Remembering Mel Gunasekera

Photo courtesy Mel Gunasekera’s Facebook account

Mel would have been deeply fascinated by the circumstances of her murder. She would have, even more than Nalaka Gunawardene, taken pains to explore why an ordinary man, a father, husband and day wage labourer was driven to kill her.

How is that possible? How did this happen?

She would have crunched the statistics, and soon discovered that neither the Sri Lankan Police nor the Government’s official open data portal had crime statistics after early 2012. She would have flagged this, and asked why – but not before using her contacts in the Police to get this data, for herself and the general public. She would have critiqued media reports of the Police who “… warned people to be more cautious when employing painters, masons, gardeners and electricians or when allowing sales reps to enter the house without proper identification”. Rather than colour entire professions and communities with violently broad brushstrokes, Mel would have gone into the story of the individual – how he turned out the way he did, and what drove him to stab her in what, by all known reports, indicates was unpremeditated murder. She would have looked for explanations in statistics, trends, disaggregated national data and correlated datasets. Her final analysis would have been lucid, dispassionate and data driven.

That was Mel. That was what she did.

Our exchanges over SMS, WhatsApp and email were frequent. We met only once every quarter or so, after we both cancelled on each other at the last moment so many times that it was testimony to the strength of our friendship we actually met.  Last Saturday evening, I told her she would have loved to hear the Salon Music by the Chamber Music Society at the Whist Bungalow in Modera – part of the recently concluded Colomboscope 2014. “Sat taken up by endless household chores, including bathing and cleaning up after four dogs. I only do events Saturday evening after Church” was her response, and it was the last message I got from her. Mel had an enduring interest in social media – she came over to my office, whenever she had a meeting close by – to quickly chat about various ways it could be used in the service of financial journalism, and more generally. She corrected the English on Groundviews whenever she could. Once we discovered, through email, that we were both in Ladies College Hall listening to a particularly bad performance – she had just discovered her trombone master on stage, who at the same time I found a good reason to leave. We both laughed about it afterwards. The conversations over the years were anchored to emails she got from the government, press releases from financial institutions, music, literature, the arts, various news reports from the mainstream media and the state of journalism. Most emails were just a pithy observation or two to frame the source material she sent and wanted some feedback on. She was not given to long missives and had a wonderful humour. I sent her EIU reports I didn’t quite get. She explained them, and other ratings, benchmarks, franchises and bizarre fiscal policies of the Foreign Ministry. Occasionally she would send material around Sri Lankan authors we both loved to hate. That was Mel  – a veritable clearinghouse for the mercurial and offbeat just as much as news and information around governance and government.

Ironically, I first learnt of Mel’s murder at the start of a session at Colomboscope 2014 around how history was constructed in the age of social media. I got a text, looked at it and couldn’t understand what it meant, though I could read perfectly what it said. I gave a call to the sender – a senior journalist who was inconsolable at the time – to hear aloud what the text clearly noted. There was still a cognitive disconnect between what I knew had happened and what I wanted to believe hadn’t. I’ve spent the past two days trying to understand why Mel’s death was so profoundly distressing. It is partly explained by how sudden and senseless it was. But that alone didn’t explain the grief. Mel was not a journalist one associated with a sudden and tragic death– you expected her to outlive you, and just be there. With so many human rights activists and leading journalists, a violent end, abduction, torture or disappearance has been both internalised and normalised, for years, by most they work and live with as a distinct possibility. You had to pre-figure their violent death, and in doing that, over time diminish the space for a debilitating grief – because you needed to go on, and carry on doing what they did, after they could not. Mel was different. Her murder blind-sided many of us because she wasn’t on our list of those against whom hate, hurt or harm would be directly channelled. She wasn’t working on any story that risked her life. She was just a damn good journalist. And damn good journalists don’t die like she did. They just don’t. They can’t.

Since its publication on Sunday, I have found Rohan Samarajiva’s eulogy difficult to read because it captures so remarkably well who Mel was to so many of us. The questions in his penultimate paragraph are those that occupy Nalaka Gunewardene’s reflections on Mel’s murder, published today. Samarajiva flags a 30-year-old war’s brutalising effects on society. I wonder if years hence, if asked, Mel’s murderer will link his actions to the war, or whether it was something more banal – as sudden homicide usually is. Ultimately, we are all writing because we don’t know how else to grasp what has happened, seeking some catharsis in sharing the incomprehension of so sudden and great a loss.

On Sunday night I wrote on Facebook the following,

Not for the first time, I find I cannot process sudden death. Perhaps there is a way, somehow, for some. I cannot understand how someone I spoke with last night is dead this morning. In that incomprehension lies grief, an appreciation for the sudden geometry of chance, as Sting puts it, for having met, memories of what we talked about, ribbed each other about, did and wistfulness, about what more could have been. I will miss you sorely Mel.

Mel, with her inimitable smile, would have said I used too many sentences. I’d agree. It’s only the last that matters.

  • Holmung Pee

    Well written… BTW, any knowledge on the profile of the apparent part-time painter/burglar? Eg. known criminal record or the ever so common ‘deserter’ problem? It wont help bring Mel back to us, but interesting to know…

  • Nick Hart

    Good piece, makes me want to have met her, too.

  • Cedric

    Crimes like this are becoming an all too common occurrence in Sri Lanka and what beggars belief is that not soon after this tragedy , a news report in today’s papers , to quote “, Inspector General of Police, N. K. Illangakoon, had granted police
    officers, who worked for about one month to make the 66th Independence
    Day a success, a three-day holiday from today, police spokesman SSP
    Ajith Rohana said.”
    That’s 635 Police Officers who should have been engaging in crime prevention and taking steps to create a crime free environment for us all .!
    Lets hope this lady’s murder will not be another crime statistic but galvanize everybody who cares , into action to do something about this sorry state of affairs. we are in .

  • puniselva

    Mel, caring and daring journalist:

    ” Fishermen in the Sri Lankan port of Trincomalee hoped
    the end of the island’s civil war would bring prosperity, but dynamite and
    corruption now threaten their livelihoods. … big operators bribe authorities
    and use dynamite to kill large numbers of fish, also damaging coral reefs” – Sri
    Lankan fishermen hard hit by peace, Mel
    Gunasekera , 1 September 2010, http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iM5bwgXmyhWlXNQxOTT_iK3G49rA

  • puniselva

    Pl re-publish and honour Mel with your commentary highlighting environmental protection, corruption, etc, Sanjana:
    http://www.google.com/hostednews/afp/article/ALeqM5iM5bwgXmyhWlXNQxOTT_iK3G49rA

  • puniselva

    This ”carpenter” must be investigated fully – he may be the tip of an iceberg