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Get to grips, Gota!



by Dr. Upul Wijayawardhana

Oh! What a contrast it has been! As 2020 dawned we were dreaming of a new era. For the first time, we elected a president who was not a career politician and his initial actions gave hope like never before. It became pretty obvious that Gota was not there for the glamour of office but to get the country out of the mess created by Yahapalanaya. After all, he was elected not because he attacked his opponents but because he placed his track record before the electorate. Although the drafters of the ill-fated 19A predicted that he would be a puppet President, Gota showed how to use the limited powers to the maximum benefit of the country. He met the challenge of the totally unexpected devastating pandemic with finesse, earning plaudits all round. Notwithstanding Covid-19, we had one of the most peaceful elections in living memory in Sri Lanka, and the voters endorsed the President’s actions by giving his party a two-thirds majority, which enabled the passage of the 20th amendment.

As the year the world wants to forget came to a close, an air of despondency descended; even the strongest of supporters of the President are asking what went wrong. Was this all due to the second wave of Covid-19? True, it could have been handled better, but compared to the rest of the world Sri Lanka is not that badly off. Therefore, we need to look elsewhere.

To what extent is the President responsible for the current chaotic state of affairs?

In my opinion, most of the fault lies not with the President but the politicians around him! During the first part of his presidency Gota’s performance was superb, maybe, because they were not powerful. Then came the general election and the country has been on a slippery slope. Contrary to predictions that he would be a dictator, Gota has turned out to be a liberal President; perhaps, too liberal to allow the politicians to do whatever they like. He mistakenly believed that they would follow his example.

I am asking the President to get to grips as he is the only person who can prevent this slide down the slippery slope. The biggest problem the this government faces is that it has scored too many own goals! Adding to this is the poor communication strategy. People’s hopes have been dashed many a time, and to avoid a repetition Gota needs to do an immediate course correction.

Whilst the President has displayed exceptional diplomacy, many others in the government display a total lack of it. The first test for the President was the ‘abduction’ of the Swiss Embassy employee. The way Gota handled it embarrassed the Swiss Embassy, which had already smuggled a policeman who hounded yahapalana opponents.

Then there was the MCC. When Gota was silent about it even some of his supporters opined that he might sign the compact on the sly. Rather than shouting about it and antagonising the most powerful nation on earth, he moved diplomatically and did what was best for the country: not selling our sovereignty for a few millions of dollars!

What about his ministers? Except a few, ministers seem to be behaving in the traditional manner of Sri Lankan politicians. They express differing opinions which makes the government lose credibility. Let me cite a few examples.

Instead of admitting difficulties they face, some Ministers give bogus excuses which make them the laughing stock. It is a well-known fact that no government has been able to tame the rice-mafia, so far, for whatever reason. The Minister of Trade published a gazette notification fixing the prices of some rice varieties, but no one could buy rice at those prices. He gave the wonderful excuse that rice would be available at those prices after the next harvesting season! One does not have to be a genius or a tuition master to know that the price of rice always comes down with the harvest!

When the Mahara prison riot happened, some ministers concocted conspiracy theories. One spread the canard that diazepam had made prisoners behave erratically. Some others claimed deaths were not due to shooting but clashes among the inmates. When the Judicial Medical Officers presented their findings to courts, they must have been hiding their faces.

Coming back to Covid-19, the Army Commander, who heads the Covid-19 task-force said that a report had revealed how the second wave had started; it was widely rumoured that a tourist hotel in Seeduwa had triggered it and Brandix factory had contributed to it. Although it is agreed that what is important is controlling the pandemic and not making all facts public, one feels that the government is hiding the truth to prevent embarrassment to its ardent supporters.

The behaviour of the Minister of Health is disgraceful, to say the least. On top of the fiascos of the ‘removal’ of the Director General of Health Services and the appointment of the Director of MRI, she decided to pollute rivers with a concoction prepared by a faith healer and was joined by other ministers. She decided to taste a concoction prepared by a kapuwa, apparently on the basis of instructions from goddess Kali. After tasting, she requested all the Professors in Medicine in the country to check whether it was effective! Another minister promoted the concoction, equating the kapuwa to the great Sir Isaac Newton. Some have got Covid-19 in spite of drinking the peniya!

Rather alarmingly, there is a group of intellectuals who promote this type of cure. The leader of the pack is an ambassador who is convinced that useful information emanates from beings above humans. He who called Western Science a palpable lie (pattapal boru) now says he respects Western science but is against its domination. In a recent post he has stated that although he wanted to be a scientist in his youth, he was never one. This makes me wonder why the Kelaniya University had a non-scientist as the Dean of its Science Faculty!

The disposal of bodies of the victims of Covid-19 has been internationalised by the overseas Tiger rump ever willing to discredit Sri Lanka. As a Buddhist, I was embarrassed at the way some Bhikkhus behaved in a protest at Galle Face completely misinterpreting the concept of one country-one law. They seem to have a total lack of compassion, one of the noble characteristics of the Buddha, and were attempting to dictate to the President. I urge Gota to take a decision without further delay on the basis of expert opinion, without being swayed by the views of men in robes.

The appointment of Lalith Weeratunga to oversee procurement and distribution of Covid-19 vaccines is an interesting development and may be a pointer that Gota is taking corrective action. Lalith, a top administrator of the highest integrity, was a victim of “Temple Trees justice”. In spite of the guilty verdict, though later reversed, Gota chose him as his senior advisor, which was a bold move. Entrusting him with this vital task is certainly a move in the right direction and I do hope we would have an equitable vaccination programme soon so that economic recovery may commence.

Covid-19 is far from controlled. Therefore, any elections are out of question at this juncture because of safety concerns and the worsening financial situation. We have managed without Provincial Councils and even the TNA voted with yahapalanaya to postpone elections. As India failed to discharge its obligation why should we be bound by 13A? Neville Ladduwahetty, in an excellent article “Province unsuitable as the unit of governance” (The Island, 1 January), has pointed out the absurdity of holding elections before deciding on the unit of devolution in the new constitution. In spite of all these considerations, some government politicians are clamouring for PC polls! Perhaps, giving jobs to their kith and kin and henchmen is more important to them than containing the raging pandemic.

I am in total agreement with Laduwahetty’s well argued case that the unit of devolution should be the district for proper empowerment. I would urge the drafters of the new constitution to ensure that members of parliament are truly representative by being elected from an electorate, as in the past, not on the district basis. The present system of district-based election with preferential votes has resulted in many disputes.

Gota has started visiting remote areas to solve poor people’s problems and still commands great affection from the public. It is all the more reason why he should not let us all down. He should get tough and get rid of the useless politicians. We badly need a disciplined government. That is the only hope for Sri Lanka!

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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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