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Carmel Miranda’s Gratiaen Prize winning novel ‘Crossmatch’

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First of all congratulations to Dr Carmel Miranda for winning the 2020 Gratiaen Prize from among five competitive short listed works, two by well-known authors. This should be Carmel’s first published writing – a novel of 262 pages – hence the congratulations are doubly deserved.

Crossmatch – three narratives

Authored by medical doctor Carmel Miranda, ‘Crossmatch’ is a three pronged novel with a medical student’s travails running alongside a murder mystery and a mysterious puzzle about birth. The first two narratives are absorbingly interesting and the kudos due to Carmel are that she weaves them to progress side by side, seamlessly with the medical student vital to the mystery story as it is she who first suspects foul play, both due to her being in the Colombo Hospital where the victim dies and her medical knowledgeability to ask relevant questions and follow leads. Also in typical Sri Lankan fashion the murder mystery unravels due to obliging an aunt to “see my driver’s nephew who met with a road accident and is in hospital.”

There is a third strand of mystery and its introduction halfway in the book. It starts with the narrator coming up with the puzzle of her own blood group which does not match her mother’s – a doctor herself who died of cancer fairly soon after her single confinement. The end of the book is the untangling of this mystery which is melodramatic, and to me, calling for suspension of belief. The resolution of this plot reverts to the institution that was the centre of the major mystery plot. As I said its resolution is melodramatic and far too coincidental for belief by a sharply rational reader.

 

Two story lines of three critiqued

I shall deal somewhat at length with the former thread – the medical student’s life of good and bad times and her chasing clues and ultimately seeing resolution of her crime mystery. I will mention the least possible about the mystery and the puzzle since the reader has to unspool them along with the author who very ingeniously, yet taking her time, scatters clues along her medical student routines which the reader follows until resolutions at the end. Apt here to reinforce my views is a quote from Arjuna Parakrama, Snr Prof English, University of Peradeniya, on the back cover: “(Her) first novel creates a unique narrative that combines a sensitive and nuanced understanding of the Lankan medical world with a powerful and moving, yet unsentimental psychological account …”

 

Personal narrative

Whether merely biographical or firsthand autobiographical, the background narrative of Carmel’s book is completely interesting. Who among us is not curious about medical stuff; some even macabre-ly so. She gives plenty food for intake of details of diabetes and resultant coma; childbirth including breech emerging of the baby; brain damage and electro-convulsive therapy (ECT); autopsies; and even a beggar’s maggot infested wound (ugh!). All of course woven into her story most often seamlessly and necessary to her main mystery story to either place a character or incident in place. She enlivens her narrative of a medical student’ life – hectic, harried, loaded with work but also companionable with her group of friends – with relevant episodes and characters. Her ward rounds, character traits of specialists the students work with, are all absorbingly interesting.

She goes into detailed medical explanations when necessary. She deals with an autopsy with details of cause of death etc more than once, but these are essentially vital to the crime/mystery narrative, When she describes a diabetic coma it is to bring out characteristics of a pathologist who is involved in her crime narrative. Her detailing semblances between drunken breath and that of a severe diabetic (pg 124) is necessary to the story. Often she is involved in a case of childbirth giving details such as doctor vs experienced midwife which enlivens the narration. But once in awhile she oversteps the mark; meaning she explains minus relevance to her story. One instance of unnecessary detailing and emerging as just ‘showing off’ is on pg 121 when she writes “midwives swear that deliveries are more common round the time of the full moon” and goes into the etymology of the word lunatic bringing in Roman roots of the word.

A second fault I found was too detailed descriptions once in a while. Carmel details precisely rooms and people so the reader is spot on in the room or with the person. Infrequently she overdoes the detailing. At least that is how I felt when reading certain passages, few though.

 

Characterization

A story, whether short or long, deals with a plot mostly through characters. So just as the story line is important, the characters need to be drawn clearly so the reader not only gets a clear picture of the person, but also imbibes inklings to his/her make-up and personality, relevant to the story. This Carmel does elegantly well, whether it be the mortuary assistant, the specialist pathologist who performs postmortems or even her aunt. They are clearly drawn with her adequate vocabulary and incisiveness.

 

Humour

Refreshingly, plenty of fun and funniness are brought in not only in incidents and antics of the medical students in their work-loaded clinical days, moving from ward to ward, from specialist to specialist, but through clever one liners such as “Medical advice of half baked doctors is better than none.” The aunt she lives with is often the unsuspecting butt of her humour.

Humour is often out in the open, more often subtle and clever. Carmel describes a ward round as Grand depending on the rules of different doctors and specialists. She details the order of the retinue ending in “And then of course there’s us, the lowly medical students lowest in the pecking order, bottom of the food chain. We are neophytes, postulants newly admitted into the sacred order.” The main protagonist – the medical student – even makes fun of her name – Lotus de Silva while assisting in a birth as she wonders what the out-coming child would be named. “.. it would be better off than me. For I had been named after an institution. A hospital, actually. .. Why do parents burden their offspring with names they misguidedly think would make them special?” Truth plus humour.

Pithy sayings and observations are also noteworthy. A mind-supposition goes thus: “If he is an early bird, I am starting to feel like a worm.”

 

Current topics

Interesting to find Carmel inserting topics to show she is very much with the times. She mentions with statistics the kidney disease of the NCP; a major subject area in the book being kidney transplants – even the illegal side – which remains a hot topic. Also beggar murders of a couple of years ago. She does not merely explain these; rather does she cleverly devise that the information emanates from specialists; thus details of kidney transplants are given in a medical seminar she attends – on the sly. Very clever method of further delving into the doubt that has crept into her medico-student mind regards a road accident. Clues are picked up, sometimes in strange ways.

 

Style

Carmel’s style of writing is of fairly simple, straightforward English dotted with medical jargon and descriptions. However, though simple in style, it is clear and flows easily. The reader senses that the author does not search vocabulary or thesauri to get ‘rich’ words. Very sensibly, she is more concerned with getting her story across – in this case two, even three – than quibbling with words and effort-fully taking time to select words and phrases, thus causing stilting and interruption to the flow of her descriptions, conversations and revelation of the mystery story. Her medical student days and the crime mystery are both linear: no complications with flashbacks etc.

Mention must be made of her introduction to and follow-up of the murder/mystery. Both are achieved excellently. She comes across a puzzling occurrence casually, considers it, gives it up as no business of hers; then a call from the mortuary assistant with a vital piece of info sets her off on her ‘detective trail’ aided once in awhile by her co-student Harsha and the tuk tuk driver Sunil.

The personal mystery about herself is, as I said, out of place and its resolution melodramatic and hard to believe. Carmel should have deleted this third subplot. Her next novel could have been a development of this story.

Congratulations are repeated for an intriguing mystery story very cleverly unfolded by a medical student, who also describes her personal travails and shared fun. Do we have a Richard Gordon with his Doctor series in the making in Carmel Miranda?!



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Features

Communication the key to representative government

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By H. A. J. Hulugalle

The theme is “Social Communications and Youth.” I take social communication to mean the exchange of ideas between different segments of society.

For representative government, there has to be communication between the rulers and the ruled. For rural development, there has to be communication between planners and the peasants. Domestic harmony postulates communication between the older and younger members of a family. Communication between the teacher and the taught is the essential condition of education at school and university. Different communities live in amity when good communication enables them to understand each other’s problems.

The communicators are our pastors and masters, politicians, journalists, filmmakers, broadcasters and other manipulators of mass media. The health of a society demands that they fulfill their functions with intelligence and integrity.

Youth comes into this, because the future is theirs. In their time, they will not only handle the means of communication, but also determine its content.

One of the problems of today, in all countries is youth unrest. Sometimes, but not always, this is the outcome of imperfect communication. The young are impatient with parents, and other elders who will not or cannot understand their aspirations and yearnings. There is a generation gap. To the young people, if they stop to think, life must be more baffling than it was to an older generation. So much is changing around them including media, methods and goals.

Those of us who were able to acquire a knowledge of English had our windows open to the world. In this, young people today are impeded. Ambitious programmes for mass education fail for practical reasons. The temptation to act first and think later is common in newly independent countries. What is good is often scrapped because everybody cannot have it.

Without the religious motive, dedicated teachers are becoming fewer. Schools are ill-equipped, class rooms are crowded and suitable books in the national languages are not available. Students are herded into universities even when they do not possess the basic qualifications. The majority who follow arts courses are not interested in higher education or in the life or the mind. All they want is a job. And they cannot get this because the instruction they receive and the examinations they pass are not relevant to the conditions of the country or the kind of work they may hope to get.

As an American writer has said: “My own opinion, for what it’s worth, is that the college and the university fail to educate their students because they have long since ceased trying to do so.”

How can these facts of life be communicated to the student before he enters the university, and even more important, to the parent who impoverishes himself to give his children “higher education?”

Communication between government and the population at the grass-roots level will always be weak and generally ineffective until, in the words of the Donoughmore Commission, there is drive at the centre and demand at the circumference. The importance of communication for sound local government and economic development need not be stressed.

Every inducement should be offered to children to acquire a working knowledge of the three languages used in SriLanka. It does not require unusual intelligence to do so. Most traders use the three languages freely. In the long run, the people will adopt what is most useful for education, culture and the market place. For the present, the important thing is to be able to communicate freely and get rid of prejudice.

As for the training of youth for the communications industry – press, radio, films, etc – some have a special knack; others acquire it by persevering effort. A good liberal education, wide reading and the ability to convey one’s thoughts easily are useful assets. A pseudo-intellectualism is a counterfeit gimmick. A good journalist is always involved: he participates and is not merely an observer of the human condition. As such, he cannot forget his responsibility to be truthful and fair.

Walter Lippman, one of the most respected journalists of our time, says: “As the Free Press develops, as the great society evolves, the paramount point is whether, like a scientist or scholar, the journalist puts truth in the first place or in the second. If he puts it in the second place, he is a worshiper of the bitch goddess success. Or he is a conceited man trying to win an argument. In so far as he puts truth in the first place, he rises towards – I will not say ‘into’ but ‘towards’ – the company of those who taste and enjoy the best things of life.”

It is possible that the Press, like the pulpit and preaching hall, is too obsessed with politics, thereby distorting values. It should, as far as it is within its power, encourage readers to think for themselves rather than make confusion worse confounded. The appetite of the captive audience for political trivia grows with what it feeds upon. The dialogue should be a quest for truth and not to stir emotions and prevaricate.

To survive, the Press, like other forms of private enterprise, must make money. It seeks to cater to the dangers in going too far in this direction.

Henry Luce, the founder of the Time magazine, one of the most successful publishers of the century, has said: “The first and principal danger of the Press that gives the people what they want is that there is no significant restraint on vulgarity, sensationalism and even incitement to criminality. The second danger, which is perhaps even more insidiously deleterious to the public taste and morals, is the fact that there is in this situation an enormous financial incentive to publish twaddle – yards and yards of mediocrity, acres of bad fiction and triviality, square miles of journalistic type.”

These are warnings which anyone entering the professions connected with mass media should never forget. While good, clear fun is necessary for the entertainment of the masses, there are enough serious problems to engage the best minds of the younger generation who can learn from the mistakes of those who have gone before them and benefit by maintaining standards.

(Courtesy Catholic Messenger)

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They do it differently…

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Michelle and husband Chanitha

Duos are there, aplenty, especially in this pandemic scene, but what Michelle and Chanitha do together, as a husband-and-wife duo, is totally different.

This has, no doubt, paved the way for their success, as entertainers, in the entertainment scene, in the Maldives.

Michelle and Chanitha are from Sri Lanka and have been performing, in the Maldives, for the past two-and-a-half years, and, they say, it has been a very fulfilling experience, especially seeing guests enjoying their music, and complimenting them, as well, for their professionalism.

Right now, they are based in a tourist resort and have been doing that scene for the past two years, as the resort’s house band.

“We had the privilege of entertaining guests at the resort’s Christmas Dinner dance (2019/2020) and also ushered in the New Year at two grand New Year Eve dinner dances (2019/2020), at the same resort,” said Michelle who, incidentally, happens to be the daughter of Melantha Perera.

Michelle went on to say that as their music is wide and varied, they also did the Valentine’s dinner dance (2020/2021), and also functions, connected with Women’s Day, and weddings, as well.

The duo’s repertoire is made up of over 600 songs, and they do pop, jazz, RnB, rock ‘n’ roll, rock, blues, and lots more.

“We both sing, harmonise, and Chanitha plays lead guitar standard solos,” said Michelle, adding that their music has been very much endorsed by guests and the bouquets that have come our way have been very gratifying.

 

 

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Critical thinking and the ‘value’ of university education

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By Harshana Rambukwella

‘Critical thinking’ is a term that has become ubiquitous in both general and higher education discourse. One sees this phrase appear frequently in educational policy statements. Many who speak of education reform see it as a key skill that education needs to foster. Those who see education primarily as a tool of producing a productive workforce or ‘human capital’ also see it as a positive attribute. However, there is little clarity about what ‘critical thinking’ means. For many involved in education policy-making it seems to mean something like problem-solving ability and the ability to make reasoned judgments – a so-called ‘higher order skill’ in Bloom’s Taxonomy (a hierarchical categorisation of skills developed by an educational psychologist in the 1950s and widely utilised worldwide). There is a significant body of scholarly literature on higher education and the need to foster critical thinking. This literature tells us that the ‘industry’ needs critical thinkers and that often our universities and undergraduate programmes are failing to produce such thinkers. Critical thinkers we are told will make better doctors, better engineers, better lawyers and a host of other ‘better’ professionals.

But to be ‘critical’ can and does have many other meanings. If we move from the adjective ‘critical’ to the noun ‘criticality’ things begin to become fuzzier. The dictionary definition suggests that criticality is something of great importance, that it is a point at which a physical material like a chemical becomes unstable, that it is an orientation to life which promotes questioning and criticising what you observe in the world and so on. It is this fuzzier meaning of the word ‘critical’ that interests me. Critical thinking, unfortunately, like many other concepts which have a long, complicated and radical intellectual history have been tamed and domesticated when they enter mainstream education discourse.I have been personally puzzled when educators talk glibly about ‘critical thinking’ when all their actions mark the very absence of such a critical spirit or orientation. For instance, within the University system I have been at many forums where we discuss the ever-increasing student load with little or no matching investment or expansion of human or physical infrastructure. On many occasions these discussions veer toward how we can use innovative teaching methods, alternative assessment strategies and other innovations to bridge the gap between increasing student numbers and the inadequacy of resources. It is very rarely that our faculty boards or senates take this question to the next level. Why are we getting increasingly larger numbers? Why is the state investing less and less in higher education? Why is an institution’s contribution to education measured in terms of student output? Clearly there is a larger fundamental set of questions about the nature and purpose of education that need to be asked. However, these questions often become marked as ‘political’ or ‘ideological’ and many educators see their role as one of avoiding such ‘politics’ or ‘ideologies’ and instead focus on the ‘practical’ aspects of education.

My submission is that a similar evacuation of the political and ideological aspects of critical thinking happens when we bring it into the curriculum and the classroom. The notion of criticality dominant in mainstream education is heavily appropriated by neoliberal thinking. In this version of criticality students are trained to practice a form of emotional self-surveillance that passes as critical thinking. It ultimately leads students to be conformist and feel guilty about their inability to be ‘productive’ members of society. Take for instance, the practice of ‘reflective thinking’ that has gained much currency in teacher education. To be a reflective practitioner in this understanding is to constantly think about how to be a ‘better teacher’. Are my methods adequate? Am I practicing learner-centered approaches? How good are my lesson plans? The casualty of such thinking is often politics and ideology. Very rarely do we compel our students or teachers/lecturers in training (student teachers), to think about how unequal and classed out education systems are. It is rarely that we speak openly or think about the sexism, classism and even racism of what passes as educational content. By reducing the notion of ‘criticality’ to a ‘skill’ (one among many other ‘productive’ skills that are supposed to be given to students to make them employable) ,a delusion is created that critical thinking is being promoted.

As opposed to this commodified and toothless notion of criticality are the meanings of ‘critical’ that lie on the fuzzier margins of the word. In western philosophical thought ‘critical’ is a term that can be traced from the thinking Socrates, for whom it meant a radical questioning of what appears normal and normative, extending through thinkers such as Erasmus, Thomas Moore, Bacon, Descartes, Russell extending into figures like John Dewey whose thinking has also played a major role in contemporary education philosophy. While the names I have invoked cover a vast range of philosophical orientations and what I am doing here is a kind of gross glossing over of different philosophical traditions, one thing in common here is a radical spirit of questioning the normative. This does not mean that all these thinkers rejected the normative or what was accepted in their societies but their understanding of norms was always tempered by a critical spirit that questioned before acceptance.

This brings me to the notion of ‘value’ in the title of this essay. In his 1997 book The University in Ruins, Bill Readings observes that ‘value’ in the new ‘corporate University is determined by accountants rather than philosophers. This pithy statement captures the dilemma of critical thinking I have been outlining above. Appropriated by a mainstream discourse of education, which in turn is heavily informed by neoliberal values, critical thinking has lost it philosophical edge – its value today lies in its ability as a skill that will provide a competitive advantage in the employment market. Reading’s book as a whole is about this neoliberal transformation of the higher education sector. What he outlined in the 1990s was a process that was gathering pace in Euro-America where modern Universities were increasingly turning both in terms of their administrative structure and in what they taught and how they defined themselves. The ‘ruins’ the title refers to is the notion of a classical university as a site of critical philosophical thought – a site from which to question the normative. In Sri Lanka what we see today is a particularly intense form of this emasculation of the notion of the classical university. Sri Lanka is fast becoming what I would call a ‘frontier market’ of higher education. State policy is guided by a highly impoverished vision about producing ‘employable graduates’ and deregulating the higher education sector so that more and more profit-making entities that offer degrees can be established. Value in this new university culture lies in the numbers of graduates that are produced and their prospective employability. Critical thinking, as I have explored in this essay as a whole, is understood in equally impoverished terms. I offer no ‘practical’ solutions to this dilemma but make these observations in a somewhat polemical style to provoke discussion and debate.

Harshana Rambukwella is Professor in English and Director of the Postgraduate Institute of English, the Open University of Sri Lanka.

Kuppi is a politics and pedagogy happening on the margins of the lecture hall that parodies, subverts, and simultaneously reaffirms social hierarchies. 

 

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