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A noble servant, goes to his Redeemer’s Rest

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Bishop Victor Gnanapragasam OMI

By Francis D’Almeida

Death came suddenly to Bishop Victor Gnanapragasam, the Apostolate Vicar of the city of Quetta, in the mountainous southwest Baluchistan region of Pakistan. Warned in travel advisories as an unsafe region, Baluchistan is often engulfed in bloody conflicts. In 2013, Bishop Victor, as he is affectionately known, narrowly escaped death when a bomb exploded near his residence. However, he suffered injuries. In another gruesome attack, a suicide bomber killed eight and injured 44 worshippers in a Roman Catholic church in 2017. As recently as on 3rd January, 2021, 10 coal miners of the Hazar tribe of the Shiah Islamic faith were abducted and executed in the region, in what was claimed to be the work of ISIS. Despite such a perilous state of affairs and travel restrictions imposed by the army owing to an Army cantonment nearby, Bishop Victor committed himself unreservedly to serve the church and the poor. He did so without considering religious differences in a place where the majority are Muslims. The Bishop’s unexpected demise at the age of 80 caused much grief among Catholics and the general public. Hundreds gathered at his funeral, paying floral tributes. The death of this noble servant of God serving beyond the age of retirement is an irreparable loss to the Catholic Church in Pakistan and to his Congregation of the Oblates of Mary Immaculate. However, Bishop Victor’s exemplary legacy will remain for long, prompting many young people to follow in his footsteps to proclaim the good news in dire circumstances.

Perhaps only a few here might have been aware that a Sri Lankan Catholic Bishop toiled in another Asian country and that he too belonged to the Oblate Congregation. Back in 1982, the Sri Lankan Provincial Delegation was requested and responded positively by sending missionaries and thus, several OMI priests are now ministering in Pakistan. It is noteworthy that there are five Catholic schools in the Baluchistan Province to educate children of the neglected region.

Tracing history; Bishop Victor came from a devout Catholic family of six siblings. His two sisters became Apostolic Carmelite nuns with Rev. Sr. Laurinda becoming a school principal and Rev. Sr. Helen entering the nursing profession and now serving in a hospital in Lahore in Pakistan. His elder sister, Mrs. Anthonypillai became a mathematics teacher at St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna. Of the two brothers, Mr. Susaithasan worked at Baurs and died while playing football for his Company. His other brother, Mr. Jesuthasan, rose in the advertising profession to become a guru in the field, under whom I served as a creative director. It was at his residence that I had the privilege of meeting Bishop Victor, who impressed me by his utter simplicity. His mother, under the care of nuns in Wennappuwa, lived to know that her son was being consecrated as a Bishop on her 98th birthday. She died six months short of one hundred years.

Bishop Victor had his early education at St. Patrick’s College, Jaffna, and joined the OMI Seminary in Kohuwala, from where he daily attended school at St. Peter’s College. After secondary education he was sent to the Kalutara Novitiate and thereafter, to the National Seminary in Ampitiya – to be moulded for the priestly ministry. He was ordained in December 1966 and served first as the parish priest at Nilaweli, and thereafter as a member of the Oblate Preachers Team in Jaffna. It was then that the call came inviting him to serve in Pakistan, which turned out to be a life-changing milestone for him.

There, he served the Church in different capacities, first as the parish priest in several stations in Pakistan until he was made the Oblate Novice Master for Multan and Karachi. He soon rose to the position of Major Superior of the OMI Provincial Delegation in Pakistan. During this period, he was sent to Manila (1977-1979) to be trained in youth ministry and thereafter to follow a course in psychology and spirituality at St. Anselm Institute in Kent. Finally, he specialized in spirituality at the Angelicum University in Rome.

The vibrant Christian community in Quetta developed significantly under his leadership in spiritual, social and political spheres, so much so that Pope John Paul II elevated Quetta to a new ecclesiastical level – Apostolic Prefecture. Later, Pope Benedict XVI, on 29th April 2010, further raised the local church to the rank of Apostolic Vicariate and Fr. Victor was appointed as its Apostolic Vicar. Thus, he was consecrated as Bishop at St. Patrick’s Cathedral Karachi on 16th July, 2010. His Lordship, Bishop Victor Gnanapragasam, took charge of Quetta Vicariate with no fanfare. His elevation to the Episcopal rank, uncharacteristically, did not draw much publicity even in his land of birth – Sri Lanka. Perhaps the Oblate congregation itself sought to accept this historic event on a low key.

Bishop Victor bore the burden as the Chief Pastor even as religious extremism advocated by ISIS accentuated and their outrageous attacks grew, as it happened in Sri Lanka in April 2019. This made his episcopal ministry grimly challenging yet did not prevent him from mingling with people closely, in order to serve in their material and spiritual needs. Thus, when he died suddenly, the Church in Quetta descended into imponderable gloom which became manifest as hundreds of grieving people attended his funeral at Quetta’s cathedral.

Indeed, Bishop Victor Gnanapragasam leaves an indelible mark of witness to Christ upon the society in the region as well as on the Congregation of Oblates of Mary Immaculate. His life and work will remain as a shining legacy for long years to come.

Let us then join with the Church in Pakistan and the missionary Congregation of Mary Immaculate, praying and saying; “Well done, good and faithful servant. May the angels lead you to paradise – IN PARADISUM DEDUCANTE ANGELI, AMEN”



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Strong on vocals

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The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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