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Luminous Lives by Rajiva Wijesinha



published by S. Godage & Bros, 661 P de S Kularatne Mawata, Colombo 10

Reviewed by Goolbai Gunasekera

Given his highly educated and widely travelled background it seems fitting that Dr. Rajiva Wijesinha should write a book on the lives of Sri Lankan ‘Luminaries’ who have touched his life socially, politically and professionally. They are not in any way biographical records. They are intensely personal stories and have been based on the author’s intimate knowledge of his subjects.

The book can be read on many levels. Just reading for pleasure of course. But one realizes that there is a sharply observant eye on the life of the ‘luminaries’ he has chosen to honour. In many cases the reader might wonder if Rajiva has been a little too candid but herein lies its interest. Intimate tales that have never been heard before abound. One is fascinated to the end and hopes, of course, that no offence is taken. It is certainly not meant.

We have pictures painted with clear and deft brushstrokes. It helps that I personally knew many of Rajiva’s subjects. Diana Captain for instance. Also Yolande Abeywira, Neville Kanakaratne, Alfreda de Silva, Colvin. R. de Silva, and several others in one way or another. All of them are personally important to the author (and to ‘Lakmahal’ his home) yet while there is a great deal of warmth in the telling a certain detachment is sometimes felt. Not so in the last chapter on Lyn Wirasekera where Rajiva unstintingly gives praise.

It seems almost pre-ordained that Rajiva and I became friends. The first time I ever heard about him was when a character from his book, Civil Servant Cadiravel Mylvaganam, said to me one day, “You are a Scrabble enthusiast are you not?”

“Just won a small tournament,” I boasted. “Well you won’t win so easily against this young genius I know,” said Myla naming Muktha Wijesinha’s 10-year-old son who was apparently defeating anyone who dared challenge him. This was Rajiva.

It was many years before I actually met him and I certainly never played Scrabble with him, but when I did get to know Rajiva I realised that Myla’s assessment of a young pre-teenaged ‘genius’ had stood the test of time. It is an honour to write this review for the book of a true academic.

Rajiva’s choice of characters is particularly interesting. He writes affectionately and admiringly of Ena de Silva and this strikes a reminiscent chord in the minds of those like me who admired the artistic work and social commitment of this beguilingly beautiful woman. 

It is not possible to comment on each person he portrays with such feeling and affection, although I was particularly moved by the chapter on Felix Dias Bandaranaike whom I never knew too well and always looked upon as being  a trifle overbearing. But a politician who always smiles up at his wife who is sitting in the Gallery in Parliamen before making a speech, becomes lovable. Rajiva makes him lovable.

The brilliant Ministers Lalith, Gamini and Lakshman are a fascinating albeit doomed political trio. Richard de Zoysa, such an extraordinarily multifaceted personality, with a life tragically and needlessly cut short is another luminary .The reader weeps for the destroyed talent of Sri Lanka’s great sons.

Not many are aware of Rajiva’s close ties and work with the British Council. I personally know of this because he got together a group of teachers and Principals to help him write and publish books by the Council that would easily understandable by University students to whom English was a second language. I was one of this group which included Nirmali Wickremesinghe, Nirmali Hettiaratchi and others who were happy to be working with each other under Rajiva’s inspired vision. He approached his work with infectious enthusiasm.

“What fun this all is,” he would tell us if we showed signs of wilting. It actually was.

His affection and appreciation of the fine quality of men sent out by the British Council (Rex Barker and Bill McAlpine) followed by his disappointment with subsequent unedifying personnel made Rajiva give up his close connections there.

Rajiva is a ‘Politician;’ – not a Parliamentary  table-thumper of the ‘House’ – a variety so popular in Sri Lanka- but a knowledgeable member of the former Liberal Party and an academically motivated critic with an intimate personal knowledge of politicians and contemporary politics. His family relationship to political figures and their friendship with the kingmakers and other VIPs of the time, has given him a front row seat in viewing them in person. He makes full use of this personal knowledge of the ‘Luminaries’ in his book.

Coming as he does from one of Colombo’s elite and affluent families, I was somewhat surprised to read his remarks that he off and on found himself short of funds.  “How come?” I asked him. “After all you only had to ask your parents?” Rajiva is sometimes an exponent of the understatement. “Didn’t like doing that,” he replied laconically. “My education was expensive enough.”He changed the subject.

His friends encompass Colombo’s litterati and glitterati as the widely ranging ‘Luminaries’ of Lakmahal will show but I cannot end without commenting on the two ‘Luminaries’ he has left out – his own mother and father, Sam and Muktha Wijesinha – both famous in their own right. He tells me, however, that he could never have done justice to these two people – his exceptionally popular and wonderful parents. He has left it to me to make up for his omission. Let me add their names to his list of Luminaries and say that in the minds of many readers they should have headed it. 

One tends to re-read sections of this book and this takes time. The variety of characters discussed in its pages are going to give readers unexpected views of well known personalities. All this adds up to a thorough enjoyment of Rajiva’s account of ‘Luminous Lives’.  It is a totally riveting read.

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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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