by Dr Nihal D Amerasekera
Returning to the past is wonderful if one doesn’t dwell on sadness and regrets.
Memories are best filtered. I reach for the wisdom of Omar Khayyam in the Rubaiyat for a thought-provoking and timeless musing on the vicissitudes of life:
The Moving Finger writes;
and, having writ Moves on:
nor all thy Piety nor Wit Shall lure it back to cancel half a Line,
Nor all thy Tears wash out a Word of it.
Although I was born in Kandy, that charming citadel in the hills, I never had the good fortune to live there. The nearest I got was when my parents moved to Kadugannawa. In 1946 it was a sleepy little town. Charming and at times beguiling, It prided itself on its unique middle-class appeal and the sheer good-natured generosity of its people. My father was in charge of the Power Station that supplied electricity to the town. That was an enormous responsibility and he was deeply aware of the overwhelming burden of duty. Throughout my childhood, my father’s work ethic wove a pattern which he encouraged me to emulate. I wish I did!!!
In colonial times many power stations were setup in towns and cities until we had adequate thermal and hydroelectric power for a countrywide grid. The power station at Kadugannawa was close to the centre of town. I still have images in my mind of the tall single storey building painted a drab ‘samara’ yellow. This edifice housed the huge Lister engine that generated electricity. I recall the large spinning fly-wheel and the constant chugging of the pistons. There was the unmistakable smell of grease all around. Despite the engine noise and mayhem there was a sense of calm in the way the workers set about their tasks.
We lived opposite the Dawson Tower in a large house rented from the CGR. In 1820 Governor Sir Edward Barnes appointed Dawson to construct the Colombo Kandy road. Sadly, Dawson died in 1829 of a snake bite before the road was completed. Sir Edward Barnes’ great great ……… great granddaughter was a consultant physician in my hospital in the UK. When she asked me about Edward Barnes, I was embarrassed by my ignorance. He started the coffee plantations in Ceylon and to facilitate the transport of coffee and other goods he built a network of roads.
This was the “golden era” of steam trains. They were noisy beasts. As they chugged along they hissed and puffed steam and threw coal dust into the air. Just in front of our small front garden was the busy Colombo-Kandy railway line and just beyond that was the main Colombo – Kandy road. As the trains roared past at all hours of the day and night the earth shook. We had to get used to the noise and the rumble. The house was surrounded by a grey picket fence typical of the properties owned by the old CGR.
These were Colonial times and I wasn’t aware of the political ructions of the era. All I remember now is how quiet and peaceful it was. My parents knew of my fascination for “the good old days”. In turn they too loved to talk about old times and often filled me in with their descriptive narratives and recollections. My parents had a large collection of photos from the time they were married. Although discoloured and moth eaten they captured the era perfectly. They brought to life the culture, people and events of a time now long gone. The styles and fashions of the day are interesting too. Men had hair short on the sides and back, long at the top with a side parting. They wore baggy trousers. Women had long hair tied at the back into a ball and wore saree. No one seemed to smile for the camera. Perhaps their faces mirrored their insecure and uncertain lives.
The Government servants In Kadugannawa were there on transfer. They started their lives as freshers in a new town. Loneliness can swiftly nibble into one’s soul. Soon the social circles engulfed them and they became part of a larger family. They often met up in the evenings for a chat. One person I remember well is Postmaster Rodrigo. He was an astrologer and popular with the ladies. He had a caged mynah bird who mimiced his master voice and reiterated his wisdom. People in those days visited friends uninvited. They were welcomed with open arms.
There was no television. The short-wave radio service was full of hiss and crackles. The only evening’s entertainment was by meeting friends. Families joined together for company. Some played card games. There was much helpful kindness on offer and social integration. It was fashionable for men to smoke and drink. As the evening wore on there was the propensity for the discussions to get heated and combative. Invariably there were misunderstandings and moments of awkwardness. Evening parties were a popular form of entertainment. It was Orange Barley or Lanka Lime for the ladies and children, patties and cutlets for all. The large CGR contingent were well known for their drinking and socialising. Some were gifted musicians. When there was a party they arrived with their guitars and drums and entertained us singing well into the night. Growing up against a backdrop of alcohol and music, those bohemian habits were hard-wired into me from an early age!!!
In those days women’s lives were mostly domestic. Education and public life were confined to men. There were maids to cook and do many of the household chores. When at a loose end the wives found pleasure in frivolous tittle tattle. The family gossip that brightened up their lives also had the propensity to darken theirs too. Personal quarrels, fraying friendships, love, marriage and romantic liaisons became big news and took pride of place in their daily talk. In retrospect it amazes me how impervious people were to the extraordinary everyday sexism women encountered in those distant days.
There was the overriding perception that the British Crown was not accountable to the people. Unlike today people didn’t complain about the government as they felt no one listened. Jobs were scarce and they feared the consequences. In those dark days a sense of apocalypse dominated the lives of people. Very few owned cars. Public transport was slow, costly and inconvenient. Safety and security on those journeys were never guaranteed. Healthcare was poor and people died young. The schools established by Christian Missionaries glorified British rule. The British way of life pervaded the lives of the upper and middle classes in Ceylon.
When the CGR wanted our house back for their Station Master we found a lovely old house called Roydon on Alagalla road. It had large glass windows all round. The sun came streaming in all day. The locals called it the ‘Glass House’. We were now far away from the town and it was ever so peaceful. Our house was on a hill and had stunning views of the blue mountains of the Alagalla range. There was a winding dirt track by the house that took us to the bottom of the hill. This was a heavenly journey. Tall grass, ferns and wildflowers lined our paths. We passed moss ridden culverts and trickling streams. In the valley below there were vast stretches of uncultivated green land. The large pond had fish and water lilies. The place was a haven for birds. The soft wind whistled through the tall grass. It was ever so peaceful. Even recalling these heavenly memories gives me such great joy.
I still remember how quiet and dark the nights were at Roydon. There was a distinct chill in the air. In the stillness of the night We heard the eerie croaking of frogs and the din of crickets. Our garden was full of fireflies that lit up those dark corners. Nature can be a work of art. The bewitching magic of the full moon created a wonderland illuminating the landscape with its mellow silvery light. When my parents went away to meet their friends I sometimes stayed home with our maid. She had a store of stories. I recall with much nostalgia those tales of long ago beautifully embellished with her lavish descriptions.
My real love affair with Kadugannawa began many years later. I read about its strategic significance, fascinating history and its many places of interest. The Balana pass was the doorway to the Kandyan Kingdom. Strengthened by the Fort and the tall Alagalla mountains, Balana remained an impenetrable natural defence for the Kingdom. We often visited the 14th century Gadaladeniya temple for its pristine beauty and the splendid south Indian paintings and architecture. The 200 year old quaint ‘Amabalama’ near the hair pin bend was constructed by the British. This remained a popular stop over for horsemen and merchants and is still kept in good repair. The famous Kadugannawa tunnel created by boring a hole through solid rock is a tribute to the British engineer W.F Davidson who designed it. The Dawson Tower will remain a monolith for the great man and also the blood, sweat and guts of the labourers who toiled day and night to make his dream a reality.
India became independent in 1947 and our politicians too were agitating for freedom. After 500 years of foreign rule our people wanted to be free. Few of our friends were concerned about breaking away from our colonial masters. They weren’t sure if we could govern ourselves with that same fairness and efficiency.
Kadugannawa was my holiday resort. I had to get back to school. There was wailing and floods of tears when my parents left me with my grandparents in Nugegoda. My father left Kadugannawa in 1948, the memorable year we got our independence. I was far too young to appreciate the enormous significance of February 4. We have remained a democracy giving every countryman the vote to elect a government of the people, by the people and for the people. When things go wrong there is no one to blame but ourselves. It is for us to judge if we have used our vote wisely and if those whom we have elected have helped us achieve our goals.
I remember Kadugannawa most fondly of a happy time in my life and of the people who made it so special. Including my parents, none of those adults are alive today but they will remain in my memory for many more years to come.
Foreign policy dilemmas increase for the big and small
‘No responsible American President can remain silent when basic human rights are violated.’ This pronouncement by US President Joe Biden should be interpreted as meaning that the supporting of human rights everywhere will be a fundamental focus of US foreign policy. Accordingly, not only the cause of the Armenians of old but the situation of the Muslim Uyghurs of China will be principal concerns for the Biden administration.
However, the challenge before the US would be take this policy stance to its logical conclusion. For example, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of the most heinous crimes to be committed by a state in recent times but what does the Biden administration intend to do by way of ensuring that the criminals and collaborators of the crime are brought to justice? In other words, how tough will the US get with the Saudi rulers?
Likewise, what course of action would the US take to alleviate the alleged repression being meted out to the Uyghurs of China? How does it intend to take the Chinese state to task? Equally importantly, what will the US do to make light the lot of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny? These are among the most urgent posers facing the US in the global human rights context.
Worse dilemmas await the US in Africa. Reports indicate that that the IS and the Taliban have begun to infiltrate West Africa in a major way, since they have been compelled to vacate the Middle East, specially Syria and Iraq. West African countries, such as, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mauritania are already facing the IS/Taliban blight. The latter or their proxies are in the process heaping horrendous suffering on the civilian populations concerned. How is the US intending to alleviate the cruelties being visited on these population groups. Their rights are of the first importance. If the US intends to project itself as a defender of rights everywhere, what policy program does it have in store for Africa in this connection?
It does not follow from the foregoing that issues of a kindred kind would not be confronting the US in other continents. For example, not all is well in Asia in the rights context. With the possible exception of India, very serious problems relating to democratic development bedevil most Asian states, including, of course, Sri Lanka. The task before any country laying claims to democratic credentials is to further the rights of its citizens while ensuring that they are recipients of equitable growth. As a foremost champion of fundamental rights globally, it would be up to the US to help foster democratic development in the countries concerned. And it would need to do so with an even hand. It cannot be selective in this undertaking of the first importance.
The US would also from now on need to think long and deep before involving itself militarily in a conflict-ridden Southern country. Right now it is up against a policy dilemma in Afghanistan. It is in the process of pulling out of the country after 20 years but it is leaving behind a country with veritably no future. It is leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban once again and the commentator is right in saying that the US did not achieve much by way of bringing relief to the Afghan people.
However, the Biden administration has done somewhat well in other areas of state concern by launching a $1.9 trillion national economic and social resuscitation program, which, if effectively implemented could help the US people in a major way. The administration is also living up to the people’s hopes by getting under way an anti-Covid-19 vaccination program for senior US citizens. These ventures smack of social democracy to a degree.
The smaller countries of South Asia in particular ought to be facing their fair share of foreign policy quandaries in the wake of some of these developments. India, the number one power of the region, is in the throes of a major health crisis deriving from the pandemic but it is expected to rebound economically in an exceptional way and dominate the regional economic landscape sooner rather than later.
For example, the ADB predicts India will recover from an 8% contraction in fiscal 2020 and grow by 11% and 7% this year and next year. South Asia is expected to experience a 9.5% overall economic expansion this year but it is India that will be the chief contributor to this growth. A major factor in India’s economic fortunes will be the US’ stimulus package that will make available to India a major export market.
For the smaller states of South Asia, such as Sri Lanka, the above situation poses major foreign policy implications. While conducting cordial and fruitful relations with China is of major importance for them, they would need to ensure that their relations with India remain unruffled. This is on account of their dependence on India in a number of areas of national importance. Since India is the predominant economic power in the region, these smaller states would do well to ensure that their economic links with India continue without interruption. In fact, they may need to upgrade their economic ties with India, considering the huge economic presence of the latter. A pragmatic foreign policy is called for since our biggest neighbour’s presence just cannot be ignored.
The Sri Lankan state has reiterated its commitment to an ‘independent foreign policy’ and this is the way to go but Sri Lanka would be committing a major policy mistake by tying itself to China too closely in the military field. This would send ‘the wrong signal’ to India which is likely to be highly sensitive to the goings-on in its neighbourhood which, for it, have major security implications. A pragmatic course is best.
In terms of pragmatism, the Maldives are forging ahead, may be, in a more exceptional manner than her neighbours. Recently, she forged closer security cooperation with the US and for the Maldives this was the right way to go because the move served her national interest. And for any state, the national interest ought to be of supreme importance.
A Sri Lankan centre for infective disease control and prevention
The need of the hour:
BY Dr B. J. C. Perera
MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)
Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
On 01st July 1946, the Communicable Disease Center (CDC) of the United States of America opened its doors and occupied one floor of a small building in Atlanta, Georgia. Its primary mission was simple, yet highly challenging. It was to prevent malaria from spreading across the nation. Armed with a budget of only 10 million US dollars, and fewer than 400 employees, the agency’s early tasks included obtaining enough trucks, sprayers, and shovels necessary to wage war on mosquitoes.
It later advanced, slightly changed its name, and transformed itself into the much-acclaimed and reputed Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It became a unique agency with an exceptional mission. They work 24/7 to protect the safety, health and security of America from threats there and around the world. Highest standards of science are maintained in this institution. CDC is the nation’s leading science-based, data-driven, service organization that protects the public’s health. For more than 70 years, they have put science into action to help children stay healthy so they can grow and learn, to help families, businesses, and communities fight disease and stay strong and to protect the health of the general public. Their are a bold promise to the nation, and even the world. With this strategic framework, CDC commits to save American lives by securing global health and America’s preparedness, eliminating disease, and ending epidemics. In a landmark move, the CDC even established a Central Asia regional office at the U.S. Consulate in Kazakhstan in 1995 and have been involved in public health initiatives in that region.
More recently, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), was established. It is an agency of the European Union, aimed at strengthening Europe’s defences against infectious diseases. The core functions cover a wide spectrum of activities such as surveillance, epidemic intelligence, response, scientific advice, microbiology, preparedness, public health training, international relations, health communication, and the scientific journal Eurosurveillance.
Still later on, the African CDC (ACDC) was born. It strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions, as well as partnerships, to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.
All these organisations are autonomous, independent, and are confidently dedicated to hold science to be sacred. They play a major role in advocacy and work in a committed advisory capacity. With the cataclysmic effects of the current coronavirus pandemic COVID-19, the contributions made by these institutions are priceless. What is quite important is that they are able to provide specific recommendations based on the latest scientific information available for countries and nations in their regions, even taking into account the many considerations that are explicit and even unique to their regions. All these organisations have been provided with optimal facilities and human resources. The real value of their contribution is related to just one phenomenon: AUTONOMY.
Well…, isn’t it the time for us to start a Sri Lankan Centre for Infective Disease Control and Prevention (SLCIDC)? It should be formulated as an agency constantly striving, day in and day out, to safeguard the health of the public. Science and unbending commitment to evaluation of research on a given topic should be their operating mantra. It would work as a completely apolitical organisation and what we can recommend is that it would be directly under the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, unswervingly reporting to and accountable to the President. It would consist of medical doctors, scientists and researchers but no politicians of any sort, no non-medical or non-scientist persons, no hangers on and no business persons. All appointments to the SLCIDC will be made by the President of the country, perhaps in consultation with medical professional organisations.
The prime duty of the SLCIDC would be to assess the on-going situation of any infective issue that has any effect on the health of the public. The organisation will undertake in-depth examination and assessment of a given situation caused by an infective organism. They need to have all relevant data from within the country as well as from outside the country. There will not be any vacillation of the opinions expressed by them and their considered views should not be coloured by any consideration apart from science and research done locally and worldwide. Their considered opinion would be conveyed directly to the President of the country. They are free to issue statements to keep the public informed about the results of their deliberations.
We believe that it would be a step in the right direction; perhaps even a giant step for our nation, not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but also on any major problems of an infective nature that might occur in the future.
This writer wishes to acknowledge a colleague, a Consultant Physician, who first mooted this idea during a friendly conversation.
Kudurai Madiri Pona
The big jumbo has come from the French land and as the French themselves say it is ‘annus mirabillis’ the miracle year, finally, and finally the wait is over. The world will now see the Big- Bus that we all waited for so long to see. As the years roll by, none would talk of delays regarding the delays on delivery dates and how late the bird flew in. These would be like words written on a blackboard, erased forever. But the aeroplane will grace the sky and, perhaps rewrite all the records of commercial aviation when the mega-miracle A380 dominates the international air-routes.
Singapore Airlines went into the record books as the launch customer. Some of my old friends from SIA would fly the A380. Perhaps, Luke would, too, and this story is about him. Luke of yesteryear and how he first flew as a cadet and how young Luke and I went romping the skies in our own special way, writing a few new lines in the flight training manual.
Luke was from Johor Baru, in Malaysia. His roots were in South India where years ago his grandfather had done a Robinson Crusoe and ended up in the Malayan Peninsula. Luke was named after one of the four Gospel scribes. Luke really isn’t his name. It is a pseudonym, I use just to give him some anonymity. Not much protection, but one is to three are playable odds. Like in Rumple stiltskin the manikin, you are welcome to guess the name.
We first flew to Seoul. He, straight out of flying College, and yours truly, as old as the hills, driving the ‘Jumbo’ classic, the lovable 747. The first thing I noticed about him was his socks, black and white diamond shapes, a mini version of the flags they swing at Grand Prix finals – if Luke swung his feet, a Ferrari would pass underneath. That we sorted out the first day itself. In Seoul,he went shopping and the next day he was Zorro, waist to toe, black as a crow.
His flying credentials were all there, somewhat mixed up between what they teach in modern flying schools and how to apply the ‘ivory tower’ jargon to cope with the big 747. As for raw handling of the aeroplane, all his skills were intact, only they were in bits and pieces and spread in places like an Irida Pola (Sunday Fair). They had to be streamlined, the wet market needed to be modified to a ‘Seven-Eleven’ – that was my job.
The next round we went flying to Europe, his first run to the unknown, like Gagarin in his Sputnik, young Luke flew to Rome. The flying was same as before, a bit mixed up amidst the hundreds of aero dynamical paraphernalia that spelled out from the encyclopaedic collection of books that he had to study.
That’s when I decided to change the tide.
‘Luke my friend,” I said to him in a fatherly fashion.
‘You and I are from similar fields, you from Kerala and me from Sri Lanka. These Min Drag Curves and VFEs and WAT limits and VLEs are too much for us. Just remember when you pull the stick back, the houses will become smaller and when you push the stick down, the houses will become bigger, that’s climbing and descending this monster,” I explained the simple theory of flight.
“As for landing my friend, Kudurai Madiri Pona, just ride it like a horse.”
That was it. We flew, over Europe and he flew like a Trojan, bravely battling the weather and the overcrowded skies. Every time he came in to land it was pure and simple Kudurai Madiri Pona and the big jumbo responded and touched down on the concrete as smooth as a honeymoon lover.
On the way back, we flew via Colombo, that’s my home ground. I requested the radar controller to give Luke a very short ‘four-mile’ final. They know me well here and the controller said “No problem, Captain.”
I was depicting what we did in the Old Hong Kong Airport or what we do in the Canarsi Approach in New York; both, most demanding. A ‘four-mile’ final is a challenge for anyone. I was throwing him in at the deep end and I had no doubt Luke could manage. He came in tight and right, like Hopalong Cassidy and rode the horse straight and beautiful to do a perfect landing. Gone was the Kampong kid and his ‘Irida Pola’ flying, this was Takashimaya and Robinsons rolled into one, everything was in place, nice and shining and professional to the tee.
That was our little story, Luke the ‘jockey’ and me. Sometimes in the field of training, the script needs a little changing. New acts to be introduced to suit the stage. That is the essence of teaching, different hurdles for different horses. It wasn’t for Luke to learn what I knew, more so, it was for me to know who he was and what he could cope with. That part was difficult to find in the flying training manual, and so was Kudurai Madiri Pona.
The world has gotten older and young Luke now wears four stripes and flies in command of Boeing Triple Sevens, fly-by-wire and multiple computers. I met him a few times, flew as his passenger, too, with great pride. “Captain Luke is in command,” the stewardess announced, and silently and gratefully I said, ‘Amen’.
I saw him walking down the aisle, looking for me. Same old Luke in his flat and uncombed Julius Ceaser hairstyle. He came to my seat and grinned and shook my hand and lightly lifted his trouser leg and said,
“Captain, the socks are black and it is still Kudurai Madiri Pona.“
I am sure Luke will fly in command of the gigantic A380 one day. That’s a certainty. It would be the zenith for any pilot. Luke is ready, that I know. He is competent, polished and professional and will wear socks as black as midnight. It’s nice that he remembers his beginnings. That’s what flying is all about, that’s what life is all about.
Kudurai Madiri Pona
– ride it like a horse. Some flying lesson.
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