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Foreign snippets of news, mostly



The World Food Programme (WFP) was awarded the 2020 Nobel Peace Prize – richly deserved.

Cass listened to her favourite interview: that of Stephen Sackur in the BBC HARDTalk programme, on Sunday December 1. He interviewed Ex Republican Governor of South Carolina, David Beasly, now Executive Director of the WFP, who seemed extremely committed and concerned especially about refugee children in Yemen where he said the worst ever crisis was happening. He predicted that worse was to come. The WFP of US$ 15bn required annually was hardly available so they had to make do. Admittedly, countries, even the rich, are hard pressed economically so to how donate generously for charity overseas. And most of the poverty and hunger and harm to women and children were because of armed conflicts, within or between countries. There is no end or limit to leaders’ greed for power.

Sackur commented that Beasly had promoted and worked for Trump in the 2016 presidential election. Beasly admitted it. He seemed no longer enamoured of the man but he did not criticize Trump outright. He said the US had donated 4 b and that most countries were looking inward and thus organizations like the WFP suffer greatly, not being able to achieve half of what has to be done.

Sackur also commented on the fact that during a recent visit to a children’s hospital in Yemen. Beasly had to leave the ward as he just could not take any more of the suffering he saw. He admitted he was in tears after seeing how beautifully a 1 ½ year old girl, emaciated with starving, smiled lovingly at him.

Sackur and Beasly both agreed that billionaire individuals from all over the world should contribute to organisations such as WFP because nations are cash-strapped having their own unemployed people to see to.

Beasly said: “It is easy to feel hopeless, but we have to go on.”


Very rich being donors

Cass mentioned this fact or rather hope in the Sri Lankan context, in a Cassandra Cry column two weeks previous, when she commented how flat dwellers who are definitely suffering from restrictions imposed on them due to the surge of Covid-19 infection, protest and scream complaining that the government allowance of Rs 5000 to them was totally inadequate. True, but at least the government, also on the brink of you-know-what, cannot give more. So Cassandra reflected that Sri Lankans who have got extremely rich by earning through thriving businesses including many self-made, one-generation multi billionaires, should donate to help our daily workers out of job now. There are some who have amassed huge monies in other ways. Why not a bit of extra charity Cass dares to ask since one cannot spend much on high living in these bleak, restricted times.

This idea was expressed by Sackur too: Why not the world’s billionaires contribute to the WFP. Beasly agreed.

On the other hand there are so many un-rich Sri Lankans who do so much for the under privileged, most often banding together with others who feel for our poor.


Deforestation now in the public domain

All the shouting in Parliament debating the 2021 budget left Cassandra cold and unresponsive. Comment is useless, but many gems were shed in a few of the speeches. Sajith debates well with even temper and voice; Harsha and Eran are superb. How about the government side? The less said the better!

But one good thing is happening. The public and organisations that claim to be watchdogs for the public are getting vociferous about deforestation and illicit sand mining. The mining for limestone should cease immediately in Digana in the precincts of the Victoria Dam. People sometimes are worse than assess and jackals in their greed and resorting to cunning methods of exploiting resources; never they mind the danger to the country.

The Island

or its Sunday edition carried an article by Dr Sumith Pilapitiya and another about deforestation and over-use of resources. It was an article that every single MP should read and keep bulletin-boarded in offices that deal with wildlife. The two authors quoted the UN Secretary General Antonio Guterres twice which quotes were very spot-on regarding our local deforestation and human-elephant conflict.

We in this tiny island have so many brilliant men and women of education, expertise, love of the country and personality. Cass suspects they are not brain-stormed or their abilities tapped. Cass caustically supposes political affiliations interfere and influence.

One very relevant story Cass heard was that during the previous regime, Nilame’s of temples and devales that conduct annual peraheras, wanted elephants loaned for their processions. It looks very much that numbers count for prestige; 15 to 25 elephants are not adequate for the parade. The Nilames met the then Prez Sirisena who summoned Dr Pilapitiya, wisely appointed Head of Wildlife, and said he must release elephants from orphanages. Dr P. was willing to lend from the Pinnawela Orphanage as those animals were to remain in the orphanage; but not from the Udawalawe Home as elephants in it were trained to return to the jungle. The Prez was adamant. (Did he only tongue whiplash or did he bring out his madu walige?) Pronto came letter of resignation from Dr P. Such a great loss for the Wildlife Department and the entire country. Mercifully he is here, maybe off and on since the UN has recognized him as a foremost expert on elephants, particularly.


Another plus

The Paris Agreement on a legally binding treaty on climate change adopted in Paris on December 12, 2015, with 196 Parties signing it, celebrated its fifth anniversary and via a virtual conference assessed what each country’s contribution had been, mainly on decrease of carbon emissions. The results were positive, but yet the urgent cry to save the planet must be heeded. One scientist proclaimed that at the rate pollution continues, the world will exist as it is, only for 100 more years.

The celebration was because the President to be, Biden announced that the US will rejoin the Paris Agreement from which it dropped out of solely due to Prez Trump being cheesed off by having to limit industrial activity.

And so the world spins around with the Pfizer BioNtech vaccine against Covid 19 being injected in people in the UK and now US, on priority basis. Singapore and India have placed their orders. Cass feels strongly Sri Lanka should go for the much cheaper and transportable Oxford vaccine. By the time we are ready to order a vaccine or have the WHO do it for us, the Oxford vaccine will surely be available.

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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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