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Holidays, Taking Time Off and even Stealing Off-Time



“To get away from one’s working environment is, in a sense, to get away from one’s self; and this is often the chief advantage of travel and change.” Charles Horton Cooley

The world over vacations and travel were curtailed with lock downs, shut-ins and curfews; most taken in stride, but protested by some in western nations. Time was when some Sri Lankans sneaked off on intra-country holidays while the government or its Covid Task Force decreed we all stay home to curtail infection. With the jabs being given, at least in Colombo and some of its suburbs, strictures have been loosened, travel bans lifted and airports open to incoming tourists.

A nation of holidayers -often cheating

Sri Lankans are prone to lotus-eat, hence they really do not need definite shutting down and vacationing schedules. Entire lives are long vacations to a few, while others snatch off-time even while officially in their jobs. I moved from teaching in a local private school where rules were strict and rightly so, with casual leave frowned upon heavily and the employees themselves cognizant of their responsibilities and duties. So from 7.45 am to 3.00 pm, we really taught, guided our students and attended to all other duties.

I moved from there to a Southern Maha Vidyalaya where teacher attendance was erratic and some even erratic in taking their time-tabled classes. An oft told tale of mine whose horror increases with each telling is how a teacher (the Principal’s wife) would conduct her English lesson with sixth graders in the open space beside the staff room, where she spent the 40 minutes chatting with those having free periods. She set the class off reciting ‘Row, row, row your boat’ which of course came forth loud and clear as ‘Raw, raw, raw your boot’ for a solid thirty minutes, standing all the while. We dared not comment, cowards that we were, even those who saw the torture and sheer waste of time. It’s so easy to see no evil.


Different work ethics

I moved to the oldest and most prestigious international school and was struck by the busyness of the place. I was in the senior library and would hear the steady and fast paced clatter of high heels and men’s shoes as teachers moved briskly hither and thither. Everyone was busy and thus the entire atmosphere was one of no dawdling; no time to waste. The kids of course were another matter. And then on Friday noon it was TGIF for administrators and office staff who worked till 3.00 pm, librarians included. Beer and crunch-munches were available in plenty and happy bonhomie for all, skin colour not one bit considered.

Of course everyone from Headmaster down were on first name terms. Not this conservative who addressed the Head with the attendant Mister. This period of employment taught me one good lesson: work hard and then relax completely, forgetting chores and duties as they had all been done.

Moved to a semi government office and watched the time table of others lower down the hierarchy. Arrive by 9.00, arrange desk with dusting etc as the peon was slack. Then recount bus ride, home problems, the previous evening’s marketing blues. 9.30 breakfasts whipped out – full ones of hodi and stringhoppers et al. The newspapers had to be glanced through and some read. 10.30 work was attended to, stopped sharp at 11.30 – to get ready for the lunch interval. The afternoon was a wee bit less lackadaisical. However, the office had a dedicated though lenient head and thus work of the unit was considered efficient. We higher ranked officers had cubicles. The boss of the institution was meticulously particular about cleanliness and neatness of the surroundings. Hence frequent inspection of drains and backyards. Saw us, the cubicled ones, at 4.20 – just before leaving office – get our make up straight and hair neatened. He had the half wood partitions removed! We sat in open plan; fine for an information centre. We still did our grooming though!


Benefits of time off

I’ve been speaking about off time and stolen time. There are of course set holidays which are a must. This is an accepted human right. Schools have their three vacations; timed differently in local schools and international schools. All professional departments and institutions too have the mandatory vacation leave of generally two weeks. Great stress is placed on annual holidays. Employees are supposed to get away from it all; change of scene alone is relaxing and an aid to recharging batteries. Maybe vacations taken within the country could be better than travel abroad as visa travails, travel worries and much time spent in airports are all obviated. Physical and emotional benefits accrue with vacations and quality time is guaranteed with loved ones.

In the good old days of say the latter part of the 20th century, when vacations for all became a must, it was more often than not that holidays were with extended family. Thus kids had cousins to play with and plenty aunts to indulge them and more freedom than with parents alone.

My late husband was a thrice a year vacationer, more often than not with my siblings and their families. Most favoured by him, and even us, were holidays in circuit bungalows where you fended for yourself. His vacation began earlier than ours as he loved buying necessary provisions, both solid and liquid! No newspapers were allowed, especially to curtail me, since if an obit notice was seen there would ensue a cry to return home to see the dear departed laid to rest. Discordance could result; so do away with the probable cause: newspapers, radio, TV.


Religious significance

The Holy Bible’s Ecclesiastes 3:1 – 8 pronounces thus on the use of time; including that to be whiled away, to have fun in. Sundays, as we all know, are no-work days.

“For everything there is a season, and a time for every matter under heaven: a time to be born, and a time to die; a time to plant, and a time to pluck up what is planted; a time to kill, and a time to heal; a time to break down, and a time to build up; a time to weep, and a time to laugh; a time to mourn, and a time to dance; a time to cast away stones, and a time to gather stones together; a time to embrace, and a time to refrain from embracing;…”

To Buddhists the full moon poya day is for breaking away from routine and devoting oneself to paying attention to the mind. We humans spend so much time, energy and money on looking after our bodies while many neglect their minds and mental well being. Equanimity (upekkha) which equates to being unshaken whatever comes to you – good or bad – is the highest blessing. So getting away from routines, according to Buddhism, for short time spells or long, gives both the body and the mind rest; they being completely interdependent. Thus holidays taken offer the advantage of mind attention, mind relaxation. I have averred that meditation retreats with all the inherent strictures of discipline and less comforts have been the most relaxing and rejuvenating and happiness giving too. Why? You have cut yourself away from normal living and the mind attended to for at least four days. Ten are much better.

“Buddhism pursues happiness by using knowledge and practice to achieve mental equanimity. In Buddhism, equanimity, or peace of mind, is achieved by detaching oneself from the cycle of craving that produces dukkha. So by achieving a mental state where you can detach from all the passions, needs and wants of life, you free yourself and achieve a state of transcendent bliss and well-being.”

Thus the benefit of a vacation away from home or even an hour or two of detachment, reflection and single-minded focus of the mind revives the body too.

A saying comes to mind: “What is this life if full of care, we have no time to stand and stare.” It’s the holiday season now: of Easter and the Sinhala and Hindu New Year. Even if Covid 19 or any other impediment prevents the taking off on a holiday, we can very well holiday in our usual surroundings. Just relaxing completely; strolling around while willfully looking up at trees and appreciating the show of multi-hued Araliya and Bougainvillea; exchanging a warm smile; grateful to be alive. This will be a holiday!

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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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