It was early 2005, a few months after I had been made the CEO of Rivira Media Corporation. I had been warned that the media industry was a cutthroat one, and to expect little help for a fledgling newspaper like Rivira. Still I decided to reach out to the heads of some electronic media organisations to see if we could work together.
Amongst those I emailed was the Chairman of MTN Networks, Raj Rajamahendran, better known as Killi Maharaja. I introduced myself and the newspaper and asked if I could meet him at his convenience.
Having sent the email, I took a moment to scoff at my own hubris. Mr. Rajamahendran, was not just the head of the country’s largest private broadcasting empire. He also chaired dozens of companies in areas as diverse as manufacturing and infrastructure development. There was no chance he would have time to spare for a young upstart trying to start a newspaper.
I soon discovered how wrong I was. He was exactly that kind of man.
Within hours, Mr. Rajamahendran had personally replied to my email. He congratulated me on starting the newspaper and gave me an appointment to meet him the very next day. I was stunned, honoured and extremely impressed.
When I went to his office on Dawson Street the next day, he met me on time, greeted me warmly and extended his full support.
For over an hour, he advised me on the ins and outs of the media industry and gave me tips on everything from cultivating advertisers to assembling a first-class team. When I got up to leave, the man I now knew as Killi rose with me, escorted me downstairs and saw me to my car. He gave me his personal phone number. “Call me anytime,” he said as I left.
After that meeting I realised that it was no accident that he had built and rebuilt one of the most consequential conglomerates in the history of Sri Lanka. Killi had an eye for those who were different, who stood out, and who took on challenges. Whenever he saw these qualities in others, he was reminded of his own youth, and the challenge he and his brother faced at having to fill their father’s shoes and take over the Maharaja Organisation when Killi was just 23 years old. In the years since, he learned to recognise and groom people for success. He identified talent, ambition and drive, and made room for such people in his own life, irrespective of their age. And so it was that Killi and I became fast friends.
It wasn’t too long before that climate turned both our lives upside down.
On the night of 22 May 2008, one of my deputy editors, Keith Noyahr, was abducted outside his home by a team of military intelligence commandos. Of course, at that time, we had no idea who had taken Keith or why, but we knew that time was of the essence if he was to be saved. Killi was one of the people I called for help. He mobilised the full power of his media juggernaut. Every one of his radio and TV stations slammed the brakes on their regular programming and focused on Keith’s abduction. That wall-to-wall coverage would have gone a long way in putting pressure on the government.
But our efforts to save Keith’s life took their toll. Killi and his network were already in the crosshairs of bloodthirsty and powerful people. Now, for my role in saving Keith and exposing the state’s part in his ordeal, there was a price on my head, and I had to leave Sri Lanka for the United Kingdom. I was in London for several months before returning to Colombo.
While I was in the UK, Killi visited on more than one occasion. He would insist I stay with him at his home away from home in St Johns wood. He would rib me ceaselessly and joke about how I was the “culprit” who had to flee Colombo for “stirring the pot”.
When I returned to Sri Lanka, many friends including Lasantha Wickrematunge, warned me that I was at the top of the hit list. Heeding the demands of my friends, I left Sri Lanka again, this time for India on 7 January 2009, a day after Sirasa TV’s broadcasting station in Pannipitiya was bombed by a team of heavily armed commandos. Killi had left the country just a few days prior, for what was to be the most painful vacation he would ever take.
By then, Killi had received the deeply consoling news that none of his staff had died or suffered serious injuries during the assault on his broadcast studio. But the relief would have been short lived. Soon he was to hear that Lasantha, another close friend had been killed on the street. For Killi, losing Lasantha was like having a vital organ torn out of his body.
Killi Maharaja could be called many things. From kind, to thoughtful, impish, strongheaded, resolute, sensitive or intuitive. Those who butted heads with him could find him to be irascible at best and maddening at worst. But there was one thing that Killi never, ever was – afraid.
He never feared being judged, being wrong or being harmed. He did not fear friendship or intimacy. He was not afraid to laugh or be laughed at. He was unafraid of bad luck, unfortunate timing, consequences, impossible tasks or putting himself in harm’s way. Most uniquely of all, he was never afraid of politicians, ever. In the truest sense of the word, he was a Maharaja from head to toe, unabashedly unbowed and unfailingly unafraid.
It is common among business leaders to make decisions written in sand, easily blown away by a breath of air from the political powers of the day. But when Killi Maharaja made a decision, it was irreversible – carved in stone. He stood by his friends; the consequences be damned.
So, when I returned to Sri Lanka, and the most powerful rulers in the land personally called major business leaders and warned them of dire consequences if any of them dared to give me a job, he could not have cared less. Knowing that the government wanted to harm me only doubled his resolve to invite me to work for him at the Capital Maharaja Organisation.
He was unfailingly loyal to his friends and employees. Throughout my professional career, I have closely associated those in the highest echelons of the Sri Lankan business world. Having done so, I can count on one hand our “titans of industry” who shared Killi’s loyalty and devotion. Even on one hand I would still have three fingers to spare. The sad truth is I know only of a single person other than Killi who would put his friends and colleagues above political pressure, intimidation or expediency and fearlessly stand by you.
Many business people inherited their empires or built them through political cronyism Killi did not inherit, build and run a successful business empire despite his unique blend of courage and generosity. He succeeded because of it, as a cardinal rule never putting profit before people.
It was not long after I started working for him that I realised he had a remarkable attitude towards life. Here was a man who had had his businesses bombed and burned down several times. Several close friends, from Gamini Dissanayake to Lasantha Wickrematunge to Neelan Tiruchelvam had been assassinated. He was forced to send his children abroad to ensure their safety while he stood by his employees and stood up to the gale force headwinds of running a non=state media network in Sri Lanka. No matter what hardship came his way, or how often he was betrayed by those he groomed, he picked himself up and moved on, helping those around him to do the same. However hard life was, however, cruel or unfair it was to him, he responded with love and embraced it without a hint of regret or a shred of remorse.
But sadly, when I remember Killi and everything he did for me, there is no escaping my own burden of regrets and remorse. As we worked together over the years, our friendship was tested. Our differences of opinion started to emerge. Tensions rose. As two people equally defined by our stubbornness, Killi and I often found ourselves diametrically opposed to each other. In the four years that I worked for him our relationship changed. As an employee, my disagreeing with Killi on political issues was no longer just a matter of opinion but one of insubordination.
When I decided in 2013 to leave the Maharaja group over one of the most serious differences we had, Killi refused to accept my resignation. When he realised I had already made up my mind he insisted that I meet him. I went to his office and we had a candid heart-to-heart. We decided to part ways professionally. When I got up to leave, Killi, ever the gentleman, re-enacted our first meeting from 2005. He got up, walked me down to the car, and told me that I should never hesitate to call him anytime. For the first time since I’d known him, his voice was grave, without even a hint of humour. There was no “adey” or “you bugger”. Our relationship was never the same again.
In hindsight, I regret not making enough effort to reconcile with someone who had done so much for me at a time when many were afraid to even speak my name in public for fear of political persecution. On matters close to his heart, Killi often succumbed to an “either you are with me or against me” approach to people. Rather than be open and reason with him, I unfortunately mirrored that same attitude.
Whatever our differences were, I could have found a way to reconcile us. Perhaps I made the mistake of taking for granted that one day soon, we would all be fighting the same battle together and would be on the same side again. Today, I can find some solace in the fact that my brother Priyantha became very close to Killi in his final years and was a better friend to him. My brother also admired him and appreciated him for who he was, what he had achieved, and what he had done for the country especially the poor and the helpless.
Many fear that losing Killi would mark a death blow to the electronic media similar to that suffered by the print media with the loss of Lasantha Wickrematunge in 2009. After Lasantha died, the print media very quickly learned to “behave” and avoid the wrath of those whose swords had proved mightier than their pens. I don’t share that fear.
Killi didn’t just build companies. He built institutions. He groomed people. I have known and worked with most of the leadership of NewsFirst. Whatever their individual strengths or talents, the one thing Killi cultivated in them all was courage. He built a team whose only fear was letting him down. That fear alone will motivate them now more than ever.
There will never be another Killi. There is no doubt about that. However, Killi has laid the groundwork to cultivate a generation of talented leaders, empowered with the skills and support they need to chart their own course. He gave them a chance to demonstrate their potential and to make an impact on the world.
The job of ensuring that Killi’s passing does not mark the end of an era falls to everyone who benefited from his courage, optimism, wisdom and generosity. It will not be an easy task. But few things that Killi ever did were easy. Given the vast sea of talent and social capital that Killi left in his wake, I have no doubt that he will loom even larger in death than he did in life. Over the last several decades, he planted enough seeds of human potential to dwarf any forest. In the decades to come, these human investments will bear fruit and leave a lasting impact on the country he loved.