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Enhancing the Delights of Reading

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by Kumar David

The trouble started with Mr Vinasithamby, our Tamil master in school, always attired in verti and saalvai and in a pair of slippers, while the other Tamil master Mr Shaithananthan – when I last heard he was in Canada – wore white trousers a shirt and closed shoes. I must have been about 14-years old when Vinasi decided to unload a line from John Ruskin’s Sesame and Lilies that got me into a bit of a panic, before he returned his attention to Silapathikram or its antithesis Manimehali or whatever he was trying to drum into our thick skulls. I cannot locate the line but it seems Ruskin spoke of “Books of the moment and books of all time”. I was a decent enough reader for a teenager but mostly ‘instantaneous’ stuff and it struck me that there were hundreds of books I would have to know before pretending to be educated. Later, adding the monumental array in other languages that I had not even heard of as a 14-year old, the task seemed to have multiplied to thousands of volumes to be spread over many lifetimes.

It was only much later, near the end of my allotted span of three score and ten that I came to see that no way did I need to read it all. First, there is a lot stuff that others think great but I dislike. I loathe the Bagavad Geetha, Paradise Lost bores me to tears and when Milton visited the lost-and-found office and Regained his Lost property it put me to sleep every five lines. Some of his sonnets though are beautiful. I also dislike Eliot, who is pretentious; his “ineffable, effable, effanineffable, deep and inscrutable singular” game. I say be open, don’t be intimated by big names; if a big name bores you, say so and avoid him.

The Iliad, the Odyssey, the Divine Comedy, Remembrance of Things Past, the Mahabharata, Ramayana and the Analects; it’s quite enough if you read a greatly abridged version or summary stories. The same goes, except Psalms 23 and 121, some Isiah and juicy bits of Deuteronomy, for the Old Testament. And except the Gospels and bits of Paul, the same applies to the New Testament. And please always the Authorised Version; the modern versions are garbage as literature. (Imagine this: And Jesus said to Mathew “Machang, let’s go to the junction and put a plain tea and a beedi“!). Similarly you only need to be familiar with a few Jataka Stories, to get the hang. I have not tried my hand at the Koran, or full versions of Faust, Hobbes, Locke, Kant, Spinoza or Hegel in translation – I am basically monolingual – but I have taken the trouble to learn the basics from essays and summaries. You see, I am realistic; this is the only way. Don’t be shy, use this approach to the majority of Ruskin’s “books of all time”; you have only one life. The important thing is to commit diligently to this abridged task as per the spare time life’s chores of doing a job and feeding the brood allows. And oh, I am speaking of reading enjoyment, not your religion or what you need to know about this or that faith.

War & Peace

is classic even for teenager but why in pluperfect purgatory did Tolstoy stick a 40-page philosophical critique of then existing (pre-Marxist) theories of history at the end of the book? Old history said great events issue from the actions of great persons. Tolstoy said ‘No’. He said that in a world full of events the interaction between necessity and free-will are decisive. They add up to frame history. A hard Marxist even in my youth this suited me fine but why Tolstoy’s long a rigmarole epilogue? Anyway it’s all better stated in the first part of the German Ideology and in the scintillating prose of the Manifesto. The latter was available to Tolstoy but the former, a collection of writings, was published by David Riazanov only in 1932.

There are dozens of non-English works I have enjoyed in translation – Don Quixote, Karamazov, Crime and Punishment, the Arabian Nights, the Rubaiyat, some Chekov, I loved Gogol’s Dead Souls and Voltaire’s Candide. Readers of this column, obviously English literate are familiar with Wuthering Heights, Jane Austen, Moby Dick, Great Expectations, A Tale of Two Cities, Sons and Lovers, Grapes of Wrath, Heart of Darkness, and so the compulsory list goes on. However, I am ashamed to admit that I have not yet read the acclaimed Chinese challenger to Tolstoy’s great epic, Cao Xueqin’s (1724-1764) Dream of the Red Chamber.

And then there’s Shakespeare. No one will disagree that the Bard of Stratford-on-Avon is numero uno among English poets, and there’s no point hiding that in my view the finest in all literature, the Greek, Sanskrit and Persian epics which I know about in translation, included. Not everyone is aware that the plays are poetry, not prose; blank verse in iambic pentameter (a line of verse with five metrical steps of one short or unstressed syllable followed by a long stressed syllable, making up ten rhythmic syllables). Intoning in iambic pentameter is key to enjoying the poetic in Shakespeare. Here are a few unsurpassed purple passages. I have highlighted a few of the stressed steps though some of you with a more musical ear may partition it otherwise.

Macbeth, dismayed by his blood stained hand after he murdered Duncan, mummers;

“This my hand will the multitudinous seas incarnadine, making the green one red.”

 

Othello, preparing to blow out the candle and then strangle Desdemona who he dearly loves groans;

Put out the light, and then put out the light.

If I quench thee, thou flaming minister,

I can again thy light restore if I repent me.

But once put out thy light,

Thou cunning’st pattern of excelling nature,

I know not where is that Promethean heat

That can thy former light restore.”

 

Cleopatra on the Nile;

“The barge she sat in like a burnished throne,

Burned

on the water; its poop was beaten gold“.

 

Juliet’s bedchamber:

“But soft, what light through yonder window breaks?”

 

Twelfth Night, everyone knows this one.

“If music be the food of love, play on.

Give me excess of it, that, surfeiting,

The appetite may sicken and so die“.

 

Hamlet – in the cardinal work in all the English tongue – is sick of life;

“O, that this too, too sullied flesh would melt,

Thaw, and resolve itself into a dew“.

 

Of course not everything Shakespeare wrote is my cup of tea. Of the four great tragedies I am not excited by Lear, for which delinquency I have earned the enduring disdain of Tissa Jayatilaka. To be honest I don’t care for the comedies except As You Like It. (I can even improve on Shakespeare: “Sermons in books; and stones in the running brooks!”). What’s the big deal; Twelfth Night or Midsummer Night’s Dream don’t resonate with modern audiences. I am one of few Lankan fans of the Histories, especially Henry V and Richard III. Suriya Wicks, Dr SA Wicks’ daughter calls my pontification on two-part Henry IV, Henry V, three-part Henry VI and two-part Henry VII, my “Romp with the Henrys”. Blah!

Reading must be pleasure and this brings me to modern writing. There is an explosion in all languages. English readers are lucky to get the largest share of translations. The number of good, bad and indifferent novels is amazing but many novelists make their tomes fat and boring. Twentieth Century English poetry too does not excite me. Maybe I am old-fashioned; in my notepad the last great English poet was Gerald Manley Hopkins, certainly the finest of the Victorians. “Glory be to God for dappled things: For skies of couple-colour as a brinded cow: For rose-mole all on stipple upon trout that swim: Fresh-firecoal chestnut-falls; finches’ wings: Landscape plotted and pieced – fold, fallow, and plough: And áll trádes, their gear and tackle and trim”.

Wit and a photographic memory help in the enjoyment. Churchill’s skit on Scot’s line when Labour left office is memorable; they departed “unwept, unhonoured, unloved” and unhanged! Bernard Soysa was gifted with a remarkable photographic memory and could declaim entire speeches of great historical merit – Frederick Douglas’s ‘What to the Slave is the Fourth of July?’ (1852); Lincoln’s Gettysburg Address (1863); Chief Joseph’s ‘Surrender Speech’ (1877); Churchill’s ‘Their finest hour’ (1940); Nehru’s ‘Tryst with Destiny’ (1947), and a fine declamation about Toussaint Louverture that I cannot now trace.

There is such a range of other material apart from snooty stuff – Stephen Jay Gould, Gerald Durrell, Richard Dawkins, Edward O Wilson in one corner, Stephen Hawing, John Gribbin, Fritjof Capra and hundreds more in another corner, and more corners to make science, ecology, cosmology, anthropology and much else interesting to everyman. Maybe I am overdoing it trying to sell the pleasures of reading to you adults, so it’s time to change track to a more difficult challenge. What to do about young people? Should one try to do anything at all? Shouldn’t one leave them to craft their own lives and imagination with their digital screens, amazing graphics and fancy joysticks? You see they’re damn good at it. Microsoft or some such outfit advises that when you have a problem with your iPhone or laptop “Try this, then try that, then try the help menu, then look up the manual, then go online for help, and finally if all else fails, send for a teenager”.

I have four grand-brats, three are very young and not relevant to today’s column. But one, Yasmin, just turned 14. She is a voracious reader and still finding her way around. Perhaps she needs a little guidance but not obnoxious intrusion. Young people need to find their own way around but they also need a bit of steering. It’s a matter of putting all sorts of fodder in front of the horse and letting it pick what suits its palate. This is true of adults like this columnist as well.

 

 



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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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