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Pensioners toddle forth from hibernation

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“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!!

 

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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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Features

Sohan…adapting to the ‘new normal’

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Surprisingly, the Coronavirus pandemic seems to have galvanised our entertainers into action.

True, most of the big bands are finding the going pretty tough, these days, as most public shows, like concerts, sing-along, and dances, have been put on hold.

Fortunately, we do have artistes who capitalise on unexpected situations to continue to keep the public, and their fans, entertained – of course, doing it differently

Band leader Sohan, of Sohan & The X-Periments fame, who is always innovative, when it comes to music, has hit upon a novel idea, in order to keep his band occupied, for the next three months.

He has decided to put The X-Periments into ‘recording mode.

Says Sohan: “I’m getting them involved in doing in-house recordings at my home studio.”

And, what’s more, I’m told that Sohan has found a secret sponsor, so the boys will be paid, too. Obviously, it’s a win-win situation and that makes Sohan extra happy!

The veteran artiste/entertainer went on to explain that the main CD will contain cover versions of his favourite songs, and will also include a duet with his daughter Erandika who is scheduled to be in Sri Lanka, hopefully, in May. She is currently in the States.

The song, Sohan has in mind, is that immensely popular golden oldie, made popular by the late Nat king Cole (and daughter Natalie Cole) – ‘Unforgettable.’

Clifford Richards will be seen in a virtual concert, along with Corrine Almeida, and Sohan

The second CD will feature Sohan’s original songs, both western and oriental. 

Sohan will be working with Shobi Perera, Kumar de Silva, Rajiv Sebastian, Roshan de Silva, Chrys Wikramanayake, Rukshan Perera and Damian Wikkramatillake on his novel project, while Krishantha de Silva, who manages Sonexco Enterprises, will take on the role of coordinator.

Although this project will keep The X-Periments, busy, one day of the week will be designated as ‘recording day’ and they have a deadline of three months to complete this project, said Sohan.

There is also a possibility of Sohan inviting a few of his friends to join him in the vocals but that will depend on the materiel he decides on.

“There is no point in hanging around, waiting for work. Musicians have to innovate and create work to keep going, during these challenging times.”

 Sohan is also working closely with Corinne Almeida  and Clifford Richards and has an idea of doing a virtual concert, with the same line up that was featured at the Valentine show, called  ‘Love at the Edge.’

Rajitha, of Misty, is helping them with the technical details of the show,

No doubt, things are looking a bit rosy for Sohan & The X-Periments, and Trishelle.. 

The guys are also working with Benjy and Aquarius, on a mega event, for Richard de Soysa, to be held at Nelum Pokuna,  which is scheduled for mid- May, of 2021, and will feature 10 leading artistes ..

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Remembering Dr. Neville Fernando

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This tribute is in remembrance of my father-in-law, the late Dr. Neville Fernando who would have celebrated his 90th birthday on 9th March 2021. He passed away unexpectedly on the 4th of February 2021 due to the deadly COVID-19 virus.

His birthday will be remembered with an almsgiving to the priests at the Kotikawatta temple to invoke merits on him to attain the Supreme bliss of Niravana. Religious observances on his birthday were an annual occurrence even during his lifetime.

As I ponder his memories, being ‘no more’ is the saddest thought that crosses my mind. I suspect that if you are reading this you understand what I mean logically. Death means that our loved ones never grow a year older, although logic does little to clear up our confusion when his birthday continues to happen year after year.

His memories and deeds throughout his life brought back towards the day I joined his family, when I was just a medical house-officer at the Nawalapitiya Hospital in 1982, through the marriage to his only daughter. Even then he was known to be a real legend and an honest politician. Today, I am in this position as a cardiologist due to his encouragement, loving care and continuous assistance in whatever means. My mind is full of memories of those loving moments shared together. He was a loving, kind and straight gentleman. I may also use the words handsome and charismatic leader. He will inspire us throughout our lives. His pleasant disposition will charm anyone and uplift our mood.

He led a good life and now has a left a good legacy of four children( three boys and one girl) whom any father would be proud of, nine grandchildren and five great grandchildren loved by everyone. He is now no more and no one can fill the void nor bring back the warmth and love he exuded.

We all have courage and we have our convictions, but rarely have the courage of our conviction. His kindness and compassion were his key attributes that made him so special. He had been a good general practitioner before coming to Parliament defeating a formidable leftist politician Leslie Goonewardene who represented Panadura for decades. It was a landmark victory for the UNP in 1977. He was a kind and compassionate doctor who served the rich and poor alike in Panadura for many years and was sought after by his patients for his well known ‘athguna’ (healing hands). This is where he earned his loyal fan base to enter into politics.

Among many things he achieved in Panadura establishing the “Kethumathi” Maternity Hospital, the only one of its kind outside Colombo, helping Sri Sumangala Girls College expansion programme, starting Agamathi Girls school and Janadhipathi Boys School and self funding the Sri Saugatha Vidyalaya Pirivena building at n the Rankoth Viharaya temple in Panadura. Likewise he helped many Buddhist temples during his tenure.

He also started an industrial zone in Modarawila, Panadura which was an abandoned marshy area before that. He had provided the first computer lab and two acres of additional land to expand the Sri Sumangala Vidyalaya which is spoken with gratitude by the students of his alma mater. He did not expect anything in return.

He was a fearless ,principled and honest man who opposed JRs’ motion to takeaway Mrs.Bandaranaikes’ civic rights as he never wanted to compromise his basic human qualities over politics. Very soon he left the Government before any attempt to expel him and formed a small party with few other honest politicians. Later he joined SLFP on the invitation of Mrs.Bandaranaike and worked in the party as an Assistant Secretary for the progress of the country.

He was a maverick par excellence ,an entrepreneur ,extraordinaire and a businessman with a foresight. As one of the pioneers in the hospitality industry, he built hotel Swanee, subsequently he started JF and I, one of the most modern printing and packaging factories in the country to date. He also pioneered a porcelain factory called “Royal Fernwood Porcelain” in Kosgama. Which provided so many employment opportunities and in time to come, helped to economically develop the area.

Continuing his political career, he entered Parliament again as an SLFP opposition member. Later on in 1994 he decided to give up politics.

His divestments in the Porcelain factory enabled him to purchase Asha Central Hospital which was developed with latest equipment and brought to international standards. This is the time I had to take a difficult decision to leave the Government as a Consultant Cardiologist and join Asha Central Hospital in 1998 to help him in his endeavour. He developed and managed Asha Central Hospital till 2007 and subsequently sold it to start his new venture SAITM or South Asian Institute of Technology and Medicine with the encouragement of the then Min.of Higher Education Wishwa Warnapala.

Infact I was very much concerned about the new development because of the past experience in the country with the North Colombo Medical College. He always used to tell “every child should have the right for a decent education either in a government or non-government organisation”. His main vision was to give a higher education opportunity for the students .Therefore apart from medicine he also established nursing, engineering , IT, management programmes with the help of esteemed academics who believed in his vision. He established the Dr Neville Fernando Teaching hospital (NFTH) in Malabe to provide clinical training for his students at the medical faculty .It was a impressive state of the art hospital with 1002 beds and latest medical equipment . All of this was done during his 80s which was a remarkable achievement.

SAITM gave him immense pride and a lot of pain at the same time. He was very proud of the fact that he was able to give so many scholarships to deserving students (close to Rs.600 million scholarships during his time).In addition to saving a tremendous amount of foreign exchange he was also able to give an opportunity to students to stay in Sri Lanka with their parents, without having to go overseas for their education leaving behind all family and friends.

However, he had to face many obstacles during this period and was socially and politically crushed due to SAITM. With time, he made a decision to give the NFTH to the Government in return for the clinical training of the medical students of SAITM. In 2017 SAITM was closed down by Maithripala Sirisena who gave in due to the heavy opposition made by the unions against private medical education.

At 89 years of age he was an avid Facebook warrior and used to keep abreast of what was going on in the social media. He was a big cricket fan and never missed watching a cricket match day or night.

Writing about this unique personality cannot be limited to a few words. His life is a monumental story full of new chapters. He dreamed big and his dreams were of public service, even when he was no longer a politician. He yearned to make this country a better place for people to live in, even in his eighties.

May his journey of Sansara be a short one and may he attain the supreme bliss of Nirvana!

 

Dr Mohan Jayatilake

Consultant Cardiologist

 

 

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Boogie Night with Suzi

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Yes, music lovers, get ready to boogie the night away, this Saturday, March 13th.

From 9.00 pm to 10 pm, you would be given the opportunity to see Friends’ former female vocalist, Suzi Croner (Fluckiger) boogie away on Facebook, on Talent Network Group (TNG).

Suzi is excited about this new scene, which will be live streamed, worldwide., and she plans to belt out songs from the Friends’ era (’80s and ’90s), country, and rock ‘n’ roll.

She is already working on her repertoire and says she will make ‘Boogie Night with Suzi’ a real exciting event.

TNG is a Dubai-based project, administered in Dubai, with moderators, worldwide.

And, that means, the whole world is going to see Suzi boogie away.

Several local artistes have already been featured on TNG.

 

 

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