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Gas Maaru Pethi Choru

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Nobody heard of the loathsome word “tuition” and it was all fun and frolic after school. We plucked mango from trees and shot catapults at crows and squirrels and delighted at an occasional “Aleric’s popsicle” or a little crisp, white “bombai-mutai’. Such were our far and wide-spread silver linings. We rode ramshackle bicycles to the beach to watch fishermen pulling the nets. When the trains hooted in the nearby track, we hooted back in return as if to match the yodel of the iron monsters. That was life.

When I was a kid, (which was a very long time ago), I grew up in the serenity of an old style Moratuwa. The western border of the town was the beautiful beach and the eastern, the picture-perfect Bolgoda that emptied to the sea from the southern extreme that demarcated Panadura. To the North was the Ratmalana International Airport, where one could hear the whine of big propeller engines as they revved up to take off to faraway places, mind you, intercontinental, their tails painted in brilliant colours depicting the then giants of aviation, KLM, BOAC and TWA.

As for Moratuwa the biggest event the town enjoyed was the “big match” in March, “Battle of the Golds”. Then there was a gentlemen’s election crusade between the Fernando opponents, Merril and Ruskin, vying for a place as to who should represent us in the parliament. That was the political scene. Other news flashes included the occasional stabbing of someone in a drunken brawl or a “kukul hora” being caught in the act of stealing chicken. The town certainly was very different then from what it is at present.

People too were different, I guess, a lot gentler. As kids, we woke up in the morning and walked to school and came home in the afternoon and then it was play-time till the sun dipped and coloured the sky in varied pastels. Nobody heard of the loathsome word “tuition” and it was all fun and frolic after school. We plucked mango from trees and shot catapults at crows and squirrels and delighted at an occasional “Aleric’s popsicle” or a little crisp, white “bombai-mutai’. Such were our far and wide-spread silver linings. We rode ramshackle bicycles to the beach to watch fishermen pulling the nets. When the trains hooted in the nearby track, we hooted back in return as if to match the yodel of the iron monsters. That was life.

Every house had a garden. Nobody enrolled in cricket schools. Most home yards were big enough to set wickets and play cricket. The so-called sixes we hit “thumped thumped” on the roofs in the surrounding houses and dropped down. As for the neighbours, of course some were friendly and others not so, I mean the people who lived around our makeshift stadiums. The ball would go to the next garden, and we would jump over the fence and retrieve it. In rare cases, there were those who hid the ball or shouted at us. Such boundaries were well-defined by the players as “out” if you hit into that yonder garden. But the games went on, great competition and great fun with “Shy balls” and “Hora Out” with whimsical umpires who could possibly have grown up to become great politicians. That is another story, maybe I will write about that on a fairer day.

As for now, it is all about “Gas Maru”, which begins with the tender years of our young days, when we saw times that were simple, soft and maybe in many ways magical. Such is what I remember. A pure gift of life.

Remembrance wakes within me and sadly brings me to the reality that there isn’t a semblance of that past remaining today. That’s to be accepted as the world has got older and more corrupt and politicised with irritatingly arrogant leaders. Big Bush started the scavenge of Iraq and little Bush and Blair expanded adding Afghanistan too. Terrorism got expanded and exported and the carnage continues; our own Paradise Isle alo got bombed on Easter Sunday. We thought everything was over after Nandikadal. Sadly, the fuses are still burning and no one has the faintest idea when the next explosion will come. And we call ourselves civilised!

There are committees appointed to do this and inquire into that to protect us and the good earth. This is a time where one does not know what is right and what is wrong anymore and whom to believe and whom to disregard. As Sri Lankans we sure are in Limbo without a clue as to whom we should follow. I guess that is the new world order which certainly is in some ways personified on the Sri Lanka shores with a capital ‘D” for disaster. We are the Ali Babas, and the forty thieves are always there, multiplying like ticks on a bitch, sucking the very life of decency in our country. No wonder everyone is confused, that’s for sure; I am too, not knowing what to believe and where lies the truth or at least half the truth. Hadn’t we suffered enough for thirty years? Isn’t it time that Diyawanna Oya got vaccinated with some honesty and then given a booster too just so that they can all be brought to some semblance of integrity?

This brings me to “Gas Maaru Pethi Choru” that’s what we played as kids. A garden with well-spaced coconut trees and we each would pick a trunk and one of us would be blind folded with a black cloth and the game would begin. We would taunt and shout and promise and the “blind catcher” followed the voices and came charging to grab us and get his reward. Alas! That’s when we jumped to the other tree and the voice faded and a new voice rose from another corner for “Citizen Jayawardena” to believe and chase another dream.

The blind-folded catcher of yesterday had many a similarity with the powerless “us” of today. He was lost in his blindness and groped and stumbled in search of playful solace, but the voices faded and the positions changed and he was left to go from promise to promise muddled in somewhat a mindless incontinent sentimentality. He knew his misery was short-lived, such was the game and there he differed from the “us” who know very well that the proverbial “light at the end of the tunnel” in real life for us is simply a mirage. The trees are there and the voices are heard, and there ends the fairy tale. At least, that is how I see it.

How do we survive and what do we do to ensure that the generations that come after us would have better dawns? That they would breathe fresh air and see butterflies in the sky and walk to a beach and hoot at trains. Or, do we just play the game and chase the voices and linger in hope that we know for certain would become hopeless. Is it a foregone conclusion that the demons would win the battles against the ordinary man and woman as they have won for 73 years? Is there anything that we can do from the “do nothing” seat to change the tide or do we stay sorrowfully silent with our mouths permanently padlocked? Not much choice either way, that’s for sure. We are all like jugglers on a circus rink, coloured balls flying, sadly not knowing which promising ball to follow and which ball to catch. Aren’t we?

Maybe, it would be a good idea for all of us to come together and promote “Gas Maaru Pethi Choru” as a national sport. Maybe, we should elevate it to be accepted at the Olympics. We certainly could do well, maybe even go to Paris, the next venue and compete in the games as a seeded entry. Considering the vast number of perpetually “root-balling” performers we have in the midst of us who strut the stage in gay political abandon. It is not only the ‘Big Guns’ but their ardent followers, the ‘Kade Yana’ crowd (going marketing) and the ‘Kude Allana’ (holding the umbrella) second string are all playing the same ‘Gas Maaru’ game. As for us the voters we never learn. We only follow Pierre de Coubertin’s immortal words of ‘not to win but to take part’ and light crackers and feed on ‘kiribath’ at road intersections and cheer like fools the saints as they go marching in to Diyawanna Oya.

Just another thought! Maybe? Only time will tell.



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Legends of Ceylon…in action again

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Mignonne: At the first event

The first event, held at the Irish Pub, last December, was a success. It was, in fact, a ‘full house,’ they say.

Singer-entertainer Sohan, the leader of the group Sohan & The X-Periments, promised a repeat, and he is doing just that.

‘Legends of Ceylon’ will move into action, again, for the second time, at the Irish Pub, on Wednesday, January 26th, and will bring into the spotlight the stars who have contributed to making the showbiz scene doubly exciting…for decades.

Billed to appear are Mignonne, Dalreen, Geoffrey, Noeline, Sohan and Manilal.

They will perform, accompanied by the group Mirage.

This is not an event where tickets are sold. All you need to do is to make a reservation, turn up on the 26th, and dine and wine while you enjoy the music of the ‘Legends of Ceylon.’

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Another legend bids farewell…

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The pandemic is bad enough, but the past few months have also brought us further shocks.

In September, last year (2021) the death of Sunil Perera, of the Gypsies, shocked the nation, and music lovers, the world over. And, then, last week, it was the demise of another veteran singer-entertainer, Desmond de Silva.

Desmond’s death was equally shocking as he had arrived, from Sydney, in high spirits, for his 31st night gig in Melbourne.

His death, they say, was due to a stroke.

And, this is how many have expressed their feelings…

Mignonne & The Jetliners, and Suyin and Michael:

I was shocked, and deeply saddened, to hear of the passing away of dear Desmond – ‘Des’ to us.

Affable and kind to most, he was a much loved entertainer and singer with whom we, too, shared many successful years of making music together, with my band, Mignonne & The Jetliners, and, on a few occasions, with my kids, Suyin and Michael, at the Taj, in Mumbai.

He was passionate about his performances, be it ballads or bailas, and he truly rocked the stag, both here and abroad, for over four decades.

Always dressed impeccably, he had the audience clamouring for more.

Des has surely carved a name for himself, as a legend, and will be remembered for his contribution as one of our best entertainers in Sri Lanka’s popular music history.

How can I say goodbye to dearest Des! He was one of a kind…and so special, and regrettably gone too soon. We will miss him dearly.

Our love and prayers go out to Phyllis and all his loved ones.

May he rest in the peace of Christ.

*  Brad Stevens (Australia):

I last met Desmond at an Old Joes dance, in Sydney, a few years back.

He had an absolutely brilliant personality; had the art of getting everyone joining him in his act…whether it was at a dance, or whether it was a performance, at a concert. Even a simple phone conversation with him was so good.

I feel bad as I could not accept his invitation to visit him and Phyllis at their home, in Sydney.

And, then, since December 2020, Desmond was a regular on The Brad & Kiara Show. In fact, we had him on our Christmas Edition, just a few weeks back, which might have even been his last voice clip, on radio….

It was nice to hear him always give credit to Phyllis – the love of his life.

Sri Lanka has lost yet another great entertainer, and all of us will miss his superb performances on stage, with his wonderful singing. But, let’s celebrate his amazing life – he would not want it any other way….

He will always live in our hearts. May His Soul Rest In Eternal Peace.

Rob Foenander (Australia):

I wasn’t a close friend of Desmond, but did share the stage with him on a few occasions. He knew Cliff Foenander (‘A Little Bit Of Soap’) very well and always spoke glowingly about Cliff. He also sang one of my songs at a wedding last September.

Yes, Desmond was well respected in the community. No question about that.

He gave himself no titles, just continued to create work for himself, around the world, which, in itself, has to be commended.

Joey Lewis (England):

Desmond was a blue-blooded stage performer, of international standard.

When I joined the Jetliners, I was 17, and Des was about 29. It felt surreal, at that time, to find myself getting such respect, and praise, from this guy who was one of my childhood heroes…(but, that was Des though, always full of encouragement for his fellow musicians). All of us, had a wonderful and crazy time together, on and off the stage.

He was a beautiful artiste, with the incredible ability to be as suave and debonair as Dean Martin one minute, and then as crazy and wild as Ozzy Osborne or Oliver Reed the next. Never a dull moment, there was, when hanging out with him.

I have not heard any crooner sing some ballads like ‘Danny Boy,’ and ‘I Can’t Stop Loving You,’ like he did, and I know now, I will never hear them sung like that again.

I share the deep sadness of my fellow Sri Lankans, all over the world, as we join together to mourn the loss of our greatest singing star, in both scenes, the Western and the Oriental..

Rest in Peace Des

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Features

A Good Guide to the Omicron Variant

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By M.C.M. Iqbal, PhD

Despite the WHO adopting a neutral system to name the variants of the coronavirus that keep emerging (using letters of the Greek alphabet), the Omicron variant is associated with South Africa. The last variant of the virus to emerge was the Delta variant, which surfaced in December 2020, in India. There are two more letters between Delta and Omicron in the Greek alphabet that the WHO decided not to use. These are ‘Nu’ and ‘Xie’, which the WHO thought could be confused with ‘new’ while Xie is a common surname in China.

The Omicron variant is spreading in many countries. With the number of infected persons rising and another wave expected, many countries in Europe have imposed the usual methods to arrest the spread, with immediate lockdowns. However, scientists are still collecting data to find out how bad Omicron is, since the data seems to indicate that in South Africa, the disease is not as bad as the Delta variant. At the same time, in Europe, there is no significant change in the number of persons hospitalized. Of immediate concern to health authorities are, is the Omicron variant spreading faster than the earlier variants, does it cause more or less severe disease, and can it bypass the vaccines available?

Discovery

Scientists in South Africa announced on 25 November the discovery of a new variant of the coronavirus. On 26 November, the WHO named it Omicron. Although South Africa has been labeled as the country of origin, the virus was identified in neighbouring Botswana. In addition, there are reports of an earlier detection of this variant in the Netherlands.

PCR tests look for four markers on the virus genome to identify it as the coronavirus. The tests in Botswana showed a reduced sensitivity because one of the four targets was not being detected. These samples were sent to South Africa, where scientists have state-of-the-art facilities to look for changes in the genome of the virus. Changes are found by reading the ‘letters’ of the virus genome (called sequencing) and comparing it to the already available genome of the virus. The new Omicron variant had many more changes than the Delta variant.

Global status

By 14th January, the Omicron variant had spread to 116 countries in all six continents since its discovery on 26 November 2021. The figure below shows the gradual replacement of the presently dominant Delta variant by the Omicron variant; at present global data on the coronavirus, maintained by Nextstrain (https:// nextstrain.org/ncov/open/global) shows a decline of the Delta variant from 88% on 30th October 2021 to 42% on 8th January 2022, while correspondingly the Omicron variant has increased from less than 1% to 56%. Nextstrain is a global database presenting a real-time view of the evolution of the genomes of the coronavirus and other globally important pathogens. The interactive platform provides information to professionals and the public to understand the spread and evolution of pathogens, including information on individual countries.

Distribution of Delta and Omicron variants on 1st January 2022 from Nextstrain. (Please see graph)

What’s unique about Omicron?

Unlike the previous variants of the coronavirus, this variant has over 30 changes (mutations) to its spike (a protein), the characteristic flower-like protrusion on its surface. It was these changes to the spike, one of the four targets of the PCR test that raised alarm bells in Botswana. This spike makes the coronavirus special – it is the key it uses to gain entry into the cells in our throat and lungs. The previous variants, Alpha and Delta also had changes in their spike protein, enabling them to enter cells more efficiently and thus making them more infectious. The vaccines against the virus are based on this spike, and the antibodies produced by our immune system are specific to the spike protein. Thus, any significant changes to the spike means the previous vaccines may not be effective against the newly changed spikes on the Omicron variant.

While the Omicron variant can spread rapidly, it appears to cause milder disease compared to the Alpha and Delta variants. Scientists believe this is because Omicron infects the upper airways or the throat, and not the lungs further down. Based on experiments done on hamsters and mice, scientists found the concentration of the virus was much lower in the lungs than in their throat. The earlier variants of the coronavirus caused severe damage to the lungs of the infected people, with extreme cases needing oxygen. This does not seem to be the case with Omicron. Scientists believe the changes to the spike enables the virus to enter cells in the throat more easily than in the lungs.

It can spread rapidly

The virus is quickly expelled into the air if it infects and multiplies in the throat. Since it causes a milder form of the disease, infected persons may be unaware that they carry the virus. They would be moving about socially and at work, spreading the virus. Thus, the obvious means of slowing or preventing the spread of the virus is to strictly wear the mask at all times, and avoid social gatherings.

Studies have suggested that the period between exposure to the virus and onset of symptoms has also reduced to three days for Omicron. At the pandemic’s beginning, this was more than five days, and for the Delta variant it was four days.

What is of immediate concern?

Of concern to scientists is the better ability of the Omicron to spread rapidly in the population and its suspected ability to bypass our immune system. Our immune system is our internal defense system, using antibodies and an arsenal of chemicals and cells. The available vaccines are designed on the coronavirus variants circulating in the population. Thus, major changes to the coronavirus can reduce the efficiency of the available vaccines. Both these concerns have been observed in the past month: Omicron can spread more rapidly than the presently dominant Delta variant, and observations on vaccinated people show a reduced ability by the vaccines to prevent infections, compared to the Delta variant. This has called for booster doses for people who have already received the two mandatory doses. In Israel, even a fourth vaccination is being administered.

How could the variant have evolved?

Variants of the coronavirus result from changes to the virus’s genome, called mutations. What is troubling about the Omicron variant is that it has many mutations in its spike. Mutations happen spontaneously as the virus multiplies in our bodies and spreads to others. Thus, the virus gradually accumulates small changes to its advantage. These advantages are infecting us more efficiently, spreading to others more easily, and multiplying more rapidly. Scientists believe that one possibility is that the virus circulated in a small isolated group of people (say a village), piling up the mutations over time, and then escaping into a broader population, and then eventually crossing borders.

Another possibility is that it developed in a single individual and spread to others. This happens when a person has low immunity, resulting in a prolonged infection because the immune system cannot eliminate the virus. This leads to the virus developing changes (mutating) to overcome the mild immune response. Answering this question needs scientists to painstakingly reconstruct the history of the virus, using tools from molecular biology. Unfortunately, locating patient zero is difficult since it is impossible to analyze the virus (or sequence its genome) of all the persons infected with the Omicron variant. What is usually possible is to determine a general area or community and the time of origin.

What can we do about it?

Vaccinate! This is the primary tool we have to prevent the spread of the virus and not give it opportunities to multiply. In addition, we should rigorously follow the simple rules we are familiar with – wear the mask when outside, physically distance ourselves, and follow hygienic practices by washing our hands with soap, and avoiding touching our nose and face with possibly contaminated hands.

The good news

The coronavirus has been with us for over two years. Many were infected and have recovered from the virus during this period, providing natural immunity. Others have acquired immunity through vaccinations. When a new variant infects these people, they will manifest a milder form of the disease. This may explain the reduced hospitalisation of Omicron patients.

A booster dose to those already vaccinated or were naturally infected by the coronavirus, appears to provide reasonable protection against the Omicron variant.

And the bad news

The Omicron variant can evade immunity from previous infections. A recent analysis of surveillance data from South Africa, involving over two million persons, indicated suspected reinfections of those previously infected. This is in contrast to Beta and Delta variants, which did not lead to reinfections on such a scale.

The Future

The coronavirus is here for the long haul. Variants will keep emerging, and it seems unlikely it can be eradicated. The media should help counter vaccine hesitancy and the spread of misinformation. As individuals, we need to understand the biology of the virus to avoid spreading the virus and infecting ourselves and others. Science has to be supported in a broad sense to develop strategies by the health authorities and policymakers.

Further reading

S. Wild. How the Omicron variant got so many scary mutations. Scientific American, 3rd December 2021.

Michael Chan Chi-wai.

G. Vogel and K. Kupferschmidt. Early lab studies hint Omicron may be milder. But most scientists reserve judgment. Science, 20th December 2021.

K. Kupferschmidt and G. Vogel. Omicron threats remain fuzzy as cases explode. Science, 7 January 2022.

(The writer is a scientist in Plant and Environmental Sciences, National Institute of Fundamental Studies, Hanthane Road, Kandy. He can be reached at iqbal.mo@nifs.ac.lk)

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