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Our ride into the sunset

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by Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

I am writing this as a septuagenarian. Having worked most of my professional life in England my thoughts are coloured by the laws and healthcare in the UK. The fundamentals and the basic principles of my message will ring true wherever in the world one lives.

“Media vita in morte sumus” – In the midst of life we are in death. This is the first line of a Gregorian chant circa 1300. This rings true now as it did all those years ago. Presently we battle through our lives in the midst of Covid-19. For septuagenarians like myself, in the autumn of our lives, there are many other pitfalls that lurk just around the corner.

At any age we all lust for longevity. Although we all will face it someday, our aversion to talk about death is universal. This is partly due to the fear of the unknown and also not wanting to tempt fate. During my childhood grim legends abounded and tales were told of death, devils and the darkness of hell. These daunting images continue to colour my thoughts even now. It is true there is little point in talking about death when we are young and healthy. The scene changes irrevocably when we become septuagenarians. This is the time to bite the bullet and face reality while still able to enjoy the good life.

Life expectancy has risen considerably in our lifetime. Perhaps, professionally, we have helped to make this happen. In the United Kingdom the life expectancy for men is 79 and for Women 82. Living longer has many benefits. It is indeed so wonderful to see our own grandchildren grow-up and perhaps also to see their children too. But there is a price to be paid while the years take their toll on us. The sudden deaths that took away our parents and our grandparents don’t happen anymore. We just live longer.

Our bodies continue to wither away as the years pass. A fistful of tablets and an earful of advice keep us going. The joints continue to creak and the back aches as we trundle along. I can feel the gradual decline and the loss of energy as the months pass. I am not as steady on my feet as I was last year. Gravity is gradually trying to take over when I walk or try to maintain my erect posture for long. These issues that are rather trivial now will only get worse with time. If I live long enough I will need help for walking, feeding and ablutions. This may be with a carer at home or in an institution. This requires careful thought and judicious planning.

Life must have an end. A rapid exit is everyone’s dream. Unlike for the previous generations the end for us may not be swift. Cancers or degenerative nervous diseases like strokes, dementia and Parkinsonism are some of the common ways to exit this world. Departing this life is never pleasant. Then again we will need help in the way of a carer or be confined to an institution. These issues need careful planning now when we are compos mentis. Importantly the family should be consulted. They must be aware of our choices that may have significant financial implications. We must remember it is their pain and burden too. They must have the information to discuss with us the feasibility of our plans.

To plan ahead we must make an informed choice. For this the doctors must provide us with the information with frankness and honesty. Thankfully, in the new millennium, the conceit and the patronising pomposity that existed in the medical profession has large melted away. This has resulted in far better rapport between the doctor and the patient. When confronted with a terminal illness we need to know the prognosis, the positive and negative implications of treatment and also of having no treatment. Before making a choice It is essential to weigh up the implications of a range of alternatives, some of which may be “off the menu”.

It is wise to leave written instructions as to our care including treatments we do not want to have. This is legally binding and is called the Advance Decision to Refuse Treatment (A living will). I know some have instructions not to be resuscitated. Some want all treatment stopped including antibiotics. We can also allow someone else to make the decisions for us when we can’t. This is called the Legal Power of Attorney. Some cancer patients do not want any treatment. They do not wish to prolong life not wanting the stress and struggle of radiotherapy and chemotherapy and its many unpleasant side effects. It is imperative the doctor should discuss the quality of life on treatment. Many others show great resilience and courage in continuing and completing the treatment schedule and we respect their choice.

If terminally ill I should have the right to end my life. This issue has come into prominence in the UK in several high-profile cases of Motor Neurone Disease and Multiple Sclerosis that reached the Supreme Court. Adequate safeguards must be built in for this. In the UK there has been a shift in common morality for euthanasia and assisted suicide both of which are illegal under English law. Some go to Dignitas in Switzerland, a place for assisted suicide, to end their lives. Ending one’s life is a last resort. The National Health Service provides good palliative care as well as providing psychological, social and spiritual support.

The answers to the many questions that arise and the solutions to the many problems that surface will vary according to our personal circumstances. It is paramount that the wishes of the patients and their relatives are respected. I am merely raising awareness to a common problem we will all face sooner or later. As I write I know of 90 year olds, like Queen Elizabeth II and the Duke of Edinburgh, who are still smiling, enjoying life and their families. But they are no doubt in the minority. Some still cling to the old fashioned, laid-back and carefree mindset “Que sera sera” – Whatever will be will be!! This may just leave our loved ones in the dark about an issue which may be long and protracted and financially draining.

Making that final journey to exit from this world is something we must all do in the fullness of time. This challenging journey may take from a few days to a few months. Professional medical input is vital during this period to remain free of pain and to receive psychological and physical support. We must leave behind the sadness and regrets of the past, taking with us only those happy and joyful memories. In the lonely waking hours one may wish to walk with God for comfort and support or focus the mind on meditation and mindfulness. Some receive comfort from the “Mozart effect” of listening to soothing classical music. There is a lot of helpful advice available from professionals, carers and institutions to reach that final destination with dignity.

As much as there is no holding back the night, there is no hope of a second dawn. I feel we leave this earth never to return again. I seek the wisdom of that great Roman Poet Horace “NON OMNIS MORIAR” (Not all of me will die). Our children and grandchildren are shaped by the genes they inherit from us. They smile and laugh like us and even may think like us at times. They will carry our baton into the future.

For septuagenarians, their minds are much calmer now. There is no burning ambition or desire to chase money or position. We have done our caring for our progeny. Once we have made our choices for our parting it is so important to return to our regular routine. It serves no purpose to dwell on death and dying. We will deal with it when it comes. It is so true we will not pass this way again. So enjoy the beauty of nature, the charm of the countryside and seeing the birds and the bees. The company of family and friends will continue to bring us joy.  It is only then we can dare to sing that famous song “Que sera sera” .

Here are my best wishes for a happy and peaceful journeys end.

 



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Features

Strong on vocals

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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

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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

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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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