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Midweek Review

Anecdotes from a Surgeon’s life in Sri Lanka



Author: Channa Ratnatunga
ISBN No: 978-624-96467-0-4

Reviewed by Anuruddha

Prof. Channa Ratnatunga (CR) is one of the most committed, versatile and accomplished surgeons and medical teachers among Sri Lankan medical doctors of our generation. Known to his friends as ‘Chester’ because he resembled the world- renowned English cricketer and umpire when on field, he is also a scientific researcher of distinction and a prolific writer of fame. Above all he is a compassionate man, loved by his patients, subordinates and colleagues alike for his selflessness. The unpretentious objective of CR’s latest book is concisely described in its prologue – to document his experiences, over five decades as a doctor, to educate and inspire. In his own words those were the stories he used as ‘commercials’ during his teaching sessions. Therefore, the book is a scintillating mix of brief autobiographical notes, memorable anecdotes, reminiscences, unusual medical conditions, both good and bad human qualities that he encountered among those whom he had to interact and lessons learnt the hard way. Events, scenes, experiences and other delicious tidbits follow one another in quick succession, but the style is characteristically CR – a perfect blend of clarity, brevity, objectivity and eloquent language.

The book, which documents 58 such anecdotes to be precise, is titled ’Anecdotes from a Surgeon’s life in Sri Lanka’. It consists of 128 pages and is reasonably priced at Rs 500.

The anecdotes have all the characteristics of a best seller- clarity, brevity, objectivity, humour, simplicity, relevance and genuineness. Objectivity without emotions makes it stress-free reading. Every anecdote has a simple lesson to learn which the reader himself has to work-out. As they are true stories, lessons sink into the heart of the reader rather than traversing superficially over the brain. Grammatical terms of an eloquent English scholar makes it good reading material for students learning English literature.

A concise introduction takes novitiate readers through CR’s school and university life, highlighting the random events that led him to select a medical career. Just like in all chapters but more in this, CR’s modesty is clearly evident. No wonder CR always introduces himself as Dr Channa Ratnatunga and never Professor Ratnatunga! Incidentally, the anecdote where his paternal grandmother who was a Ranatunga from Badulla had to add a ‘t’ to become a Ratnatunga and settle down in Tangalle in order to save her neck from British invaders, may surprise historians.

Some anecdotes are very informative and educative while others are intriguing and hilarious. How a ferry operator got a block in his water pipe, why a senior teacher from a reputed school could not tolerate students’ questions and wanted to commit suicide, the dead son who came back to nurse’s womb, how an astrologer prophesied about the baby who would take her mother’s life, fabricated story of leaving a scissor in the abdomen, the hospital dhoby who wanted to know whether the surgeon was a man or a woman, the CTB driver who almost died but could not get his compensation, the drummer who left the intensive care unit just one day after a complex operation to perform perahera duties and how a single erroneous lab report ruined a young girl’s marriage prospects are some such anecdotes.


Importance of history taking, etc

In many anecdotes, CR stresses the overarching importance of history taking and proper physical examination of patients at no additional cost to the patient or the doctor but may save a life. His thirst for accuracy and objectivity is displayed in many tales highlighting the importance of good record keeping. He teaches doctors that accuracy and objectivity are duties, not virtues. In this regard CR was a master. He was a prolific researcher and always collected the data by himself in order to ensure accuracy and completeness. It was surprising to see a senior surgeon himself collecting the data for his research studies. CR’s inquisitive and probing mind of a talented researcher is evident in his effort to locate the ‘Endarunatta’ he found in an abdominal cavity, in order to plant it to assess its viability after remaining inside a human body for three years!

CR was honest to a fault in all his dealings and there are many anecdotes confirming this. On his way home, after abandoning a difficult surgery for an advanced cancer, he soon realised ‘everybody wanted to live’. CR rushed back to the operation room and begged the anaesthetist and other operation room staff to recommence the major operation and remove the cancer come what may. He could not believe his eyes when he met the same patient in a supermarket after 20 years.

It is said that one major obstacle to impart professionalism among present day medical doctors is a lack of role models. In this regard CR was a role model – par excellence. Saturday morning was the only day where the surgical ward of the Peradeniya Teaching Hospital was less crowded and had few empty beds in early 1990s. On one such Saturday, the silver-haired Professor of surgery in his usual open neck shirt and sandals, arrived at the ward for the business ward round as it was called. He noticed that a patient was in a bed close to the toilet with several empty beds before. The patient was a woman in her sixties working as a tea plucker of a rural estate. He was furious of this and called the ward sister. The nursing officer who was doing the rounds tried to explain the reasons but to no avail. He wanted the despondent patient moved to the first bed in the special cubicle reserved for patients requiring special attention.



This was the only instance I saw CR losing his temper during my stay of over one year at the surgical unit of CR. He did not leave the ward until the patient was shifted to the first bed and next morning, he put a cheeky smile when he saw the thankful patient for receiving VIP care. That was the compassion CR displayed to his patients which went beyond the boundaries of cast, creed, nationality, religion or social status. Every patient rich or poor, and whether in a state hospital or in the private sector, received CR’s whole-hearted attention. CR practiced what he preached so his trainees learnt lessons from their heart not their brain.

This book aptly demonstrates the value of reflective thinking and wise clinical judgement which are essential ingredients for a compassionate and skilled doctor. The correct attitudes essential for a medical doctor are described and displayed with their relevance in real time clinical practice in these anecdotes, so that those values will be embedded deep into their character. Therefore, it should be recommended as essential reading for undergraduates and postgraduates in medical sciences. If I am given a chance to select a handbook for intern medical officers who are about to start their professional career, I would have no hesitation in choosing this book rather than a book full of technical details of patient care which they can find easily using their smart phones.


Passion for teaching

A large number of anecdotes display his passion for teaching. As a junior doctor who witnessed his marathon teaching ward round on every Sunday starting at 2.00 pm and going on until 8.00 pm in the evening, I realised teaching was his priority and only priority. Nothing could overshadow it. His penchant to conduct continuous professional development activities for his junior team members was phenomenal. As the registrar I had to organise the weekly Journal Club of the unit. This was scheduled after lunch on Mondays, only free time slot for all members. To our dismay everyone was tired and sleepy after the emergency surgery list on Sunday night going on till early hours of the morning. When several members of the team left on transfer, I was relieved that the Journal Club would not be held as I was the only postgraduate trainee left. Happily, I arrived for the possible final Journal Club and CR was the only person in the audience. But he was cool as usual and listened to my presentation and continued the discussion thereafter highlighting many important learning points. As we were leaving the tutorial room, he said it was not fair to ask me to present every week thereafter. CR volunteered to present the journal article alternatively. My hopes of having an afternoon nap on the post-casualty day were shattered. Next week, as planned the Professor of Surgery made the presentation whilst I was the only member of the audience. This left an indelible mark on me. Even after 30 years I am not at all interested in the number of people in the audience when I teach. That was the power of his exemplary professionalism and commitment. He taught his juniors by example.



The anecdotes vividly show the exemplary zeal and unrelenting dedication with which CR has delivered the duty of a surgeon which is nothing more or nothing less than patient care and caring for patients. The stories depict his devotion to the surgical care of his patients with sustained intellectual energy, highly skilled dexterity and expenditure of enormous time. Anecdotes confirms how this was greatly and gratefully and effusively appreciated by his patients even though he did not expect it. Like George Bernard Shaw used the medium of a popular story to convey social messages, CR has used his anecdotes to highlight important lessons to be learnt by practicing doctors. Personal bias might well be the reason, but I found the book fascinating from end to end and literally unputdownable. CR shows how to write briefly and clearly without using superfluous words and padding. Some of the words and phrases CR uses are literary marvels. CR has used medical terms sparingly and even then, with a simple explanation so that even non-medical readers can enjoy the book thoroughly.

CR finishes his last anecdote with the piquant remark – “Despite the hyped humbug we are daily inundated with, by the media, there exists in this small country of ours, touches of beauty that transcends all. That merits our effort for its future progress. So join in.” Marx said “History does nothing; it possesses no immense wealth, fights no battles. It is rather man, real living man who does everything, who possesses and fights.” Read CR’s book to understand how he did, possessed and fought. I wish him good health so that he could write many more books for the benefit and enjoyment of both medical and non-medical readers.



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Midweek Review

‘Professor of English Language Teaching’



It is a pleasure to be here today, when the University resumes postgraduate work in English and Education which we first embarked on over 20 years ago. The presence of a Professor on English Language Teaching from Kelaniya makes clear that the concept has now been mainstreamed, which is a cause for great satisfaction.

Twenty years ago, this was not the case. Our initiative was looked at askance, as indeed was the initiative which Prof. Arjuna Aluwihare engaged in as UGC Chairman to make degrees in English more widely available. Those were the days in which the three established Departments of English in the University system, at Peradeniya and Kelaniya and Colombo, were unbelievably conservative. Their contempt for his efforts made him turn to Sri Jayewardenepura, which did not even have a Department of English then and only offered it as one amongst three subjects for a General Degree.

Ironically, the most dogmatic defence of this exclusivity came from Colombo, where the pioneer in English teaching had been Prof. Chitra Wickramasuriya, whose expertise was, in fact, in English teaching. But her successor, when I tried to suggest reforms, told me proudly that their graduates could go on to do postgraduate degrees at Cambridge. I suppose that, for generations brought up on idolization of E. F. C. Ludowyke, that was the acme of intellectual achievement.

I should note that the sort of idealization of Ludowyke, the then academic establishment engaged in was unfair to a very broadminded man. It was the Kelaniya establishment that claimed that he ‘maintained high standards, but was rarefied and Eurocentric and had an inhibiting effect on creative writing’. This was quite preposterous coming from someone who removed all Sri Lankan and other post-colonial writing from an Advanced Level English syllabus. That syllabus, I should mention, began with Jacobean poetry about the cherry-cheeked charms of Englishwomen. And such a characterization of Ludowyke totally ignored his roots in Sri Lanka, his work in drama which helped Sarachchandra so much, and his writing including ‘Those Long Afternoons’, which I am delighted that a former Sabaragamuwa student, C K Jayanetti, hopes to resurrect.

I have gone at some length into the situation in the nineties because I notice that your syllabus includes in the very first semester study of ‘Paradigms in Sri Lankan English Education’. This is an excellent idea, something which we did not have in our long-ago syllabus. But that was perhaps understandable since there was little to study then except a history of increasing exclusivity, and a betrayal of the excuse for getting the additional funding those English Departments received. They claimed to be developing teachers of English for the nation; complete nonsense, since those who were knowledgeable about cherries ripening in a face were not likely to move to rural areas in Sri Lanka to teach English. It was left to the products of Aluwihare’s initiative to undertake that task.

Another absurdity of that period, which seems so far away now, was resistance to training for teaching within the university system. When I restarted English medium education in the state system in Sri Lanka, in 2001, and realized what an uphill struggle it was to find competent teachers, I wrote to all the universities asking that they introduce modules in teacher training. I met condign refusal from all except, I should note with continuing gratitude, from the University of Sri Jayewardenepura, where Paru Nagasunderam introduced it for the external degree. When I started that degree, I had taken a leaf out of Kelaniya’s book and, in addition to English Literature and English Language, taught as two separate subjects given the language development needs of students, made the third subject Classics. But in time I realized that was not at all useful. Thankfully, that left a hole which ELT filled admirably at the turn of the century.

The title of your keynote speaker today, Professor of English Language Teaching, is clear evidence of how far we have come from those distant days, and how thankful we should be that a new generation of practical academics such as her and Dinali Fernando at Kelaniya, Chitra Jayatilleke and Madhubhashini Ratnayake at USJP and the lively lot at the Postgraduate Institute of English at the Open University are now making the running. I hope Sabaragamuwa under its current team will once again take its former place at the forefront of innovation.

To get back to your curriculum, I have been asked to teach for the paper on Advanced Reading and Writing in English. I worried about this at first since it is a very long time since I have taught, and I feel the old energy and enthusiasm are rapidly fading. But having seen the care with which the syllabus has been designed, I thought I should try to revive my flagging capabilities.

However, I have suggested that the university prescribe a textbook for this course since I think it is essential, if the rounded reading prescribed is to be done, that students should have ready access to a range of material. One of the reasons I began while at the British Council an intensive programme of publications was that students did not read round their texts. If a novel was prescribed, they read that novel and nothing more. If particular poems were prescribed, they read those poems and nothing more. This was especially damaging in the latter case since the more one read of any poet the more one understood what he was expressing.

Though given the short notice I could not prepare anything, I remembered a series of school textbooks I had been asked to prepare about 15 years ago by International Book House for what were termed international schools offering the local syllabus in the English medium. Obviously, the appalling textbooks produced by the Ministry of Education in those days for the rather primitive English syllabus were unsuitable for students with more advanced English. So, I put together more sophisticated readers which proved popular. I was heartened too by a very positive review of these by Dinali Fernando, now at Kelaniya, whose approach to students has always been both sympathetic and practical.

I hope then that, in addition to the texts from the book that I will discuss, students will read other texts in the book. In addition to poetry and fiction the book has texts on politics and history and law and international relations, about which one would hope postgraduate students would want some basic understanding.

Similarly, I do hope whoever teaches about Paradigms in English Education will prescribe a textbook so that students will understand more about what has been going on. Unfortunately, there has been little published about this but at least some students will I think benefit from my book on English and Education: In Search of Equity and Excellence? which Godage & Bros brought out in 2016. And then there was Lakmahal Justified: Taking English to the People, which came out in 2018, though that covers other topics too and only particular chapters will be relevant.

The former book is bulky but I believe it is entertaining as well. So, to conclude I will quote from it, to show what should not be done in Education and English. For instance, it is heartening that you are concerned with ‘social integration, co-existence and intercultural harmony’ and that you want to encourage ‘sensitivity towards different cultural and linguistic identities’. But for heaven’s sake do not do it as the NIE did several years ago in exaggerating differences. In those dark days, they produced textbooks which declared that ‘Muslims are better known as heavy eaters and have introduced many tasty dishes to the country. Watalappam and Buriani are some of these dishes. A distinguished feature of the Muslims is that they sit on the floor and eat food from a single plate to show their brotherhood. They eat string hoppers and hoppers for breakfast. They have rice and curry for lunch and dinner.’ The Sinhalese have ‘three hearty meals a day’ and ‘The ladies wear the saree with a difference and it is called the Kandyan saree’. Conversely, the Tamils ‘who live mainly in the northern and eastern provinces … speak the Tamil language with a heavy accent’ and ‘are a close-knit group with a heavy cultural background’’.

And for heaven’s sake do not train teachers by telling them that ‘Still the traditional ‘Transmission’ and the ‘Transaction’ roles are prevalent in the classroom. Due to the adverse standard of the school leavers, it has become necessary to develop the learning-teaching process. In the ‘Transmission’ role, the student is considered as someone who does not know anything and the teacher transmits knowledge to him or her. This inhibits the development of the student.

In the ‘Transaction’ role, the dialogue that the teacher starts with the students is the initial stage of this (whatever this might be). Thereafter, from the teacher to the class and from the class to the teacher, ideas flow and interaction between student-student too starts afterwards and turns into a dialogue. From known to unknown, simple to complex are initiated and for this to happen, the teacher starts questioning.

And while avoiding such tedious jargon, please make sure their command of the language is better than to produce sentences such as these, or what was seen in an English text, again thankfully several years ago:

Read the story …

Hello! We are going to the zoo. “Do you like to join us” asked Sylvia. “Sorry, I can’t I’m going to the library now. Anyway, have a nice time” bye.

So Syliva went to the zoo with her parents. At the entrance her father bought tickets. First, they went to see the monkeys

She looked at a monkey. It made a funny face and started swinging Sylvia shouted: “He is swinging look now it is hanging from its tail its marvellous”

“Monkey usually do that’

I do hope your students will not hang from their tails as these monkeys do.

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Midweek Review

Little known composers of classical super-hits



By Satyajith Andradi


Quite understandably, the world of classical music is dominated by the brand images of great composers. It is their compositions that we very often hear. Further, it is their life histories that we get to know. In fact, loads of information associated with great names starting with Beethoven, Bach and Mozart has become second nature to classical music aficionados. The classical music industry, comprising impresarios, music publishers, record companies, broadcasters, critics, and scholars, not to mention composers and performers, is largely responsible for this. However, it so happens that classical music lovers are from time to time pleasantly struck by the irresistible charm and beauty of classical pieces, the origins of which are little known, if not through and through obscure. Intriguingly, most of these musical gems happen to be classical super – hits. This article attempts to present some of these famous pieces and their little-known composers.


Pachelbel’s Canon in D

The highly popular piece known as Pachelbel’s Canon in D constitutes the first part of Johann Pachelbel’s ‘Canon and Gigue in D major for three violins and basso continuo’. The second part of the work, namely the gigue, is rarely performed. Pachelbel was a German organist and composer. He was born in Nuremburg in 1653, and was held in high esteem during his life time. He held many important musical posts including that of organist of the famed St Stephen’s Cathedral in Vienna. He was the teacher of Bach’s elder brother Johann Christoph. Bach held Pachelbel in high regard, and used his compositions as models during his formative years as a composer. Pachelbel died in Nuremburg in 1706.

Pachelbel’s Canon in D is an intricate piece of contrapuntal music. The melodic phrases played by one voice are strictly imitated by the other voices. Whilst the basso continuo constitutes a basso ostinato, the other three voices subject the original tune to tasteful variation. Although the canon was written for three violins and continuo, its immense popularity has resulted in the adoption of the piece to numerous other combinations of instruments. The music is intensely soothing and uplifting. Understandingly, it is widely played at joyous functions such as weddings.


Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary

The hugely popular piece known as ‘Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary’ appeared originally as ‘ The Prince of Denmark’s March’ in Jeremiah Clarke’s book ‘ Choice lessons for the Harpsichord and Spinet’, which was published in 1700 ( Michael Kennedy; Oxford Dictionary of Music ). Sometimes, it has also been erroneously attributed to England’s greatest composer Henry Purcell (1659 – 1695 ) and called ‘Purcell’s Trumpet Voluntary (Percy A. Scholes ; Oxford Companion to Music). This brilliant composition is often played at joyous occasions such as weddings and graduation ceremonies. Needless to say, it is a piece of processional music, par excellence. As its name suggests, it is probably best suited for solo trumpet and organ. However, it is often played for different combinations of instruments, with or without solo trumpet. It was composed by the English composer and organist Jeremiah Clarke.

Jeremiah Clarke was born in London in 1670. He was, like his elder contemporary Pachelbel, a musician of great repute during his time, and held important musical posts. He was the organist of London’s St. Paul’s Cathedral and the composer of the Theatre Royal. He died in London in 1707 due to self – inflicted gun – shot injuries, supposedly resulting from a failed love affair.


Albinoni’s Adagio

The full title of the hugely famous piece known as ‘Albinoni’s Adagio’ is ‘Adagio for organ and strings in G minor’. However, due to its enormous popularity, the piece has been arranged for numerous combinations of instruments. It is also rendered as an organ solo. The composition, which epitomizes pathos, is structured as a chaconne with a brooding bass, which reminds of the inevitability and ever presence of death. Nonetheless, there is no trace of despondency in this ethereal music. On the contrary, its intense euphony transcends the feeling of death and calms the soul. The composition has been attributed to the Italian composer Tomaso Albinoni (1671 – 1750), who was a contemporary of Bach and Handel. However, the authorship of the work is shrouded in mystery. Michael Kennedy notes: “The popular Adagio for organ and strings in G minor owes very little to Albinoni, having been constructed from a MS fragment by the twentieth century Italian musicologist Remo Giazotto, whose copyright it is” (Michael Kennedy; Oxford Dictionary of Music).


Boccherini’s Minuet

The classical super-hit known as ‘Boccherini’s Minuet’ is quite different from ‘Albinoni’s Adagio’. It is a short piece of absolutely delightful music. It was composed by the Italian cellist and composer Luigi Boccherini. It belongs to his string quintet in E major, Op. 13, No. 5. However, due to its immense popularity, the minuet is performed on different combinations of instruments.

Boccherini was born in Lucca in 1743. He was a contemporary of Haydn and Mozart, and an elder contemporary of Beethoven. He was a prolific composer. His music shows considerable affinity to that of Haydn. He lived in Madrid for a considerable part of his life, and was attached to the royal court of Spain as a chamber composer. Boccherini died in poverty in Madrid in 1805.

Like numerous other souls, I have found immense joy by listening to popular classical pieces like Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, Albinoni’s Adagio and Boccherini’s Minuet. They have often helped me to unwind and get over the stresses of daily life. Intriguingly, such music has also made me wonder how our world would have been if the likes of Bach, Handel, Haydn, Mozart, Beethoven, and Schubert had never lived. Surely, the world would have been immeasurably poorer without them. However, in all probability, we would have still had Pachelbel’s Canon in D, Jeremiah Clarke’s Trumpet Voluntary, Albinoni’s Adagio, and Boccherini’s Minuet, to cheer us up and uplift our spirits.

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Midweek Review

The Tax Payer and the Tough



By Lynn Ockersz

The tax owed by him to Caesar,

Leaves our retiree aghast…

How is he to foot this bill,

With the few rupees,

He has scraped together over the months,

In a shrinking savings account,

While the fires in his crumbling hearth,

Come to a sputtering halt?

But in the suave villa next door,

Stands a hulk in shiny black and white,

Over a Member of the August House,

Keeping an eagle eye,

Lest the Rep of great renown,

Be besieged by petitioners,

Crying out for respite,

From worries in a hand-to-mouth life,

But this thought our retiree horrifies:

Aren’t his hard-earned rupees,

Merely fattening Caesar and his cohorts?

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