A mind unlimited - A farewell to Tissa,A true friend

We always met very late in the day. Day? Night was ready to fall flat on us and we would check the files and messages our secretaries had left us.

By Carl Muller

(April 25, Colombo, Sri Lanka Guardian) We last met in Kandy at Ashley Halpe’s Festschrift celebration - and that was not too long ago. Tissa was to me his same rugged self, cracking a joke now and then, remarking on all manner of things. But I did see a tiredness in his eyes as we sat in the marquee that held such a crush of friends and wellwishers.

"Varana" the Halpe’s residence was overrun that night and there was a drizzle that fell like a blessing over it all. Tissa and I set to a scrumptious dinner and he smiled and said, "No second servings for me. I get up and go to the buffet someone’s going to take my seat." Then he laughed and said, "I think I’ve stuffed myself anyway".

Bridget and Ashley did the rounds, popping out to make sure we were enjoying ourselves. Good food, a starry company, and beside me a man I could call a true friend.

In the late 1960s, Tissa and I worked together at "Sankhya" an advertising agency. He ramrodded the Sinhala department, dealing with a most demanding clientele, while I handled the English side of it. We never seemed to be in office. That was what Tissa taught me. "We don’t sit at our desks and look important", he said. "We go to our clients". If I was at Kandana, all wrapped up with "Linton Shirts" Tissa would be in Kandy on a rush trip to a chocolate factory.

We always met very late in the day. Day? Night was ready to fall flat on us and we would check the files and messages our secretaries had left us. But the time was also just right to stand at the third floor window and look out on the Colombo harbour with every vessel *in its blaze of lights, talking of anything and everything - shoes, ships, sealing wax, cabbages and kings and the thought of full-page or half-page ads that would grab the attention of consumers and the market.

"I detest these little two-by-fours", he would always say, "crammed with words and then tucked away in a corner where people can barely see them. That’s what we are here for. Space! The bigger the space the bolder the ad".

Yes, I learnt much from him. Such a restless spirit of a man. Ideas simply pushed their way in and jostled in his mind. "You’re seeing Mackwoods tomorrow? Sell a full page. I’ll show you how to make the best approach".

We went to his desk where he sketched rapidly. It was a big globe with the highlight on Asia. Words seemed to catch fire. Topsoil!

"That’s your header," he said. "All we have are a few inches of topsoil, and everywhere, anywhere, that is all we have to grow our crops in, feed the world. Enrichment! Make that the company’s new sales line. Get the artist to-do this up first thing tomorrow. Must be black, white and grey with a large green logo for people to fall in love with..." That was Tissa. And you know, Mackwoods Agro-Chemicals loved it.

"Why don’t you take on English as well," I asked, but he shook his head. "I do very well in Sinhala but I’m not going to let Sinhala slip by. I will write in English some day but what I want to do and will do is to make a transformation". He didn’t elaborate but today, even after the sudden shock of his death, I realized what this transformation meant to him. He would never cast out the blaze of Sinhala as he lit the fires of English.

I had the privilege of reviewing his marvellous collection, "In the Kingdom of the Sun and The Holy Peak," and it was barely three months ago when he sent me his latest collection, "Bringing Tony Home - Stories".

"Magical portraits" was the way Michael Ondaatje told of them and today, this last book is very precious to me for his inscription reads: "To Carl, my fellow traveller, from Tissa with -deep affection, 25.12.2008" Yes, he had readied the finest Christmas gift for me last year.

Regi Siriwardena exulted at the maturity of Tissa’s work - "maturity in understanding of experience; the deployment of language and fictional form". But there lay something deeper - so deeply founded that only memories can raise the bricks to make a lasting monument - a new Lankan Literary tower that pierces a speckled sky.

No, Tissa didn’t work himself to death. That is a impossibility for, to him, work was as an act of devotion. He devoted much of his life to film and television and I now ask that his "The Outsiders - Pitagamkarayo " be rebroadcast in his name and to the honour he so well merits.

Telling of this television series, he tells of what he felt when filming was over:

"... as I drove home I felt disoriented, like when coming out of a coma. "Pitagamkarayo, like a drug, had got into my bloodstream, and both within and without I was in a twilight zone. For the- next couple of weeks I moved around as if in a dream and I lingered on in a world of memories and shadows. My mind was a confusing montage of images constantly crosscutting between past and present, fantasy and fact".

Should I say that I now miss him so much, grieve, sent out a sympathy card? Let me instead send my friend these lines from the Dhammapada:

Few are those among men who reach the farther shore:

The rest of men run about on the near bank of the river.

Now on the farther shore, Tissa, set your mind at rest.
-Sri Lanka Guardian