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Mel Gunasekera: a tribute from a friend from afar
06 Feb, 2014 08:57:35
Feb 06, 2014 (LBO) Writing being my bête noire it is with some trepidation that I write this. I can picture Mel chiding me, “Aiyo, what men! Poor show Tones!”
The start of the week saw me wake up to yet another morning of my wife’s Facebook rituals. Only this time, it was going to forever change our outlook of life, the universe and everything else. The shock, disbelief and emotional upheaval of the tragic passing away of a dear family friend and colleague were unprecedented. I woke up every one of the last three mornings hoping that it was all a bad dream. But, alas this is not the case.

My first encounter with Mel was in the early days of Vanguard when I was still wet behind the ears and Vanguard had just two other employees – Asantha Sirimanne and Dushi Dias – led by the Lakshaman Bandaranayake. A call comes in for Asantha and Mel introduces herself and asks for Asantha. He isn’t in, I say anxious to hang up quickly. By the time, I had hung up Mel knew all about me, my girlfriend, dog and everything else. That’s Mel for you.

She could genuinely put anyone at ease, even in the most trying of situations with her infectious smile and wit. Little did I realise that I will soon be working with Mel.

Fast forward to 2000, when online journalism in Sri Lanka was in essence people who can't write, interviewing people who can't talk, for people who can't read. Mel and I were tasked with setting up Lanka Business Online. I can honestly say that I would not have been able to endure the travails of this task had it not been for Mel’s coolness and impish sense of humour even in the most adverse of circumstances; not forgetting the ice-cream powered lunches. Nothing could dissuade Mel in her mission to create Sri Lanka’s pioneering online business brand. And even after the launch the challenge of making the brand profitable remained. We couldn’t have picked a worse time with the bursting of the internet bubble, escalating impact of the war and the skyrocketing dollar all in the same year. Nevertheless, by the end of the year Lanka Business Online (including allied brands such as LBO TV) became the largest profit contributor to Vanguard. Way to go Mel!

Work aside, Mel became a fiercely loyal and dear friend to me who was always available when I needed her. She has always lent her ear and been supportive whatever weird and whacky idea I threw at her. She was inspirational: ever relentless in her pursuit of the truth and unflinchingly standing up for what she believed in. Her knowledge of business and finance was gargantuan, yet pragmatic. I would have learnt more real-world business and economics in the few years I worked with Mel than I would have in my time studying Econometrics at the London School of Economics. The simple yet scintillating manner in which she could impart her views to lay people leaves me in awe every time I read one of her articles. Someone once said that journalism is literature in a hurry. And Mel did a damn good job of it.

Since leaving the shores of Sri Lanka, I have always made it a point to meet Mel every time I visited Sri Lanka or when she visited England. When we last met she met my two little monsters aged below three at the time and got on like a house on fire with them. She was simply amazing with children and this manifested in the work she did outside of work; Mel was innately altruistic till the very end.

I think it was Oscar Wilde who said “In America the President reigns for four years, and journalism governs forever and ever.” Clearly he hadn’t foreseen that in today’s Sri Lanka where a journalist lives for forty years (with luck). Without imputing blame on anyone I remain hopeful that the day will soon dawn in my motherland when journalists such as Mel can continue to live and work with dignity and independence, without having to fear for their lives.

Goodbye Marvellous Mel. I will miss you dearly. Your lifetime of dedication and self-sacrifice serve as a monument to the exemplary friend, colleague and professional you always will be. Your humility, integrity, and hard work will continue to inspire those who knew you.

Tony Thirulinganathan
Surrey, UK
5th February 2014

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