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Pensioners toddle forth from hibernation



“Go ye forth and be seeneth as alive in flesh and blood, however fraileth and disabled thou art, and be counted for annual payment of pensions!” So decrees the government to its pensioners come January of a year. Obviously, I couched the order in Biblical terms; the government officially informs pensioners to prove they are alive by actually showing themselves. This in Swabasha as pertinent to the different districts; the form sent being in Tamil and Sinhala. Faithful to SWRDB’s devastating, separating dictum of Sinhala Only with a slight compensation to Tamil. Badi-ud-Din Mahmud, was the winner; May Allah be praised! He made it possible for Muslims to study in the English medium.

I ramble on this lazy Sunday morning, satisfied my pension is safe for another 12 months after I presented myself – no spirit or ghost or substitute – but me Nan, not once but twice at the Grama Sevaka’s office. It is a mercy they are now not elusive but are stationed in respectable offices. When this order of showing oneself was first mooted I went to a big burly bully in his office in the Polwatte Temple hidden down labyrinthine lanes in Colombo 3, the landmark to locate the temple being the Gal Palliya! He was, I found, erratic in his appearance in office. Then the office moved to near Skelton Road and was staffed with three persons, one being a super efficient, polite woman officer. This year the office was discovered to be down Park Road. I went on a Monday to be told by a very brusque female officer: “Bambalapitiya ekkana ada ne!” I then found a notice giving days and times when the relevant officer would be in office.

Trundled along the next day in my three wheeled chariot. Went into a crowd: some in groups, others in several queues, a fair number gathered to prove standing and staring was gainful. I stood in the Bambalapitiya/Kollupitiya queue (board in English) and kept my distance from the woman in front. But here’s the rub – a youngish man behind me, apparently unaware of imperative distancing, breathed down my shoulder!

About twenty minutes later a woman called for Kollupitiya folk. I scrambled forth. I must add the queue was composed of very decent people, the most decent being at the head. I was told by the officer who was at the door – a young woman in a smart red dress – my Lane was in the Bambalapitiya division and not Kollupitiya. She closed the door. I mumbled to the man at the head of the queue I just could not go back; he murmured no protest. Thank goodness! One must remember that most collected there were public servants of yesteryear when politics and corruption hardly invaded offices and never schools; those days of polite service.

The door opened and I shot in with another. Maybe I was ashamed of breaking the queue but my grey hair and femaleness excused my behaviour; at least to me!

The Grama Sevaka was that young woman in the red dress; fine, quick, efficient and spoke with a human voice. I asked her about mandatory period of this showing oneself by pensioners. It lasted till March, which I was unaware of. Those who could not arrive even on crutches? She said they need to return the form duly filled and she would visit homes.

What is the result of defaulting in showing up at the Grama Sevaka or making known the necessity he/she should visit a house-bound pensioner? Stoppage of payment of monthly pension. Resurrection seems a much more tedious business than the first incarnation.

Most pensions are meagre, extra thus if one retired after 20 years of service, that being the minimum years of service to be pension-eligible, along time ago. This talk invariably brings on the derisive snort: Oh those ranting MPs, some even silent and most often absent from the august House get a fine pension after only five years’ service. Unfair, almost criminal, because by then many of them are millionaires; not through winning a TV knowledge contest, nor by real good service rendered, but You-Know-How. Yes, our pensions may not even cover our regular monthly bills but they come regularly to us and we are appreciative of this fact; as we are to Dr Rajitha Senaratne and the yahapalanaya government that drastically reduced price of medicines and thus our monthly expense to keep our selves going and able to wobble along to see the Grama Sevaka once a year!!



Some pensioners complain of anomalies in what they are paid. The removal of these is left to the government. Many letters to editors of newspapers have pensioners crying for increase in payments made. Yes, because never is a raise given to keep abreast of rising COLs. But in these dire times of country economic tribulation, we oldies should not ask for raises in pensions.

Government pensions are of different types. I refer here to the pension granted a government officer after retirement from service at 55 years of age, now raised to 60 for men. We hardly remember the fact that this monthly payment is solely from the government, without our having contributed for Widows and Orphans benefits on a monthly basis while we were in service; from the time one retired to the time one dies. And thus gratitude we should feel and not keep pestering for more.

Which brings me on to the call to trundle along to a Grama Sevaka however rickety one’s legs are; however arthritic knees are. The government is not masochistic. We, the people, ourselves have brought on this annual torturous showing of selves. Once a pensioner dies this fact must be notified to the department. Not done sometimes; cheating being in the blood.

I Googled and read much on Sri Lankan government pensions including a report that noted that 9.6 million are estimated to be eligible for pension payments; 50% of eligibles are current enrollers and only 30% or the elderly benefit from this safety net. Also that 1.4% of GDP goes towards pension schemes. Sobering thought.

I could not trace a date for first pension payment, nor the history of payment of government pensions in this fair isle. I assume it was bequeathed by the British colonial rulers. It is a well known fact that in the times of our grandparents and parents in the final and post colonial years, a man’s eligibility in marriage rose if he was a government ‘servant’. Mercantile employment though better paying was second rate. Planting on sterling company estates was a job Kandy boys took to but much preferred was half-that-amount-paying government employment.


UK and US retirement payments

A friend who is a lucky sterling pensioner gets much, much more than I get though both were in the same honourable profession. The monthly amount in pounds sterling is usually paid into a local bank for those who were professionals in the UK but are resident here. Those over there have monthly adjustments made to keep alongside varying COLs. Also the government is more trusting. The pensioner must send an affidavit signed by a respected person: JP, professional etc to testify the pensioner is alive.

The situ in the US of A is complicated with Obama having tried hard to benefit the poorer and older. The need for retirement payment was felt after the early 20th century depression. Many schemes prevail but major point is that when you stop working after a minimum period, monthly contributed-for social security is made available to you.

I came across this saying: “Being born poor is fate; dying poor is a choice.” So true! And here I bring in a comparison: the industrious ant and the hedonistic grasshopper. Did the ant help the grasshopper as he shivered and starved in winter? No. Only a rubbing in of ‘go on singing!’ But we who were unwise grasshoppers then have at least a pittance from the government of Sri Lanka when unable to sing and dance!!



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Strong on vocals



The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!

Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.

At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).

The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.

However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.

Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.



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Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year



Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.

It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.

The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.

The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.

The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.

Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.

This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.

Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.

The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.

Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.

Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.



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New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations



Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.

Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.

A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.

Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.

Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.

Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.

Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.

Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.

The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.

Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.

Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.

This is the verse sung while playing the game:

“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,

Olinda thibenne bangali dese…

Genath hadanne koi koi dese,

Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”

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