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A wistful reflection of times past

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The Colombo Medical School batch of 1962

By Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

“Friendship is the hardest thing in the world to explain. It’s not something you learn in school. But if you haven’t learned the meaning of friendship, you really haven’t learned anything.”  — Muhammad Ali

Remembering Medical School and friends takes me back to my roots and those distant days. I am deluged by a deep sense of déjà vu as I time travel to the 1960’s. Those of us who live abroad may see those early days in a certain fuzzy sepia light. But our emotional attachment remains undiminished. The quiet Kynsey road, the familiar façade of the grey administrative building and the sentinel Clocktower stand unchanged. I am simply mesmerised by the elegant sweep of those majestic buildings. In that dreamy state it is so easy to be enchanted by the constant whirr of the Vespas in the dusty parking bay behind the Milk Booth and be overwhelmed by the smell of smoke that fills the air. In our mind’s eye the faculty will always remain as we left it in 1967.

We were a batch of around 150 students and in those days the faculty of Medicine felt like an enclave of privilege, and it was. Entry into the Faculty was the culmination of years of toil and sacrifice. We still had the security of home and our parents paid the bills. There was such a great sense of myopic optimism, we lost ourselves in the adulation. We dreamed it was our passport to fame and fortune. The idyll soon faded as the harsher truths of real life intruded. Life being like a game of snakes and ladders, always has ways to end that utopian vision and bring us back to reality!!

The Faculty was our Temple of Wisdom and also our gilded cage. There was an air of confidence and a touch of vanity which came from being a medical student. Life then was a dream. I developed a sinister arrogance and an assured sense of entitlement. I dreamed of living happily ever after. It was not long before part of that charm and fantasy began to wear thin.

The common room with the canteen was the social hub of the faculty and a very special place. That was our own retreat and shelter from the storms of faculty life. Many friendships were made and firmed within those walls. It was a vital place, where we could gather informally to talk, gossip and pass the time. Racy jokes and saucy humour filled the air. We gathered there to listen to music, play billiards, table tennis and carrom. Cupid was actively busy slinging his arrows in the faculty. The canteen was a haven for couples to whisper those ‘sweet nothings’.

There were evening sing-songs in the common room. These were ever so popular and simply unforgettable. I can still feel its pleasure, hear them sing and even picture the dancing. The echoes of our communal past litter our memories. After the passage of half a century much of faculty life has changed. The lively and vibrant common room with its unique ambience would now seem like a dream from a lost world. A dream that can only exist in our memories.

The stormy dynamics of the ‘Block’ were a baptism of fire. Detailed study of anatomy, physiology and biochemistry filled our days and nights. We were weighed down by signatures and revisals that generated a toxic atmosphere. But there were the Colours Nights and Block Nights to imbibe the spirit of the swinging sixties and liven up our lives. There was also a certain wildness, colourful antics and downright mischief that was associated with being a medical student. Sometimes this badness and madness became tabloid fodder. We did transgress the red line and pay the price. The good, bad and the ugly are well described and documented in the faculty chronicles. Despite our occasional rascality we were blessed with a sympathetic public image.

Then we embarked on our jagged path from the dissection rooms to the ward classes and clinical appointments across Kynsey Road. My abiding memory of those years are the long walks along those airy hospital corridors in search of patients and knowledge. We strolled like a ‘peacocks’, swinging those knee hammers and proudly wearing the stethoscopes around our necks. Meanwhile in the third and fourth year we had a profusion of subjects to comprehend. I still convulse thinking of the sheer volume of facts we had to commit to memory. From all that knowledge what remains now are the daringly prophetic lines of a poem from Clinical Pharmacology by D.R Laurence:

“Doctor, goodbye, my sail’s unfurl’d, I’m off to try the other world”.

We were immensely fortunate to belong to a generation taught by a plethora of dedicated and gifted teachers. Like us many called it the Golden Era of Medical Education. Under their influence and tutelage life was not always a bed of roses. In the ward classes and teaching appointments there were some exchanges too painful to recall. Although seemingly omniscient and more than a tad egocentric, they inspired us. They gave of their best to the students. We remember with affection and gratitude the dedication and commitment of our clinical teachers, professors and lecturers on this our special day.

Then like a never-ending storm came the Final Examination. Seeing the name on the notice board was an iconic moment to savour. Success is where preparation and opportunity meet. Success was also our liberation and the passport to freedom. From the glowing embers of those undergrad years a new era was born.

“Go West young man” was the mantra that appealed to many. The political turmoil and our sagging economy did not give us much faith or hope. One of the greatest triumphs in life is to pursue one’s dreams. Many dispersed far and wide in search of work and opportunity. Those who left the country entered the Darwinian struggle of survival of the fittest. Amidst the fierce competition for the plum jobs, there were the many unwanted prejudices to contend with.

The many who remained in Sri Lanka reached the top of their careers in the fullness of time. I acknowledge the patriotism, loyalty and resilience of those who remained in the motherland to serve the country. They lived through some difficult times. The émigrés too played their role professionally to serve society and the communities wherever they lived and worked. Those who lived abroad made donations to a multitude of Sri Lankan charities. They also provided financial support to Medical institutions and Medical education back home.

I would like the achievements of our batch to be remembered as one of the most successful. I am delighted in the academic accomplishments and the professional success of our batch-mates. Although I loved it, mine was a career mixed with grit and glamour in equal measure.

We stepped on the treadmill to carve ourselves a career. Then marriage and caring for our families took precedence. We embraced and adored everything parenthood had to offer. Time passed swiftly and relentlessly. With the passage of years, we met our batch-mates infrequently at reunions. The endless vicissitudes of life have usurped our youth. Our long and demanding professional lives gradually came to a halt. Retirement is not the end but a new beginning. Still sprightly, we hit the golf greens and continue to entertain grandkids as life meanders slowly along. We are now more at peace with our lot in life.

Fast forward to 2022, we are now living on borrowed time. Despite all that sweating and grunting in the gym, we will leave our earthly abode one by one. On this our special Day we unite across faiths, ethnicity and backgrounds to remember our dear departed friends. Despite the mosaic of grief that engulfs us remembering departed friends, we hold back on our grieving. Let the silence and stillness reflect and capture the moment. As a group, we remember and celebrate their lives. There are some with whom we have associated more closely. For them it is much harder to banish the feelings of pain, despite the years. There is a wish to capture the essence of the character of our friends to recall the good times. They indeed have left behind “Footprints on the sands of time”.

We have all lost close friends from the batch. As we remember them, the inevitable regrets will surface too. We could have done much more to meet or to be in touch. Those joyful memories too will fade as we age. So let us cherish and treasure them now.

I take this opportunity to remember our friends who are battling through with dementia or now in long term or terminal care. It is our wish they will remain comfortable in their time on earth and continue to receive the love and care they so richly deserve.

I recall the wisdom of Robert Louis Stevenson: “we are all travellers in the wilderness of the world and the best we can do is to find an honest friend”. So thankful we found so many.

From the faculty staff I chose to pay homage to Prof O.E.R Abhayaratne, the Professor of Public Health and the Dean of the Faculty of Medicine. Amusing and widely respected he maintained the prestige and esteem of the institution as the Dean of the Faculty in a rapidly changing political milieu. Well known for his administrative strengths, by his charm and charisma, he was able to harness the support of some eccentric and egocentric professors and lecturers. His tenure was characterised by his generosity, kindness and sense of humour. The Profs delightfully poetic lectures lit up our Public Health education and also our lives. When we were in trouble after the Castle Street incident, he saved our careers from ruin. While maintaining his dignity and decorum he graced our Block Nights and supported the clean fun we had in the Men’s Common Room.

Larger than life and the monarch of all he surveyed we couldn’t have had a better “Boss”. His sartorial elegance or lack of it, eccentricities, mannerisms and idiosyncrasies have entered the folklore of this great institution. He was so much a part of our lives and of the Faculty of Medicine, his familiar stentorian voice must swirl in the ether of its corridors of power. May his Soul Rest in Peace.

From the dazzling firmament of fine clinical teachers, I choose to pay tribute to Dr.Darrell Weinman. His ward classes were conducted in a room at the Neuro Surgical Unit which was always packed to the rafters with students. With his mercurial personality Dr Weinman inspired, motivated and entertained us. He thrived on the intrigue and captivated us by the way he extracted relevant diagnostic information from patients. Dr Weinman in his theatrical performances played Sherlock Holmes to unravel the mystery and arrive at a diagnosis. His effortless erudition made whole swathes of impenetrable knowledge seem so accessible.

We bowed to his brilliance. He was such a kind man in the pernicious environment of medical education of the time. He treated the students with respect and in turn was held in great awe and esteem. Darrell Weinman had it all – handsome, a fine cricketer, brilliant scholar and a superb neurosurgeon. But these provide no protection from the frailties of human life and the awesome force of destiny. Sadly, when at the height of his fame, fate intervened. Dr Weinman emigrated to Australia. This was a great shock to us all and an enormous loss to Sri Lanka. He gave up his beloved neurosurgery to work in general practice in Sydney. There he was known for his kindness and compassion and was well liked and highly regarded by his patients. Darrell Weinman passed away in 2018. Requiescat in pace

Despite the crowded candles on the birthday cake, some of us are more resilient to ageing than others. But the main problem is that gravity takes over our lives and the body never allow us to forget the passage of years. There are now a multitude of well-heeled pathways to a longer life. A sad consequence of living long is that you have to say goodbye to a lot of people you care about. By now we have all learnt to live with this. We still have much to enjoy. As we end our life’s fandango, those glorious and treasured undergraduate years will always remain “misty watercolour memories, of the way we were”.

“Look not mournfully into the past, it comes not back again. Wisely improve the present, it is thine. Go forth to meet the shadowy future without fear and with a manly heart”.

Henry Wadsworth Longfellow



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Features

Glimmers of hope?

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The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self-interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away.

Some of Cassandra’s readers may ask whether she is out of her right mind to see glimmers of hope for the country. She assures them she is as sane as can be; she does cling onto these straws like the dying man does. How else exist? How else get through these dire times?

What are the straws she clings to? News items in The Island of Tuesday 24 May.

‘Sirisena leaves Paget Road mansion in accordance with SC interim injunction.’ And who was instrumental in righting this wrong? The CPA and its Executive Director Dr Pakiasothy Saravanamuttu. It is hoped that revisions to the system will come in such as giving luxury housing and other extravagant perks to ex-presidents and their widows. Sri Lanka has always lived far beyond its means in the golden handshakes to its ex- prezs and also perks given its MPs. At least luxury vehicles should not be given them. Pensions after five years in Parliament should be scrapped forthwith.

‘Letter of demand sent to IGP seeking legal action against DIG Nilantha Jayawardena.’ Here the mover is The Centre for Society and Religion and it is with regard to the Easter Sunday massacre which could have been prevented if DIG Jayawardena as Head of State Intelligence had taken necessary action once intelligence messages warned of attack on churches.

‘CIABOC to indict Johnston, Keheliya and Rohitha’. It is fervently hoped that this will not be another charge that blows away with the wind. They do not have their strongest supporter – Mahinda R to save them. We so fervently hope the two in power now will let things happened justly, according to the law of the land.

‘Foreign Secy Admiral Colombage replaced’. And by whom? A career diplomat who has every right and qualification for the post; namely Aruni Wijewardane. If this indicates a fading of the prominence given to retired armed forces personnel in public life and administration, it is an excellent sign. Admiral Colombage had tendered his resignation, noted Wednesday’s newspaper.

‘Crisis caused by decades of misuse public resources, corruption, kleptocracy – TISL’.

Everyone knew this, even the despicable thieves and kleptocrats. The glaring question is why no concerted effort was made to stop the thieving from a country drawn to bankruptcy by politicians and admin officers. There are many answers to that question. It was groups, mostly of the middle class who came out first in candle lit vigils and then at the Gotagogama Village. The aragalaya has to go down in history as the savior of our nation from a curse worse than war. The civil war was won against many odds. But trying to defeat deceit power-hunger and thieving was near impossible. These protestors stuck their necks out and managed to rid from power most of the Rajapaksa family. That was achievement enough.

Heartfelt hope of the many

The newly appointed Cabinet Ministers leaves Cass un-uplifted. She need not elaborate. She wishes fervently that Dr Harsha de Silva will leave party loyalty aside and consider the country. Usually, it’s asking politicians to cast aside self interest, which very rarely is done in the political culture that came to be after the 1970s. Thus, it is very unusual, completely out of the ordinary to appeal to Dr Harsha to forego party loyalty and do the very needful for the country by accepting the still vacant post of Minister of Finance. We are very sorry Eran W too has kept himself away. As Shamindra Ferdinando writes in the newspaper mentioned, “Well informed sources said that Premier Wickremesinghe was still making efforts to win over some more Opposition members. Sources speculated that vital finance portfolio remained vacant as the government still believed (hoped Cass says) Dr Harsha de Silva could somehow be convinced to accept that portfolio.”

Still utterly hopeless

Gas is still unavailable for people like Cass who cannot stand in queues, first to get a token and then a cylinder. Will life never return to no queues for bare essentials? A woman friend was in a petrol queue for a solid twelve hours – from 4 am to 4 pm. This is just one of million people all over the country in queues. Even a common pressure pill was not available in 20 mg per.

Cassandra considers a hope. We saw hundreds of Sri Lankans all across the globe peacefully protesting for departure of thieves from the government. The ex-PM, Mahinda Rajapaksa’s answer to this was to unleash absolute terror on all of the island. It seems to be that with Johnson a younger MP stood commandingly.

Returning from that horror thought to the protesters overseas, Cass wondered if each of them contributed one hundred dollars to their mother country, it would go a long way to soften the blows we are battered with. Of course, the absolute imperative is that of the money, not a cent goes into personal pockets. The donors must be assured it goes to safety. Is that still not possible: assuring that donations are used for the purpose they are sent for: to alleviate the situation of Sri Lankans? I suppose the memory of tsunami funds going into the Helping Hambantota Fund is still fresh in memory. So much for our beloved country.

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Ban on agrochemicals and fertilisers: Post-scenario analysis

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By Prof. Rohan Rajapakse

(Emeritus Professor of Agriculture Biology UNIVERSITY OF RUHUNA and Former Executive Director Sri Lanka Council of Agriculture Research Policy)

There are two aspects of the ban on agrochemicals. The first is the ban on chemical fertilisers, and the second is the ban on the use of pesticides. Several eminent scientists, Dr Parakrama Waidyanatha (formerly the Soil Scientist of RRI), Prof OA Ileperuma (Former Professor of Chemistry University of Peradeniya), Prof C. S. Weeraratne (former Professor of Agronomy University of Ruhuna), Prof D. M. de Costa University of Peradeniya, Prof. Buddhi Marambe (Professor in Weed Science University of Peradeniya) have effectively dealt with the repercussion of the ban on chemical fertilisers which appeared in The Island newspaper on recently.

The major points summarised by these authors are listed below.

FERTILISER ISSUE

1. These scientists, including the author, are of the view that the President’s decision to totally shift to organic agriculture from conventional could lead to widespread hunger and starvation in future, which has become a reality. Organic farming is a small phenomenon in global agriculture, comprising a mere 1.5% of total farmlands, of which 66% are pasture.

2. Conventional farming (CF) is blamed for environmental pollution; however, in organic farming, heavy metal pollution and the release of carbon dioxide and methane, two greenhouse gases from farmyard manure, are serious pollution issues with organic farming that have been identified.

3. On the other hand, the greatest benefit of organic fertilisers as against chemical fertilisers is the improvement of soil’s physical, chemical and biological properties by the former, which is important for sustained crop productivity. The best option is to use appropriate combinations of organic and chemical fertilisers, which can also provide exacting nutrient demands of crops and still is the best option!

4. Sri Lanka has achieved self-sufficiency in rice due to the efforts of the Research Officers of the Department of Agriculture, and all these efforts will be in vain if we abruptly ban the import of fertiliser. These varieties are bred primarily on their fertiliser response. While compost has some positive effects such as improving soil texture and providing some micronutrients, it cannot be used as a substitute for fertiliser needed by high yielding varieties of rice. Applying organic fertilisers alone will not help replenish the nutrients absorbed by a crop. Organic fertilisers have relatively small amounts of the nutrients that plants need. For example, compost has only 2% nitrogen (N), whereas urea has 46% N. Banning the import of inorganic fertilisers will be disastrous, as not applying adequate amounts of nutrients will cause yields to drop, making it essential to increase food imports. Sri Lankan farmers at present are at the mercy of five organizations, namely the Central Department of Agriculture, the Provincial Ministry of Agriculture, the Private sector Pesticide Companies, the Non-Government organizations and the leading farmers who are advising them. Instead, improved agricultural extension services to promote alternative non-chemical methods of pest control and especially the use of Integrated Pest Management.

Locally, pest control depends mostly on the use of synthetic pesticides; ready to use products that can be easily procured from local vendors are applied when and where required Abuse and misapplication of pesticides is a common phenomenon in Sri Lanka. Even though many farmers are aware of the detrimental aspects of pesticides they often use them due to economic gains

We will look at the post scenario of
what has happened

1. The importation of Chemical fertilisers and Pesticides was banned at the beginning of Maha season 1 on the advice of several organic manure (OM) promoters by the Ministry of agriculture.

2. The Ministry of Agriculture encouraged the farmers to use organic manure, and an island-wide programme of producing Organic manure were initiated. IT took some time for the government to realize that Sri Lanka does not have the capacity to produce such a massive amount of OM, running into 10 tons per hectare for 500000 hectares ear marked in ma ha season.

3. Hence the government approved the importation of OM from abroad, and a Company in China was given an initial contract to produce OM produced from Seaweed. However, the scientists from University of Peradeniya detected harmful microorganisms in this initial consignment, and the ship was forced to leave Sri Lankan waters at a cost of US dollar 6.7 million without unloading its poisonous cargo. No substitute fertiliser consignment was available.

4. A committee in the Ministry hastily recommended to import NANO RAJA an artificial compound from India to increase the yield by spraying on to leaves. Sri Lanka lost Rs 863 million as farmers threw all these Nano Raja bottles and can as it attracts dogs and wild boar.

Since there is no other option the Ministry promised to pay Rs 50000 per hectare for all the farmers who lost their livelihood. It is not known how much the country lost due to this illogical decision of banning fertilisers and pesticides.

Recommendations

1. Judicious use of pesticides is recommended.

2. The promotion and the use of integrated pest management techniques whenever possible

3. To minimize the usage of pesticides:

Pesticide traders would be permitted to sell pesticides only through specially trained Technical Assistants.

Issuing pesticides to the farmers for which they have to produce some kind of a written recommendation by a local authority.

Introduction of new mechanism to dispose or recycle empty pesticide and weedicide bottles in collaboration with the Environment Ministry.

Laboratory-testing of imported pesticides by the Registrar of Pesticides at the entry-point to ensure that banned chemicals were not brought into the country.

Implementation of trained core of people who can apply pesticides.

Education campaigns to train farmers, retailers, distributors, and public with the adverse effects of pesticides.

Maximum Residue Level (MRL) to reduce the consumer’s risk of exposure to unsafe levels.

Integrated pest Management and organic agriculture to be promoted.

1. To ensure the proper usage of agrochemicals by farmers

All those who advised the Minister of Agriculture and the President to shift to OM still wield authority in national food production effort. The genuine scientists who predicted the outcome are still harassed sacked from positions they held in MA and were labelled as private sector goons. The danger lies if the farmers decide not to cultivate in this Maha season due to non-availability of fertilisers and pesticides the result will be an imminent famine.

The country also should have a professional body like the Planning Commission of

India, with high calibre professionals in the Universities and the Departments and

There should be institutions and experts to advise the government on national policy matters.

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Thomians triumph in Sydney 

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Nothing is happening for us, at this end, other than queues, queues, and more queues! There’s very little to shout about were the sports and entertainment scenes are concerned. However, Down Under, the going seems good.

Sri Lankans, especially in Melbourne, Australia, have quite a lot of happenings to check out, and they all seem to be having a jolly good time!

Trevine Rodrigo,

who puts pen to paper to keep Sri Lankans informed of the events in Melbourne, was in Sydney, to taken in the scene at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition. And, this is Trevine’s report:

The weather Gods and S.Thomas aligned, in Sydney, to provide the unexpected at the Sri Lanka Schools Sevens Touch Rugby competition, graced by an appreciative crowd.

Inclement weather was forecast for the day, and a well drilled Dharmaraja College was expected to go back-to-back at this now emerging competition in Sydney’s Sri Lanka expatriate sporting calendar.

But the unforeseen was delivered, with sunny conditions throughout, and the Thomians provided the upset of the competition when they stunned the favourites, Dharmaraja, in the final, to grab the Peninsula Motor Group Trophy.

Still in its infancy, the Sevens Touch Competition, drawn on the lines of Rugby League rules, found new flair and more enthusiasm among its growing number of fans, through the injection of players from around Australia, opposed to the initial tournament which was restricted to mainly Sydneysiders.

A carnival like atmosphere prevailed throughout the day’s competition.

Ten teams pitted themselves in a round robin system, in two groups, and the top four sides then progressed to the semi-finals, on a knock out basis, to find the winner.

A food stall gave fans the opportunity to keep themselves fed and hydrated while the teams provided the thrills of a highly competitive and skilled tournament.

The rugby dished out was fiercely contested, with teams such as Trinity, Royal and St. Peter’s very much in the fray but failing to qualify after narrow losses on a day of unpredictability.

Issipathana and Wesley were the other semi-finalists with the Pathanians grabbing third place in the play-off before the final.

The final was a tense encounter between last year’s finalists Dharmaraja College and S.Thomas. Form suggested that the Rajans were on track for successive wins in as many attempts.  But the Thomians had other ideas.

The fluent Rajans, with deft handling skills and evasive running, looked the goods, but found the Thomian defence impregnable.  Things were tied until the final minutes when the Thomians sealed the result with an intercept try and hung on to claim the unthinkable.

It was perhaps the price for complacency on the Rajans part that cost them the game and a lesson that it is never over until the final whistle.

Peninsula Motor Group, headed by successful businessman Dilip Kumar, was the main sponsor of the event, providing playing gear to all the teams, and prize money to the winners and runners-up.

The plan for the future is to make this event more attractive and better structured, according to the organisers, headed by Deeptha Perera, whose vision was behind the success of this episode.

In a bid to increase interest, an over 40’s tournament, preceded the main event, and it was as interesting as the younger version.

Ceylon Touch Rugby, a mixed team from Melbourne, won the over 40 competition, beating Royal College in the final.

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