By Dr Upul Wijayawardhana
No surprise whatsoever, if the tongue- in-cheek question I posed, as the heading for this piece, would be answered in the affirmative by the majority of Sri Lankans. Perhaps, some may get that impression because the ‘hot-topic’ of cosmology, at the moment, is the origin of the universe. Maybe, I am cynical because I never had the reassurance of any astrologer or palmist predicting that I would become a doctor, leave alone being a Cardiologist who would practise in two countries. Nobody would have imagined I would do so, as there was no family precedence or pressure. In fact, the opposite was true. Though, from the time I heard stories about my unexpected survival following a premature birth, I wanted to be a doctor, my father objected and tried to persuade me to join the Ceylon Civil Service instead! If the astrologer who cast my horoscope at birth, or any others who looked at it afterwards, had predicted that I would take to medicine, perhaps, my father would not have raised any objections.
In spite of the lack of such predictions, I have kept an open mind, may be at least in part due to the lingering memory of an incident that happened in June 1976, while I was working in the Cardiology Unit. I was contacted by the daughter of a general practitioner who worked in my hometown, Matara. She inquired whether I could drop in at her place in Nugegoda to have a look at her father and I readily agreed because I could return the favour, as he had treated me occasionally in my childhood. After seeing him and having had a long chat about ‘good old days’, as I was about to leave, she said “Upul, you did a big favour. Can I show my appreciation by reading your cards?” Although I was not aware that she was a well-known card-reader, much in demand in Colombo high-society, I agreed, more out of courtesy and curiosity. She looked at the cards I picked and said “A friend of yours is to have surgery and is in grave danger” and suggested he gets surgery done after a particular date.
It took me a little while to recollect that my good friend George Rajapaksa, Minister of Health, was in Glasgow awaiting Coronary by-pass surgery. The following day, with the help of his Permanent Secretary, Vincent Panditha, I was able to contact Lalitha, George’s wife and I related this episode. Although I requested her to get the surgery postponed, she was not keen as surgery had already been scheduled for the following day. George had successful surgery but died after a prolonged stay in the Intensive Care, due to lung complications, most likely precipitated by heavy smoking. Whether the outcome would have been different had surgery been postponed, I do not know.
Perhaps, I was wise to keep an open mind, rather than declaring myself a rationalist, as recently, and unexpectedly, some of my esteemed colleagues have declared their belief in the supernatural. My interest was stirred by the interesting contributions on the supernatural and the paranormal by Prof S N Arsecularatne, Emeritus Professor of Microbiology of the Peradeniya University, made over a period of time. Prof Sanath Lamabadasuriya, Emeritus Professor of Paediatrics, in an interesting piece in The Island of 02 September titled ‘Palmistry, a personal experience’ described in detail how a palmist predicted, not only his becoming a professor before the age of 40 but also how his marriage would take place. This was repeated in ‘The Sunday Island’ of 12th September, provoking a response by Bodhi Dhanapala, retired head of the science department of the Quebec Ecole Polytechnic, titled “Palmistry – personal experiences and occult nonsense” (The Sunday Island, 26 September).
Interestingly, Bodhi did not comment on another article, “My personal experience and perspective of Astrology and Palmistry” by Dr Nihal D Amarasekara, Retired Consultant Radiologist in the UK (The Sunday Island, 19 September) who was stimulated to express his views after reading the experiences of his batchmate, Sanath. Interestingly, both of them had family connections to medicine. Maybe, Nihal escaped criticism from Bodhi Dhanapala because, while describing the interest generated and the correct predictions made by his maternal grandparents, Nihal ended his piece with a tinge of scepticism typical of a scientist.
In a well-reasoned piece, Dr Upatissa Pethiyagoda Astrology, Astronomy and Reason: (The Sunday Island, 3rd October) argues against the possibility of astrological predictions. What struck me most were his concluding paragraph: “It is not my intention to stir discord but to stimulate discussion (or even demolition) by a reasoned debate, in addition to falsification or ignorance displayed by this plunge into an unfamiliar area. In any event, I stand to be corrected (hopefully) in civil language.” Is he referring to our excelling in argument and confrontation than discussion and deliberation, even amongst the intelligentsia?
For me, the most difficult concept to grasp is how anyone could foretell the future; something that has not happened yet and the course of which could be changed by many unforeseen circumstances unless, of course, our future is already pre-determined. If so, at what stage was this future written? Was the future of the universe already decided at the time of the Big Bang? If so, who made that decision? Was it the Almighty? I doubt, as I do not believe in Him or Her!
Those who believe in astrology consider ‘Nadi Vakyam’ or Nadi Astrology to be the ultimate. According to this system, originating in South India, it is believed that one’s future is dictated by the Brahma using the Navagraha’s and the Siddars as channels. As the Brahma cannot do everything in this realm directly, 84,000 Siddars have been created to perform duties on his behalf. Siddars are public servants in the cosmos, who have the capabilities and energies many would consider supernatural. Nadi Vakyams written by them in ola leaves are read by a select group of astrologers who identify horoscopes by comparison with palm prints. Some, who have had readings done, have commented that the past detailed in these readings are more accurate than the predictions for the future! However, many questions arise. Have they written the horoscopes of all the inhabitants in the world and do they continue to do so? Or, are they meant for a select few? If so, how are they chosen?
Sky at Night
Being confined to home, thanks to the pandemic, has given me time for thought and research as well as learning through television documentaries. Couple of weeks ago, whilst channel-hopping I came across, on BBC4, an extremely interesting episode of “Sky at Night”, long-standing BBC monthly programme on Astronomy, broadcast since April 1957. This episode titled “Question Time” was a special programme celebrating British Science week with a question-and-answer session. When the compere introduced the first expert, Professor of Astrophysics in University College, London, Hiranya Peiris, my ageing heart swelled with pride as I knew she must be of Sri Lankan origin! A quick Google search, whilst watching the programme, confirmed that she was born in Sri Lanka in 1974, completed the Natural Sciences Tripos at University of Cambridge in 1998, and earned a PhD at Princeton University from the department of Astrophysical Sciences. The compere asked her whether the many ‘Medals of honour’ she has received are actual medals. When Hiranya replied that they are real and quite big, he commented that she is “The Four-star General of Cosmology”. What a wonderful achievement! The contrast cannot be starker; whilst the majority of Sri Lankans are steeped in superstition, one of our own is a shining star in the field of Cosmology, exploring the origin of the universe!
In the website of her former Cambridge College, New Hall, now called Murray Edwards College, Hiranya explains her main interests as follows:
“I am a cosmologist. In my research, I am contributing to an international effort to understand the origin and the evolution of the Universe. It is amazing that this is even possible, because it involves extreme physics that we cannot replicate in the laboratory. However, at the Big Bang, the Universe itself performed the ultimate physics experiment. The clues to this physics are imprinted upon the oldest light we can see in the Universe, the so-called cosmic microwave background, and the large-scale distribution of galaxies. Because the ultimate experiment was done once, and we can’t repeat it, cosmologists have to become detectives. Different theories of the universe produce different fingerprints in these data, and we sift through the fingerprints looking for which one matches what we observe. We are trying to piece together the clues to figure out the narrative about how our Universe began, and how it is evolving. In the past decade we have been able to precisely answer age-old questions such as how old is the Universe, what does it contain, and what is its destiny. Along with these answers have also come many exciting new questions.
A modern cosmological research is a very collaborative and international enterprise. My work involves a lot of mathematics and high-performance computing, the development of advanced algorithms and highly specialized databases to store and sift through the massive amounts data returned by cosmological sky surveys. Some of this work requires me to work in small groups with two or three other researchers, but I also contribute to large global projects with several hundred people in many countries. Since cosmology is very international, I travel extensively, discussing research findings, giving talks, and running workshops and seminars. I also enjoy sharing my knowledge and enthusiasm with my undergraduate and postgraduate students at the university.”
Hiranya and country of birth
Reading this, what passed through my mind is why Hiranya is not known in the country of her birth? Perhaps, unlike some others who do very little and advertise a lot, she shuns self-glorification. It is to reflect the work she does in understanding the origin of the universe that I referred to, in the title, Astronomy, Astrophysics and Cosmology exploring the past. In addition to the Chair she holds in University College, London, she is also the Director of the Oskar Klein Centre for Cosmoparticle Physics in Stockholm.
Hiranya was a member of the 27-person team awarded the 2018 Breakthrough Prize in Fundamental Physics. This US$3 million award was given for the detailed maps of the early universe generated from Wilkinson Microwave Anisotropy Probe, a NASA explorer mission launched in 2001, which has transformed modern cosmology. Other awards include Kavli Frontiers Fellow (National Academy of Sciences) 2007, Halliday Prize (Science and Technology Facilities Council) 2007, Philip Leverhulme Prize (Leverhulme Trust) 2009, Fowler Prize (Royal Astronomical Society) 2012, Gruber Prize for Cosmology (Gruber Foundation) 2012, Buchalter Cosmology Prize 2014, Fred Hoyle Medal and Prize (Institute of Physics) 2018, Göran Gustafsson Prize in Physics (Göran Gustafsson Foundation and the Royal Swedish Academy of Sciences) 2020, – Max Born Medal and Prize (The Institute of Physics and the German Physical Society) 2021 and Eddington Medal (Royal Astronomical Society) 2021. The only thing missing seems to be the Nobel Prize!
Hiranya’s lecture “Cosmology: Galileo to Gravitational Waves”, delivered at the Royal Institution in London, explains in simple terms complex issues of the cosmos and can be watched on YouTube (https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=5HXOfIwl9Jo)
Apparently, Hiranya migrated to the UK with her parents when she was 16 years old. Therefore, she ought to be conversant with our practices of astrology, horoscopes and palmistry. If ever I have the fortune of meeting her, the first question I would ask her is whether any astrologer or palmist predicted that one day she would become an authority on the origin of the universe. Whether I meet her or not, my fervent hope and wish is that she will be awarded the Nobel Prize in Physics and it would be an added bonus if I live to see it. She is our best hope!
Path to disaster
Either we as a world have failed our human expectations to lead a normal life of peace and progress, or our leaders are nowhere close to offering that satisfactorily. Interestingly, war and destruction are not new phenomena to our civilization or to the world. We have been fighting wars in one way or the other. It seems we have been unable to evolve the right way to live with lasting peace.
The longer the Russia-Ukraine war goes on, the further hope of peace and recovery is pushed away. After all, months have passed, and everyday destruction and destitution have increased, not only in the war zones but beyond.
BY PRAVESH JAIN
It is a new-age world, intensely interconnected and interdependent like never before. What happens locally may soon spread globally. The longer the Russia-Ukraine war goes on, the further hope of peace and recovery is pushed away. After all, months have passed, and everyday destruction and destitution have increased, not only in the war zones but beyond.
The possibility of ending the war is not high. Today, the situation is such that everyone in the world is anxious about the morrow. The war is not just making the two warring nations bleed every day in many ways, it has impacted many other nations.
Europe is anxious to save itself from a hard winter, many others are concerned about how to revive their economies that the war has ravaged without visiting their borders. Thousands are dying, millions have become homeless, many innocents have gone to the grave for no fault of theirs, and many more cannot come out of closed doors in the war-impacted zones.
Inflation is growing exponentially, businesses are shaky, and the high hopes of a post-Covid boom have given way to terrible gloom. With rising unemployment, the youth are feeling hopeless. The scale of poverty is set to rise phenomenally; nations and governments around the globe are clamoring for solutions that are simply not there.
But amidst all this, the rising voices of war and revenge are filling the air and more plans are being hatched to intensify the war. For whatever reasons, one thing is conclusive.
Either we as a world have failed our human expectations to lead a normal life of peace and progress, or our leaders are nowhere close to offering that satisfactorily. Interestingly, war and destruction are not new phenomena to our civilization or to the world. We have been fighting wars in one way or the other. It seems we have been unable to evolve the right way to live with lasting peace.
Wars haven’t left us, and we have not stopped warring. It has been and is still around as a monstrous reality, teaching us to justify it as a necessary evil. But the evil is growing bigger by the day, and we remain unmindful of its perils. Time and again, we promise ourselves that we will not embark on wars again, but soon we seem to forget and get embroiled in them. What could the reasons behind this madness, or if I can say self-deceit, be?
After every war, we think and talk of peace. Then the very essence of our pledges evaporates into thin air. Are we thick-skinned, hypocritical, liars, unmindful, or simply incapable of keeping the promises that we make to ourselves?
This demands deep introspection. With the advent of pacifism in the late 19th and early 20th century, it felt like the world would embrace peace and harmony over violence. Then the First World War happened. The optimism at the start of the century was gone. There was widespread destruction, millions lost their lives, and several empires were reduced to rubble.
When the war ended, political leaders of powerful nations agreed on several treaties to ensure lasting peace and the world breathed a sigh of relief. That relief, however, was short-lived. Twenty years later a bigger war broke out. The Second World War was uglier and more destructive in all respects. It was the deadliest conflict in the history of human civilization, leading to a loss of around 80 million lives with several more being brutally affected.
Nobody wanted a third world war. So, nations sat down and decided to form a global body that would work towards ensuring world peace, and the United Nations was formed. Cut to a little less than a century later, and you will agree that the UN has become nothing but a symbolic organization that serves no practical purpose.
Several nations are in armed conflict with each other, and tensions are building across an increasing number of borders. It is as if war has been our way of life. This is not to say that devastating tactics are only used by the United States. Russia too uses these often, although only half as often as the US.
That may be not because of a lack of a will for supremacy, but because of the inability to afford the risks and resources so effortlessly. China, seeking to become the dominant power in the East and later the world, has also employed this methodology occasionally. And the intent is unfolding more vigorously along with matching actions. The question arises: why does the global leadership in general and the US in particular use mean to escalate conflict rather than defuse it?
Hasn’t anyone learned a lesson from the major world wars and their aftermaths? Nuclear conflict is a looming possibility, and everyone knows there will most probably be no human civilization left to tell the tales of that war.
On global forums, all nations repeatedly warn others to avoid nuclear war, but ground reality proves otherwise, as these same nations openly or secretly acquire nuclear weapons. That is the game plan, isn’t it While big nations churn profits from war, war-ravaged nations suffer brutal damage.
Aside from the destruction of their economies, the humanitarian losses are huge. Millions lose livelihoods if not their lives, families are displaced and the after-effects last for several generations. And this is when two nations clash across borders.
With the number of provocative tactics being applied by the USA around the world and Russia, China, and North Korea, adopting an eye-for-an-eye attitude in response, a third world war seems an increasingly likely possibility. To a neutral observer, this might seem childish, or even laughable. But there is nothing laughable about war, especially in modern times when almost every powerful nation is equipped with nuclear armaments.
What is frustrating is that world leaders do not recognize this. Or if they do, they don’t do enough to emphasize the point. Do our leaders ever realize that they are chosen by the people to lead them to progress and peace, not death and destruction? Are our leaders not accountable for their karma?
The karmic theory has its own bona-fide, unfailing principles. As you sow, so shall you reap. Often, I wonder what will happen to our leaders who flaunt their strength and arrogance and unleash acts of hegemony, rather than ensuring harmony for humanity to live in peace. Do they have no fear? Do they think that their power is eternal? Or are they simply not concerned about all this, blindly driven by their own misplaced missions?
Many questions arise in both mind and soul when one thinks of these destructive leaders. In many countries, the financial systems are fast collapsing and soon many banks may shut down. The world with its aspirations for better standards of living has been pushed a decade back. Every thinking human must have apprehensions about a dark future. (The Statesman/ANN)
(The writer is Chairman and Managing Trustee, Paras Foundation and can be reached at email@example.com)
Twin personas; reaction long after the action
I am pleasantly surprised and marvel too most times I read the editorial in The Island. Why? Because they are so very apt on the most current issue in the land. The editor has the clever knack of hitting the nail right on the head and is fearless even when the nail represents a VVIP.
Friday 25 November had the sharp, truth writing editor commenting on President Ranil W and his stunning metamorphosis from a peace promoting, democracy advocating politician to a persona that he himself says is Hitler like. And as the editor has written, one wondered if he and his immediate predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had swapped bodies, for the former sounded just like the latter. Gota was expected to be a dictator; a monk called out to him to be Sri Lanka’s Hitler while his brother Basil bracketed him with the ‘Terminator’.
Ranil seems to hear cries for protection of human rights as a cover for violent protests. Gota, though an army man and later as a civilian, cosseted the army at great cost to the exchequer, did not threaten to bring the army out to quell protests. It was done once or twice: e. g at Rathupaswela and at an FTZ. These orders were not proven to be directly emanating from him nor directly connected to him. However, peace proclaiming Wickremesinghe with his new surname added on is outdoing the former army officer. He maintains the PTA and now says (probably in all truth and belief – scarce characteristics of politicians) that he will call out the army to quell protests, which have been and will be, mostly peaceful.
What this woman, a former teacher and counselor, opines with common sense and intuition is that he is going about it all wrong. He is inciting protest and lawlessness, even violence, since the youth of the country, with others, are utterly frustrated, angered, troubled and volcanic – waiting to erupt and so are the sideline catalysts: the terrorism promoting core politicized protesters of the IUSF, FSP and certain JVPers. Ranil should have been wiser and less outreaching, and negotiated with leaders of the groups mentioned, including trouble rousers like Stalin, and convinced them of the dire state the country is in. Negotiating with die-hard protesters may not be his cuppa; he shies away from direct contact with the hoi polloi. But talk to them he must. He should include persons like Guv CB to the negotiating table since Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe is one of the very few, if not the only high-up, that all respect. The rabble-rousers should be convinced, even threatened privately, that at this juncture what the country needs and the IMF promotes is encouraging money making projects, the surest and largest-inflow-of dollars earning tourism to resume and continue with peace prevailing in the country. With so many countries with so much to offer, why should tourists visit a near warring Sri Lanka? The reality of course is that this dot of an island has most to offer the tourist as pronounced by even Lonely Planet guides.
However, as is always the case, the country pleases but men in it are vile and utterly stupid. The protestors do not realize their protests will not change things immediately. But they most certainly cost the country much. These fire breathing, loud mouthed protestors and so-called protectors of peace and human rights are at present the principal harmers of the land.If after sincere one-to-one negotiation, some remain recalcitrant, then the police should be called in to deal with them.
Bang shut empty stable door
Mentioned many times before by Cass and other writers, Sri Lankans in general suffer short memories: will vilify a person today and praise him tomorrow not only because they are turncoats but because the people have forgotten and of course forgiven yesterday’s sins of leaders. Another characteristic is shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted. The preliminaries of the flight of the horse are seen but no alarm is raised. Once the horse has bolted; then come forth loud hues and cries of damage done.This last character trait of the Sinhala race mostly, was exhibited and exposed in the news telecast on MTV 1 Channel on Sunday November 27.
Villagers of a certain forest area, with voices raised women to the forefront, confronted a man who was in a new built, multi roomed hut-like construction. He seemed settled down. The crowd that walked across a vast area of bare land accused that the forest that covered this area had been illegally decimated. They demanded evidence of his right to settle down there. He said the police and other officials had cleared him. Trespassing was not even mentioned. Cass’ wonder at this loud fracas was why the fuss now with land bare and a house built when the villagers surely heard if not saw trees being felled en masse. Why had they not informed authorities then? Why wait for the deforestation and illegal building to be completed before protesting? Had they been waiting all these past months for the TV cameras to arrive to act angry and national minded?
It was suspected, if not known for sure, that vociferous Diana Gamage was a dual citizenship holder or maybe even a citizen of another country visiting her home turf. She was up front for long and since being made a State Minister by Prez Wickremasinghe, his hand guided by a crow pulling strings from even thousands of miles to the west, became prominently vociferous with forex earning projects foundationed on fun and good times. She proposed the growing of ganja plants; creating a Disney theme park; making Mannar an international gambling den and what else Cass fails to recall. Now firmly in Parliament as an elected member she faces the public rising up and declaring she is not eligible to hold a Parliamentary seat since the passage of A21 or 22. The mare had bolted to the green pastures by the Diyawanne and now people are a-rising to close the door she galloped through. Confine her at home with no powers and privileges or deport her to turf in her adopted country?
Bandula Gunawardena, holding the portfolio of Minister of Trade, held forth on the subject he thinks he is omniscient in. He claims economics as his forte of intellectual knowledge; certification of this fact being he was a tuition master in the subject. He refers to himself as Doctor Bandula G; the doctorate coming to him from where we know not. In a pontification in Parliament on the Sunday, he waxed eloquent on mismanagement of the Central Bank and trotted out figures in billions and decimals thereof of printed money. He blamed past CB persons. Why was this economist considering himself on par with Amartya Sen, Paul Krugman and Maynard Keynes, silent then when Nivaard Cabral kept the printing machines in the CB turning day and night churning out 5000 rupee notes? (PS. Cass wonders very much whether he has heard of Krugman and knows Keynes was one of the Bloomsbury Group. Cass can wager her life that he does not know who this group was).
Speaking of this Mr Cabral, he was recently seen on TV at a press interview passing the buck adroitly and proclaiming he was obeying orders to print money. Was he a robot and of whom?
A very good move was mooted recently in Parliament and will soon be law. Cass refers to the stricture that university students will be allowed one extra year after their graduating date whether they fail the final exam and wish to repeat or when they dodge sitting the final exam. Here again the closing of the loophole after damage is done. Firebrand Wasantha is said to have been in the University of Sri Jayawardenapura for eight solid years. Wasn’t this truancy of sitting the finals seen earlier? Authorities too scared to report the fact; saving their scalps by ignoring anomalies. just as they turn blind eyes to filthy and dangerous ragging in universities?
This land of ours which is truly incomparable, is derogatively a land like no other when speaking of it with tongue in cheek.
Maris Stella College in 1950s and 60s
By George Braine
Maris Stella College, Negombo, is celebrating its centenary this year. These are my recollections of the years I spent there.Maris Stella had classes from Standard Two. For lower and upper kindergarten (as they were called those days), all boys attended Ave Maria Convent, along with girls, of course. One teacher I recall is Sr. Mary Imelda, diminutive but a formidable force. As she taught, her two dogs, spoiled rotten by the children, roamed the classroom.
Maris Stella sits on the road that extends from Colombo to Chilaw, and beyond to Puttalam and Anuradhapura. Despite the heavy traffic on the road, the school displays a somewhat serene ambience because of the large, well maintained playground, and the lovely main building set some distance from the road. Two storied, with a lengthy Italianesque facade, the main building is reached along two narrow roadways lined by long, single storied classrooms. In the center, shaded by massive mara trees, is a smaller playing field – for soccer, softball cricket and gymnastics- in the 50s and 60s. These buildings, the trees, and the playing field, now a lush green, have been well preserved.
My father recalled that, during World War II, when Allied troops were stationed at the school, these mara trees were covered with camouflage nets to hide the anti-aircraft guns mounted below.
Teachers and students
My father had been at Maris Stella in the 1930s and 40s, and when I entered in 1957, some of his teachers were still there. Elias, dark, wizened, and with a tousle of grey hair, taught me in Standard 2. Capt. Jayamanne, a big man, tough as nails, had been the cadet platoon commander during my father’s time, and still was. Bro. Jonas had been in charge of sports for years. Obris, who taught English, had become the vice-principal. My father also recalled Bros. Nizier, Valentine, and Xavier, a Spaniard. Mahaboob, physical training instructor and Bro. Gerard had been his classmates. Undoubtedly, the most unusual teacher was Johannes, who taught Sinhala. The only teacher who wore a sarong to school, worn high up on the waist and held up with a broad belt, he had an owlish, scholarly air; our textbooks on Sinhala had been authored by him. Ms. Wallace, lustily playing the piano, taught us singing. Two younger teachers were Dabarera and Kurera.
One hilarious memory is that of Bro. Jonas, coaching the football team even during matches, running up and down the sidelines, grey hair and cassock flying. He was strict, liberal with the cane and slaps. Another is of Mahaboob, the PTI, in his impeccable polo shirt, pants, and tennis shoes, all in spotless white, taking us through various drills on the playground.
The principals during my time were Bros. Stanislaus and Peter, and the headmasters Bros. Nizier and Gerard.We were living near Ave Maria Convent when I joined Maris Stella, which meant a walk of more than a mile, crossing a railway track and walking along Main Street till I reached Copra Junction along the Colombo – Chilaw road. The street is chock-a-block with shops now, but, in those days, I only passed houses with well-maintained gardens, a couple of boutiques, a dispensary and a dental clinic. A well-off classmate was driven to school and passed me on the way, but never offered me a lift.
Most students walked to school or rode bicycles, in wave after wave. Others came by train or bus. The only person who drove was a senior student named Jayakody from Dankotuwa. This was extraordinary, when no teacher owned a car, and some rode rickety bicycles. His Peugeot 203 was parked under a mara tree while he attended classes and later stayed for football practice.
At Maris Stella, a Catholic school, most students were Catholic. But, ethnically, we were an eclectic band, marked by the Bharatha community and Burghers. The family names of schoolmates I can recall is evidence of this: Siriwardena, Jayawardena, Abeysekera, Swaminathan, Bolonghe, Salgado, Leitan, Tissera, Hettiaarachi, Jayamanne, Franke, Croos-Dabarera, Dabarera, Jayamaha, Coonghe, Aserappa, Rodrigo, Fernando, Pereira, Costa, Gomez, Mirando. Ives Swaminathan had immigrated from Mauritius, and sang French songs in a lovely voice.
After my brother entered Maris Stella, we were five cousins there: Roy and Lloyd Chelvaratnam, George Wambeck, George and Roy Braine. Roy C and Lloyd were in the Tamil stream. Two Georges and two Roys.Latin was compulsory from the Junior School Certificate (JSC) class. All that memorizations were intimidating, so I was relieved when the requirement was taken off when I reached the JSC class. But, Latin prevailed in the daily mass conducted at the chapel, and in the hymns sung there. I recited prayers and sang those hymns, without any idea of what was being said or sung.
Mention Maris Stella and sports during my time, and the name that springs to mind is Melvin Mallawaratchi. Tall and good looking, with a ready smile that lit up his face, Melvin was already legendary when I entered school. Our age gap was more than 10 years, so I had no opportunity to know him personally. All I knew was that, whenever he batted, he lit up the cricket field. I, along with other schoolmates, simply hero worshipped him.
Home games were thronged with enthusiastic spectators. When Melvin came to bat and took his stance, a collective hush fell on the ground. Soon, we were cheering wildly as the ball sailed over our heads, over trees, onto the main road, or sped along to the boundary in a flash. In his stride, Melvin was unstoppable.
In one game against St. Anthony’s College, Wattala, I watched as he scored a blistering 96 in the second innings, having scored an unbeaten century in the first. In 1957, playing Ibbagamuwa Central, Melvin had scored 96 in only 20 minutes, which included two sixers and 18 fours.
Melvin’s flamboyance did not stop at cricket. He was also a champion sprinter. Maris Stella’s rival school in Negombo, St. Mary’s, had a champion sprinter named Mello. At every meet where they met, he dueled it out with Melvin in the 100-yards sprint, running neck to neck. We stood near the finish line to see Melvin triumph every time.
Eddie and Rukmani
By 1958, we had moved to a house across the road from Maris Stella; 120 Colombo Road, if memory serves. Now, I only had a 5-minute walk to school. It also meant that we went to Sunday service at the Maris Stella college chapel.
Eddie Jayamanne and Rukmani Devi, husband and wife, were at the peak of their popularity. She was the reigning queen of Sinhala cinema, and the nightingale of Sinhala music. Eddie was less flamboyant, somewhat short, with curly hair and spectacles. He was a comedian. Even to a mere schoolboy, Rukmani’s luminous beauty and grace was overwhelming.
So, on Sunday morning, a two-toned Buick convertible would drive up regally, passing those majestic mara trees, Eddie at the wheel, and the couple would walk up to the chapel. They did not put on airs, and behaved just like the rest of us, sitting on the benches, singing hymns, and walking up to the altar and kneeling to receive communion. After the service, they mingled and chatted. And nobody asked for autographs!
I think Eddie and Rukmani were fond of Maris Stella. They attended fund raising events, like the Maris Mela carnival and a football match, which I recall vividly. Their nephew, Gamini Jayamanne, was my classmate.
Scouting, and a school take-over
Cousin George Wambeck and I were Cub Scouts, Wolf Cubs as they were called those days. The chip-a-job weeks were the best, because we got to roam all over Negombo and beyond, with no adult supervision. Most people treated us kindly, giving 50 cents or even a generous rupee for the odd “job” we did, and also a snack and a soft drink into the bargain.
One day, cousin George and I, along with another friend, visited a relative’s house in search of a “job”. He had been drinking, and was stretched out on a hansiputuwa when we dropped-in. Thinking of having some fun with us, he assumed the role of a drill sergeant, lined us up, and put us through military “maneuvers”: attention, right turn, quick march, left turn, halt. Scouting doesn’t teach marching, and we were mere 8-year olds anyway. Our female cousins were watching from behind curtains, and we could hear the giggles. But, the man did reward us well, and also insisted that we have a meal before letting us go.On another day, we walked down Temple Road to Jaya-Ruk, the residence of Eddie and Rukmani. But they weren’t home.
Perhaps the most memorable event was planned take-over of schools by the government, in 1960. The Catholic church was opposed to the move. The conflict escalated, and, as a final resort, parents of students occupied some classrooms, bringing mats and pots and pans. They cooked, ate, and slept there. They came to “defend” the school, but from whom wasn’t certain. From a new principal appointed by the government, from the police, the army?
Classes were suspended, and we enjoyed loitering around the school, waiting for the confrontation to take place. Eventually, the matter was resolved, but, in Negombo, only Maris Stella and Ave Maria Convent remain as private fee-levying schools.
When my father moved to Nattandiya for work, my brother and I travelled to school from there, by steam train. We wore khaki pith hats and carried our books and lunch in little, cardboard suitcases. Every day was an adventure. Later, when father moved to Madampe, we were boarded at Maris Stella.
What I recall most from the boarding is the constant hunger. We didn’t have much pocket money, so gouging at the tuck shop was not an option. On Sundays, a long line of boarders was taken for a walk, most often to the beach. Going through town, the aroma from the thosai boutiques was irresistible. Despite Bro. Raphael, an Italian, keeping a sharp eye, boys would take turns to dart into the boutiques and buying up the vadais. Our pockets would be stuffed and we salivated at the feast to come.
In 1962, my last year at Maris Stella, my brother and I were boarded at a home on Temple Road. Bertram Fernando, a pioneer comedian of Sinhala cinema, also lived there. Every Sunday, a game of bridge went on for hours on the verandah around a round table. A regular attendee was Eddie Jayamanne, who drove up in his Buick convertible.
All our teachers named earlier have long departed. One by one, former classmates are also passing away. When I drive by Maris Stella now, the memories come flooding back. For some, the past is a foreign country. Not for me. Even after 60 years, the school anthem that we sang so robustly is fresh in my mind.
“All ye lads of Maris Stella proudly sing
May your voices boldly ring
Face life’s trials bravely
Act upon your motto gravely
Iter para tutum”
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