman and his wife became bit startled to see me suddenly appearing with a notebook and a camera. “ I am from a newspaper, doing an article,” I said to them. Smiles appeared on their weathered faces and in no time we were friends. From my many encounters with rural fishermen, I can assure that they are not shy to speak their mind. Soon came a glass of hot herbal tea and we began chatting.

“Ariyadasa” the fisherman ( I still remember his name), lay the nets at night and again go to the waters to get them back during the morning. The handful of fish get caught on his net, he sells to the middlemen and comes home with the nets. Now he and his wife slowly mend the fishing nets- their most important tool of the trade.

“ Theppilli” the native word for fish “Tilapia mossambica” is the lifeblood of this fishing family. Thousands of fishermen in rural Sri Lanka make their living because of this fishery surrounding the inland reservoirs of Sri Lanka. So the story of the lives of this fishermen is the tale of Tilapia. It can not be separated. Man and the natural resource.. This is the ultimate combination throughout the human history.

Now the Science of Tilapia mossambica… This fish is a favorite culture fish in the third world. The fish is a fast breeder and easy to culture in waterbodies. Ancient kings in Sri Lanka had made those reservoirs to facilitate the agriculture. It was to these reservoirs scientist have introduced this fish species to boost fish production. Ariyadasa, our poor fisherman, who everyday struggled for mare survival told me his story that day.. End of his story I questioned both science and politics…

Sri Lanka is a resource-rich tropical island blessed with abundant waterways. Thousands of years, in mighty kings’ era, this had been a country of a strong subsistence economy depended on agriculture.  There was no western science during those days. Traditional technologies used, which went very well with the life and nature. The struggle of science and politics, unfortunately, couldn’t get rid of poverty of this beautiful country in this space age!

Though science introduced Tilapia to this reservoir (which is not a native fish) to boost fish production, no strong policies were there to sustain the industry and elevate poverty of these fishermen! Measuring from head to tail of Tilapia and analyzing gut contents science can come to conclusions. A politician can release the fingerlings(small fish) of Tilapia to a reservoir, during an election campaign.  In countries like Sri Lanka, policies and government backing changes with changing governments. So the “Tale of Tilapia” became a fairy tale!

Science is not a magic bullet. It needs good handling… A good political backing.. Honest administration.. (Uncorrupted governments.. etc) ..Generations of scientist tried to introduce the technology to third world developing nations. When can science ease the poverty of the people like traditional fishermen on a small island in the Indian ocean? Are we practicing the right science or we are after an illusion? Do we know enough about head or tail of Tilapia mossambica! This was the tale of Tilapia, which I wrote to a science magazine back then.

I regard myself as an Accidental Journalist. Never did it as a profession but continued it for pure passion… even though some people paid me for my hobby! These are the memoirs and some writing tips, I wanted to share with you, which I gathered from my journalistic journey in my “ on and off” career as a science and environment journalist.

 

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Saga of Silence,Colour of Blankness and Writer’s Solitude

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I remember the river bed.. one can climb down to the edge of the river and gaze at the slowly flowing water for hours. I do not remember the reason I climbed down and sit there on the edge of the water where no one was present. It was the river, riverbed and the silence. The silence.. that was what I was looking for. This was years back. But I still remember the silence. The silence which spoke to me… My soul was searching somebody to speak to… Yes, the silence spoke to me…

Growing up near the sea in a beautiful island was a privilege we took for granted.. Where people spend thousands in foreign currency to come and be on the same place we grew up and neglected every day. But I remember those moments, where you can see the blue ocean taking up the blankness of the sky… What I gazed at was the blankness. The blankness of nothing… Yet there is everything in blankness, everything you dream of…

I often wonder how the poets get their inspiration and novelists get their creativity. How artists put their emotions to take a form of life on a blank canvas. Yes, the blankness of nothing can create everything. Silence speaks to you thousand words. When you read a novel and admire the art, you can see the silence come into words. The blankness creating the various forms in the life’s canvas.

I remember a moment when my father took me to his village when I was small. I remember the tiny cottage up in a small hill, surrounded by fruit trees and fragrant flowers. I was lying in a straw mat at the night and listening to elders talking in a slow pace. Yes, the pace was slow… It mingled with the darkness and the small oil lamp spreading a balmy light. The right pace of life to retire into the luxury of good night’s sleep, where the five-star comfort of the world’s best hotel would not offer.

I think every one of us searches a moment of solitude in our lives… That moment gives us our own space in-universe. Today’s life is full of chaos and responsibilities… Gone are the days you have a moment to listen to the silence. Gone are the days to gaze at the blankness. Finally, I end up in a developed country where most people on that island I grew up, would be dreaming to live in.. Finally, I am walking in one of the big cities in the world, regarded as one of the best places to live.

Suddenly in one moment, I craved for the silence in my solitary riverbed. Suddenly I wanted to gaze at the blankness of the sky and sea… Suddenly I wanted to sleep soundly cradled in carefree darkness, listening to elders speaking quietly… That pace of life you feel the inner security and mind is free… Those moments of solitude you get connected to the universe

This is why suddenly I decided to become a writer…

(P.S.- The tropical island which I grew up is Sri Lanka, surrounded by sea, never short of flowing rivers and riverbeds full of fragrant flowers. Distant villages where the time still stands still. The pace of life is calm and quiet. I feel the craving for those moments and places while living and working in big cities in Australia.. Above prose penned by me in a very short time, during that brief time I re-lived the moments and spaces of my childhood. Do you agree writing is a process to heal? Don’t you think writers search solitude in life by re-living those moments?)

Memoirs and Tips from An Accidental Journalist #2 : Story of A Dying Prawn

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I love writing. I love the swirl and swing of words as they tangle with human emotions. –James A. Michener( an American author)

I remember my first piece of investigative writing to a newspaper. Having brainwashed by a science degree (less equipped with common sense), I was trying to put together a story about the vanishing prawn industry in Sri Lanka as a result of a viral disease.. The “X” virus effects the prawns and “Y” number of farms are closing..

“ Who wants to read this sh*t scientists boast about?” looking at my jargon, one of the old hands of journalism expressed his concerns., . “Dig what people have to say first”.. It took time for me to comprehend his concerns..  We write to the public… A writer who does not understand the reader, simply will not get a readership.

After all, Einstein is a human being.. Stephen Hawking’s life story attracts us to his thinking about the universe.. We all have experiences and emotions. We relate to them and not normally attracted to the abstract facts in the first place… unless you are some kind of a nerd. It is easy to attract to the facts with a background life story with emotions.

One week after, my conversation with my “ mentor”  I was traveling in a coastal route with him- of course listening to his remarks about women in his life- to meet some prawn farmers. There came the stories of their life.. Of their miseries and vanishing bank accounts.. True that scientists are pointing to a virus and accusing it …Despite the comments from  Environmentalists “ serves them right”.. What about the true impact to the life of this farmers..

I see journalists garnish their articles with literature and storytelling in good pieces of journalism. Journalism is not merely fiction. It’s a core of facts coated with fiction- after all chocolate coated biscuits are more edible… If you can establish that human connection you are a successful journalist. The story becomes vibrant and living. Story breathes the life.. that capture your audience.

When prawn farming industry went downhill in Sri Lanka within a year or so because of a viral disease called “ white spot disease”, the truth came out with feelings. Once regarded as a lucrative business for small and large-scale investors, became an investors nightmare. The viral disease spread through farms because of the unplanned, environmentally in-correct farming practices. It was too late when people realized harming environment will create your own downfall..

I understood that telling the life story of these farmers will convey the message more emotionally about what happened to this industry. I named my article as “An unplanned industry- a suicidal mission” (of course I wrote in my native language). A blend of science, emotions and true facts mixed with fiction. A story I remember as one of my first attempts to establish my self as a budding journalist. A story of a dying prawn and emotional expressions of a writer.

I regard myself as an Accidental Journalist. Never did it as a profession but continued it for pure passion. . even though some people paid me for my hobby! These are the memoirs and some writing tips, I wanted to share with you, which I gathered from my journalistic journey in my “ on and off” career as a science and environment journalist.

Memoirs & Tips From an Accidental Journalist #1: Let The Passion Lead You

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It’s none of their business that you have to learn to write. Let them think you were born that way.
– Ernest Hemingway

I believe myself as an Accidental Journalist. My first article published on a back page of a  science magazine in 1997 in my native language in Sri Lanka. (Apart from my family and few friends nobody ever noticed it!) To keep the memory I have kept this piece until today. After several attempts to put together 50 words in a journalistic way, finally, one editor had given the green light for that!  What kept me writing ever since was the passion and excitement.

One day, over 20 years back,  I met a stranger “ accidentally” in front of a library, who was a university student doing some freelancing for a science magazine. To pass the time we were chatting.. Hey.. why can’t I be a writer like you? I went with him to meet his editor that day itself and poured out my passion for writing in front of his desk. A few weeks later, my first article appeared on the back page of that magazine, as the editor got nothing else to fill a small space!

And as imagination bodies forth
The forms of things unknown, the poet’s pen
Turns them to shapes and gives to airy nothing
A local habitation and a name.
– William Shakespeare (from A Midsummer Night’s Dream)

Shakespeare whom I struggle to understand still ( as I have no structured literary training, rather I peruse it with curiosity), has said: “Lunatics, lovers, and poets all are ruled by their overactive imaginations”.  According to him, sometimes poets do not see the reality because of that. Taking away the reader from reality to capture the attention is one tactic writer put together with imagination.

My “on and off” writing journey passed through encounters with scientists ( as I was mostly a “ science journalist” ) who spoke too much boring technical stuff that nobody wants to hear. My passion for writing and my imagination gave those science stories their form and kept the editors accepting my jargon.

As writing is a craft as well as an art, one has to learn on their way as a writer. Most of the crafty things of writing have to learn on the way. Well, it’s none of your readers business that you had to learn the fine craft of writing on your writing journey, as Ernest Hemingway said. Let the passion lead you to try new things and you will learn the rules naturally.

If the storytelling is your passion, let that lead you on its way. Good storytellers do it with a passion. Their passion will come into life in their stories. That passion glue the readers to the pages of their books.  Look what one of the popular authors in the history of storytelling  had to tell:

I have been successful probably because I have always realized that I knew nothing about writing and have merely tried to tell an interesting story entertainingly.
– Edgar Rice Burroughs

So why don’t we- you and me- tell our story? Let passion ignite the desire.. Let us be lunatics and lovers of words and make a form out of nothing like true poets as Shakespeare has put it.

Changing Climate, Fate of Poor and Writers’ Dreams…

 

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A sandstorm recently swept across north India and killed hundreds of people. Mud huts were thrown to pieces and only shelters for the heads of poor went with the wind..  .. When the news was flooding through media, I searched facts about north Indian states and poverty.. Social inequality, exploitation of caste system by politicians to gain rule,.. lower tiers of caste always struggling for mare survival.. . Latest “good news” for poor is this dust storm.

What to expect next.. Some scientists have attributed the increase and the frequency of storms to climate changes stemming from global warming. Much more scary stuff started to appear in these discussions. “Thunderstorms, flash floods and heat waves are likely to increase in future and their intensity will be more visible in northern India” one scientist had expressed his views to media.

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A great subcontinent on pillars of ancient caste systems.. Rich traditions of Hindus and Muslims.. Poorest of poor and richest of rich… Multiple gods.. Sacred cows… stray dogs.. rickshaw drivers.. changing climates.. floods and storms.. Media reports of human tragedies.. Amidst all these, novelists writing about an amazingly colorful society bubbling with life’s moments, joys, power, and sufferings…

I have recently become a fan of those Indian writers, who describe the rich cultures of their country and spice their novels with unbelievably vibrant Indian society. The struggle between castes and social classes are common in almost all those novels… In all those stories, faces of poor in every nook and corner of the society were distinctly visible.

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Some of the characters of the novel “ Between Assassinations” by Aravind Adiga, came into life in my mind and started to make a dialogue about fates of poor amid this tragic news flowing through media during last days.  In the novel, there is this coolie called “ Chennayya” who is a star among peers. Chennayaya is among many porters in town, who paddle cart-cycles to deliver goods from the town’s furniture shop to customers’ homes in the pouring rain and in burning sun.

In writer’s words, simple economies play in their lives.. “ 2 rupees per each trip and one can make 3 trips a day making 6 rupees, deducted from lotteries and liquor, they can save 45 rupees a month. A trip to the village, extra long drinking binge, an evening with a whore, your whole months saving were dust”… “A man has to be slightly above the poverty to even to talk about the injustice” .. Chennayya fights, obeys, suffers and work and work.. An unheard voice below the line of poverty.

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These men dream about getting autorickshaws and putting tea shops in villages. Dreams of poorest of poor… When small towns flood with people from villages coming to work as day laborers, their families live in mud huts in distant villages. Then comes the climate change… more dust storms and floods..casualties reported in worldwide media, then forgotten after the next cricket match and election.

This is the story of the third world, where the struggle for survival is utmost important than anything else. This is the story of poor and the human face of the climate change politics.. These are the stories – stranger than fiction-a writer will find interesting for years to come,  as we can not see much light in near future for these third world nations…

Questioning beliefs in a “Cultural Soup”- A good “job” for a writer!

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How beautiful to hear a temple bell ringing through a sleepy country village to gather devotees for an evening ritual.. How nice the music of a church choir mixed with a sound of a piano and sight of beautiful girls singing.. How majestic the architectural landscapes of world-famous cities become by, mosques and pagodas.  Also how tragic if people go into the wars to “protect” the belief and “faith” and kill each other?

I should confess that I am not a very religious person and I often question various aspects of religion. But I have always liked the cultural attachments of the religion and unique interactions and forms it has taken in literature and arts. I believe religion plays a big role in cultural traditions. This is because humans have a “spiritual self” integrated to their genes from the early stages of evolution as I believe.

I was born as a Buddhist and grew up in Sri Lanka, where we usually wake up to the chanting of “ pirith(a form of Buddhist prayer)” from national broadcasting services. I have to admit, I was attracted to its practices as a result of family, peers, and culture. To this day I have a deep sense of respect for it. But do I have to follow it and practice it as an adult because I was born to it? Or, should I cherry pick whatever I like from the religion and live as an adult?

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My thought process, which I am putting down to words came to me after reading the novel American Dervish by Ayad Akhtar . Ayad Akhtar takes us on a journey of a Muslim boy growing up immersed in a cultural mix, in his parents’ newfound western society. A family going through ups and downs in a new country with their orthodox religious beliefs..

There’s this young boy struggling with his faith and adolescent emotions.. In the background his “ unbelieving” father who admire the freedom of great American dream, drinking whiskey and chasing white women…  There is this Mina auntie who evokes the religion as well as secret passions in this young boy’s mind… what a drama and material to evoke thoughts..  Ayad Akhtar put on the table for us to judge and discuss controversial topics without forgetting that we are all humans with feelings..

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I believe by knowing about religions, we can understand different cultures more. By understanding cultures, we can understand the behaviors of humans in this world.  May I propose the religion is a “double-edged sword” in a given cultural setup.  Why?  Religion is associated with healing, at the same time religion is associated with war… In that sense, should not we be questioning about the various aspects of religion and it’s interpretations?

I think there is always a vacancy for a writer in this niche, who is brave enough to do that. True and honest questioning without being judgemental about its cultural aspects is a fine art and it is a craft to master for the benefit of the society. I believe a writer can be a mediator to evoke discussion in these aspects.

Smiling Faces and Singing Songs… A True Meaning for A Traditional New Year

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Happy New Year With Love.. By Dulanasa
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Smiling Faces and Singing Songs- By Methula

It is the New Year day for our tiny island nation- Sri Lanka today….(not only Chinese have their separate new year, you know..) Living in a far away country , surrounded by a totally different culture, sweet memories started  flooding through my mind just thinking about it….., How vibrant must it be the atmosphere there now…

Noises.. the chaos… laughter… chatting away about ” nothing” with family and friends… We truly miss it… We envy you folks there… ( and oh.. the food… no class structure there my friends. Everybody share the tradition of food.. the sweet ” oil cakes” , milky sticky rice cut in to squares.. amazing)

Let’s do not give up folks.. Let’s do something.. My wife started to make ” milk rice” in our tiny kitchen in our apartment, where we live now. Smells soon started to fill the apartment of sweet oil cakes… Soon we were smiling… Happy faces… Culture and it’s roots can not be killed… We smell our food and we smell our culture… Sweet aroma of your tiny island motherland… here we go..

I invited my 4 year old son- Methula- and 7 year old daughter -Dulansa- to draw a picture and express their feelings, for me to understand what it means for them to celebrate a new year of a “distant country”  and a culture which means a lot to their parents…

My daughter named her drawing as ” Happy new year with Love”…. Amazing… Look at my son wanted to name his drawing- ” Smiling faces and Singing Songs” .. Isn’t it a wonderful expression, I thought. What  it means for them is love, smiling faces and singing hearts…Isn’t that the life?

Is that what we searched for all through out, changing countries and living away from your loved ones.. Have we got there yet…? Happy Sri Lankan New Year to you too folks….