THE WEEK THAT WAS
by Malinda Seneviratne
Fire and brimstone. That’s one way of talking about the week that has passed. Fire, on account of the tragedy that unfolded at the Mahara Prison, brimstone as metaphor for what was feared (but didn’t transpire) by way of a cyclone, Buravi. Of course we are still caught in the so-called Second Wave of the Covid-19 pandemic and a budget debate.
Let’s first get to the Covid-19 situation. As of December 3, total infections confirmed stood at 26,038 against 19,032 recoveries with 129 fatalities. As such, according to Epidemiology Unit data, there are a told of 6,877 active cases. The relevant authorities impose restrictions and, probably following careful monitoring, relax the same and even lift them completely. Colombo is clearly the hardest hit district. This has obvious implications for economic activity. Most institutions have opted to restrict numbers coming to work and have put in place work-from-home systems. Until when, however, is a question that no one can answer.
‘Let’s wait for the vaccine’ is, in a sense, a sign of resignation. The fact of the matter is that despite promising updates on multiple vaccines, there are none yet that the World Health Organizations have approved. Affordability will probably be an issue that will accompany availability. Meanwhile, as has been the case from the beginning of this story, it is best to assume that YOU ARE INFECTED or, if that’s a bit terrifying, to assume that YOU MAY BE INFECTED. So what do you do? Well, if you can’t stay at home, isolated, and indeed aren’t required to since you’ve not tested positive, limit travel, avoid public places, wear a mask as per mask-protocol, wash your hands and maintain recommended social distance. In short, follow guidelines.
That’s what civic responsibility is all about. Of course, not everyone is responsible. Forget civic responsibility, even basic civility is spat at (literally) by some. Yes, we are talking about the incident in Atalugama (yes, the very same village that’s acquired a poor reputation on account of Covid-19) where an infected individual spat in the face of a Public Health Inspector.
Gross, first and foremost. Irresponsible to the core, moreover. If someone is infected, knows it and knowingly acts in a way that could infect someone else that’s not just irresponsible but criminal. Given the nature of the virus and the possibility of death, it has to be treated as equivalent to ‘attempted murder’.
The Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA), which has been offering regular advice to the Government with regard to how the pandemic ought to be handled has, on behalf of health professionals, issued a dire warning. It is mulling ‘very serious decisions regarding the provision of services for people in the area.’
The GMOA is a trade union. It is made of professionals in the medical field. It has every right to air the grievances of its membership and to contemplate collective action in the face of any act(s) that put them at risk of any kind. The GMOA’s advice should be taken in good faith, but this doesn’t mean that decision-makers should take it as the last word on the matter. They have the qualifications to talk about viruses, diseases and treatment, but they are not experts on the social and economic entirety in which the pandemic is located and moves.
In this instance, it’s about protecting members from possible infection. Understood. However, to contemplate what is essentially the punishment of an entire community for the wrongdoing of a single member of that collective is morally wrong.
After the incident of a Covid-19 infected individual spitting in the face of a Public Health Inspector (PHI) in Atalugama in Bandaragama, the Government Medical Officers’ Association (GMOA) said health professionals would have to take very serious decisions in future regarding providing their services for the people in the area. They claim, ‘no one in the village spoke against this person (the spitter)’ nor offered support to the PHI officers. That’s not crime enough for a deliberate denial of health services.
Let’s go to Mahara. The prison riots and the outcome brought back memories of ‘Welikada’ (2012 and 1983). This time around there wasn’t an armory for the prisoners to raid. The target was the pharmacy. There was unrest over PCR rests and here the blame falls squarely on the health authorities of the prison who were either ignorant or mischievous with respect to possible anxieties and alleviating the same.
How did it escalate to a point where arson took place, hostages were taken, prisoners attacking one another and a warranting of the use of force? At the end of it all, 11 persons were dead and over 100 wounded. A prison is all about security but insecurity was what was most evident in this incident.
Whether the victims were in prison for drug-related offenses, petty theft, brigandry or scamming the Central Bank is absolutely irrelevant here. No one subjected to a prison sentence would think he/she would enjoy luxurious accommodation, but neither would they believe they could die there.
The Government has taken responsibility. Inquires are under way. Those responsible for negligence or incompetence or both at every key point in the process need to be held accountable.
It is not illogical to move from prisons to courts, so let’s discuss judicial appointments. A few weeks ago, President Gotabaya Rajapaksa nominated several persons to the Supreme Court. When the 20th Amendment was first proposed, the objectors raised questions about judicial independence. These objectors, nor surprisingly were ardent fans of the 19th Amendment. They applauded the Constitutional Council and decried the Parliamentary Council the 20th would replace it with. The CC was politician-heavy and even the non-politicians were essentially political pals of the then regime, in particular the Ranil Wickremesinghe faction of it. Meritocracy and seniority were shoved aside in favor of the ‘safe’ and ‘loyal.’
Six individuals have now been promoted as judges of the Supreme Court. They were the six most senior judges in line for promotion. A total of 14 have been appointed to the Court of Appeal. Eleven are senior judges of the high courts, two from the Attorney General’s department and the last from the unofficial bar who is in fact a former district judge.
Draconian. Hitler-like. Dictator. Military-mindset. Those were the tags pinned on Gotabaya Rajapaksa. Well, the president seems to have done an immense disservice to his reputation! His detractors, meanwhile, are in thumb-twiddling land on these appointments.
That said, the course of action chosen by Gotabaya Rajapaksa does not necessarily mean that someone else would do the same if in his place. Ranil Wickremesinghe, as Prime Minister, was ‘okay’ with the Near-n-Dear Mode. If he, or someone like him (and there are many in all political camps), was in Rajapaksa’s shoes, there’s no guarantee that meritocracy and seniority would be similarly affirmed.
The President, however, has set a precedent. A good one. Reason has bested emotion and self-interest. We should applaud. Related to all this is of course ‘The Constitution.’ A committee has been appointed to draft a new constitution. The public has been requested to submit recommendations. Well, there’s a set of recommendations which may require constitutional amendment that this committee headed by Romesh de Silva can wipe the dust off and use as a foundational text when deliberating on certain elements of constitutional amendment: The Sectoral Oversight Committee on National Security.
This committee was appointed in the aftermath of the Easter Sunday attacks in 2019. The 17-member committee headed by Malith Jayatilleka, came up with many recommendations on 13 different subject areas which, in their minds, would ‘eliminate new terrorism and extremism,’ or rather threat of the same. It is all about streamlining matters, especially in key areas such as education, religion, media and defence.
The Report was released days before the expected dissolution of Parliament, i.e., on February 19, 2020. That could have been a coincidence. Dissolution was followed by Covid-19 related restrictions and then parliamentary elections. The document was the work of a previous Parliament, true. The movers and shakers of that parliament got creamed on August 5, 2020. Nevertheless, some of the committee members were returned. All this notwithstanding, we don’t have any report that can even come close to this in terms of taking cognizance of relevant factors and recommending corrections with a view to tackling the vexed problem of extremism.
Not all recommendations require constitutional amendment. A simple gazette notification would suffice for most of them to be put into operation. Others may require cabinet approval or acts of parliament. Some, amendment of the Muslim Marriage and Divorce Law and the Waqf Law might require an amendment; no doubt interested parties will petition the Supreme Court to hear their objections. All that, for tomorrow. Today, it makes sense to use the report at least as the basis for conversation if not far-reaching restructuring of institutions and adjusting of processes to ensure reconciliation and peace.
President Gotabaya Rajapaksa, in his election campaign, fervently pledged that he would work towards a system that affirms the notion ‘One-Country, One-Law.’ The Sri Lanka Podujana Peramuna (SLPP) used that slogan in the run up to the August elections. They need to make good on that pledge. They have 6.9 million backing them. In fact they have more, for if they use this Report as a base document for reform that aims for cogency in the law, the constituencies of the authors and the parties they represent would significantly swell those numbers. Let us not forget that Sajith Premadasa’s campaign also insisted that the unitary nature of the state would not be fiddled with. His backers also spoke the one-country-one-law language.
The report can be found online if you go to www.parliament.lk and look for ‘committee reports.’ It’s the one right on top. We recommend a close reading of that text.
Finally, we have the anticlimax. Buravi.
There was much anxiety on account of Buravi. It was heartening to hear that the Governor of the Eastern Province, Anuradha Yahampath, visiting villages considered to be at risk, advising them, offering help and instructing all relevant state agencies to be ready for any eventuality. The Disaster Management authorities were ready. Officials on the ground were on alert.
The devastation feared did not take place. One person has gone missing, four are reported to have been injured and over 12,000 persons adversely affected. The Disaster Management Centre (DMC) has released the following numbers: 2, 252 people in 3, 575 families affected, 15 houses fully damaged and 192 partially damaged. A total of 10, 336 persons in 2, 911 families have been placed in 79 safe locations Mannar, Jaffna, Killinochchi, Mullaitivu, Vavuniya and Trincomalee districts.
The district-wise breakdown of the affected is as follows. Mannar: 7, 749 people in 2, 236 families; Jaffna: 2,986 people in 829 families; Killinochchi: 41 people in 10 families; Mullaitivu: 1, 149 people in 405 families; Vavuniya: 236 people in 74 families; Trincomalee: 91 people in 21 families.
What next? Provincial Councils? Ruling party politicians are making a bit of noise about PC elections. Maybe they are testing waters. It’s in their interest. Political consolidation is part of the story.
PC elections have been repeatedly postponed. This is not a good thing. The democracy-watchdogs, not surprisingly, haven’t uttered a word about this. Interestingly they also happen to be high on ‘devolution.’ Maybe they are punch-drunk. Maybe they were never sober or were unsighted by party loyalty and outcome preferences.
The 13th Amendment, which gave us PCs, was illegally pushed through. However, it is not part of the constitution. As such elections should be held. On the other hand, we are told that a new constitution is on the way. In that case, why waste time and money on maintaining this white elephant which was the issue of an ungainly union between Indian hegemony and a spineless regime way back in 1987? The intended beneficiaries, after all, aren’t lamenting the fact that they haven’t elected representatives to relevant PCs. Administration has not come to a standstill.
The drafters of the new constitution should consider these issues as well. We await word from them on progress made, what we can expect and when. We need to know what they propose to do with the 13th Amendment as well.
One week rolls into another and Covid-19 rolls along. We are relieved that Buravi’s bark was worse than its bite. We are alarmed that ‘Mahara’ happened. We are encouraged by judicial appointments. We remain wary, as is prudent, always.
Strong on vocals
The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!
Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.
At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).
The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.
However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.
Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.
Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year
Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.
It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.
The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.
The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.
The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.
Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.
This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.
Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.
The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.
Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.
Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.
New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations
Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.
Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.
A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.
Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.
Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.
Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.
Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.
Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.
The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.
Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.
Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.
This is the verse sung while playing the game:
“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,
Olinda thibenne bangali dese…
Genath hadanne koi koi dese,
Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”
Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’
Happy New Year!
A Cabinet reshuffle needed
7-billion-rupee diamond heist; Madush splls the beans before being shot
Unfit, unprofessional, fat Sri Lankans
The Burghers of Ceylon/Sri Lanka- Reminiscences and Anecdotes
Opinion6 days ago
Monumental blunders paralysing Sri Lanka
Features4 days ago
How confidence has been eroded
Sports4 days ago
When failures boast of success
Sports7 days ago
COPE exposes large scale corruption at SLC
Features5 days ago
A senior cop remembers April 1971
Politics5 days ago
The British will not learn English, let’s not kid ourselves
Opinion3 days ago
A Cabinet reshuffle needed
news6 days ago
SLC funds amounting to Rs 29 mn in US bank: SLC caught lying before COPE