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Echoes of Cuba



By Ranil Senanayake

I walk the hills rising from an azure blue Caribbean Sea, and try to envision the history that I have been told, a history of an island, green, tropical, rich in resources that fell into a despotic military-aided rule. The consequence of a power drunk ruler who made it easy for his cronies to move money across its borders and legalised gambling to facilitate the Mafia to launder its ill-gotten money from the US. The underworld became the lords and the land went out of reach for ordinary citizens. This history spoke of a small group of dedicated people, who struggled through incredible odds and fuelled by a shining love for their country, won the nation back from the underworld.

It was an impossibly small boat that arrived on the shores of Cuba with its cargo of committed revolutionaries in 1956 ‘more dead than alive’ as Che recounted, losing over half of their comrades, in battles, yet they went on to win their nation back from the underworld. By this action the amazing ability of the human spirit to rise to the ‘love of country’ is clearly demonstrated. Cuba was embroiled in corruption, its dictator Batista was supported by gangsters, thugs and killers. The huge inflow of money through their money laundering operations created a massive disparity of income and Cuban society descended into a situation of economic colonisation. The corruption was so bad that the US President John F. Kennedy once stated:

“I believe that there is no country in the world, including any and all the countries under colonial domination, where economic colonisation, humiliation and exploitation were worse than in Cuba, in part owing to my country’s policies during the Batista regime. I approved the proclamation, which Fidel Castro made in the Sierra Maestra, when he justifiably called for justice and especially yearned to rid Cuba of corruption. I will even go further: to some extent it is as though Batista was the incarnation of a number of sins on the part of the United States. Now we shall have to pay for those sins. In the matter of the Batista regime, I am in agreement with the first Cuban revolutionaries. That is perfectly clear.”

The history of Cuba haunted me on my return to Sri Lanka; one of the first actions of Batista on gaining power was to facilitate the flow of external money through its economy and to legalise gambling, which eased the entry of the mafia into the country to launder its ill-gotten wealth from the US. One of the first actions of a past government of Sri Lanka was to liberalise the flow of money through our nation and legalise gambling. Was this to be the creation of our own Batistas and the surrendering of our nation to the underworld elements, local and of Asia, Russia, etc? As pointed out in the parliamentary speech by the late Mangala Samaraweera, MP. It is the activity of the underworld and their laundering of money though our economy that now contributes to ‘economic growth’ ( ), but is this something to crow about?

Such ‘misdirected growth’ is often promoted to enrich the people with power to amass capital but it creates a class of ‘super rich’ which rapidly widens the inequality gap between rich and poor.  The reason why we should all be vigilant about the phenomenon of a widening inequality gap between the rich and the poor is very lucidly explained in the informative and eye opening book ‘The Spirit Level’ ( by two Epidemiologists, Richard Wilkinson and Kate Pickett. Their data shows that the consequence of a widening ‘inequality gap’ degrades the health and wellbeing of the people, this phenomenon applies to all countries from the so-called ‘rich’ to the so-called ‘poor’.

So, by all measures from profiting in pandemic control to officially sanctioned thuggery, it seems that we are descending again into a mafia-controlled sate rife with corruption, nepotism and cronyism. This process like a cancer will eat into our society, destroy our culture and enslave our children. Time will come when decent people will yearn for justice and especially to rid the nation of corruption. But where will we find our champions?

For us, this struggle will be hard. It has been commented that this nation twice removed from its genepool the genes for activism and bravery. In 1971, the government ‘removed ‘up to 20,000 or more of the educated, poor. Those who attended university or demonstrated interest in radical politics were young or unemployed were singled out for liquidation. The next pogrom was in the late 1980s when over 60,000 were ‘removed’ without a word being uttered in protest on any international stage. These people never passed their genes on. Genetically speaking, we removed from our race a large percentage of the traits for high intellectual potential and activism. Metaphorically, it has become the time of the bottom feeders in our gene pool to manifest themselves as the intellectuals and leaders.

Bottom feeders or ‘lowlife’ have a peculiar trait of myopia or short sightedness that does not allow them to consider anything other than objects of their greed. Consider the recent reports from The IPCC that warns of the global temperature rise by 1.2 -2 degrees due to the burning of fossil fuel and the use of cement. Such a jump in global temperatures will exacerbate global poverty, trigger severe heat waves, sudden floods and droughts, and cause sea levels to rise by three feet, it will ravage food supplies. Called A Code Red for Humanity, these reports warn us of the immediate need to reduce emitting fossil carbon and to prepare for the oncoming crises. Given such a global scenario a responsible action would be to try and reduce our carbon footprint, but Sri Lanka’s ‘economic development’ gurus propose the exact opposite. Once, we were made to accept the burning of fossil fuel, the construction of mega projects with a huge carbon debt in cement and increased fossil fuel use, as ‘people’s development’. Which people? In the face of a population struggling with the rise of living, a pandemic and climate change, brought about those very ‘development’ actions, the current ‘development’ projects are grotesque to say the least.

We crow that we have now entered a time of peace. But our rights are suppressed by the government using emergency laws. In war, combatants die, but what about the horrendous loss of lives of innocents? Do the innocents not deserve any consideration ? To a nation that values the act of giving merit to the departed, no action to remember or give merit to the dead is encouraged, in fact such activities are violently discouraged. We have become the ghouls that we accuse everyone else of being. No amount of propaganda can ever wash this blood from our hands. Only an honest and truthful reconciliation process with full accountability can!

Until then, it will be ‘Back to Batista’ for us.

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Plantation widow



By Ransiri Menike Silva

Holidaying together in Sri Lanka with their families were my son and a friend, both domiciled in Australia. For greater enjoyment they usually planned their trips here together, when they could catch up on belated family news and visits. That was how my son learnt that his friend was looking for an elders’ home for his mother, and his friend was relieved to hear that I myself was already in one. He immediately decided that she should apply to the same elders’ home, facing opposition with, “I don’t have to see it. If it is good enough for my friend’s mother then it is good enough for mine.” It was the best recommendation.

As my grandsons were schooling, my son had to return before school reopened, while his friend opted to stay on a little longer. I already knew him as his parents were known to my elder brother and I had already met him at his place.

He contacted me soon after to inquire whether there were any vacancies in our complex. He arranged to bring his mother, a widow from a young age, to show the place that evening. I awaited the meeting eagerly. He stopped the car near the quadrangle, got off and came up to me asking to see the room, which was already fully furnished. I pointed it out to him as it was directly opposite mine which was an added attraction. I unlocked the door and waited outside to welcome her. Then he gave me the surprising news that she was disabled and unable to walk, and therefore he would carry her in. I placed the chair at a convenient spot for her and waited. After carrying her in he placed her on the chair. The son went to the landlord’s office to get all the details he needed, finalise arrangements and make payments. I sat beside her on another chair and we conversed until his return. She was rather frail but pleasant, and spoke about, among other things, her connection with my brother’s family.

She moved in soon after, having found an efficient and loving personal carer. Each evening this girl would wash her, dress her up and wheel her out to the garden under the shady trees. I would join her there and we would sit watching life around us and comment on the passing scene. It was during these sessions that I learnt how she had been disabled. She had been widowed early, with a young son and daughter. Her husband’s death had hit the headlines at the time, for he had been a top official in the state plantation sector, who had informed the CID of the anti-state activities of those working under him. In retaliation, their party, now pretending to be a peaceful organisation, had brutally assassinated him.

The young family was destroyed with no income of their own. However, the state did not let them down. But found her a job, and along with help from family and friends she had a regular income that enabled her to live fairly comfortably, while educating her two children. Time passed. The children became adults and wage earners, who now rewarded their mother in every possible way for all the hardship she had endured on their behalf. The daughter married and settled down. The son, in order to better his professional prospects, applied for a profitable position in an Australian firm, which was accepted. He migrated with the intention of getting his mother to join him there later. By this time he was married with a young child. The mother was happy. She had already experienced life in Australia on previous trips and she could once again become part of her own family.

The final move involved a lot of work which only she could attend to, not only concluding her personal affairs but also providing all the necessary official information about the family, which only she could provide. The son had already been there for some weeks helping out and now they were seated in the airport lounge ready to emplane. It had all been tiring work, both physically and emotionally and she was exhausted. Then, without warning, the mother suddenly collapsed! When she was rushed to the emergency unit at the nearest hospital it was found that she had suffered a stroke.

She could not immigrate to Australia now, even if she fully recovered, which she did not. She was partially paralysed and confined to a life between bed and wheelchair. It was at this stage she came into my life. After moving in she settled in comfortably with us. The son flew in for brief visits whenever his work permitted, bringing his family along on their annual Christmas vacation for a longer stay. It was during such times that my son’s family also joined them on their combined visits to their respective mothers and we had an entertaining time together. Then she fell grievously ill and had to be hospitalised where she was finally relieved of all the physical and emotional trauma she had had to endure during her lifetime. My brother and I attended her funeral.

Her son continued to keep in touch with me through phone calls, letters and gifts sent through others and visiting me whenever he was in Sri Lanka. This is how he found me in the annexe I had moved into after leaving the elders’ home complex. He was delighted after inspecting the unit and learning of all the conveniences at hand banks, supermarkets, hospitals, my personal GP and regular trishaw man, and best of all, my brother in the lane directly across ours. “K will be thrilled,” he said, referring to my son, and began taking photos to show my son on his return.

We continued to keep in touch, though now unable to meet due to the pandemic situation. But I shall always remember him, for there they all are along with my son’s family, grinning cheerfully from the pages of my photograph album.



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Past Laurels



By Punya Heendeniya

The era was the mid-sixties. The transitional period of ocean travels to air travels. No hand phones and children read story books and played board games with the adults and sat for dinner together. No phone lines to the rural areas. Electricity was just installed. Roads widened with and given names of the local dignitaries. The only form of communication was by post or by telegrams.

We were invited to a world film festival held in Mexico, and the reason was Gamperaliya, a masterpiece written by the peerless writer Martin Wickremasinghe and transformed into celluloid by Dr. Lester James Peries; it won the Golden Peacock award at the international film festival in New Delhi in 1965. I was the main actress and Henry Jayasena played the male lead in the film.

The invitation was sent to me by Dr. Lester J Peries via a trusted crew member. My father started pacing up and down the sitting room murmuring, “How can we send you to the other side of the world alone? You never even go to the “lindha” (the water well) alone. Send a message saying that you cannot accept this invitation.”

Such was the atmosphere I grew up in. My mother as usual kept “mum”. My elder brother, an ardent admirer of my artistic career, came to my rescue.

In an unusually confident and assertive manner, he told father, “This is a once in a lifetime opportunity for someone like Nangi and she should make use of it. If you do not allow her to participate, I will take a transfer and move out of the house”. That did the trick and my brother’s firm statement had the desired impact on the situation.

Dr. Peries heard about my problem and devised a plan to make things easy for me.

He transferred his invitation to his wife Sumithra, who also was a co-producer and the editor of the Gamperaliya. All is well, that ends well. I managed to join Sumithra and Henry as part of the smallest group of invitees to the festival.

Foreign exchange

Three of us had to find foreign exchange for the trip even though the air travel was paid for. Only four pounds was allowed per person for foreign travel. We got together and appealed to the then Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake, who very generously allowed each of us to carry one hundred pounds. That was just our pocket money.

Sumithra and I appointed Henry as our delegation leader.

As state guests of the Mexican government, at dinner in Hotel El Cano, in Acapulco, and other banquets, three of us said in Sinhala, that we would have stopped with the sumptuous starter itself if we had to pay for our meals.

A mink coat

It was the height of winter in the Northern Hemisphere. Coming from a tropical country we were short of warm clothes. Sumithra having been in France had a few warm clothes and she very willingly gave me a pair of old gloves and a flannel vest. A very affluent fan of mine, who became one of my best friends later, came to my rescue. She offered me her mink coat.

A mink coat to Punya Heendeniya was manna from heaven those days.

If I had been offered that coat today, I would have turned it down, given the sheer number of innocent minks killed to make that coat.

Eighth Resenna Mundial

That was how the Mexican festival of festivals was named in Spanish. All the award -winning films of the world of the year were invited and the festival was held on a very grand scale in an ancient battlefield. We were able to mingle with the most famous stars of the world. I kept the then Ceylon (Sri Lanka) flag flying by wearing only the osariya and cloth and jacket for two to three weeks. This was highlighted in bold letters in the national newspapers. In an article written by Henry, at a later date, he mentioned, “Punya created history in Acapulco by refusing to wear a swimsuit.” That was my upbringing and Sumithra in her nonchalant, casual, and calm way supported me by saying we did not show flesh to attract attention.

The newspapers were all full of pictures of me in cloth and jacket and osariya.

Meeting the Asian film giant Satyajit Ray

Our delegation comprising just the three of us was assigned a limousine for travel purposes and it was named “Ceilan delegation

To the adjoining multi-starred hotel to our Hotel El Cano, came a one-man delegation. That was none other than the Satyajith Ray with his Charulatha. His appearance was majestic. He was tall, dark, and handsome. His visit made the three of us feel as if we had a close relationship with him. He very happily refused his limousine and travelled with us until the end of the festival. It was remarkable that he was one of the judges of the panel, at the New Delhi International Film Festival, where Gamperaliya was adjudged the best film. So, he had some understanding about the members of our delegation.

We attended experimental matinee film shows almost daily and one day we gave a lift to an American film critic in our Ceilan vehicle. He was seated with Ray in front and our topic of conversation was Asian films. He talked about Akira Kurosava and Satyajith Ray. All four of us were silent. He said he has seen the Opu trilogy. Ray in his elegant style said, “I am Satyajith Ray”. I do not have words to express the American’s reaction. He was elated.

On the day of the screening of our film, we draped our guide girl Christina Godard in a saree, and she carried it in a real stylish way. I wrote a short speech for myself, and Christina translated it to Spanish. I memorised it and when I addressed the audience in fluent Spanish “Saludos mees Amigos”, the audience went into a rapturous applause. Sumithra in her genteel manner, appointed me to collect the trophy for the film, “The Golden Palanque Head”.

Our sojourn in New York City

Having left Acapulco city’s warmer climes, our next stopover was New York. The Ceylon Mission of the National Assembly was aware of our arrival. We landed at the snow-covered John F Kennedy airport in the early evening. We were warmly welcomed by the staff members of the Ceylon Mission.

Among them was another tall, dark, and handsome figure I had seen in only pictures but never met. That was none other than our very own Mahagama Sekara. The funny side to it was, he was from Siyane Koralaya and I was from the adjoining Hapitigam Koralaya. We both were gamayas from rural Mirigama and Radavaana. We had to meet for the first time, in the John F Kennedy airport in New York!

From then onwards it was one full impromptu programme with dinners and sing songs. At one point we were singing “Mey Sinhala apage ratai, mulu lova ey ratata yatai” (lyrics by Mahagama Sekara) from the 42nd floor of a sky scraper. After that we all were walking along the Fifth Avenue to our lodgings. Unusual for the time of the year in the winter sky, the moon appeared through the skyscrapers. That was a very familiar sight for all of us and our very own poet Mahagama Sekara murmured, “Gamey andurana kenek dekka vaage”. (As if we have seen someone known to us back from home”)

That time the ambassador to the Ceylon Mission was Mr. R.S.S Gunawardane. He joined most of our get-togethers and invited both Henry and me to perform at the World Human Rights Day, which fell on the 10 December. The scheduled agenda had Sidney Poitier as an invited speaker. Our very own Shantha Weerakoon was to perform a Kandyan dance item. The Ceylon Mission made use of our unexpected presence at the right time to invite us to perform. We most willingly agreed. A separate printout was made available introducing us as the main actors of the award winning Gamperaliya and also mentioned our most recent and fresh participation at the Mexican festival from which we had just returned after winning the Golden Palanque Head Award.

Henry and I discussed what to perform and we sang our own Maestro Amaradava’s ” Piley pedura henata aragena enavaa“. Again lyrics by Mahagama Sekara. This opportunity proved to be a feather in our cap as we would never have dreamt of such a heaven-sent chance like this to perform on the main stage of the UN assembly. Credit to our great Dr.Lester J Peries and Gamperaliya. In a way it was all possible due to my brother’s support as well. I could not imagine getting garlanded on the UN stage in appreciation of the participation.

Meeting legendary Sir Sidney Poitier

Sir Sidney in his speech to the assembly, very humbly recalled how he had been coached to read and write by a senior Jewish waiter, when he was employed as a child in a menial job as a dish washer. He mentioned that his journey from dust to gold, and to hold the prestigious Oscar, was rough and full of hurdles.

Then followed the photographic session. We lined up and I was hidden a little behind, and suddenly I felt two iron tongs lifting me from my waist and placing me in front saying, “Your place is there” and positioned me next to the Secretary General Mr. U Thant. Immensely flabbergasted, I looked back. I could not believe my eyes; it was none other than Sir Sidney Poitier, the heartthrob of the galaxy of Hollywood stars, and at that time he was at the apogee of his distinguished career.

We enjoyed the Green Room hospitality of the Secretary General. I saw this unassuming Knight in shining armour, mixing with the crowd like a well chiselled, well- polished ebony statue that had come to life.

We as artistes adored this trailblazing, ground-breaking Oscar winner’s performances, in films like “Guess who is coming to dinner”, “To Sir with Love” and “In the heat of the Night”.

Sir Sidney is no more. But he will live in the hearts of everyone.

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Prehistoric community heterogeneous despite Sinhalese character and ethnos



Kozakian Shamshir weapon made of crucible steel from the collection of the Royal Museum of the Armed Forces and Military History, Brussels

By Seneka Abeyratne

The ancient kings, inspired by Buddhism and the constant need to feed a growing population, produced a new culture as well as a new economy. They also created the necessary institutions to plan and implement development projects for transforming the dry zone. Buddhism figured prominently in the island’s hydraulic civilization, which emerged during the Early Historic Period (500 BCE-300 CE). Although the irrigation bureaucracy was highly centralised, it produced results. There was a steady increase in agricultural production which kept pace with population growth and also stimulated technological change in the non-farm sectors through backward linkages.

However, there were occasional famines caused by various factors including invasions, internal strife, and adverse weather conditions. These famines occurred over a period of fifteen centuries in both the Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa kingdoms. Hence, despite the development of an intricate irrigation system in the dry zone, the uncertainty of food production always remained (Siriweera, W.I. History of Sri Lanka: From earliest times up to the sixteenth century, second edition, 2004).

Dual role of monastic complexes

The vibrant Buddhist culture also produced a flowering of religious art, architecture, and sculpture and a proliferation of the arts and crafts. Owing to its pivotal position in the ancient maritime silk route, the island would no doubt have benefited from winds of change blowing from East and West.

The Buddhist monasteries were heavily patronised by the royalty and served as key intermediaries between the monarchs and the rural people. The monastic complexes owned large extents of land, irrigation works, dairy cows, and draft animals. The manpower they had in their service consisted mainly of agricultural labourers and artisans. The latter included carpenters, wood-carvers, potters, brick-makers, and blacksmiths. The complexes possessed a range of implements for use by the skilled and unskilled workers. Consequently, they functioned not only as places of worship but also as key resource centres.

“What is still more significant is the role of the monastery in promoting different crafts including iron-smelting and metal craft. It adds another dimension to the multi-faceted activities in which these institutions had been involved” (Karunatilaka, P.V.B. Metals and Metal Use in Ancient Sri Lanka, 1991-92). Consequently, the larger monasteries, in addition to performing religious duties, engaged in diverse economic activities. By promoting metal crafts using hands-on training methods, they also served as agents of technical change.

Steel manufacturing

As we saw, iron and steel implements of superior quality were being produced in the island during the Early Historical Period. Numerous archaeological studies suggest that India and Sri Lanka were the first two countries in the world to produce and export wootz – a hard, durable, high-carbon steel. Both countries exported wootz steel to the Middle East. While in India, the iron-smelting furnaces for producing wootz steel (also known as crucible steel) were charcoal-fired, in Sri Lanka, they were wind-powered. This method of producing wootz steel was unique to the island. The ancient, wind-powered furnaces were built in the Samanalawewa area (located in the southern foothills of the central highlands), where there was an abundant supply of iron ore (Juleff, G. An ancient wind-powered iron-smelting technology in Sri Lanka, 1996). These remarkable structures have been dated to 300 BCE using radiocarbon dating techniques (Hewageegana, P. Early Iron and Steel Production in Sri Lanka: A Scientific Perspective, 2014).

During the first millennium CE, steel manufacturing developed into a major ferrous metallurgy industry in South Asia. The legendary Damascus swords, noted for their strength and sharpness, were produced from ingots of wootz steel imported from India and Sri Lanka. It was the Arabs who introduced this quality product to Syria.

The Sunday Times reported more than a decade ago that Gill Juleff (a British archaeologist) was in the process of establishing a full-scale model of the Samanalawewa wind-powered furnace at the Martin Wickramasinghe museum in Koggala (Sadanandan, Renuka, Blowing back to a red-hot history, The Sunday Times, August 31, 2008). Her excavations, carried out in Samanalawewa over a two-year period (1990-91), revealed that each site had several furnaces. Juleff discovered a total of 77 sites in Samanalawewa with furnace remains, all of them located in the path of monsoon winds on the western margins of hills and ridges. Perhaps the Chola invasions led to the collapse of this large-scale metallurgy industry in the 11th Century.

Megalithic culture

It appears the 3rd century BCE on the whole was a vibrant period of Sri Lanka’s ancient history when various factors (both exogenous and endogenous) converged to produce a flowering of the island’s famed Early Iron Age megalithic culture. Archaeological research, which commenced during the British colonial period and is continuing to probe the island’s ancient past, has demonstrated a clear biological connection or continuum, if you will, between the prehistoric and historic peoples. Similarly, haematological and genetic investigations suggest that the ethnic mix of Sri Lanka’s population is quite consistent with the island’s geographical location. Though the island lies between South India and Southeast Asia, it is geographically much closer to the former than the latter. It is not surprising therefore that the ethnic mix is weighted towards southern India.

There is no solid evidence to indicate that the early Sri Lankans were a homogeneous migrant group. What the available data suggest, on the other hand, is that the Sri Lankans were no less heterogeneous in the prehistoric past than they are today. This island, though relatively small, is exceedingly complex in respect of its social, cultural and demographic characteristics due to its long history of human habitation.

The megalithic monuments scattered throughout the dry zone (with a high degree of concentration in the northern and eastern dry zone) indicate that semi-settled communities existed in the island prior to 600 BCE. The megalithic culture was based on a wide range of economic activities, including pottery, the practice of chena cultivation, the rearing of livestock, and the production of hardy iron tools and implements.

The archaeological evidence shows there were close affinities between the megalithic culture complexes and burial sites of Sri Lanka with those of South India. It is therefore tempting to conclude that there was a significant South-Indian presence in the island centuries before the arrival of the northern Indian settlers. However, Senake Bandaranayake (The Peopling of Sri Lanka: The National Question and Some Problems of History and Ethnicity, South Asia Bulletin, 1987) raises the question of whether the migration of ideas and techniques was more important than the migration of peoples in explaining the character and dynamism of Sri Lanka’s internal developments during the prehistoric and early historic periods.

Assuming, on the basis of the megalithic culture complexes, that a cohesive and relatively advanced protohistoric community did exist in Sri Lanka, the question then arises as to how the island had developed a distinct Sinhalese character and ethnos by the 3rd century BCE. The widespread use of the proto-Sinhala language, the dramatic increase in tank irrigation systems, the rapid dissemination of wetland rice cultivation techniques, the establishment of a Sinhalese monarchy and emergence of the early state, the rise of Buddhism: all of these social and cultural phenomena suggest that revolutionary changes occurred in Sri Lanka after the migrants from northern India arrived in the island.

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