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Biden’s Presidency is somewhat different

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Mike Pence escorted out of the Chamber to safety Trump instigated mobs attacked the Capitol building

 

by Kumar David

Indications are that the Biden Presidency does not resemble any other post-war American presidency. Though he was Obama’s Vice President, thankfully he is not imitating that failed model. Post-war Democratic presidents (Truman, Kennedy, Johnson, Carter, Clinton and Obama) followed a different agenda. FDR however comes to mind when searching for something similar; maybe because the crises now and during the Great Depression were both so daunting. Look at the parlous predicament now – a covid catastrophe, an economic slump, decline in global power, foreign policy setbacks, and Trump incited domestic terrorism. Except for the Great Depression there is no other period since the Civil War when conditions were so perilous. Maybe this is the reason why Biden’s actions so far are reminiscent of the FDR model.

At the same time duplicity is apparent; on Iran he refuses to lift sanctions until the latter comes into full compliance with a treaty that his predecessor Trump ripped up. The US as a superpower thinks it can eat its words and have them. Foreign policy hawks may be regaining ground they lost during the election campaign. When China, as expected, blocked a Security Council resolution to condemn the Burmese coup calling it “an internal affair” (no doubt akin to the incarceration of hundreds of thousands of Uyghur Muslims in Xinjiang!), US condemnation of Chinese duplicity was muted. But with protests spreading across Burma and against the backdrop of a US decision to renew links with the UN Human Rights Council, Biden finally made the right call and imposed tough sanctions on Burma’s military. This will hearten local and international observers of the upcoming UNHRC debate on Sri Lanka. Fifteen months ago I explicitly told my readers that the road to dictatorship in this country will be through the transformation of institutions (courts, constitution, state administration and the military).The Gotabaya Executive, now snarled in internal disarray and a Sino-Quad logjam is uncertain which way to turn. Weeks ago I said in this column (everyone says it now) that tension was rising between the Executive and the Parliamentary arms of government. The Wimal-Kariyawasam clash is symptomatic.

To return to my topic, what is distinctive about the Biden Administration so far is that it is not treading the beholden-to-Wall-Street path that the Obama Administration did from day one. He is also holding firm to a climate-change, racial equality and poor relief agenda despite hostility of powerful lobbies. There is a tussle right now about Biden’s refusal to back-down on his $1.9 trillion covid control, cum economic stimulus, cum income relief for low and middle earner, package, which has run into determined Republican opposition. In FDR style, Team Biden is using stimulus not to shower handouts to big business, as Obama did, but to target infrastructure development and job creation. I am in no hurry to hand out a good-conduct certificate yet, it’s too early for that, but it is necessary to take note of trends. This huge $1.9 trillion package scripts his presidency as an FDR-style New Deal initiative. He seems to be exploring new ground, but caution for a while more before any hagiography is wise.

The $15 per hour minimum wage is a contentious issue. Is it too expensive? Even its most vociferous champion curmudgeonly Bernie Sanders admits “It was never my intention to increase the minimum wage to $15 immediately and during the pandemic. My legislation gradually increases it to $15 an hour over a five-year period; that is what we have got to do.” This minimum wage would reduce poverty but cost jobs, the non-partisan Congressional Budget Office says. Doing so by 2025 would boost pay for 17 million people but cut 1.4 million jobs. Biden cannot backtrack on his oath to implement minimum wage legislation and Democrats will be able include the wage hike in a bill to be passed by Reconciliation (a complicated short-cut process in the Senate that can be used a few times a year without a super-majority, 60 votes). It would have a positive effect of $64.5 billion per year on the federal budget, the boost coming in part from increased payroll tax revenue.

Sri Lankan readers may find a few comments on some members of Biden’s Cabinet helpful – it is overall an able team. Some are known to be competent intellectuals, a few quite distinguished; Yellen (Treasury), Binken (State), Garland (AG, that is Justice) and Granholm (Energy). There are four other appointments which are interesting; Gen. Lloyd Austin the first black Defence Secretary, Alejandro Mayorkas a Hispanic in charge of sensitive Homeland Security, Deb Haaland (Interior) the first native American to hold cabinet position, and Pete Buttigieg (Transport) of unconventional sexual orientation. Biden has made good on his promise that his choices would reflect America’s diversity.

Biden’s seven person science team (Office of Science and Technology Policy – OSTP), which the media describes as “Among the brightest, most dedicated people not only in the country but the world” is headed by a world-renowned biologist Eric Lander (Princeton Bachelors, Rhodes Scholar and Oxford DPhil) and includes America’s first woman Nobel Laureate (Frances Arnold). The other five too are world-class scientists. Gina McCarthy of environmental fame has been named Presidential Climate Advisor (“Climate Tsar” they call her, an appellation she will have to share with John Kerry named Climate Ambassador). One thing for sure, people of this calibre speak out and speak their minds; no dumb-cluck politician can intimidate them because they aren’t obliged to anybody for anything. A very refreshing thought, my scientist and engineer friends are sure to agree.

Having said so many nice things about Biden I am sure you are expecting a few stings in the tail and I am loath to disappoint you. The obvious one is to repeat that it is early days and while voicing approval it is necessary to express caution as well – how many politicians started off as everyone’s darling and wound up failures and miscarriages. The principal challenges facing the new administration are also a hurdles at which it may stumble; the uncertainty of Covid, class conflict over the economy, the large disgruntled mass which opted for Trump and will remain knotty for years more, race which won’t change colour and the complexity of international relations. I will speak of each in future columns, but let me say something upfront now. Because America is a country of top technological (still the leader I guess), scientific (a bigger concentration of the world’s best), economic (soon to be overtaken by China) and social potential (I will explore this carefully some other time), what happens in America in the next few decades is one of the cardinal matters that will shape the Twenty-first Century.

Rome did not decline to nothing in a day; from the start of the decline to eventual fall many moons elapsed. Gibbon begins his account of decline from the accession of Commodus (180 AD) and the fall of the Western Roman Empire is conventionally dated to 476 AD, when Flavius Odoacer a “barbarian” deposed Emperor Romulus Augustulus and proclaimed himself ruler. Other historians prefer different chronologies and dating, but the point I am making is that when global powers metamorphose, it is a prolonged process. More important is that their influences persist long afterwards. The impact and influences of Rome persist to this day. Someone said that if you go on a journey in philosophy on any theme, soon you will meet an ancient Greek returning from the same voyage. Likewise with Roman physical infrastructure, Roman law and governance. This getting lyrical so let’s return to earth. What I am pointing to is that the impact of American mores and culture will persist for longer than its superpower status. The language, artifices and political practices of the blithering English are still around nearly a century after the blooming empire was laid to rest. The traditions of some empires persist for long others do not – where is Ozymandias king of kings? Persia’s eight-century Achaemenid Empire or the Mayas have evaporated without trace so far as latter-day cultures notice. Why some go one way and others the other is too long and complex to pursue here.

My case is that the influence of American society will persist for long after the American Empire. What will persist above all else is the robustness of its unique social comportment and its roughshod democracy. A socialist America will have to be a democratic America, nothing less can put down roots in this soil and clime. Last week I was glued to the Trump impeachment trial in the Senate. A lesson I took away is recognition of the boldness of its democracy – bourgeois liberal-democracy, if you want theoretical purity. Democracy survived but it was a close call; at certain moments the threat was deadly. One mishap in a court, one truant State refusing to certify results, one bunch of electoral officials cowed by Trump’s bullying, one bullet in Nancy Pelosi’s head, or one misstep by Mike Pence, and who knows, history may have had to be rewritten.

I am certain Trump’s trial will not gather the requisite majority in the Senate for conviction though the Constitution says he is commander-in-chief of the military but from the summer 2020 he has been commander-in-chief of mobs. He goaded the lawless to insurrection and prepared the way for rioters to storm the Capitol. In a desperate effort to cling to power he allowed his rowdies to go after his own Vice President Pence chanting “Hang Mike Pence”. It is an enigma that the citadel of American democracy was stormed by American neo-fascists, egged on by the nation’s sitting president. Yes, democracy prevailed this time, but is unrest just beginning? A surreal plague of illiberalism has infected a portion of the body politic? It can and must be defeated but how will future historians make sense of this bizarre episode? I have to leave that too for another time and sign off with a celebrated paradox: “It was the best of times, it was the worst of times, it was the age of wisdom, it was the age of foolishness”.



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All communities should be treated equally without distinction

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by Jehan Perera

The government was elected on a platform that stressed national security and unity. The elections took place in the aftermath of the Easter suicide bomb attacks of 2019 that caused the highest numbers of casualties in Christian churches. As the bombers were all Muslim, the Muslim population in the country came under public suspicion which was spontaneous and widespread. There was also equally widespread fear and anxiety about follow on attacks that could target Christians in particular and also the population in general. The cause of the attacks and the master minds behind them were a mystery then as they are now.

Due to the timely intervention of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, in whose diocese the two most serious attacks took place, there was no retaliation against the Muslim population by those who had lost their kith and kin. However, in the weeks that followed, there were mob attacks against the Muslim community in parts of the country that were distant from the bomb attacks. These attacks were not spontaneous but organised and intended to loot Muslim property and cause fear in them. The government, which was under political siege for having failed to prevent the suicide bomb attacks, failed once again to adequately protect the Muslim community.

It is in this context that Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s statement on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Easter bombings takes on significance. About two months ago he gave a deadline by which he asked the government to identify who was behind the Easter attacks and the cause for them. The Cardinal has consistently spoken up on the issue of the Easter bombing, first to ask for restraint on the part of the victims, then to ask the government to identify the perpetrators and prior to the elections to take the position that the people needed a government that could protect them. Now he has said that “Our brethren were attacked not by religious extremism, but by a group that exploited it to use the attackers as pawns in order to strengthen their political power.”

MUSLIM OUTREACH

Two years after the Easter bombings in which they were branded as supporters of religious extremism, the Muslim community seeks in many different ways to overcome the suspicion that once engulfed them and which they fear can do so again. The use of the black Islamic dress that was an increasing trend among Muslim women has been much reduced. Muslim organisations are making energetic efforts to network with other religious organisations, join inter-religious groups and to liaise with civil society. They make available to them the Islamic teachings on peace and coexistence. This weekend I was invited to the opening of a community centre in the Kurunegala District by a Muslim organization.

On the walls of the community centre there were panels put up with sayings from the different religions on a number of important matters, such as how to treat others, and the role of spiritual values in everyday life. The foremost place at the opening ceremony was given to Buddhist monks who had come to attend the ceremony along with government officials and police officers. The monks who spoke said that the Muslim community living in the village had good relations with the Sinhalese living in the neighbouring villages, and this had continued for generations. Another monk said that after the Easter bombings they had heard there were violent gangs heading in the direction of the Muslim village, they had come there to ensure no harm would befall those people.

In this context, the announcement that the government will ban 11 Muslim organisations sends a negative message to the country at large about the Muslim community. It creates an impression that Muslims organisations are under suspicion and possibly even close to performing acts of violence which necessitates them being banned. Of the 11 banned organisations, two are foreign ones, the Islamic State and Al Qaeda which have been reported internationally as engaging in violence. However, the other nine are Sri Lankan organisations which do not have a track record of violence or illegality. Four of them have the name “Thowheed” in them, which in the Arabic language means “faith.”

 

DIFFERENT TREATMENT

The ban on these Thowheed organisations may be due to the fact that the leader of the suicide squad, Zahran, was part of an organisation that had the name “Thowheed” in it. The ban on them may also be due to the fact that the Commission of Inquiry into the Easter bombings recommended such action against them. However, the Commission also recommended that other non-Muslim organisations be banned which has not happened. This suggests that the Muslim organisations are being treated differently. The danger is that when it treats organisations differently, the government may be generating resentment in the Muslim community, especially the youth. If the words of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith are correct, the problem lies not in Muslim extremism but in partisan power politics.

Sri Lanka has experienced Sinhalese youth insurrections twice and even the Tamil militant movement was started by youth, who were once called “the boys.” Perhaps in anticipation of such a radicalisation phenomenon, the government has recently passed an add-on called the “De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology” to the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This will permit people who fall into its ambit to be send to rehabilitation centres for up to two years without trial. This may provide the government with an opportunity to release up to 250 Muslim citizens currently under detention on suspicion of being involved in the Easter bombings and send them for rehabilitation. On the other hand, this regulation may be used in the future in regard to other persons and other groups. The better way to prevent radicalization is to make people feel that the law is even-handed to all, and also to encourage engagement between communities.

During the discussion that took place at the opening of the community centre in Kurunegala, it was noted that the younger generation had fewer inter-community linkages than those of older generations. This may be due to the changing nature of society and the economy where people spend less time with other people and more time with machines or doing narrow and specialised jobs. In multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies in which there is conflictual relations, the tendency on the part of those from different communities will be to live in their own silos rather than interact with those of other communities. Living in peace in plural societies requires purposeful and energetic interaction which is organised. Where there has been ethnic and religious strife the world over, the better answer has been to provide people with encouragement and incentives to mix together, which is what the Muslim organization in Kurunegala was trying to do.

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TNGlive…a boon to artistes affected by the pandemic

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No doubt, Covid-19 has ruined the entertainment industry, throughout the world.

Entertainment venues have been shut down, concerts cancelled…and musicians are finding the going pretty tough.

However, it’s heartening to know that there are performers who find solace in keeping the public entertained, via online performances.

In this instance, those responsible for TNGlive must be congratulated for creating this platform, on social media, in order to give lots of folks, from around the globe, the opportunity to showcase their talent, on a regular basis.

Quite a few Sri Lankans have been featured on TNGlive, including Melantha Perera, Suzi Croner (Fluckiger), Sureshni Wanigasuriya, Yasmin de Silva, and Kay Jay Gunesekere,

Suzi did this scene twice, and on both occasions her performance was highly rated, with bouquets galore coming her way…on social media.

On Saturday, April 10th, she was featured (8.00 pm Sri Lankan time) doing songs from the country and western catalogue.

It was a very entertaining programme, which also contained some dance scenes (line dancing) from the audience present, in her living room – her friends.

Her repertoire included ‘Joline, ‘Me And Bobby McGee, “Johnny B. Goode,’ ‘Blue By You,’ ‘Okie From Muskogee,’ ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ ‘Rose Garden,’ ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Cotton Eyed Joe.’

Suzi is to make her third appearance, on TNGlive, shortly, but this time it won’t be a solo effort, she says.

“For variety, I would be having a guy from the Philippines, and he sings the hit songs of Tom Jones and Engelbert.”

So get ready for another special from Suzi, who now resides in Switzerland.

Suzi was the frontline vocalist for the group Friends who were, at that point in time, top of the pops!

Another artiste who impressed viewers, performing on TNGlive, with his daughter, was Nigel Gerrard John Galway.

Nigel is from India, and has been a Chef for the last 23 years, with 12 years spent at the Oberoi hotels. He was also an executive Sous Chef at Taj, in Coimbatore.

In fact, Allwyn Stephen, TNGlive chief, referred to Nigel as…probably the first Singing/Dancing Chef in the world!

He, and his 18-year-old daughter, Lean Pamela Mary, did get the attention of many, with their unique style of presentation; while Nigel handled the vocals, Lean, using only gestures, expression, and movements, brought out the meaning of the lyrics in most of the songs her dad did. And, she did it beautifully.

Yes, she also did exercise her vocal cords, on this particular programme

Says Nigel: “We come from a family of musicians, but we attempted singing, only during the pandemic, on various social media groups, and we did so only because we were all stuck at home.

“We joined TNGlive, through a friend, and have been performing ever since. The love and support we received from people around only encouraged us to keep growing and now we have a page of our own called THE SINGING CHEF.”

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Heard at the club

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Part II

A member reminisced an incident that happened long years ago, during those peaceful times when terrorism was unheard of. He had been driving his car, on the Deniyaya Road, when about six miles from Galle, he saw a village in a state of panic. So he stopped his car near the village boutique and asked the mudalali what was happening? The mudalali had said that the self-opinionated ‘mudliyar’ of the village (a court interpreter) had organised a ‘dane’ (an alms giving) and was awaiting the procession of monks, complete with drummers, from the temple. And, seeing it coming over the paddy fields which was a short cut, instead of the village road as show off, put him in a paddy, and he had chased the monks away. So the monks had gone back to the temple. As the meal time deadline for monks was fast approaching, the villagers brought the meals they had cooked in their homes, to serve the monks! That was the panic.

He was an unpopular villager who rose to a high position in the public service with political influence. Cussed by nature, he used his official position to harass villagers. When he met with an untimely death and, right at the moment the coffin was taken to the hearse, the whole village reverberated with the sound of fire crackers, organised by the irate villagers.

****

Once a terrible post office blunder very nearly wrecked a marriage. A certain sales rep sometimes sold his wares on credit. One such creditor was the owner of a shop named ‘Chandra Cafe’ who was slack in his payments. So the sales rep sent him a telegram that he would be coming to collect his dues, next Monday. On receipt, the owner of Chandra Cafe telegraphed the rep asking him not to come on Monday and the telegram received by him read, ‘Do not come on Monday – Chandra K.P.’ And when the rep’s wife read the telegram there was some misunderstanding at home which nearly rocked his marriage.

****

This reminded us of another telegram. An army officer was to go back to camp by the night mail. When he arrived at the railway station, he found a lady in an advanced state of pregnancy, almost in tears, because no berths were available. Gallantly the officer offered her his berth and, at the nearest post office, sent a telegram to his commanding officer saying ‘Unable to return tomorrow as ordered. Gave berth to lady. Arriving tomorrow evening.’

Obviously, the vital word ‘berth’ had been misspelt as ‘birth’, for the gallant officer received this reply from his commanding officer, ‘Your next confinement will be to barracks’.

****

A philanthropist donated a building to his old school. An opening ceremony was held with a VVIP as the chief guest. A group photograph was also taken. As the donor was keen to get this photograph published in the newspapers without delay, he sent the local correspondent in his limousine to Colombo. He met the editor who happened to be an old boy of the same school. After a look at the photograph, he folded it in such away to eliminate the principal and sent it for publication. The editor seemed to have an axe to grind with the principal!

****

It was in the early 60s and I was on my way to the club in the evening, when I met a friend near the club. With him was another, I invited them both to the club and after a few drinks we were headed out of the club, when near the gate, my friend pulled me aside and said that his friend was going for some trade union work to Hambantota and was short of funds. I told him that he should have told me that before I paid the club bill and also told him I had only Rs.18.00 which I gave. This trade union leader was non other than Rohana Wijeweera, who was to become JVP leader.

****

It was towards the end of the 1980s and a club member, a tea factory owner was on his way home all alone in his car, at the break of down, after finishing his factory work. He had to travel 12 miles. After about five miles, he saw a youth profusely bleeding with injuries, coming down a hill. The good Samaritan that he was, he took him in his car to the hospital. On the way, the police took him and the injured youth into custody for terrorist activities. Fortunately for him, Major-General Lucky Wijeratna, who was a classmate of his at school, was there to save him.

 

****

This happened several decades ago. There was a certain popular elderly club member, who was a wealthy businessman and drank nothing but whisky. That day when he came to the club, he seemed to have lost his bearings. He told his friends that he was going to donate all his wealth to the Home for Disabled Children which was close to his house, because his only child, a daughter, had eloped. His friends prevailed on him to defer his decision for a few months. About a year or so later, he came to the club one evening carrying a big flask in his hand. He said that it was for his errant daughter who has now reconciled, adding that he was a grandfather now!

****

A busy garage was located in a residential area and it was open day and night. To highlight their services, they put up an impressive signboard, ‘We never sleep’. The following day a prankster had written below it ‘and neither do the neighbours’.

During the day of insanity – 29th July 1987, the Open University at Matara was burnt down and the Ruhunu University remained closed. A wall poster came up. It read: ‘Close the Open University’ and ‘Open the closed University’.

****

A young teacher, met a young man at the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens. Although their native villages were far apart, they

became close friends and planned to get married in the near future. He posed as a private bus owner. One day on a visit to his fiancée, he stayed the night over and muttered in his sleep, “Borella – Battaramulla! Borella – Battaramulla!” This aroused serious suspicions about his identity. So a few days later, her parents came to the Borella junction, to see him in a sarong loading passengers to private buses as a ‘bus crier’. And the love story ended right there.

****

A long time ago a wealthy industrialist, a popular member of the club, was having his drink in a secluded corner of the club, most unlike him. He appeared to be quite agitated. Some concerned friends asked him what happened. He said that his only daughter (he also had a son) had married a man of her choice adding that his wife was in favour of the marriage. The daughter he said, was 22 years old. His friends told him that at that age, she was entitled to choose her partner in life and appealed to him to take things easy as his wife too approved of the marriage. After about a year or so, a friend visited him. Proudly pointing out a large multiple storey house in his sprawling garden, he had said that it was built by his son-in-law.

****

A certain member served abroad for many years. One morning he come back to his native Galle in a hired helicopter. That evening he came to the club and ordered a case of beer for his friends!

****

Several years ago, a member had gone to the Galle Post Office to send a telegram to a close relative. He was informed by the postal authorities that there was a breakdown in the telegraphic services and that it was unlikely that his message, about a bereavement in the friend’s family, would reach his relative in time. They advised our friend to telephone someone in the area where his relative lived and to get the message delivered orally. Those were the days when only a few had telephones. As the member did not know anyone in that area with a telephone, he thought of S. Jayasinghe, known as Mr. S, who was not know to him personally and who was a Junior Minister residing in the area where our friend’s relative lived.

When our friend telephoned him from the post office, he had just got into his car to go somewhere. Soon after he was speaking to our friend over the phone as if he was talking to an old friend. He also told our friend that he was about to go to the site where he was building a new house. Our friend then gave him the message and appealed to him to get it delivered. The rest of the story was told to our friend by his relative who had said that during a heavy shower of rain, he found a car near his gate and that when he went up to the car he recognized him to be the Junior Minister. Like my friend, he did not personally know the Junior Minister. Instead of giving the message then and there, he had got off the car and had gone to our friend’s house and not only given the message but also consoled him by talking to him for a few minutes.

****

It was in the late 1980s, at the height of the insurrection, that this member was travelling all alone to Galle in his jeep. He was going through the Kottawa Forest which was famous at the time for tyre pyres. The Navy had stopped his vehicle and asked him to take a young man who was injured in a motorcycle accident, to the Galle Hospital, about eight miles away. The young man was bleeding profusely. He got him admitted to the hospital but our friend was forced to stay there for a long length of time, culminating in his having to give his consent for a surgical operation on the injured, whom he had never seen before. Alas! The purpose of his visit to Galle was lost.

****

A member had two sons, twins aged three years. As they fell ill, he channelled a specialist doctor who examined one twin and refused to examine the other, as an appointment was not made for him. So our friend had the other twin channelled as well. Certainly, it was no personification of Hippocrates!

****

A popular elderly member used to come to the club only on his pay day to keep himself warm. He worked at ‘Sathosa’ (C.W.E). The younger members would then tell him that he is very fortunate to work in a historic establishment like ‘Sathosa’ which is also referred to in Guttila Kavya (an epic) thus:

‘Sara Salelu Jana Sathose.’

Highly elated he would order a round of drinks, adding ‘Surapana karathi mese’.

****

This happened many decades ago. A member who was an inveterate gambler once lost heavily at the card table and mortgaged his expensive wrist watch. A member who was not well disposed towards him had sent a post card to his wife informing her that her husband sold his watch to gamble. He also had a 15-acre well-maintained tea estate which he had to sell when his gambles failed.

****

This story was related by a member and is about the ‘kings’ in the planting circles. A planter in the coconut belt of the North Western Province who owned acres of coconut, once named himself ‘King Coconut’. He argued that if a planter in the Kalutara District who owned vast acres of rubber could be referred to as a ‘Rubber King’ why shouldn’t he be called ‘King Coconut’.

****

One day a member related a story, which is hard to believe. A teacher who served in an uncongenial station, in his quest for higher knowledge, had studied for an external degree at a university. And he passed the examination with flying colours, obtaining first class honours and was highly commended by the university authorities for his brilliance, while serving in a different area. He had confided to his friends that his success at the exam was due to the gift of seeing all the question papers in a dream, before the examination!

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