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Is it a case of two pounds of flesh?



By Praying Mantis

Our big brother from across the Palk Strait has very firmly and clearly started to wield the stick; yet again and most certainly as before. The Foreign Minister, from our friendly neighbouring land of a billion and a portion of inhabitants, came over to this pearl of the Indian Ocean, just a few days ago. As has been reported in the media, this was ostensibly at the ‘invitation’ of his counterpart here to discuss matters of ‘mutual interest’. Who invited whom and for what specific purpose has not been very clearly elucidated, certainly not even by our own chappie! That foreigner was not subjected to corona testing as far as we know, and he met the high and mighty of the land without any problems. Everything was completed in a day or two and he flew back whence had come.

He came, he saw, and quite apparent to all and sundry, it looks as if he had tried to conquer. To all intents and purposes, he seems to have had the offer or the dangling carrot of the coronavirus vaccine in one pocket and two other bargaining tools in the other. One for two or two for one, whichever way one looks at it. The vaccine was the stick and the bargaining tools were the 13th Amendment to our constitution and the Eastern Container Terminal of the Colombo Port.

The 13th had to stay, they probably said, in pretty veiled terminology, of course. Never mind the colossal waste of money spent on these white elephants in the provinces and the mahouts who seemed to think that they reigned supreme, even more than even the real powers that be of the land. We have survived very well without these miserable money-gobbling provincial assemblies for the last couple of years, saved millions, perhaps even billions of our precious rupees in the process, and even been spared the grandiose sayings and the sights of their Councillors. It must be clearly stated that the 13th Amendment was the result of a accord signed between the late Rajiv Gandhi and the late J. R. Jayewardene on the 29th of July 1987; 34 years ago. So far, we have suffered because of that for over three decades, except for the respite we have had for the last few years. They managed to get the choicest of the crooks and the top of the scum into the controlling councillor positions of these establishments. One excuse given for trying to have fresh elections to these councils is the allegation that the workers in these councils are running the show and doing whatever they want. Well… look around carefully, we have not done too badly with the so-called lower echelons running the show.

As reported by the Hindustan Times, the good doctor chap from our friendly big brother, did say, at a Press Briefing, some things to the effect that it was in the interests of Sri Lanka to give in to the expectations of the Tamil people for greater devolution of power in our resplendent island and went on further to reiterate India’s backing for Sri Lanka’s reconciliation process and an ‘inclusive political outlook’ that encourages ethnic harmony. Acknowledging the immediate challenge of post-Covid-19 recovery, he said that India would ‘always be a dependable partner and a reliable friend’ that is open to strengthening ties on the basis of ‘mutual trust, mutual interests, mutual respect and mutual sensitivity’; everything quite mutual, supposedly with positives for both sides!

As reported in the Hindustan Times, our chappie has meekly said in response that our Executive President had firmly stated his commitment to the well-being, progress and opportunities of all Sri Lankan citizens, including Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims. Our man has also gone to the extent of thanking India for its support to mitigate the impacts of the pandemic. He had added ‘The Indian government’s ‘neighbourhood first policy’ made a very positive impact on our health sector and the economy during the critical period [of] unprecedented crisis’. We must note the phrase ‘Health Sector’. So far, we have not had any major health assistance from our friendly big brother; there has been only a pledge to provide the corona vaccine in the future.

There was no mention of the East Container Terminal of the Colombo Port either. In all probability, it was not necessary because of the 51:49 deal, just about marginally in our favour, that has been mooted. It has been claimed that this deal was contemplated for geopolitical reasons. The word “geopolitics” is defined as ‘a study of the influence of such factors as geography, economics, and demography on the politics and especially the foreign policy of a state’. So …, there you are; arm twisting at its very best. Do as you are told or else, no vaccine perhaps! The Colombo Port Trade Unions are up in arms against it. We could have at least bargained for a two-third benefit in our East Container Terminal, reminiscent of the controlling interest in our Parliament rather than a despondent 51:49 deal.

None of these statements or promulgations specifically mention a Covid vaccine by name but the implications are there when one reads between the lines. It is probably being covertly used rather cleverly as a bargaining tool. All these statements are very often couched in misleading diplomatese. Even if the vaccine is held back with a beautifully worded diplomatic diatribe in the future, we should keep in mind the events of June 1987. That was the time when Indian Air Force planes, escorted by Mirage fighter jets, dropped around 25 tonnes of relief supplies on the Northern parts of the country. It happened just a day after this island nation’s Navy drove off Indian fishing boats laden with food and medicine.

The then Sri Lankan government of that time responded with a lukewarm whimper of a rebuke and called India’s airdrop ‘a naked violation of our sovereignty and territorial integrity’. It went on to say that “we have no military or other means of preventing this outrage. We will take this up in an appropriate forum“. That never happened. Instead, we were saddled with the 13th Amendment to our Constitution. In a laughable response, one of our Foreign Ministry officials, speaking anonymously, had said at that time, most definitely in a tongue-in-cheek response; “There really was not much we could do about it, so we were hoping the sacks of salt would fall on the Tamil terrorists. Maybe next time they will be good enough to send coconuts“.

This time at least, there is probably nothing to prevent even a highly selective air-drop of this corona virus vaccine to certain selected areas of the country, rather than the entire island if we do not give in to Indian pressure. However, with all the logistics involved, it would be a much more difficult thing, when compared to just air-dropping sacks of dhal.

So … two pounds of carefully cut flesh in the form of the East Container Terminal and the 13th Amendment, in return for a vaccine thing that may keep our people healthy. It is debatable as to what even Portia of Merchant of Venice fame would say; the cut has to be absolutely perfect perhaps. The way things are going in the paradise isle at present, we might get so many corona cases occurring in many parts of the land, and we may even very quickly develop what the medical experts choose to call ‘herd immunity’. Then we may not even need a vaccine!

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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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