Ah, take the cash, and let the virus spread!
by Rajan Philips
“Some for the Glories of This World; and some Sigh for the Prophet’s Paradise to come; Ah, take the Cash, and let the Credit go, Nor heed the rumble of a distant Drum!”
― Omar Khayyam
Covid-19 is getting too close to home for too many. Last week it was Suresh Perera at the Sunday Island. This week it was Mangala Samaraweera, the veteran politician, who passed way after contracting Covid-19. He was a political stalwart behind the victories of Chandrika Kumaratunga, Mahinda Rajapaksa and Maithripala Sirisena in presidential elections. He was also a faithful lieutenant to former Prime Minister Ranil Wickremesinghe. A frontline cabinet minister in multiple portfolios since 1994, Mangala surpassed his father and political figure Mahanama Samaraweera in profile and in popularity.
Mangala Samaraweera will be remembered as a sincere and outspoken champion of pluralism, tolerance and national reconciliation even though his public pronouncements often created more controversy than consensus among his compatriots. As Foreign Minister, he tried to forge a new relationship with western countries predicated on respect for and observance of human rights. Shortly before his illness, he successfully interceded to obtain Covid-19 vaccine supplies for Sri Lanka from the US. Mangala Samaraweera’s death is widely mourned even as Covid-19 victims are getting more numerous and increasingly personal.
The 10-day lockdown imposed on Friday August 20 has not been able to reduce the daily totals of infections and deaths. Without a lockdown the totals would have been way higher. If the current trend continues, it would be a matter of weeks before total infections pass the half a million landmark and the number of deaths exceed 10,000. For the longest time after the onset of Covid-19, Sri Lanka’s totals were few hundreds of infections and hardly two dozen deaths. A political victory was declared prematurely, and public health was ignored almost permanently. Now there is no obvious end in sight, to plan for victory celebrations, even with the optimistic expectation of a fully vaccinated nation. Before looking for the end of the tunnel, look at what next steps are in sight.
The known unknown, at the time of writing, is whether the current lockdown will be ended or extended, come Monday. The decision apparently will be made on Friday August 27, according to news reports citing Dr. Asela Gunawardane, Director General of Health Services. By the time this column appears, you will already know whether or not the lockdown is continuing. The known known from Dr. Gunawardane’s statement is that the good doctor is at least open to continuing the lockdown. The unknown unknown, in Rumsfeld parlance, is the mind or the mindlessness of the President.
Friday last week, after months of resisting medical opinion, the President used the plea from the country’s highest prelates as reason for relenting and agreeing to a lockdown. Whose pleas are going to tip the scales a second time? What planetary signals are flashing in the national clairvoyant’s crystal ball? There are many other knowns and unknowns.
Unclaimed Bodies and Overclaimed Profits
The big known about the current lockdown is the confusion that shrouded its multiple announcements. As a result, people have been left to wonder whether they are in a lockdown, or a quarantine curfew; what is open and what is closed; and what activities are allowed and what are not. The administrative confusion is confounded by political infighting in the government. The SLPP is again taking to task its miniscule partners in the governing alliance for showing disloyalty to the President – this time writing to him and asking for a lockdown in deference to the medical opinion that has been calling for one for months on end.
It really requires extraordinary imagination to accuse the likes of Wimal Weerawansa, Udaya Gammanpila and Vasudeva Nanayakkara that they are of part of an international plot to bring about a regime change in Sri Lanka. Plot with whom – North Korea? But that apparently is the current pre-occupation of the SLPP – to safeguard the President, and not fighting Covid-19 to save the country. It has also been reported that at SLPP’s behest senior government officials are releasing communications and statements opposing the current lockdown and/or curfew measures. And this at a time when the police are arresting people on the street in record daily numbers for alleged curfew violations.
Besides the confusion at large in the country and paranoia within the government there is also the tragically known unknown about the last rites for people who are dying and are going to their graves or are turning into ashes – unseen and unwept and even unclaimed by their bereaving families. Lynn Ockersz has versified the insensitive crassness with which the (Covid-19) dead are being officially treated. His poem “The Unclaimed Body” (The Island, August 18) also calls out the Republic’s preference and religiosity: “Such treatment of the dead is no surprise,” the poem hits the nail on the coffin, “In a republic that’s preferred to be in chains … and in a land where religiosity pompously parades …”
Even elephants are protesting at parades, perhaps unlocking what DH Lawrence poetically saw while on a visit to the island during the 1922 “Pera-hera, at midnight, under the tropical stars,” as “the mystery of the dark mountain of blood, reeking in homage, in lust, in rage, and passive with everlasting patience.” Prudent rulers, whether kings or presidents, would never take patience to be everlasting either among elephants or among citizens.
While it is too much to expect poetic sensitivity to be observed in government operations, it is fair and reasonable to expect that a government that is boastful of its vistas and splendour, would show some respect for the nation’s dead and compassion for those that are left to mourn. Just as healthcare workers are expected to have good bedside manners, it is not too much to ask that the government directs its deathcare workers to show proper mortuary manners, graveside manners and pyre-side manners.
From deaths to profits is a tortuous leap, but not with a pandemic around and with this government at the helm. There are plausible allegations that profits and commissions are being garnered from selling vaccines, performing tests, disposing dead bodies and designating quarantine hotels. A retired Chief Epidemiologist has publicly stated that the President’s directive to conduct weekly Rapid Antigen Tests (RATs) on people over 60 years of age with pre-existing medical conditions will not contribute to saving lives but only to generating profits for companies importing RAT test kits.
It known that test kits are imported at USD 4 (Rs. 800) per kit with 10 testing samples, or a cost of Rs. 80 per sample. Private hospitals apparently charge patients Rs. 2,500 per sample, for a profit of Rs. 2,420 on each sample with the bulk of it going to the importer. The cost of a RAT test kit in India is INR 150, and in many countries the kits are distributed free. It is bad enough to have a government that is ill-equipped and incompetent, but do people deserve a government that presides over such a rip off in the middle of a pandemic? Ah, take the cash, and let the virus spread. That seems to have become the unwritten motto.
As for the virus spread, Sri Lanka has all the experts needed in Epidemiology and Public Health to advise the government and lead a programmatic path to containing the spread of the virus. But the government has failed to assemble them to perform this task. The government’s failure to give medical experts an organizational forum to provide leadership has led them to literally freelance in the media instead of directly advising the government.
Practically in most countries governments are following the advice of medical experts. In some western countries governments conveniently abdicate their responsibilities to scientists and experts. India and Sri Lanka are notable exceptions. The results on the Covid-19 front are unmistakable. The Indian situation is different from Sri Lanka’s. In India, the BJP and Prime Minister Modi do not trust any Indian expert, professional, or academic who is not a BJPer. They are suspected to be secularists or Nehru loyalists and are excluded as far as possible from decision making in state institutions. All important decisions have to be made by the Prime Minister himself. Similar to the Trump presidency. This approach blew up in the face for Modi and the BJP, jus as it did for Trump.
In Sri Lanka, until recently, almost everyone of consequence wanted to be associated with President Gotabaya Rajapaksa and the SLPP. There are no Senanayake or Bandaranaike loyalists lurking in state institutions and agencies to undermine the Rajapaksas. President Rajapaksa did not have to suspect anyone or exclude anyone especially in the matter of Covid-19. He could have summoned and consistently obtained the best expert advice and recommendations possible and presided over their implementation through the state machinery including the army. When things go right, he could take political credit for them, and if they go wrong he could damn the experts. Why was this approach not taken? That has already become the defining question for the prematurely tottering GR presidency.
As explanatory factors go – there is inexperience and incompetence. But one year of Covid-19 experience is worth a lifetime of normal experience, and you can always compensate for incompetence by picking and relying on people who are competent. Sinhala nationalism is more a convenient ruse than a defining political cause for the Rajapaksas. Of course, for those who want to manipulate Rajapaksas as weapons of history, they can be a pretty authentic bunch. In any event, nationalism is neither a vaccine nor therapy against Covid-19. Even ‘vaccine nationalism’ never found much traction, and for Sri Lanka it has no meaning.
What seems to have pushed the GR presidency off track on Covid-19 is the administration’s, and the family’s, hunger for project distractions. They would rather allocate national resources and incur debt for financially profiteering but economically dead end development projects than spend time and resources in purposefully fighting Covid-19. The government and the family have never shied away from their distractive priorities: the Port City in Colombo, a millionaire Yacht Club in Hambantota, 500 gyms throughout the country, transport and highway projects based Ponzi funding sources – the list will keep going on. And where there is a choice involved between public interest and commercial interests, the scales are always tilted in favour of the latter. No government has so comprehensively alienated and outraged every working segment of Sri Lanka’s population – farmers, teachers, fishers, workers and professionals.
A qualitatively different distraction is the constitutional project. Covid-19 may have put on hold the work of the Expert Committee set up to guide the writing of a new constitution – the fourth in 74 years. The Committee’s report was expected in July, there has not been any new news on its current status. This is hardly the time for preparing a new constitution. More importantly, the present government and parliament are by far the least constitutionally literate government or parliament in 90 years of constitutional government. Without Covid-19 the government may have ploughed through to producing a new constitution.
In the current situation and alternating between lockdowns, the government will be pilloried by the public if it takes up the constitutional project as a priority. The project should ideally be allowed to stay quiet and wither away. However, the government would likely welcome any opportunity to restart the project if the suggestion were to come from outside the government. It would be unfortunate and politically ill-advised if a request were to be extended to the government at this time, to write a new constitution to address the problems of the Tamils. It is irresponsible to think that “Covid-19 is a temporary situation and a new constitution is more important.” No one wants a permanent Covid-19 situation, but until Covid-19 is significantly controlled, nothing else can be a priority. More importantly, Covid-19 has turned upside down the credibility of the Rajapaksa government. The government must be pushed and persuaded to focus on Covid-19, even if leads to restoring its credibility. It should not be given the excuse to be distracted from Covid-19 to write a new constitution.
PLANES OF EXISTENCE
(from THE BUDDHA AND HIS TEACHINGS by Venerable Narada Mahathera)
“Not to be reached by going is world’s end.” ANGUTTARA NIKAYA
According to Buddhism the earth, an almost insignificant speck in the universe, is not the only habitable world, and humans are not the only living beings. Indefinite are world systems and so are living beings. Nor is “the impregnated ovum the only route to rebirth.” By traversing one cannot reach the end of the world, says the Buddha.
Births may take place in different spheres of existence. There are altogether thirty-one places in which beings manifest themselves according to their moral or immoral Kamma.
There are four states of unhappiness (Apaya) which are viewed both as mental states and as places.
1. Niraya (ni + aya = devoid of happiness) woeful states where beings atone for their evil Kamma. They are not eternal hells where beings are subject to endless suffering. Upon the exhaustion of the evil Kamma there is a possibility for beings born in such states to be reborn in blissful states as the result of their past good actions.
2. Tiracchana-yoni (tiro = across; acchana = going), the animal kingdom. Buddhist belief is that beings are born as animals on account of evil Kamma. There is, however, the possibility for animals to be born as human beings as a result of the good Kamma accumulated in the past. Strictly speaking, it should be more correct to state that Kamma which manifested itself in the form of a human being, may manifest itself in the form of an animal or vice versa, just as an electric current can be manifested in the forms of light, heat and motion successively — one not necessarily being evolved from the other.
It may be remarked that at times certain animals particularly dogs and cats, live a more comfortable life than even some human beings due to their past good Kamma.
It is one’s Kamma that determines the nature or one’s material form which varies according to the skilfulness or unskilfulness of one’s actions.
3. Peta-yoni (pa + ita) lit., departed beings, or those absolutely devoid of happiness. They are not disembodied spirits of ghosts. They possess deformed physical forms of varying magnitude, generally invisible to the naked eye. They have no planes of their own, but live in forests, dirty surroundings, etc. There is a special book, called Petavatthu, which exclusively deals with the stories of these unfortunate beings. Samyutta Nikaya also relates some interesting accounts of these Petas.
Describing the pathetic state of a Peta, the Venerable Moggallana says:
“Just now as I was descending Vultures’ Peak Hill, I saw a skeleton going through the air, and vultures, crows, and falcons kept flying after it, pecking at its ribs, pulling apart while it uttered cries of pain. To me, friend, came this thought: O but this is wonderful! O but this is marvellous that a person will come to have such a shape, that the individuality acquired will come to have such a shape.”
“This being,” the Buddha remarked, “was a cattle-butcher in his previous birth, and as the result of his past Kamma he was born in such a state. “
According to the Questions of Milinda there are four kinds of Petas — namely, the Vantasikas who feed on vomit, the Khuppipāsino who hunger and thirst, the Nijjhamatanhikaā, who are consumed by thirst, and the Paradattapajavino who live on the gifts of others.
As stated in the Tirokudda Sutta these last mentioned Petas share the merit performed by their living relatives in their names, and could thereby pass on to better states of happiness.
4. Asura-yoni — the place of the Asura-demons. Asura, literally, means those who do not shine or those who do not sport. They are also another class of unhappy beings similar to the Petas. They should be distinguished from the Asuras who are opposed to the Devas.
Next to these four unhappy states (Duggati) are the seven happy states (Sugati). They are:
1. Manussa — The Realm of human beings.
The human realm is a mixture of both pain and happiness. Bodhisattas prefer the human realm as it is the best field to serve the world and perfect the requisites of Buddhahood. Buddhas are always born as human beings.
2. Catummaharajika — the lowest of the heavenly realms where the Guardian Deities of the four quarters of the firmament reside with their followers.
3. Tavatimsa — lit., thirty-three — the Celestial Realm of the thirty-three Devas where Deva Sakka is the King. The origin of the name is attributed to a story which states that thirty-three selfless volunteers led by Magha (another name for Sakka), having performed charitable deeds, were born in this heavenly realm. It was in this heaven that the Buddha taught the Abhidhamma to the Devas for three months.
4. Yama — “The Realm of the Yama Devas.” That which destroys pain is Yāma.
5. Tusita — lit., happy dwellers, is “The Realm of Delight.”
The Bodhisattas who have perfected the requisites of Buddhahood reside in this Plane until the opportune moment comes for them to appear in the human realm to attain Buddhahood. The Bodhisatta Metteyya, the future Buddha, is at present residing in this realm awaiting the right opportunity to be born as a human being and become a Buddha. The Bodhisatta’s mother, after death, was born in this realm as a Deva (god). From here he repaired to Tavatimsa Heaven to listen to the Abhidhamma taught by the Buddha.
6. Nimmanarati — “The Realm of the Devas who delight in the created mansions.”
7. Paranimmitavasavatti — “The Realm of the Devas who make others’ creation serve their own ends.”
The last six are the realms of the Devas whose physical forms are more subtle and refined than those of human beings and are imperceptible to the naked eye. These celestial beings too are subject to death as all mortals are. In some respects, such as their constitution, habitat, and food they excel humans, but do not as a rule transcend them in wisdom. They have spontaneous births, appearing like youths and maidens of fifteen or sixteen years of age.
These six Celestial Planes are temporary blissful abodes where beings are supposed to live enjoying fleeting pleasures of sense.
The four unhappy states (Duggati) and the seven happy states (Sugati) are collectively termed Kamaloka — Sentient Sphere.
Superior to these Sensuous Planes are the Brahma Realms or Rupaloka (Realms of Form) where beings delight in jhanic bliss, achieved by renouncing sense-desires.
consists of sixteen realms according to the jhānas or ecstasies cultivated. They are as follows:
(a) T’he Plane of the First Jhana;
1. Brahma Parisajja –– The Realm of the Brahma‘s Retinue.
2. Brahma Purohita — The Realm of the Brahma’s Ministers.
3. Mahaā Brahma — The Realm of the Great Brahmas.
The highest of the first three is Mahaā Brahma. It is so called because the dwellers in this Realm excel others in happiness, beauty, and age-limit owing to the intrinsic merit of their mental development.
(b) The Plane of the Second Jhāna:
4. Parittābhā — The Realm of Minor Lustre,
5. Appamānābhā — The Realm of Infinite Lustre,
6. Ābhassarā —
The Realm of the Radiant Brahmas.
(c) The Plane of the Third Jhāna:
7. Parittasubha — The Realm of the Brahmas of Minor Aura.
8. Appamānasubha — The Realm of the Brahmas of Infinite Aura.
9. Subhakinhaā — The Realm of the Brahmas of Steady Aura.
(d) The Plane of the Fourth Jhana:
10. Vehapphala — The Realm of the Brahmas of Great Reward.
11. Asaatta — The Realm of Mindless Beings,
12. Suddhavasa — The Pure Abodes which are further subdivided into five, viz:
i. Aviha — The Durable Realm,
ii. Atappa — The Serene Realm,
iii. Sudassa — The Beautiful Realm,
iv. Sudassi — The Clear-Sighted Realm.
v. Akanittha — the Highest Realm.
Only those who have cultivated the Jhanas or Ecstasies are born on these higher planes. Those who have developed the First Jhana are born in the first Plane; those who have developed the Second and Third Jhanas are born in the second Plane; those who have developed the Fourth and Fifth Jhanas are born in the third and fourth Planes respectively.
The first grade of each plane is assigned to those who have developed the Jhanas to an ordinary degree, the second to those who have developed the Jhanas to a greater extent, and the third to those who have gained a complete mastery over the Jhanas.
In the eleventh plane, called the Asaatta, beings are born without a consciousness.
Here only a material flux exists. Mind is temporarily suspended while the force of the Jhāna lasts. Normally both mind and matter are inseparable. By the power of meditation, it is possible, at times, to separate matter from mind as in this particular case. When an Arahant attains the Nirodha Samāpatti, too, his consciousness ceases to exist temporarily. Such a state is almost inconceivable to us. But there may be inconceivable things which are actual facts.
The Suddhavasas or Pure Abodes are the exclusive Planes of Anagamis or Never-Returners. Ordinary beings are not born in these states. Those who attain Anāgāmi in other planes are reborn in these Pure Abodes. Later, they attain Arahantship and live in those planes until their life-term ends.
There are four other planes called Arupaloka which are totally devoid of matter or bodies. Buddhists maintain that there are realms where mind alone exists without matter. “Just as it is possible for an iron bar to be suspended in the air because it has been flung there, and it remains as long as it retains any unexpended momentum, even so the Formless being appears through being flung into that state by powerful mind-force, there it remains till that momentum is expended. This is a temporary separation of mind and matter, which normally co-exist. “
It should be mentioned that there is no sex distinction in the Rupaloka and the Arupaloka.
The Arupaloka is divided into four planes according to the four Arupa Jhanas.
1. The Sphere of the Conception of Infinite Space.
2. The Sphere of the Conception of Infinite Consciousness.
3. The Sphere of the Conception of Nothingness.
4. The Sphere of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception.
It should be remarked that the Buddha did not attempt to expound any cosmological theory.
The essence of the Buddha’s teaching is not affected by the existence or non-existence of these planes. No one is bound to believe anything if it does not appeal to his reason. Nor is it proper to reject anything because it cannot be conceived by one’s limited knowledge.
Sins of Fathers and Comrades
“The sins of the father will be laid upon the children.”
Exodus 20:5 (5th of Ten Commandments)
The Merchant of Venice (Act 3, Scene 5)
by Kumar David
It is a terrible, a terrifying curse that the sins of one generation will be visited upon successors. Some Christian sects, to this day, hold the Jews responsible for the murder of Jesus Christ though a learned Christian scholar, Lay-Preacher and friend assures me that this is perverse – Pontius Pilate must carry full responsibility he declares. But another with lesser ecclesiastical credentials (he never would have made it to Lay-Preacher though lay was not the obstacle) assures me that unlike JR in 1983, Pilate had good reason to fear that he had no choice and that the mob threatened governance. Actually, JR never made that lame-duck excuse – I think he rather enjoyed watching it. (Aside: Ranil was JR’s nephew in whose Cabinet he loyally served throughout the treachery and slaughter – Bahu please note).
Two organisations are paying a high price for their past, the blame for which is laid on their heads. The example in the headlines this month is the Taliban. The curses of centuries of faith-based relics have submerged it, though internal conflicts may still reverse the worst of the dark age. The other, always in the rear-view mirror of Lankan politics are the 1971 and 1989 events. I promised in a previous piece that I would stop bugging the JVP for long ago follies for which present leaders bear no responsibility. I intend to keep that promise. The misfortune is that that we the NPP still face “Didn’t your people do that?”, “Can we trust them again?” and such flak. A giant blunder by one generation of comrades hangs over the heads of their successors. This piece however is about the Taliban, a theme to which I seem to be getting addicted.
That Chairman fellow said “Women hold up half the sky”, but the Taliban by imposing cruel dress codes and obsolete conduct on unwilling women who have tasted personal freedom for two decades have created an implacable foe. (If some prefer to adhere of their own volition, that’s fine). Opposition to gender oppression and the Pashtun power grab will ignite conflict. There were sporadic protests by small groups of women earlier, but on September 7 a large one, thousands strong marched for miles through the streets of Kabul and was finally dispersed by shots in the air. There are videos of beating and detention of well-disciplined women protesters by bloody fool machismo in the lower ranks of the Taliban who will have to be crushed. It remains to be seen if the leadership has the guts to do this or whether it will go the way of all Lankan regimes on inter-racial and religious injustice. I am not holding my breath. On September 8 the regime impose a ban on demonstrations; this will be defied. If the Taliban mows down Afghan women with grapeshot what is left of its Islamic credentials?
So far, I have written in support of the expulsion of NATO. This has been done and now Act 2 of the drama has commenced. It is time to hold the Taliban to acceptable standards of human and democratic rights but instead it has formed an all-male mainly Pashtun government of aged hard-line dotards and given the lie to promises of ethnic inclusivity and recognition of women. It has slipped back to primeval faiths and primitive customs. The Taliban Education Minister who has never been to school, when challenged about his fitness for the job responded: “Education is irrelevant so long as you are pious.” There will be a push back by younger Taliban cadres as the economy goes into free fall and conflict with women and non-Pashtun ethnic-minorities swells. I am of the view that we are passing through a period in which nothing is settled and foresee changes within the Taliban and in the nature of the state.
Foreign occupation has had contradictory effects. On the one hand liberal values and a liber-democratic state were the proclaimed objectives. On the other hand, drones and artillery killed thousands of civilians, the Afghan army murdered and plundered, and billions of dollars unloaded on foreign contactors spread a plague of corruption from the President down. In sum the occupation was a disaster and a failure.
Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iran, the Taliban regime and some others impose dress codes, curtail commonplace democratic rights, deny education and horse whip or stone to death women who defy primitive religious injunctions imposed on all whether these practices are egregious to other genders, faiths or ethnic collectives. (I avoid the term Islamic as I am not schooled in whether Islam actually sanctions such incongruity and cruelty). In the best-case, the Taliban will see the writing on the wall and retreat, give or take a few tactical adjustments. If it is deaf to half its population it will engender a women’s uprising; these women have nothing to lose but their chains and a world to gain. It will take time for a clandestine but identifiable leadership to mature and resistance organise itself. The Taliban does not want to give any rights to women and it will concede only what it is compelled to by domestic and international pressure.
The best Sri Lankans of all faiths, ages, communities and genders can do is to extend moral and if possible practical support to women enslaved by confessional states. Did you know that Afghans were making creative and aesthetically sensitive films from well before Taliban-I? Muslim women in open societies have shone in the professions, academia and public service. Their fathers, brothers and husbands now have a duty to help this process everywhere. It is a shame that Islamic clerics and Muslim laymen and scholars across the world have failed to denounce the Taliban’s behaviour. Many, not only in the thuggish lower ranks, who obstruct progress gun in one hand and whiplashing women on the streets, are alarmed by their own limited educational and intellectual horizons and nativist ignorance. That’s the long and the short of it.
The New Taliban Government: a formula for strife
The Taliban proclaimed an Islamic Emirate, but a Republic is emerging on the streets of Kabul and Herat. Two weeks ago I wrote about the internal dynamics in political movements in watershed periods. It is necessary now to admit that in Afghanistan and in the Taliban the first round has been won by the reactionaries. Nevertheless, professed pieties and hermetic decision making notwithstanding, the conflict within Taliban driven by anger on the streets and dissent in the countryside, is only beginning. Yes true, the Taliban did not fight for 20 years in the mountains to win power and then create a liberal state. Nor do the hardliners care a whit about the hardships people suffer without medical services and food. What will forces change within the movement is if these deficits provoke challenges to its power in the country at large, and if internal cracks within the Taliban widen under stress. The real world will in the end win over the imagined world of faith, ideology and ignorance.
You would be justified to reckon that the government was formed in a home-for-the-aged. Aging Mohammad Hassan Akhund, an aide of the Taliban founder Omar, is PM and Abdul Ghani Baradar his deputy. Omar’s son Yaqoob is defence minister. Two senior Haqqani network members, leader Sirajuddin Haqqani and his aging uncle Khalil Haqqani are interior minister and minister for refugees respectively. Akund, Siarjuddin and Khalil are on UN sanctions lists for terrorism. It’s as if after victory in the Panjshir Valley they cocked their thumb at the world, especially the West and said “Bugger off! We won the war. We will do as we please”. That in broad terms is the government though described as “Interim”. Unsurprisingly, Beijing welcomed the new government. It is playing at global foreign policy and currying favour with the Taliban not to interfere with its repression of Uighur Muslims. China will be of no help in the democratisation of Afghanistan (or Sri Lanka or Burma or anywhere).
The leaders professed that women will play a prominent role and have access to education, but they were excluded from talks when forming a government and there is no longer any mention of a ministry of women’s affairs. About 40% of school children are girls and 30% sitting the university entrance exams are women; unrepentant religious aboriginals in the leadership will attempt to roll all this back. I keep returning to the women’s issue because my sense is that repressing women who have tasted education and employment and then oppressing them socially is not sustainable and will engender conflict. Attempts to impose a Pashtun state on other ethnicities by an aged ideologically primitive leadership in the context of an economic meltdown will aggravate conflict and create splits and realignments within the movement. This may bring younger leaders to the helm and then modify the state itself. The signals as yet are mixed. If the leaders refuse to budge, conflict between the people and the Taliban will break into the open. This is not a desirable scenario; a compromise is better.
This essay has continuity in views and content with my column of September 5, “A perspective on conflicts in the Taliban” which readers may wish to consult.
BAILA KING & I: 1987-1993
CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY
By Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
Today, instead of chronologically narrating another episode of the story of my career, I will write about a music legend. Uswatta Liyanage Ivor Sylvester Sunil Perera left us this month, saddening generations of Sri Lanka music lovers around the world, including me. Many tributes have been written about him during the last few days. Therefore, in this tribute, I will focus on my entertainment collaborations with Sunil during six short years three decades ago. It was a period when I was closely involved with the western music scene in Sri Lanka.
First Meeting in 1972
In early 1972, when I was a trainee waiter at the Mount Lavinia Hyatt Hotel, I was asked by the Food and Beverage Manager to work at a special beach party. A new band formed in 1970 with a young, eighteen-year-old lead singer performed at that event. I was thrilled with the energy of their performance. For nearly 50 years since then, I was always entertained when I listened to the music of the band Gypsies, led by Sunil Perera.
Since then, I occasionally saw Sunil and Gypsies, performing at weddings, dances and music shows. They released a string of pop hits enhanced with dynamic stage acts and various props. Sunil was the mastermind in such innovative initiatives. Inspired by Sunil’s creativity I was convinced that hospitality is very much like showbiz. Entertaining and pleasing our customers is common in showbiz and hospitality. That concept had an impact on my decisions on the event calendars throughout my career as a hotelier. Event creation, planning, organizing, choreography and creativity in promotion, all are exciting and enjoyable work in the hospitality business.
Second Meeting in 1986
I spoke with Sunil for the first time at Le Galadari Meridien Hotel in 1986. Gypsies were performing at a wedding and I was the Director of Food and Beverage of this five-star 500-room hotel. Sunil liked to talk a lot. He was often out-spoken about his ideologies. Topics for our quick chats after that included music, entertainment, shows and my desire to make Le Galadari Meridien Hotel the centre for food and beverage events and entertainment in Colombo.
I was concerned that after the wedding season (June and July) there were four months when the banquet business went down considerably. I commenced brainstorming with my team of managers and supervisors, finding creative ways to fill our large banquet rooms with additional events. Among other ideas, I decided to get into music show production to increase the income of the departments I managed. This concept was fully supported by our in-house musicians and bands including Sohan and The X’Periments, Apple Green, Dream Team, Burn, Noeline, Dalreen, Suriyakumar, Judy, Kanthie and a few others. Gypsies were not a part of the in-house musicians I had under contract, but Sunil fully supported my showbiz ambitions and music show initiatives.
The first show I produced with input from a galaxy of musicians was ‘The Musical Stars of 86’. It included several weekly competitions for aspiring musicians from all main cities in the country. We ended the season with a grand finale show which featured the winners of the weekly competitions and the leading western musicians in Sri Lanka. Sunil helped me as a judge and a performer. His support was encouraging.
A Seminar for Musicians
In 1987, led by musicians under contract at Le Galadari Meridien Hotel and Sunil, the western musicians of Sri Lanka formed a dynamic association – Sri Lanka Association of Musicians (SLAM). Noeline Honter was the first President of SLAM. I worked closely with SLAM to organise a seminar for professional musicians and also produced their first fund-raiser show. I invited Sunil to join the seminar panel, which included, Noeline Honter, Sohan Weerasinghe, Harold Seneviratne and a few other well-known musicians. Surprisingly Sunil declined my invitation, but instead, offered to perform a ‘fun’ act to enhance the seminar. Sunil’s performance with his band members in the characters of his 1987 top of the pop songs, – ‘Uncle Johnson’ and ‘Lunu Dehi’ were the highlight of that seminar. Sunil was a master in always being in the limelight.
‘Lunu Dehi’ (Lime and Salt) were the ‘fun’ characters most popular among Sri Lankan kids at that time. On the day of the seminar, when he heard about Sunil’s act, my (one year old) son, Marlon, insisted that I must take him to the hotel to meet his idols. At age one, Marlon, like many Sri Lankan kids, was a fan of Sunil. That made Marlon’s day, but he was a bit scared when he realised how big his favourite characters were!
Star of the Shows and the Producer – Late 1980s
Encouraged with the popularity and the financial success of my maiden music show – ‘Musical Stars of 86’, I produced a string of stage shows. We sold out around 1,000 tickets for each of these shows staged at the packed Bougainvillea Ballroom of Le Galadari Meridien Hotel. Sunil became a key performer and a main attraction for most of these shows. My productions included shows such as ‘A Farewell to Priyanthi & Raja’, ‘Noeline – A Celebration’, ‘M1’, ‘Slam 1’ and the first-ever ‘Model of the Year’.
Impressed with quality of my productions at Le Galadari Meridien Hotel, Ivan Alvis who was in charge of the teen/music page of the Island Newspaper, invited me to produce their annual awards show. I conceptualised, produced and promoted the largest four annual ‘Island Music Awards’ events for the Island Newspaper in 1988, 1989, 1991 and 1992. Ivan Alvis chose the judges for the selection of winners and I looked after the production of the show. Sunil was a key member of my creative team for those four events as well as for a dozen other music shows/events I produced in Sri Lanka between 1987 and 1993.
The Show Goes On – Early 1990s
After doing two short contracts for the Oberoi Hotel chain in Iraq and the Schiller International University in the United Kingdom, I returned to Sri Lanka to manage the Mount Lavinia Hotel as the General Manager. In 1991, Ivan Alvis contacted me and checked if I would like to produce the ‘Island Music Awards’ event in Mount Lavinia. As I was also the General Manager for the catering operation at BMICH – national conference centre, I told Ivan, “Let’s make the show bigger by staging it at BMICH for an audience of over 1,500.” We agreed and I contacted my friends Sunil and Sohan first to seek their support. We took the show to a new level, and achieved the target of a full house. That year Sunil won the main award – ‘Showbiz Personality of the Year’ and I was the first to congratulate him.
More Collaborations with Sunil
1) Six New Year’s Eve Dances – In 1991, Mount Lavinia Hotel set a record by being the first and only hotel to organise six New Year’s Eve dances. We held dances at the Terrace and pool deck, Empire Ballroom, Regency Ballroom, Little Hut Night Club, Paradise Beach and the Roof Top. I contracted Gypsies as the main band at the main dance. Sunil was a tough negotiator and insisted that I approve a larger fee for Gypsies, stating that, “New Year’s Eve is the entertainer’s bonus day!” I eventually offered him a little less than what he was demanding, and also got him to sign the contract stating that he will do guest appearances at the other five dances. Sunil was our key attraction and it worked. Mount Lavinia Hotel attracted a record-setting 3,000 people to usher in 1992 from this historic hotel.
2) The Show – In 1992 I produced my biggest show. I worked with a diverse team of 157 professionals (musicians, stage managers, choreographers, dancers, ballerinas, set designers, special effects engineers, lighting and sound technicians). At one point during the production process, owing to a delay in completing an important task, I decided to replace a set designing company. I refused their appeal for me to re-consider my decision. They then had approached Sunil, who called me on their behalf. Sunil guaranteed that they would honour the contract as per my deadline. I finally agreed. Sunil always acted on behalf of other entertainers and service providers. He was more like an ambassador for his profession.
3) More Shows at the Mount in 1993 – Sunil became a lead performer for other shows I produced at the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Each performance was unique, innovative and extremely entertaining.
4) The Story Board for a Controversial Song – By 1993, I had gained experience in song writing and music video productions for TV. My first video direction – for my friend Sohan’s popular song ‘Whispers in the Sand’ was nominated for the ‘Music Video of the Year’ Golden Clef Award. Soon after that Sunil invited me to write a story board and then direct a music video for his popular song – ‘Wine, Women and Song’. I immediately worked on it and created a detailed story board and short-listed a group of well-known comedy actors to perform in the music video. Unfortunately, this song faced some censorship challenges due to Sunil’s controversial lyrics. We decided to drop the video production.
5) Profit-sharing – In 1993 I managed to convince the two top bands in Sri Lanka (‘Gypsies’ and ‘Sohan and The X’Periments’) to perform without a fixed fee to usher in 1994 in a venue never before used for a New Year’s Eve dinner dance – BMICH. I negotiated a three-way equal profit-sharing contract between the two bands and the Mount Lavinia Hotel. Unfortunately, owing to a management change, this did not materialise.
6) The ‘Fitness Fever’ Cassette – In 1993, the fourth song I wrote was recorded. I convinced twenty leading singers in Sri Lanka, including Sunil and his brother Piyal to sing ‘Fitness Fever’. I organized a competition and the fans who were able to name all twenty singers were given season passes to the Little Hut, which by then had become the most popular night club in Sri Lanka. The song rose to the number one slot in pop charts soon after its release and remained so for a long period. Soon afterwards I produced a cassette and donated all proceeds to Ranvirusevana (fund to rehabilitate soldiers wounded in the civil war). Sunil fully supported this initiative and encouraged all artists to attend the cassette launching event at the Little Hut Night Club.
Thank You for the Music!
Sunil and I had mutual respect for each other and he was a friend of mine, as well. Sunil was the first to hug and congratulate me when I won the Island Music Award for the Composer of the Year (jointly with Noeline Honter) in 1993. In early 1994 I left Sri Lanka to embark my international career. I followed Sunil’s remarkable career and innovative contributions to the world of entertainment with great pride. I remained an ardent fan of Sunil.
Under the leadership of Sunil, Gypsies became the most successful Sri Lankan band of all time and toured the globe to entertain their ever-growing numbers of fans with Sri Lankan heritage. Sunil cannot be described simply as a successful bandleader, vocalist, guitarist, songwriter and composer. He was larger than life and was an icon. He was easily one of the most famous singers of all time, in Sri Lanka, as well as one of the most recognizable faces. He elevated Sri Lanka’s Baila genre, and gained the nickname “Baila Chakravarthy” (Emperor or King). Sunil inspired generations of musicians. There were many celebrations in the recent years when Gypsies completed 50 years in the entertainment industry and when Sunil turned 65. It was a heart-warming testimony to Sunil’s popularity among peers, when a new song and a music video was released by western musicians in Sri Lanka about Sunil as one his surprise presents for his special birthday.
Dear Sunil, thank you for the music and innovative entertainment over fifty years! I was fortunate to have the opportunity to artistically collaborate with you for a short period of time. You were the undisputed champion of showbiz in Sri Lanka! Rest well, my friend!
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