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Don’t venerate them



by Rajitha Ratwatte

It is time we acknowledged the fact that the Pearl is a feudalistic society. Deep in our hearts, we live in times when our rulers used to be called ‘Deviyan Wahanse’ or literarily God. We still vote for our leaders, sit back and expect miracles. Miracles not based on any logical thought process or even a scientific one and when they invariably fail, we throw the book at them and give the “other side” our block vote.

73 years of independence if measured in human terms should have left us a little weary, maybe slightly dependent on medicines but it should also have left us wiser. It should have taught us to use our politicians properly. Surely our people, led by civil society leadership organizations, should learn to analyse our politicians. After all, they are only human, and they have certain strengths and weaknesses, it is up to us to harness those strengths and rein in those weaknesses. This is where responsible reporting from the press and organised pockets of civil society comes in. We need to set each of our politicians’ targets for work they need to accomplish in their electorates and their ministries and then hold them accountable. This should be brought down to the micro-level and if (God forbid) the provincial councils are resurrected it should start from here or maybe even the municipal councils.

Remember the Friday forum, created by some “intellectuals” for the edification and guidance (I use these words without the usual sarcasm) of the “Colombo 7” stratum of our society? That may have been the right idea, but it needed stronger leadership and a few young, brave and fearless youth (as in the Indian cricket team) to keep it from floundering like it seems to have. Maybe these people’s councils should be promoted and formed by actual political parties. A bit of partisanship is ok, the readers and assimilators of the information put out by them can decide what they think should be adapted and what should be consigned to the garbage heap of political rants and ravings.

We also need a strong press, much stronger than the pseudo efforts and the ridiculous funding numbers that prevail now in the Pearl. We do see an occasional effort from the ‘private’ broadsheets but of course, absolutely nothing from the government-owned newspapers. How the employees of that particular broadsheet even consider themselves journalists when they are simply copywriters is something that I find hard to understand!

Most of our politicians in the Pearl have certain strengths. To analyse them individually and include them in this article will not only take too long it will probably result in the untime destruction of this publishing house and the demise of its editor. We do have brave young people albeit somewhat reckless. We have experienced old foxes’ who can be used to come up with an elaborate foreign policy to handle threats from International forums. We have “fixers”, we have “organizers”, we have big talkers, all essential for running a country. We have people accustomed to providing leadership under fire (literarily) but under unquestioning disciplinary conditions. The problem is that they are given free rein and the people who they are supposed to serve, do not have control. Even after 73 years of independence and “democracy”, we have not learned this simple but vital lesson. A lesson so desperately needed for the health and strength of an efficient democracy. LEADERS SHOULD BE HELD ACCOUNTABLE BY THE PEOPLE. This should be done under regular timelines.

There has been a report of many politicians’ relatives being appointed to High Commissions and E`mbassies abroad. How about a follow up report with details of those peoples’ qualifications or lack thereof? What about the interview process if any? Reactions from ANONYMOUS career diplomats and a call for action from those who have to get degrees with a class to get into the foreign service, if that is still the case! Above all else, what are we going to do about it? Organised protests and demonstrations, are we willing to participate? If not, how can we grumble?

Instead of giving landslide majorities to different sides at each election and then blaming the people we voted for, are we truly incapable of organizing ourselves to hold our leaders accountable?

A recent international survey has placed Sri Lanka 10th in a list of countries handling the pandemic efficiently. Now detractors can say this data could be tainted by incorrect numbers, but we seem to be doing something better than some “first world” countries. Leadership under military discipline may have something going for it? On the other hand, two ministers of the Pearl have made statements saying the economy is in good shape. This combined with the artificial “bull run” on the share market, is something to worry about!

Over here in Aotearoa, we have just had another scare with a few people with the South African strain of the virus “escaping” into society. However, a strong contact tracing system seems to have won the day and two long weekends in a row (something very rare over here) seems to be able to proceed with the people having no hindrances to their holidays and other festivities. The carnal activities indulged in by quarantinees (another new word) with those ensuring their quarantine (security staff), have hit the headlines and been cited as a possible reason for the spread of the virus! It seems like two weeks without sex seems to be too much to ask for from healthy, red-blooded Kiwis, even prompting calls for the distribution of ‘sex toys’ along with the other items given to those undergoing quarantine! Imagine this situation in the Pearl … the mind boggles.

We are told that tourism is not expected to be “normal” until 2022 as the borders of Aotearoa will be closed or only semi-open until then. A recent visit to the international airport left me stunned at the air of desolation. Every single retail outlet be it souvenir shops or food outlets was closed, the number of jobless employees from that institution alone left the mind almost unable to grasp the numbers involved. When one extrapolates this to the whole country of Aotearoa, where jobs are hard to find at the best of times, the future looks extremely bleak. The true impacts of the Pandemic will be felt only over the next few months. There is a housing crisis in the major cities of Aotearoa. Returning Kiwis’ who need housing and are able to pay above-market rates, has made the already existing shortage worse and has spread from the house ownership market to the rental market as well. The government subsidies have now run out, the school holidays and the summer vacations are over, reality, I fear, is about to strike.

Those who made statements that 2021 can only be better than the last year, maybe in for a revision of their opinions.

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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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