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A star that shines against mist-clad Sri Pada

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By Uditha Devapriya

Punya Heedeniya turned 82 on July 31. She was 25 when I first saw her many, many years ago on television, and 78 when I first met her in Colombo, one dull December evening. She had returned home with her husband and had run through a whole set of interviews with other newspapers, periodicals, and magazines.

That year, 2016, had been special to her: together with Nanda Malini, Sumitra Peries, Lester James Peries, and Amaradeva (who had passed away the previous month), the Sarasaviya Awards, held after eight years, had decided to bestow the “Abhimani” Lifetime Achievement accolade on her. Naturally, everyone in town wanted an interview. I was destined to be the last: she and her husband had planned to leave the following day.

From the 12th floor of Queen’s Court Apartment in Colpetty, you can see Sri Pada when the clouds and the dust settle. “I never fail to observe it,” Punya told me before we began the interview. “It reminds me of home,” she added. It also brings back memories of her debut. Deiyange Rate, directed by L. S. Ramachandran, produced by S. D. S. Somaratne, and based on a W. A. Silva novel, was made before she turned 20. “We ascended Maha Giri Dambe and shot Edward Senaratne lip syncing to H. R Jothipala. Try as he might, though, he couldn’t mouth his lines. So we ended up climbing 16 times.”

She looked to the horizon, beyond the windows. “I wake up every morning to the silhouette of the Peak.” She paused. “To me, it has always been a good omen.”

At Mirigama Madya Maha Vidyalaya, Punya had been an astute student and a voracious reader. She had also been a modest dancer. Apparently W. A. Silva had been a favourite: she read Deiyange Rate in middle school. This helped when a cousin of hers who knew S. D. S. Somaratne suggested her name after the erstwhile Senator and film producer asked him if he knew anyone who could play the role of Catherine, the female protagonist of the story. Punya’s father, however, needed some convincing; once her cousin and Somaratne got his permission, they whisked her away. L. S. Ramachandran had his office in Hulftsdorp, and the aspiring actress was asked to recite a section from the book. In her own words, “I not only recited it, I also performed it in front of them.” She was in.

Mirigama lies 60 kilometres away from Colombo. Situated in the Gampaha district; it is well known as the hometown of the first Prime Minister of Sri Lanka, connecting, on one side, to Kandy and, the other, to Kurunegala.

Punya came from a petty bourgeois family here. She lived “in two worlds”, as she put to me in my interview: that of the village and that of her school, where, in contrast to her Sinhala Buddhist upbringing, “I received an English education.” There she came under the powerful influence of her teachers, including the great Panibharatha.

“It was Panibharatha who got me into the performing arts,” she reflected, as her husband brought us tea and biscuits. She underscored her childhood lack of interest in dancing, singing, and acting with the fact that she didn’t take part in a single play at school. She wasn’t quite 17, almost out of school in fact, when Panibharatha called her to act in two dance sequences in Ashoka somewhere in 1953. “That was my initiation into films, though all what those two scenes amounted to was a set of traditional ballet items.”

This first encounter had intrigued her. Coming as she did from a staunch, traditional Sinhala Buddhist family, “I found it strange to reveal myself in front of an impersonal camera.” Her later encounters with the Minerva Players, including Rukmani Devi and the Jayamanne brothers, alienated her even more. “I realised how full of artifice the acting in their films was. After seeing them, I realised that to prosper as an actor, you had to break out of that mould. You had to become yourself.”

So how could a Sinhala Buddhist rural middle class girl from a suburb several miles from the capital city become herself? By selecting and getting roles that reflected her upbringing, of course. There’s a reason, after all, why Punya became the quintessential Sinhala woman on film, something not even Malini Fonseka equalled. Considering that such an achievement has been the result of a mere fraction of the roles Malini got, Punya’s importance – not only as an formidable actress, but also as an unmistakable symbol of how socio-cultural dynamics find their expression in a nation’s art forms – cannot be understated.

In the middle of a casual conversation with Lester James and Sumitra Peries years ago, I suddenly asked them to describe the milieu Punya hailed from. “I would say conservative, right of centre,” Lester conjectured. Sumitra was more specific. “They would have been the sort who voted for the UNP because of their landed interests and voted for the SLFP in 1956 because of their Buddhist roots.”

Scholars have interpreted the transformation of the underlying ethos of the national cinema in terms of the electoral change of 1956. In this scheme of things, there was less a transition than a paradigm shift in values, from a Colombo centric elite to a rural underclass. Thus Lester Peries’s Rekava is described as a symbol of the cataclysmic shift from the UNP to the SLFP, forgetting that the shift had been preceded by a change in the dominant ideology of the Sinhala cinema. This is true even of the actors who emerged at that juncture, of whom Punya no doubt represented a cultural high point.

A more comprehensive and thorough study of these trends can be found in Garret Field’s book, Modernizing Composition (University of California Press, 2017). By the end of the 19th century, Field contends, the Buddhist cultural revival had benefitted from the rise of print capitalism and, with it, the growth of an urban lower middle class and working class.

Together with the peasantry and the rural petty bourgeoisie, whose ideology undoubtedly influenced them, they “supported movements of religious revival and social protest.” In fact the line between their working class and ethno-nationalist aspirations blurred with the years, culminating in their participation in the 1915 riots that, as the likes of Kumari Jayawardena (who I’ve quoted above) have noted, had greater working class involvement than most commentators see it today.

The urban lower middle class and the urban working class found a ready outlet for their aspirations in the plays of travelling Parsi troupes. Field does not note the irony of an urban Sinhala middle class intelligentsia following up their support for Colonel Olcott’s Buddhist Theosophical Society and Anagarika Dharmapala’s revivalism with an enthusiastic reception of a dramatic form originating in a completely non Buddhist community, but the irony, if at all, can be explained by the fact that the organisers of these productions indigenised their themes to address issues considered relevant and pressing by that intelligentsia: in Field’s summing up, “edification, temperance, and education.” John de Silva’s act of indigenising them even more must be seen in this light. In converting a nationalist audience to his plays, he was, not surprisingly, being as much a capitalist as a “nationalist.”

The Parsees influenced the local urban theatre; it did the same with the local urban cinema. Ratnabivushana and Dissanayake, in regrettably the only study of its kind, conjecture that by the time of Kadawunu Poronduwa the “local film industry”, premature though it may have been, had come to cater to a largely urban Sinhala milieu. With its blend of Indian music and Sinhala poetry, its idealisation of Sinhala Buddhist “Arya” values through a mishmash of ragadhari and folk music, its appeal was unmistakeably profound.

Kumari Jayawardena writes of an instance where, during a performance of John de Silva’s play Sri Wickrama, a drunken sailor got up onstage and attempted to stop the actors playing the royal guards from leading Ahelepola’s family to their death at the hands of the last Kandyan king. You can see history being rewritten if not skewed in favour of a totalising “Sinhala” narrative right there, in the play’s denigration of that king as an evil, lustful murderer, though this reading is ironically pro British as Gananath Obeyesekere has shown. In any case, that peculiar worldview shaped the local cinema as well.

Urban lower middle class and working class society prefers colour, spectacle, the clash of cymbal and drum, and the valorisation of traditional values, and this spills over to more conservative sections of the rural community as time goes by. Unabashedly full of sound and fury, of legend and myth, the Minerva Players films therefore came to appeal to a considerable section of this population.

And yet, they were not enough. A more indigenous alternative had to spring up. The pioneers here were Sirisena Wimalaweera and Jayavilal Wilegoda, the one a director and the other an uncompromising critic. The anglicised upper class, meanwhile, sought refuge in the Western cinema; in 1945 they formed the Colombo Film Society, which as Lester Peries wittily observed in 1957 catered to “the culture snobs of Colombo 7.”

With its inadvertent mimicking of the Indian melodrama, the Sinhala cinema soon faced a crisis: by 1950, foreign films were being watched in greater numbers than local ones. At the time the music industry had moved from its Parsi roots: in the songs of Ananda Samarakoon and Sunil Shantha – both, incidentally, hailing from non-Buddhist backgrounds – the melody had become conspicuously more Sinhala. The Sinhala film, however, had not.

In reacting against the intrusion of the Indian melodrama, directors and scriptwriters decided to fight fire with fire. They began imitating the more openly and popular Hindi films. This had been done before, but as Ratnabivushana and Dissanayake note, “now the decision was to do [it] more brazenly.”

At this crucial juncture, directors of popular films returned to popular Sinhala literature. In W. A. Silva they found a saving grace. Even the Minerva Players realised this: the first adaptation of a Sinhala novel was not only based on one written by Silva, but also directed by B. A. W. Jayamanne: Kele Handa. Full of bawdy humour and physical combat, and set in a world where good and evil were divided into two irreconcilable halves, these new films – of which the apogee has to be Mathalan (1956) – projected a new set of values, though borrowing much from the films of an earlier era.

A new generation of producers soon emerged, among them S. D. S. Somaratne. With them, a new generation of directors: T. Somasekaran, Robin Tampoe, M. Masthan, Shanthi Kumar, Lenin Moraes, and L. S. Ramachandran. With them also, a new generation of actresses: Mallika Pilapitiya, Kanthi Gunathunga, and Punya Heendeniya. In the great twilight between Rukmani Devi and Malini Fonseka, Punya hence soon stood out from the rest.

Here I return to Punya, gazing at me, smiling openly as she and her husband remember their time in Africa and London and later in a different Sri Lanka, where they returned so that she could take up her signature role, as Nanda, in the sequel to Gamperaliya, Kaliyugaya. If you remember correctly, one of the more curious anachronisms in these two stories is that none of the women from the old order – including Nanda and her sister Anula – speaks English. When they have to do so, they rely on an interlocutor, like Nanda’s brother Tissa.

Vinod Moonesinghe tells me that this isn’t really historically accurate: the women of the old order,
when they joined the new, did try to learn English, just as their ancestors tried to learn and speak
Portuguese. That does not concern me though. What concerns me is the sociology behind it; the same sociology which explains not just the milieu of women like Nanda, but also the milieu of the
woman who played Nanda.

I left Punya Heendeniya there on the 12th floor, looking at Sri Pada and making plans for her departure the next day. I haven’t seen her since. I should, and hopefully, I will.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

 



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Sat Mag

Notes on a not-so radical class

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By Uditha Devapriya

A little over a year ago, Devani Jayathilaka, the Gampaha Division Wildlife Officer now on a crusade against the government, stood up to a State Minister and got away with it. Objecting to Sanath Nishantha’s proposal to build a children’s playground on forest land, she stood her ground even as the Minister and his acolytes attempted to intimidate her.

Videos of Devani retorting to Nishantha and those acolytes gained supporters across social media. Public opinion being very much with her, the government quickly began feting her: Bandula Gunawardena said that the Cabinet took her side, and S. M. Chandrasena regretted the incident while half-heartedly exonerating the Minister.

Devani Jayathilaka’s courage was seen at the time as a symptom of the President’s resolve to make the bureaucracy more independent and efficient, free of bias and politicisation. As such, supporters of the government jumped on the bandwagon. The Daily News dedicated an entire editorial to her, calling her “the toast of all environmentalists, nature lovers and generally all those who cherish our country’s legal and constitutional integrity.” Hopefully, the laudatory piece concluded, “this signal act… will be a beacon to others in the public service to do their bit in fulfilling their public duty while resisting the pressures of politicians.” The subtext was unmistakably clear: the President’s reformism had empowered the officer’s activism.

A year later, and here we are: the premature love affair aborted, the feeling of celebration dampened. Yet could one have expected otherwise? At no point here in living memory have environmental concerns permeated every layer of society, from Colombo’s civil society to Sinhala nationalist outfits, as they are now. A broad conjuncture of oppositional forces, some drawn from organisations that fuelled the ideology which brought the government to power (such as the Sinhale movement), has pitted itself against that government’s apathy over the environment, while social media continues to enthrone activists: environmentalists and state officials. The President’s men, meanwhile, seem to be resorting to a policy of either ignoring or retorting to these voices. In both cases, it’s the government that has lost out.

It is hard not to side with the activists. They have a point: no regime has engaged properly with the environment. Between 2017 and 2019, forest cover reduced from 29.7% to 16.5%. It was the yahapalana government, remnants of which are tweeting against the present regime’s environmental record now, that held

the reins of power then. Yet the administration before it was no different: in 2012, to give just one example, roughly 1,585 hectares of primary forest land were lost, the biggest annual loss in a decade. The numbers for 2020 and 2021 have not been released yet, but there’s no doubting they are as big as, if not bigger than, these figures; according to the Rain Forest Protectors of Sri Lanka, forest cover stands at 17%, above what it was in 2019, but well below the 30% promised by the president.

The politics of the campaigns against the government, however, goes well beyond a simple dichotomy between political representatives and wildlife activists. Frustratingly enough, it’s not easy to put a finger on the dynamics of these protests, to draw a line between protagonists and antagonists within them, not least of all because a simple twofold division – government versus us – has been replaced by a threefold one in them: the government (high level officials included) on one side, activists and officials on another, and us on yet another.

Led by a mostly Sinhala and Buddhist lower middle-class, including the clergy (no less than the Sinhala Ravaya), these campaigns, which have mobilised activists and officials, appear to have unearthed a rather interesting contradiction from within that middle-class: a distrust of political representatives, and an ambivalent attitude towards lower level officials. To identify this contradiction for what it is, and explore it, is not easy: that requires research, the mettle of an anthropologist or ethnographer, and I am neither. Yet from what little I have been able to gather, it appears that this recent spurt of activism has facilitated a shift in the character of anti-state activism, particularly in its class composition. How so?

Devani’s message resonates profoundly with a section of the country’s upward aspiring middle-class, educated mostly in Sinhala but idealising a better life: one to which they feel both government representatives and private interests are obstacles.

They hold contrasting views regarding the state. As far as the government proper – Ministers plus high level officials – is concerned, they are against it. It’s a different story with officials, not least because of the latter a great many hail from the milieu they do: Sinhala educated and upward aspiring. This is the demographic Patali Champika Ranawaka is targeting through his “43 Senankaya”, a demographic parties have not tried to court until fairly recently.

What explains their relationship with the state? Regarding government representatives, their opposition is easy to rationalise: most of these representatives are seen to have risen to where they are now by foul means, not fair. That irks an educated middle-class bereft of political or economic power; simply put, they feel hard done by, left out, unrepresented.

Such feelings of distrust cut through parties; indeed, a defining characteristic of the middle-class is the absence of a unifying political ideology. Any Opposition which believes that by coming to power on the strength of their convictions it can expect support from them forever is therefore walking on water, for this lower middle-class happens to be adamantly protean. It is their protean character, incidentally, that explains their response to state officials.

Their view of the latter is borne out by two main considerations: that they hail from the same class background, and that, since of late, these officials have taken up arms against political authorities, a group whose actions are seen as burdening the lower middle-class.

Indeed, far from berating officials like they berate political authorities, the lower middle-class rebelling against the regime share a desire to enter the bureaucracy as either professionals or administrators, though through education attainment, and not political backing. This desire is essentially a retread of the demand made by unemployed graduates: they want to fill a post in a state institution as soon as they leave university. Under Gotabaya Rajapaka their integration into the bureaucracy has been remarkably rapid: by September last year, for instance, around 60,000 graduates had been absorbed into the Public Service, as part of his “Rata Wenuwen Weda” programme. Yet even this rather modest realisation of lower middle-class aspirations has failed to dampen, or stunt, lower middle-class opposition to his government.

To sum up, what we are seeing here is a division between state officials, assumed to have entered the government through merit, and political representatives, assumed to have entered it through influence. That Devani Jayathilaka continues to be idealised by this class therefore points at the consolidation of a uniquely petty bourgeois consciousness, which at once aspires upward in the bureaucracy, and pits itself against the government overseeing the bureaucracy. Gravitating to meritocratic ideals, they have become a huge floating electorate.

This raises another point: their disavowal of party politics. Let’s not mistake karawala for mallum here, however; the line this milieu touts, that they lack party ideology, should not mislead one into thinking that they can’t be co-opted into any party ideology. For those who believe that a non-political middle-class rebelling against an elected government, even one infringing every other norm in the book, is incapable of political manoeuvring, the case of Anna Hazare offers a counterargument: opposed to political groups, what Hazare achieved in the end was an electoral landslide for just such a group, Narendra Modi’s BJP.

By no means am I saying that Anna Hazare was/is to India what officials crusading against political representatives are/will be to Sri Lanka. Yet not unlike Hazare, these officials have given what little of an Opposition that’s there in the country some much needed ammunition (with which to topple the government). Far from welcoming such a state of affairs, I see two problems with this: the lack of a proper policy on the environment from the Opposition (apart from a few perfunctory protests), and the risk of letting what environmentalists are combating continue under a future administration led by that Opposition. As environmentalists and Left activists have pointed out only too clearly, much of what is being protested against, including the Sinharaja debacle, can be traced back to the yahapalana period. How wise would it be to trust the party that held the cards then so much as to return them to power now?

To these two problems one can add a third: the contradiction between the social conditioning and the activism of the middle-class. That contradiction translates itself into another: between political ideals that pit this middle-class against political authority, and social aspirations that orient them towards personal achievement in education and employment.

One can ask why this is a problem, why it’s so problematic. In matters of political concern, so the idealists say, personal matters are of no relevance.

But that’s precisely the issue. How pertinent are one’s personal aspirations to one’s political inclinations? Not pertinent, some would say; pretty pertinent, in my book.

That leads us to a crucial issue, the most important to crop up from what we’re seeing today: the extent to which those leading the protests are willing to own up to how class aspirations, and not just state complicity, have contributed to environmental degradation.

Let me reduce this to a simple query: how much do you attribute everything wrong with the environment to the government’s doing and non-doing, and how much do you attribute it to, say, our propensity to import, a major factor in environmental degradation?

To be fair, of course, it’s not only imports. The truth is that degradation of the environment is linked inextricably to an economic model rooted in consumerism and urbanisation.

But that merely reinforces my point: consumerism is promoted by the private sector, and urbanisation by the public, because both have an audience: the same middle-class blaming the government for what’s happening to our forests, our rivers, our way of life.

To restate this as simply as I can, then, the problems of environmental degradation today are the result of a decades-long experiment with capitalism and neoliberalism that has failed. The crisis is thus a crisis of a consumerist and exploitative model based on a capitalist framework. Now no critique of what is happening to our forests can evolve without taking this model into consideration. As perhaps its biggest beneficiaries, the middle-class must hence recognise the need to formulate an alternative model to it, in line with their activist inclinations.

However, in continuing to ignore if not marginalise this need, those taking the government to task over the environment are offering an inadequate response, radical enough to question the regime for its failings, yet not radical enough to question our embracement of an acquisitive, consumption-led economic model that has contributed to the quagmire we are in. Now I hate gazing into crystal balls, but if this is what will continue in the future, then these protests, no matter how laudable, will someday, somehow, fizzle out. That would be a pity.

The writer can be reached at udakdev1@gmail.com

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Sat Mag

CELEBRATING EARTH DAY: THE VOICE OF THE NEXT GENERATION

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Our world needs transformational change, and it is time for us, those of the present generation to hold ourselves accountable for our role in the environmental crisis while also calling for bold, creative, and innovative solutions. This year marks the 51st anniversary of Earth Day and this Webinar is designed to commemorate the occasion and to support the worldwide efforts to conserve and revitalize the environment of the blue planet that is our home. If we are to succeed, we must listen to the children who will link hands from around the world during this webinar and voice their concerns and ideas to preserve a pristine environment for their generation.

This is the 17th of a series of virtual zoom panel discussions hosted by the America-Sri Lanka Photographic Art Society in Los Angeles California, USA (ASPAS); Member of Photographic Society of America (PSA) and The International Federation of Photography of Art in France (FIAP). The objective of the series is to showcase the beauty of world fauna and flora and promote environmental conservation in the context of nature photography and tourism, with a special focus on the grandeur of Sri Lanka’s natural habitat. The upcoming programme will commemorate World Earth Day 2021.

At a previous ASPAS Webinar, Dr. Peter H. Sand, former Secretary-General of ICUN, stated, “Pandemics, such as coronavirus, are the result of humanity’s destruction of nature, the illegal and unsustainable wildlife trade, as well as the devastation of forests and other wild places, are the driving force behind the increasing number of diseases leaping from wildlife to humans.” The ASPAS Webinars are intended to offer a platform to discuss a more balanced relationship with these ecosystems and the tools that can help us reach this objective, so that future generations can continue to enjoy and benefit from them sustainably and responsibly.

Earth Day marks the anniversary of the birth of the modern environmental movement in 1970 which gave voice to an emerging public consciousness about the state of our planet. Our planet is an amazing place, but it needs our help to thrive! That is why each year on April 22, more than a billion people celebrate Earth Day to protect the planet from pollution and deforestation and environment related issues. By taking part in activities like picking up litter and planting trees, we are making our world a happier, healthier place to live.

In the decades leading up to the first Earth Day, the world was consuming vast amounts of leaded gas through massive and inefficient automobiles. Industry belched out smoke and sludge with little fear of the consequences from either the law or the press. Air pollution was commonly accepted as the smell of prosperity. Until this point, the world remained largely oblivious to environmental concerns and how a polluted environment threatens human health. Since, the great challenge for the environmental community is to combat the cynicism of climate change deniers, well-funded oil lobbyists, reticent policy makers, and a disinterested public. In the face of these challenges, Earth Day prevailed and established itself as a major movement for global action for the environment.

Over the decades, it has brought hundreds of millions of people into the environmental movement, creating opportunities for civic engagement and volunteers in 193 countries. Earth Day engages more than 1 billion people every year and has become a major steppingstone along the pathway of engagement around the protection of the planet.

Now, the fight for a clean environment continues with increasing urgency, as the ravages of climate change become more and more apparent every day. As the awareness of our climate crisis grows, so does civil society mobilization, which is reaching a fever pitch across the globe today. Digital and social media are bringing these conversations, protests, strikes and mobilizations to a global audience, uniting a concerned citizenry as never before and mobilizing generations to join together to take on the greatest challenge that humankind has faced.

It is quite apparent that the youth of our world should also be engaged in this vital conversation as an absolutely indispensable partner.

Governments have recognized this for decades and many have introduced some level of climate and environmental education into their education systems. But the truth is that impact of climate and environmental education is in some cases week, cursory, and still in many countries non-existent. In the decades since the launch of the global environmental movement, it is estimated that more than 3 billion young people have graduated from high school having learned little or nothing about one of the greatest issues that will shape their lives and their livelihoods for decades to come.

The time is now, indeed it is long overdue, for a massive environmental literacy campaign that can create a generation of citizens, workers and leaders who really understand why and how to stop climate change and environmental degradation, ensuring that every student around the world completes their formal education as an environmental and climate literate citizen. A citizen who is ready to take action and speak up for change and build knowledge and skills for the growing green sector of clean energy, efficient transportation, sustainable business and making themselves competitive for new jobs.

The youth must also equip themselves with the knowledge and skills needed to build a better future and be stewards of this planet. They must learn that to sustain a functional society and economy, natural resources must be used wisely and efficiently while protecting the ecological systems to ensure clean air, clean water, and food security for all.

But just as vitally, we need to equip future generations with the knowledge, skills, and enthusiasm to survive and indeed thrive in the decades to come. And that begins in school. Even world leaders recognized that pivotal role as far back as 30 years, when the countries that forged the original United Nations climate change treaty in 1992 at the Rio Earth Summit enshrined climate education as an essential part of a national response to a global emergency.

Educationists believe every school in the world must have compulsory, assessed climate and environmental education with a strong civic engagement component. They have also pointed out that the onus for developing environmental consciousness in youth could not be the sole responsibility of schools as the young people need the help of adult allies. There is a role for everyone, parents, relatives, and society to support youth voices and stand alongside them.

It is in that spirit that the America-Sri Lanka Photohtaphic Art Society Los Angeles, led by its President, Suriya Jayalath Perera, has organized this Webinar to bring together 10 young people from the U.S., the U.K., Canada, and Sri Lanka to voice their concerns and present their ideas on the occasion of Earth Day 2021. Youth from ages six to 18, will address the entire gamut of environmental issues from climate change to plastic pollution. It would be a truly ground-breaking event, and you can be a part of it by virtually joining them on Sunday April 18th, 2021. The webinar will be moderated by Medini Ratnayake.

More Information: www.usacaaspas.com

Join us live on Sunday April 18th, at 8.30 P.M. 2021 https://www.facebook.com/aspaslausa/live Nandasiri (Nandi) Jasentuliyana, Former Deputy Director-General, United Nations

 

 

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Sat Mag

How to flush cholesterol out of your body

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Cholesterol is a waxy, fat-like substance found in all the cells in your body. Your body needs cholesterol to make hormones, vitamin D, and substances that help you digest foods. Your liver makes all the cholesterol you need. The cholesterol in your body that you do not need comes from animal bodies.

If you have more cholesterol in your body than you need, then you are heading for heart disease and heart attacks. A build-up of cholesterol narrows arteries, causing a restriction of blood flow to the heart. Very often a person with high cholesterol levels has no symptoms until he has his first heart attack.

This is even more problematic if you are overweight – which you will be, because the food that causes an increase in cholesterol also increases your weight. Though some cholesterol components are stored in the liver and gallbladder, the main storage area is in fat cells called adipocytes. When you have too much cholesterol, these cells swell up and you gain weight. Too much cholesterol can be caused by eating too much fat or carbohydrates.

 

There are two types of cholesterol: HDL and LDL

High density lipoprotein (HDL) is good cholesterol which protects you from hearts attacks, and strokes, by mopping up excess bad cholesterol. It takes the cholesterol that you don’t need back to the liver. The liver breaks it down so it can be passed out of your body. LDL is bad cholesterol. This blocks the blood supply and causes strokes and heart attacks. Non-HDL take cholesterol from the liver to the cells around your body. Too much bad cholesterol (non-HDL) can be harmful because it sticks to the inside walls of your arteries. This can lead to fatty material (atheroma) building up – this process is known as atherosclerosis.

Cholesterol is found in animal foods, meat, milk, butter and cheese.

There are only two things that raise cholesterol in the blood: saturated and trans fats.

Saturated fats are found in meats, dairy products, chocolate, baked goods like biscuits and popcorn, margarine, deep-fried, and processed foods, basically junk food.

Trans fats occur in some fried and processed foods, also in junk food.

In adults, total cholesterol levels less than 200 milligrams per deciliter (mg/dL) are considered healthy. 200 – 239 mg/dL is borderline high. 240 mg/dL and above is high. LDL cholesterol levels should be less than 100 mg/dL.

How do you know that your cholesterol levels are high? You usually don’t. There are no typical signs if you have high cholesterol, which is why it is so important to get it checked. It is a hidden risk factor, which means it happens without us knowing until it is too late. Some people get soft, yellowish, growths or lesions on the skin, especially round the eyes, called xanthomas. If you are lucky you develop left-sided chest pain, pressure, or fullness; dizziness; unsteady gait; slurred speech; or pain in the lower legs. Any of these conditions may be associated with high cholesterol.

How do you flush cholesterol out of your body?

Stop eating meat or drinking milk. Avoid ghee, butter and paneer, and seafood like crabs, shrimps and lobsters. Don’t smoke. Exercise. Eat fewer refined grains such as maida. Foods to avoid if you have high cholesterol levels include white bread, white potatoes, and white rice, highly processed sugars. Fried foods should be avoided, as well as foods high in saturated fats.

Eat fruits, vegetables, beans and whole grains, every day.

A report from Harvard Health has identified foods that actively decrease cholesterol levels: Oats, barley and whole grains, beans, eggplant and okra, nuts, vegetable oil (canola, sunflower), fruits (mainly apples, grapes, strawberries, and citrus), soy and soy-based foods. Eating just one and one-half cups of cooked oatmeal a day can lower your cholesterol by 5 to 8%. Oatmeal contains soluble and insoluble fibre – two types that your body needs.

In June 2020 a report, led by Imperial College London Majid Ezzati, et al.​ and involving dozens of universities, “Repositioning of the global epicentre of non-optimal cholesterol” ​was published in Nature. It said that while cholesterol levels have declined in high income countries, particularly Europe, since 1980 , they have increased vastly in lower and middle income countries, with Asia, specially Southeast Asia, now being the centre.

The reason for this is the consumption of animal-based foods, refined carbohydrates (maida) and palm oil. In short, the heart attack and stroke risks have been globally repositioned with the shifting of a high cholesterol diet.

A group of nearly 1,000 researchers, from around the world, analysed data from 1,127 studies comprising 102.6 million adults, to assess global trends in cholesterol levels from 1980 to 2018. This is the largest ever study of global cholesterol levels.

Previously cholesterol was considered a problem in high income Western countries.

The report said that Belgium, Sweden, Switzerland (the centre of the milk/meat diet) and Iceland (meat) had shown the steepest declines in cholesterol, going from the highest to the lowest. There has been a sharp drop in LDL cholesterol in the UK, according to the British Heart Foundation.

China, which had the lowest levels of cholesterol in 1980, was among the highest in 2018. India, Malaysia, Philippines and Thailand have not covered themselves in glory either.

In 1980 Australian women ranked 32nd highest in the world in cholesterol levels. Today they are 146th . Australian men have fallen from 31st highest to 116th. 

Dr Avula Laxmaiah, National Institute of Nutrition, one of the authors of the research paper, said LDL cholesterol among Indian men ranked 128th in 1980 and remained the same in 2018.  Women are 139th in the global line-up.

Other conditions, that can lead to high cholesterol levels, include diabetes drugs that increase LDL cholesterol and decrease HDL cholesterol, such as progestins, anabolic steroids, and corticosteroids. India is one of the highest users of steroids – not directly, but through these being fed to chicken.

The authors have suggested that each country in Asia set into place prices, and regulatory policies, that shift diets to non-saturated fats. But, at the end of the day it is not prices that will decide – meat/chicken and milk are already expensive but it doesn’t stop you from eating them. You will have to take a personal decision, depending on how much you value your life or the lives of your family.

(To join the animal welfare movement contact gandhim@nic.in, www.peopleforanimalsindia.org)

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