Thursday, December 16, 2010

Travails & Tribulations of a Television Interviewer

As I mentioned before, of the numerous hats I wore at Rupavahini was that of a TV Interviewer, and I had the privilege of interviewing a cross section of distinguished personalities, including visiting Heads of State, prominent business personalities, film stars, scientists etc. and a world infamous criminal as well.
One day in March 1992, around 4 o’clock in the morning, when yours truly was dead to the world, the telephone started ringing, right next to my ear. This had to be President Premadasa I thought, because he had a habit of waking people up and giving instructions at all odd hours, when the rest of us were fast asleep. Groggily I picked up the receiver. Lo and behold, it was good old A. J. Ranasinghe (AJR) who was at the time the Minister-of- State for media.

This is how the conversation between AJR and myself went:

AJR- “Sharmini, I’m very sorry to wake you up so early in the morning, but I want you to go to the Hilton and interview Lord Buddha.”

I almost fell off my bed. Was I dreaming or had AJR gone off his rocker!

I needed to clarify this one, in case I had not heard him correctly.

“Interview Lord Buddha?” I asked.

AJR- “Yes. He’s staying in the Presidential suite at the Hilton and he’s expecting you around 7 a.m., don’t worry about the camera crew, I have arranged everything”.

I immediately called the Chairman of Rupavahini Prof. Tissa Kariyawasam to clarify if AJR had gone stark raving mad, or whether he really meant what he said. Mr. Chairman confirmed my worst suspicion. He said there was a man staying at the Hilton claiming to be Lord Buddha and AJR wanted me to interview him. Good grief!

While, sitting in the make-up room at Rupavahini, the make-up artiste asked me who I was going to interview. When I said ‘Lord Buddha’ the poor fellow got such a shock, he almost landed mascara on my lips and lipstick on my eye lids.

On my way to the Hilton I was wracking my brain to get some questions together, because I was going to meet Lord Buddha at the Presidential suite at the Colombo Hilton! This was totally against the philosophy preached by the sacred Lord Buddha that I knew of!

Upon my arrival at the Hilton together with my camera crew, we were directed to the plush Presidential Suite. Two beautiful Japanese girls opened the doors for us, and there seated cross-legged on one of the numerous sofas, was a man dressed in a crimson coloured outfit, sporting a long black beard, very long hair and with his eyes shut.

I heaved a sigh of relief, because this was not our sacred Lord Buddha, but some nut who turned out to be none other than Shoko Asahara of Aum Shinrikyo fame/shame. Aum is a sacred Hindu symbol and a chant and Shinrikyo is supposed to mean ‘supreme truth’. The cult reportedly blended Hindu and Buddhist spirituality with the biblical book of Revelations and the writings of the 16th century French astrologer and physician Nostradamus. Talk about pickles, this one takes the cake!

Asahara is supposed to have claimed, the world would soon be enveloped by wars and evil, but by following him people could be saved. He has apparently said he could teach levitation and telepathy, and - for a price - his followers could drink his bath water, and even his blood. Yuck!

The cult had several overseas branches: a Sri Lanka branch, small branches in New York City, United States and Bonn, Germany. The group also had several centers in Moscow, Russia.

Relatively little was known about the Aum Shinrikyo's activities in Sri Lanka. It reportedly owned considerable assets in Sri Lanka, including a tea plantation that the cult began operating in 1992 (the same year I interviewed Asahara). The Staff was supposed to have confirmed that the plantation was managed by an individual named Seizo Lmoto and that it used Sri Lankans as employees. The cult apparently had several problems operating the plantation, including an inability to pay its employees.

Coming back to my interview with Asahara, the fellow I was told was blind, and couldn’t speak English. Jeepers! But there was a Japanese interpreter who could manage to speak some unintelligible English. What a mess that interview was. It had nothing to do with Buddhism but his religious cult. I rattled off whatever questions that came to mind, which were translated to Japanese and the lengthy answers translated into some kind of English.

While the translating performance was taking place, I had enough time to look around. There were some of the most beautiful Japanese girls I had ever seen, hordes of them walking around the Presidential suite in a trance.

For the life of me I couldn’t understand why AJR was so keen on Asahara being interviewed and then I was told, that since Asahara and his cult were ‘loaded’ AJR wanted some ‘financial assistance’ from him for his electorate. And I was expected to ask Asahara for the ‘assistance’ on behalf on AJR after the interview!!!!!

What a mess of a ‘soup’ you put me into AJR. Honestly, I was so embarrassed on your behalf! The things you politicians do when you are in power. I don’t think that interview was ever telecast and AJR never got his ‘assistance’.

Few years later, in May 1995 Asahara was arrested in Japan, for masterminding the Tokyo subway Sarin gas attack, which killed 12 people and over 5,500 suffered serious medical complications in the country’s worst ever terrorist attack, shattering Japan's myth of public safety. The Japanese police found him hiding in the cult's headquarters near Mount Fuji, where Asahara was arrested along with a number of senior Aum Shinrikyo fellows, accused of planning the attack.

Asahara’s trial began the following year (1996), but made slow progress partly because of Asahara's lack of co-operation - for a long time he refused to enter a plea, and would not speak, except for occasional incomprehensible mutterings. This I can well relate to having gone through the painful ordeal of interviewing him.

Following the attack on the Tokyo subway in 1995, a local organization of Buddhist monks petitioned the President of Sri Lanka- to confiscate the property of the cult and ban it from the country. The Sri Lanka Police did investigate the plantation, but nothing was found to indicate any connection between the plantation's operations and the Sarin attack.
Meanwhile a team of Japanese secret service personnel descended on Rupavahini to question me about ‘my links’ to Asahara. God forbid! I told them that I had no links with the man and I had met him only once when the Minister instructed me to interview the man who called himself ‘Lord Buddha’, for the State television Rupavahini.

They wanted to know what he had told me during the interview. For the life of me I didn’t know anything he said during the interview, because I didn’t understand a thing of what the interpreter was muttering in unintelligible English. Thank heavens I didn’t get arrested. You almost got me landed in a Japanese prison cell AJR!

The Asahara trial, which lasted eight years, was called "the trial of the century" by the Japanese press, and it ruled Asahara guilty of masterminding the attack and sentenced him to death, in February 2004. The Supreme Court threw out his final appeal in September 2006.

Asahara is expected to be executed eventually. The exact date is unknown because the administration of capital punishment in Japan is a well guarded secret. His execution is expected to prompt many of his followers to take their own lives.

At the time of writing this article, I have no idea of Asahara’s fate, but we will know about it only after the execution takes place. That is if the execution takes place at all!
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