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On a Desert Island

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by Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

We’ve had a turbulent couple of years with Covid-19 and its variants. Lockdowns and its inescapable incarcerations were a trial on how to cope with loneliness. Solitude is also an opportunity to think rationally. I was shut out from the outside world for long periods. The mind then began to concentrate on what is important in life and what I can do without. It was an interesting exercise to think of the bare minimum required to maintain my sanity and survive until I was able to join the rest of the world. Money cannot buy happiness. Happiness is a state of mind which is difficult to define and often hard to achieve even if we have everything we need.

Desert Island discs is a BBC Radio programme which has been on the air since 1942. This year marks its 80th anniversary. This has been named the greatest radio programme of all time by a panel of industry experts. It is now a great British Institution.

The programme invites high-profile guests to appear on the show. Each guest is called a “castaway” and is asked to select pieces of music, books and any luxury items they wish to take with them if they were to drift away inexorably into an uninhabited island. It is an interesting exercise to think what your choices would be and what really matters to you.

We take so much for granted in our lives. It is so hard to imagine a situation being alone and so far removed from people and current events. I vividly recall reading Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as a teenager which brought home to me the perils, desolation and the utter loneliness of being marooned in an island. Sleeping beneath the trees one could also find true peace and freedom there. The stories made me appreciate company, courage and human endurance.

The castaway’s choice is limited to eight recordings, one book and one luxury item. A music player is included. The luxury item has to be inanimate – so no mobile phones, laptops, iPads, TV etc. Call it divine help – food and drink will be provided!! It is not known when and how one will be rescued – No divine help there!!

The past programmes of Desert Island Discs are available online. It is interesting to discover what people like Alfred Hitchcock, David Attenborough, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Gates, Helen Mirren, Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Dexter and Tony Blair have selected and the reasons for their choice. One famous British TV personality chose Rod Stewarts “Sailing” in her grief to remember the death of her son. The lyrics of that piece of music encompasses her despair. I found it hard to hold back my tears. Our selections will always resonate with our own experiences of life. I sincerely hope you would find this an interesting exercise and also give you a useful insight into your psyche. Do share your experiences of being a castaway.

The opening theme music for Desert Island discs was composed in 1942 by Eric Coates. The theme music is a haunting melody called Sleepy Lagoon which is so simple yet so bewitchingly beautiful. The tune begins with the squawking seagulls and the crashing of waves. This fine melody transports me across the wide oceans and vast stretches of land to the peace and tranquillity of the Negombo Lagoon. From 1956-58, my parents lived in Katunayake when it was a beguilingly attractive small town. The lagoon was at the back of our house. On an evening, with the setting sun, I often sat at the waters-edge with the wind whistling on my face. I watched the fishermen go out to work. The sky took on a deep crimson glow at sunset as flocks of birds flew in V-formation. This enchanting scene captures the beauty of old Ceylon which has now largely disappeared.

Music:

Making this selection is not easy. It is virtually the soundtrack of my life’s journey. The advice is to let your heart rule your head. The choice is made more for the memories they bring than for the music. I have thought long and hard and made my selections.

1. Sunil Santha – Ambilimame It brings back wonderful memories of my childhood growing up in Nugegoda in the 1940’s and 50’s. When visitors arrived we were encouraged to sing a song. I sang Ambilimame with my three cousins. Sadly two of them are now no more. Humans have been fascinated by the moon since the beginning of time. It now seems like the moon was bigger and brighter when we were kids!! The fine lyrics of the song depicts childhood innocence and their magical world of fantasy.

2. Yaad Kiye Dile Ne – The music is from the Hindi film of 1953 called Patita. The song was so beautifully sung by Lata Mangheskar and Hemant Kumar. When I hear the melody it always takes me back to the love and affection of my grandfather. I loved him dearly. He was gentle, kind and a noble man from Kandy. He was a sage, a philosopher, a man with many stories and an expert in country lore. Grandfather took me to the Metro Theatre, Nugegoda to watch Hindi and Sinhala films. I was given an ice cream at the interval and a pocket full of sweets for later. These just about made up for being bitten by bugs in those theatre seats.

3. During the morning Christian worship at my old school we sang many beautiful Hymns. One that stuck with me is “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” for the sheer beauty of its melody and the lyrics. This was a popular hymn with the boys. We sang it with such gusto and so much feeling we nearly lifted the roof. This hymn is still very popular and was sung at the wedding of Prince William & Catherine Middleton in Westminster Abbey. The Hymn brings back wonderful memories of those carefree schooldays.

4. Nothing brings back memories of the Faculty of Medicine than the music of the Beatles. One that stands-out is that timeless piece called “Hard days Night“. It’s a reminder of the feeling of release from the hard grind and study while dancing at King George’s Hall to the music of the Harold Seneviratne Combo. Looking around the dance hall I can still picture Razaque Ahamat, Sidath Jayanetti and Bernard Randeniya gyrate in gay abandon. Sadly, none of them are alive today.

5. In 1991 our elder son Steve was leaving the Kingshott Preparatory School in Hertfordshire, UK. He was called upon to play Mozart Clarinet Concerto which he played with zest and eloquence, age 13. I was in the audience and felt deeply emotional and so very proud. This piece was published posthumously and was Mozart’s last major instrumental composition. The piece reminds me of a very happy time in my life.

6. In the Summer of 1996 my younger son, Andrew, was leaving Bedford School in UK. At the School’s Annual Festival of Music he played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the piano with the school orchestra. Andrew looked so dapper in his cream formal attire and blue bow tie. With the integration of jazz rhythms with classical music this composition soon became very popular and the most performed of all American concert works. Being biased, I would say it was beautifully played and a polished performance. This will indeed remain in my memory for the rest of my days.

7. The 1945 romantic drama Brief Encounter is a film I remember for its simple story and the brilliant acting of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. It is enduringly popular and considered as one of the greatest films of all time. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is played all through the film where its beautiful melody wraps around the story most elegantly. This piece of music is also considered as one of the finest concertos of all time. I have such fond memories of watching this film with my younger son, Andrew, in his flat on the 23rd floor on a warm night in Hong Kong.

8. I was born in Kandy, that beautiful citadel in the hills. Although I have lived in the UK for nearly half a century the love and yearning for that warm tropical sunshine has never left me. Every winter I wait patiently for the Spring to arrive and the leaves to appear and the flowers to bloom. All through those cold and wet days and dark nights of winter it is Beethoven’s Spring Sonata that brings life to my soul. It is also called the Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24. The sonata is for violin and piano and is in four movements. All four of them are brilliant pieces of music but I have a special preference for the sublime and heart-rending second movement also called Adagio molto espressivo.

Books:

Every castaway receives a religious text of his/her choice and the Complete Works of Shakespeare as a matter of routine. I would take the King James version of the Holy Bible which was a large part of my life growing up in Ceylon.

Princess Margaret and Ian Fleming are among the many castaways who’ve selected Tolstoy’s War and Peace as their book choice. To select just one book to take with me isn’t easy. For a long spell as a castaway, I did think of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. These would help me to clean up my act when I am rescued!! After much thought I have selected Nelson Mandela’a autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom“.

As a country South Africa has been through the mill. It is now on a roller-coaster. From 1948-94 politics was dominated by Afrikaner nationalism with racial segregation and white minority rule, known officially as apartheid. From 1962 the armed struggle of the ANC against apartheid was led by Nelson Mandela. From 1964 to 1982 Mandela was incarcerated at Robben Island Prison, off Cape Town. I have visited the prison and seen for myself the rigid and harsh conditions.

It is so hard to imagine how he maintained his sanity being behind bars for so long. The regime was brutal. He had tremendous courage to stand up to the tyranny. Nelson Mandela returned to normal life after 28 years of incarceration. He led the country to majority rule and showed great willingness to forgive and reconcile. This indeed showed his wisdom and true greatness. The probity, dignity and honesty with which he led the country is a lesson for all politicians.

Luxury item:

The desert Island discs radio programme lasts approximately 45 minutes. During this time there is an interesting dialogue between the presenter and the castaway. Often the discussion is amusing and entertaining. Occasionally it takes a naughty turn. When pretty Kirsty Young was the presenter, one of the castaways wanted to take her as the luxury item, which of course she flatly refused.

Pianos, guitars and binoculars are the most-requested luxuries. But I would go for pen and paper. Writing is one of the greatest of human inventions. This has helped mankind enormously to learn, teach, discover, communicate, invent and make life so wonderful for everyone. I cannot imagine a world without writing and the written word.



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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