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How much muddying is enough?



Maduranga Kalugampitiya (MK) in his Kuppi article in The Island of June 6, titled, “Have humanities and social sciences muddied water enough?” tries to highlight the stepmotherly treatment given to humanities and social sciences (H/SS) in higher education and says that the practitioners in these fields are themselves responsible for this downgrading of the two fields. The core of his argument is that the H/SS streams being in a lowly position in campuses, is more a problem with the practitioners of H/SS than one with the condescending attitude of the policymakers and the general public. As a remedy, he goes on to say, we have to muddy the water, meaning, we have to make interventions that will unsettle the status quo so that the authorities will sit up and take notice; and for this to happen there should be a restructuring of the relevant programmes.

With regard to the weaknesses found in H/SS streams, MK refers to a few issues, saying that the necessary restructuring should produce academics who can engage “in a political reading of the realities that define our existence in society and raise difficult questions about such existence.” However, it is doubtful whether such an exercise will raise the level of recognition being given to H/SS studies because as he himself agrees, “downgrading the humanities and social sciences disciplines are global by nature and are very much part of the neoliberal world order, which dominates the day.” Asking difficult questions and disturbing the status quo are not likely to raise H/SS streams to the dignity they deserve because the relevant subjects under H/SS are by no means the ones that can cut any ice with the global powers that determine which disciplines would best suit to run the circus of their profit-making consumerist economy.

Asking disturbing questions will be the very thing that will make the giants further denigrate the H/SS programmes. Of course, students of hard sciences neatly fit into the “predefined slots” of the mighty engine which determines the world order. It is the students of hard sciences along with those of engineering, medicine, marketing, IT, etc., that have predetermined places in the system with high salaries, perks and prestige. None of these disciplines are free of the market paradigm and help perpetuate the system. None of the subjects coming under H/SS have that glamour in the eyes of those who pull the strings; hence muddying the water will only further aggravate the problems of the field of H/SS. In fact, the widespread idea that spending time and money on these subjects is a waste is directly related to their being evaluated, not by progressive minded academics who envision a more humane society, but by those who are on the top, promoting crass consumerism and profitmaking. Hard sciences, commerce and technology are grist to their mill.

MK’s assumption that H/SS streams are smeared with a bit of soft skills to add some “value” to them is a bit erroneous. It is not only these subjects, even those prestigious subjects like engineering, IT, marketing, etc., have a top layer of soft skills, without which, the students cannot secure a lucrative job. For example, it is an open secret that most of those who are absorbed in to the private sector are not necessarily those with better academic credentials; they happen to be the ones who perform at the interview better although they may have average grades. This, once again, shows the direction of education which is set to produce those so called “employable graduates”; an education which is mightily influenced by the market requirements. As such, whether with or without the topping of soft skills, the H/SS will not compete with the hard subjects. The problem lies elsewhere outside the pail of the curriculum.

The very fact that MK “self-consciously” uses science-related terms like “laboratory” and “H2O” to prove his points in a discourse on the problems of H/SS streams itself shows the popular appeal of science terminology. That’s the crux of the matter. The hard subjects are quite pervasive even in terms of language and the reasons are above and beyond our comfort zone of purely academic interests. Everybody wants to do hard sciences or marketing related subjects because they are the ones that will take them to the promised land of luxury and comfort. Anyone who takes a liking to subjects like, painting, music, language, history, geography, archeology, etc. will have to do it at their own peril unless he sees a clear path for social climbing. As such, the idea of muddying the water will not go a long way with the powers that be unless muddied water can compete with “purified” bottled water in the market place!

MK touches a sore spot when he says that most H/SS researchers wouldn’t produce anything more than “jargonised commonsense”. He goes on to state that the reason is not simply the lack of “rigorous academic training and exposure to critical theory” because even well qualified researchers don’t seem to muddy the water enough. One reason for this, according to him, is the lack of academic integrity of the researchers who for personal reasons flinch from conducting research and push conclusions to their logical ends. They fear the undermining of their own privileged position and the backlash from the society. If this is the case, it is a tragic situation which truly begs the question whether it is worth pursuing H/SS subjects. In fact, it proves that H/SS streams are not only in need of significant restructuring, but even the basic concepts of H/SS have to be reexamined and necessary formulations put in place. It is doubtful whether how much academic training would be enough to make a veteran researcher get enough “training to withstand that pressure”. After all, there are many laymen who can resist pressure from outside without any academic training!

Finally, there seems to be another reason which merits a radical restructuring of the H/SS streams. Of course, the students may be getting training in critical thinking when they are made to study these subjects. The study of almost every subject in H/SS- be it literature, history, sociology, art, economics, political science, language or archeology involves critical thinking. However, as “humanities and social sciences” imply these are much related to our existential problems. This is all the reason why such critical thinking should not be limited to their narrow subject areas. Isn’t it pertinent to ask how much of these critical thinking skills have helped the practitioners of H/SS (teachers, students and researchers) to look critically at the socially and culturally transmitted traditions that have had a stranglehold on our lives? If the conventional mindsets of most of these practitioners are any indication, it is clear that the necessary restructuring must comprise fundamental changes, if the relevant students are to be made progressive minded citizens in our society.

Susantha Hewa

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Speculations about origin of placename, ‘Negombo’ (Meegamuwa)



By Chandre Dharmawardana,

A writer using the pseudonym GADS, replying to a previous article regarding Negombo, states (The Island 17 Sept. 2023), “It is also historically recorded that the name Negombo is the Portuguese corruption of its Tamil name Neerakolombu and the Sinhala name Meegamuwa which means and comes from old Tamil Naval terminology Meegamam Pattnam. Meegamam denotes a naval captain”.

Unfortunately, the author does not give the reference to this “historical record” or elaborate on the details available from any early sources, Portuguese and Dutch maps etc. Furthermore, he asserts that “Meegamam” denotes a naval captain. Here again, this is certainly not so in any of the Dravidian languages, or Indic languages. No such usage exists even in Arabic and other languages of the Hebrew family, as far as we can ascertain.

A “naval captain” in Arabic would be Kabtin Bahriun, while the Tamil usage would be Katarpatai Kaptain in modern usage. In old Tamil words like Nakutawere used [1]. However, “gama, gamuwa, gammam, kamam, etc., are all refer “village”.

I have collected what is known about the place name Negombo in the website listed at the end of this note [2]. I quote from it below:

The name Meegamuva is believed to refer to a village (gamuwa) which was reputed for its honey (mee). Thus, the Mahavamsa-based tradition has it that honey was procured from this region for Queen Vihara Maha Devi, (2 century BCE)[3], initially from a honeycomb found in a boat turned upside down. It could also refer to a forest of Mee trees, Madhuca Longifolia (Koenig). It is well known that placenames have been based on vegetation and prominent land marks; in our view, this is the most likely source of the name.

Another interesting legend is that the name is related to “Nihumbala, the nephew of the Yakka king Raavana. The Tamil form, Neerkozimpu may mean water, and ‘kozimpu’ is sometimes claimed to mean ‘village’, but such a meaning is not recognised in standard Tamil Lexicons. Also, the Tamil name originally applied only to the lagoon-like area and not to the whole of Meegamuwa. Given the ancient histoofthe village, kozimpu may have comefrom the sinhala kalapuva adorned with the Tamil “nir”.

Maya Oya flows north of Negombo and falls into the ocean near Kochchikade. This was an early center of the cinnamon trade, set up by the Moors in medieval times. The Portuguese ousted them in the 16th century and built a fort, and established a strong Catholic religious centre here. The Dutch ousted the Portuguese in the 1644 CE. The ruins of the fort, with its fine archway marked ‘1672’ can still be seen. In 1796 the British took over Negombo, by which time the cinnamon trade had declined. The town has remained strongly Roman catholic to this day.

Frivolous folk-lore etymology attriutes the name ‘Negambo’ to nikam biruva. That is, a dog ‘just barked’ is said to be the response given by a non-comprehending bystander to a colonial who asked ‘what is the name of this town? While GADS recognizes such frivolities for what they are, the claim that Meegamuwa or Neer-kozimpu comes from the Tamil words for “sea captain” can be very intriguing if anyone takes it seriously; one cannot find a source for substantiating such a claim in any reputed Tamil lexicon or Tamil literary source.

[1]Madras Tamil Lexicon.

[2] index.html

[3] Mahawamsa, XXII, verse 48.

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How to conserve electricity at home and workplace



Going through my old paper clippings, I came across the following news item which is more applicable today when the country is facing a severe energy crisis on how to conserve or restrict the use of electricity at Offices and other working places.

There are several ways of conserving electricity at home, offices and other workplaces. It is absolutely necessary to do so because electricity is harmful for our environment and the planet we live in.

Here is how

(a)  Unplug all electrical appliances in the kitchen when not in use, except the refrigerator. This includes coffee pots, sandwich toasters, blenders and ovens. These appliances use small amounts of electricity when they are left in standby mode.

(b)  When it comes to washing, soap them first and then open the tap halfway to wash them.

(c)   Use the washing machine once a week. Try washing some of your lighter clothes by hand and save jeans and other heavy clothing for the washing machine

(d)  When drying your clothes, do not use the dryer unless very necessary. Hang wet clothes on a line in the backyard which is an easy way of drying them and clothes dry so easily during the day in this intensely hot weather.

(e)  Change the traditional light bulbs for energy saving bulbs. The garden lights can be replaced with solar powered lights. In the kitchen, the refrigerator is out of direct sunlight and not next to the oven. Avoid putting hot dishes in the refrigerator as it will have to work harder to cool the dish, therefore wait for a while for the dish to cool and then put it in the refrigerator.

(f)    Unplug any phone or laptop chargers when they are not in use.

(g)  Unplug the computer when it is not in use. This is very important because it can get very badly damaged if it is plugged in during a thunderstorm. You may not even be at home during the storm, so it is advisable to unplug the computer when it is not being used. Do not leave the computer switched on for long hours.

(h)  Unplug the television set and gaming consoles too, as they can get damaged if they are on standby mode during a thunderstorm.

(i)    Keep DVD players, TVs and other audio and stereo equipment plugged into a multi-port which can be turned off with one switch. This saves electricity.

(j)    Turn off the lights, fans and air-conditioner when you leave the room. Remember that you do not need the lights switched on during the day.

(k)  Do not use electric appliances such as vacuum cleaners and use the broom instead.


Via e-mail

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Some lesser known historical facts



The Greek women in ancient Greece realised to their utter dismay that their husbands were always fighting wars overseas. One brave Greek woman, Lysistrata, organised a women’s front with the sole purpose of denying their husbands the marital pleasures unless they remained at home to fulfill their marital duties

Socrates, known for his wisdom, was invited by the King of Sparta, which had waged war against Greece, to be an honorary citizen of Sparta. He gracefully turned down the offer as he valued the democratic way of life in Athens. As he was always arguing with fellow Athenians neglecting household work his wife used abusive language on him in the presence of his companions. Socrates continued with his arguments when his wife in utter exasperation treated him with a plate full of dish water. Socrates merely said to his companions that after thunder comes the rain.

In the Olympic games held during the peaceful times the athletes ran the races naked. Women were not permitted to attend them. The penalty was death if a woman was discovered breaking the law. On one occasion a middle-aged woman was caught breaking the law. As she happened to be the mother of a celebrated athlete she was forgiven.

Julius Caesar was caught dressed as a woman in a women only club in Rome. He was not punished since he had gone there only to meet his lover who saved him. On another occasion he had to offer a bribe to the ship’s captain, a pirate, who threatened to throw him overboard into the Mediterranean Sea.

Isaac Newton was accused by Robert Hooke for plagiarizing when the former introduced the gravitational constant in his book Principia Mathematica. Hooke was the Secretary of the Royal Society of which Newton was the President. Hooke was the person who encouraged Robert Knox to write the book “Historical Relations…” Newton was accused by the German philosopher Leibniz of plagiarism as the latter had published the calculations of infinitesimal calculus before Newton. There was a rule in the Universities that dons should take holy orders. The king exempted Newton from this obligation. Newton’s denial of the divinity of Jesus and the trinity did not earn any punishment from the ecclesiastical authorities. The complementary part of calculus, integral calculus, had been discovered by Archimedes in the second century BC. After the conquest of Greece by Rome the intellectual supremacy and the culture of Greece saw a gradual decline. It was known that the burial place of Archimedes was a much-venerated place visited by Greeks. The Romans did not show such veneration and the burial place got neglected. However, when Cicero, a Roman intellectual, lawyer and writer became the governor of Athens in the second half of the first century BC, he visited the burial site and had the monument restored to its former state. He noticed the epitaph wherein the symbol of a sphere within a cylinder had been inscribed.

A century later Rome conquered England, killing the English queen Boudica. There stands the figure of this queen on a horse (close to the underground tube station Westminster) with words emblazoned on the flanks in poetic language indicating that while England was colonised by Rome, England had conquered half of the world.

Guy Fawkes was the man who made an attempt to set fire to the Parliament building. This incident is known as the “Gunpowder plot”. He failed in his attempt and was executed. This incident may be compared to the attempt by a JVP member who threw a hand grenade when a Cabinet meeting was taking place in the Parliament building with the President JRJ presiding. The culprit got away.

When a German prince from Hanover became George the First of England, he found life in England very dull as he could not speak English. So, he invited his old German friend Handel, the musician, to be his companion. It was during this time that Handel composed his famous “Water music” and many operas.

Dr. Leo Fernando

Talahena, Negombo

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