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Disce aut Discede

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by Gamini Seneviratne

Form-mates, classmates perhaps in Mr. J E V Pieris’s IA, I seem to recall also the ‘J’ in J Godwin Perera. His reminiscences of those times past are indeed welcome. What follows here are some additions / amendments.

Given the heading used by Godwin and repeated here, the first of them must surely be the third option that completes that quote: Caedi (be caned). Looking back from present times, a very mild option, one would say. I was caned only once, by Mr. Bob Edwards: he had forgotten what my supposed misdemeanor was and I couldn’t tell him why I was there as I had ceased to know what it was.

Godwin’s mentioned the Senior Lit. and the Best Speaker’s prize. I was never involved in the first and had a spectacular spell at the second. I forget what the subject was but the Principal’s hand had been hovering over the bell as I passed the time limit. The judge was A B Perera, a Barrister who had served as Principal of Ananda and was to serve as our Ambassador to China. In his summing up he said that I had made a very interesting speech – but rules must be observed. He awarded the prize to Mark (L J M) Cooray who had elocuted his forgettable words finishing on the dot. (He went on to obtain all the postgraduate degrees required for a career as an academic. A high point in that was his attempt to prove that the indigenous people Down Under who had built their culture through some 40,000 years “had no right to the land”. There would have been some applause in academe.)

          L H Meegama had a bicycle and some days when I didn’t join another gang up Buller’s road to Galle road I went with Meeya to his place on Vajira road. Our Mahappa’s place on Janaki Lane was almost directly across Galle road from there. His senior sister would sometimes be in the kitchen cooking – scraping coconut and such – while her fiancée chatted with her. He took up engineering and I last heard was working in the Port when he died relatively young.

          And so did Tyrell Muttiah, superlative scrum-half, who lived on Galle road just by Bin Ahmed’s studio at the top of Janaki Lane. He seemed to have been born smiling and bred in  courtesy. He was the most pleasant of friends.

          K. Manickavasagar, Manicks, and I were immediate, next-door neighbors but we were not together in Form I A.  He went into the pharmaceutical industry and headed Pfizer here before retiring to Canada.

          Am sure have missed many in that class. I have asked as many of that Group of ‘Forty Nine as I could locate here: their memory, alas, is as bad as mine.

          May we all make a good ending!

                                                               

In that class chaired by Mr. Nathanielsz, aka “Naetta”, Mr Pieris, aka “Bada” was the presiding deity. His approval took the form of “Mr. Mendis, you are a little gentleman.” Surprising as it may be and far less often than “Mr. Mendis” though it was, he is known to have waved the wand over “Mr. Seneviratne”.

“Mr. Mendis” was Lalith, one in the cluster a few of us occupied. Among the others in it were Chulani Wickremasinghe, Laki Senanayake and Punyadasa Edussuriya. Perhaps Tyrell Mutthiah was in it too.

Of those in the periphery, a failing memory prompts the names – Nimal Fonseka, Wonkie de Silva, P S C Goonatileke, L H Meegama and H C Wickremesinghe.

I present a few notes on that lot.

Lalith was an artist and he sketched a good bit of the time.  As a medical doctor he took to the study of filaria and headed that field of research. When he became Director of Medical Services and I saw him there it struck me that he was in the wrong place: he was not built to deal with politicians especially not those in the Department of Health. I suggested that he gets back to his research in an area in which he had already distinguished himself but he passed that with the sweet smile that characterized him.

Laki too did pencil sketches but they were mostly copies of figures, including horses, from the ‘western comics’. Among his skills was the pea shooter and we had exhibitions when Naetta chose to lay his head on his arm and say, “Read”! One after the other we ‘read’ and Naetta awarded marks with his free hand. There were quite a number of zeros and he couldn’t signal any more than five. Laki took aim and sent a spit-ball straight as an arrow to the bald spot on Naetta’s crown.

He took his artistic skills to Dambulla where he sold his drawings, signed kali, to tourists. Laki was and is casual about things. When, on my way to Jaffna, I dropped by to see him at Diyabubula, he had a high fever and looked quite ill. He had obtained medication from the Dambulla Hospital, he said, as he coughed out a typically c & b story – and was sharing the pills with workers who showed the same or similar symptoms. He had been ordered bed-rest and he had complied, he said, by lying flat in his jeep as it juddered around the jungle. A mutual friend, Chandra Subasinghe, lived not many miles away by the Dambulu Oya and managed to get the patient to the Matale Hospital ‘just-in-time’. (Chandra was quite as inventive as Laki and had informed the water-tax collectors from the Mahaweli that for many years his pumps had been accustomed to pumping water from the Dambulu Oya and would continue to do so. If those gentlemen had sent down water there from the Mahaweli and the Sudu Ganga, his pumps knew nothing about that).

Two desks away was Chulani who had the most inclusive collection of westerns – the Gene Autry, Roy Rogers, Lone Ranger, Tom Mix & co. freely available to us all. Such knowledge was not prescribed for us at school and Chula suffered a ‘take down’. He made up for it by topping the City & Guilds exams , migrating out there and on to the USA and thence to South America where, by his account, he out-samba’d all the experts that Rio could gather.

Punya Edussuriya’s father and mine had been at Ananda around the same time; Punya claimed that his father would have taught mine. That is unlikely – (I didn’t know it at the time, but my father had won the Senior English Essay prize in 1923 and his father could not have been that much his senior). They sat together in the pavilion at the Royal Thomian. In our first year we were among dozens of boys who encroached into the Oval grounds as the match neared its end. The boundary rope moved up or down and when Bradman Weerakoon was given out caught, Wignarajah the fielder was behind us and well behind the boundary line. We were right there and yelled that it was a six. Nobody listened. Years later when I mentioned it to Bradman he was unaware that he and St. Thomas’ had so been denied a right royal victory. Not the first time it happened and won’t be the last: the evidence of eyewitnesses is swept under, justice given no opening at all. Happens all the time.

Not many years later Punya and big brother Piyasiri were moved across to Ananda – a school that figured prominently in our family. Beginning with mother’s maternal uncle D B Jayatilaka’s contributions at the start, all our male relatives ‘on both sides’ as they say had been at Ananda: my father and his brothers, mother’s brothers, all our cousins. I was the ‘out’ chap and it happened like this. At the same time as I qualified to enter Royal I had been awarded the ‘Entrance Scholarship’ for Ananda – creating sort of competing claims. Regardless of having served on the academic staff at Ananda in the early 1900s father’s eldest brother had said, “Royal”! – after all he lived in Bambalapitiya and could keep an eye on me. That was convenient, a convenient story, but as the old man had told me the previous year (when I was a little over 9) he was disappointed in his sons.

That was the product of another pressure point. Our paternal grandmother had a cousin called Arthur Wijewardena; we had nothing to do with him but Mahappa had been in touch. All I remember is that he was an unsmiling kind of man who lived down Vajira Road next to Visakha; it had a nice garden and there was a son who sort of floated in and out of the verandah and drawing room offering biscuits. What was pertinent at the time was that he had been our Chief Justice and Mahappa had expected his sons to take to the law likewise as he himself had done. But what did they go and do? – One became an engineer on diesel locomotives and went on to become a chemical engineer (he built and ran Kelani Valley Canneries our best fruit processing factory) and the other an architect who also played piano, painted, sculpted and would you believe it? did ballet dancing. I was sort of the last chance to get the law back into his half of the family. I was to prove a disappointment too, but no one suspected it at the time.

In later years, though not for long, I made my peace with Ananda when Principal S A Wijetilleke recruited me as an English teacher. There I was to establish a friendship with V Thanabalasingham, the senior in that field, that continued as circumstances permitted through the rest of his life. Mr. Thanabalasingham’s intellectual acumen was quite on par with that of B St. E de Bruin or S Constantine at Royal. I had come to know of him earlier when, following the communal riots of 1958,  my cousin, Asoka Gunasekara, wrote a short story around Thane’s experiences of those days; titled vibhagaya  it was one of the best bodies of writing in Sinhala. In later years, when I mentioned vibhagaya those who had read the Kelani University literary magazine, Vimansa, assumed I was referring to a short story of mine in it that had the same title [that had to do with an actual vibhagaya, the government’s ‘efficiency bar’ exams.]

Before I continue, a brief note on the Royal Post Primary to which boys who failed to go over from Royal Prep were sent. There they were expected to adjust their focus more towards studies and away from, say, sports. One of them that year was Brindley Perera, generally regarded as the most gifted 10 year old batsman in our schools. (His nephew, Brendon Kuruppu, gave hints of how strong the genes were). Most of those who slipped at that point showed their caliber in later life. Those I recall include Susantha Samaranayake, the first Lankan to be appointed a Director / Manager at IBM; Dharmasiri Pieris, who had a distinguished career in the public sector including that of Secretary to the Prime Minister; and Sarath Weerasooria, Chairman of FINCO. My brother had moved there from Ananda and had the distinction, besides  scoring a near-double century versus Carey, of being the first (only) – student to pass the SSC in the first year that Thurstan students were presented for that exam. He moved back to De Mazenod where he ended with a flourish as Senior Champion at athletics, Captain of cricket and winner of the General Proficiency prize. The police grabbed him then – and a young lawyer grabbed his girlfriend, much the prettiest schoolgirl seen at our railway station. I had written poems to her on his behalf and delivered them as she took a detour down Janaki lane where I lived on her way from the HFC to the railway station.

In the lot who got to Royal College that year (1949), 35, fully one-third, were from schools other than Royal Prep. Perhaps that accounts for the special distinction which seems to have marked that batch.

Even among 10 year-olds, Nimal / Nimma stood out for being pugnacious but was never a bully. He turned his hands to several part-time occupations at one of which, the Hotel De Universe’ he employed school friend Raja (Rahula) Silva when the then government failed to do him justice. When Raja fell asleep at wrong time of night Nimma functioned as bouncer at his hotel bar. An expatriate in England of long standing Nimma became a teetotaler I presume in mid-life: when he took leave of his business and related activities he was in great demand at parties – for drive-home services. “They get cocked and talk cock” he said, “so I stopped going for parties”. He continues his interest in topology and is last known to have remained more or less certifiably sane.

W K N Silva was a Proprietary Planter with tea and rubber in the Ratnapura district. I believe that two of his sisters married a pair of brothers. In his latter days he took exception to being called “Wonkie”; he said it should have been applied to Nalin (WNK) Fernando, journalist, because the name fitted him, initials and all. He had a sufficient number of siblings to retain the bulk of their estate after Land Reform.

Occasionally initials provided a convenient name – say, Jabba for JB. Susantha Goonatileke’s PSC was tempting and tempted. He chose engineering as did his cousin C L V Jayatileke (who proceeded all the way in mechanical engineering) but he took his BSc (Eng) and changed course towards the social sciences. It was a move that opened a range of intellectual challenges for him and brought his academic work into discussion at fora around the world. His son is perhaps way and away the wealthiest among us in the next generation.

H C (Channa) Wickremasinghe was one of the brightest among us but health-related hiccups prevented his full development as a scholar. Turner, his architect brother was a left arm spinner of a most mean disposition who played for Royal. Channa was content to send down mostly friendly off breaks of which he had a good opinion.

Godwin relates an incident concerning our ruggerites et al and he attributes the report on it to Mr. Orloff, Principal of Trinity College. As I recall, the Trinity Principal at the time was a Mr Walters and the incident had occurred not in a room at the Trinity hostel but on the train down from Kandy. However that may have been punishment was meted out as Godwin says. I was co-editor with Nihal Jayawickrema of the school magazine and inserted some quotes in the space for footnotes: one and all pointed towards the merits of forgiveness.

The Principal, Mr. Dudley K G de Silva, sent for me. I was met at his door by Mr. Elmo de Bruin who served as Manager of the Magazine. When the Principal saw that I was not without back-up he asked Mr. Bruin whether he had approved the insertions and he replied, “I have the fullest confidence in their judgment, Sir” spreading the blame.

Principal de Silva tended to take the word of fellow Principals a bit uncritically. I noticed that the Thomian magazine that year had carried a poem published some years previously in ours and wrote a little note to the Thomian editor, Ranjith Wijewardena, ribbing him about it. Instead of writing back in similar vein Ranjith had taken my note to his Warden – who had promptly phoned our Principal. Predictably I was sent for. As the fates decreed, I ran into Bruno on my way there. He heard me out and strolled into the Principal’s office ahead of me. He asked me to show the evidence to the Principal and suggested that “if ‘these Thomians’ had any sense they could have said they don’t retain past copies of our Magazine”! Writing from Jamaica a life-time later, Bruno recalled such and other ‘happenings’ of his years at Royal. There must be hundreds still around who miss him.



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Features

Strong on vocals

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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.

 

 

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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year

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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.

 

 

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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations

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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…”

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