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Reflecting on Mahinda



“These things happened. They were glorious and they changed the world… and then we f***** up the endgame.” (Tom Hanks, “Charlie Wilson’s War”)

The day the war ended, I wasn’t quite 17. Our old Isuzu Gemini didn’t have an onboard radio, so on the way home from the exam hall – I had sat for my O Levels – we made do with a portable one. The news was everywhere: over the airwaves and on the streets. People were elated, overjoyed: mountains of kiribath and piles of lunumiris, hordes of youngsters waving one flag after another, greeted us all the way from Wellawatte to Boralesgamuwa. As Wordsworth would have put it, bliss was it to have been alive then, heaven to have been young. Nothing seemed subdued in the air, and nothing could be. For me and pretty much everyone else, Sri Lanka had won. Everything else came later.

My generation was among the last to see the war through to its end, to have been alive to the dangers and the torments that accompanied it from the beginning. We had witnessed successive peace talks, a ceasefire agreement, even a post-tsunami “deal” with the other side. Nothing worked.

When we moved from my old home town to where I am now, politics had reduced to a battle between those who wanted peace and those who wanted war. Among such obtuse divisions shades of grey did not exist: either you voted for the peaceniks – the UNP – or you threw in your lot with the nationalists – the SLFP. I can’t remember the day the latter won the election in 2004, but I do remember the sense of elation among my family: Mahinda Rajapaksa, the populist candidate, had clinched the presidency, defeating the appeasers. Five years later he would help us end the war.

Mahinda was a hero to my family – to an extent to me also – and, for a brief moment right after the war ended, even to those who disliked him. At that moment we defined our enemy, not in crude ethnic terms, but in terms of a ruthless terrorist outfit that preached only fanaticism. We never defined another by what set us apart; only by what brought us together. Call it sentimental nostalgia, but I now remember May 2009 as one of the few times in our recent history from which we could go forward, as one. Leading us all ahead there was Mahinda. How could you dislike the guy?

I never understood the halo many of us painted around him later on. But I understand why they did what they did, turning Mahinda into some kind of deliverer. The man was in, and of, his time in a way none of his predecessors were – barring one. The exception was Ranasinghe Premadasa, who, it must be said, hailed from an altogether more subaltern, and thus depressed, background.

Like Premadasa, Mahinda was receptive to what people expected of him: not as a demagogue and a nationalist, but as a populist and a patriot. Today these words have become anathema to left-liberals and neoliberals. But then they are not bereft of meaning; only leaders conversant with the politics of people, as opposed to the politics of power, can make the people matter and the people count. In this Mahinda may have been, at one level, the successor of Premadasa. No wonder Dayan Jayatilleka, a man who obviously knows what he’s writing, and more importantly what he’s not writing, wrote of both as the two “most courageous, heroic, leaders we elected in my lifetime.”

So the halo a lot of those who supported him painted on him wasn’t entirely unwarranted. And yet – and this is something that needs to be emphasised fairly and squarely – what was so refreshing about Mahinda Rajapaksa wasn’t so much his appeal to a single constituency as his appeal was to every constituency. Put in other words, in the aftermath of the war, he appeared less a narrow nationalist than a pluralist patriot: the sort before whom everyone could become one.

In his declaration about there being no Sinhalese and Tamils, but all being Sri Lankans – the boldest made by a popular president here – lay a philosophy and a way of doing politics that could get the country ahead. When he became the first president to make it a point to speak in Tamil – which no other president no matter how liberal or popular had tried to do – he thus went as far as anyone in his office had to reach out. I often wonder whether such gestures were recognised for what they were, and whether those for whom they were meant grasped their full significance.

Not that it matters now. But it mattered then. The excitement and the exhilaration of those statements, decisions, and gestures, which I doubt were lost on us, were lost on those who could have responded. Instead of acceptance, he and his government got intransigence, a persistent refusal to endorse such gestures. I fail to understand why we crowned him like we did, but I also fail to understand why such sentiments never got reciprocated. Why did they go unnoticed, really?

Tempting as it would be to view it so, the lack of a proper response to these gestures and sentiments was not the only, or even the main, reason for his government’s downfall. Thirty years of war do not end without victors claiming their share of the spoils from the losers. Although the war went on, and continued to be fought, without the victor/vanquished dichotomy, after it ended that dichotomy crept up, doubly so because of a resurgence of Sinhala ultra-nationalism on the one hand, and the perceived defeat of its competitor – Tamil ultra-nationalism – on the other, towards the end of the decade. Yet the defeat of the latter meant that Sinhala ultra-nationalism could no longer thrive. In the absence of an enemy, paraphrasing Voltaire, we need to invent one. Four years later the ultra-nationalists invented one in Alutgama. That fight continues.

At the outset, then, a fatal rupture developed between the imperatives of multi-ethnic populism and the convulsions of mono-ethnic ultra-nationalism. Against that backdrop Mahinda’s government found itself forced to take sides. Sri Lanka witnessed three moments in which it faced a choice between an inclusive, progressive path and a divisive, reactionary one: 1948, 1970, and 2009. In 1948 the choice was made in favour of a compradore bourgeoisie that doubled down as a dependent elite, and in 1970 it was made in favour of a state-led reformist programme that, while laudable, got bogged down in the contradictions of the times in which it came to be enacted. What road would 2009 take?

It’s perhaps the biggest tragedy of my time, my generation, and the generations which followed mine, that the choice made was not the choice that should have been made. Mahinda’s charisma did not, and does not, stem from his pandering to one constituency: his populism, nurtured more by the left than by the right, extended to everyone. As multi-class as it was multi-ethnic, it’s the sort of charisma very few leaders have been endowed with. A Muslim friend from Hambantota – Rajapaksa territory – put that in perspective best: “He was of the South, but not just of the Sinhalese.”

So we know what road we should have taken, just as we know what road we ended up taking. What compelled him to abandon the first road and take the other, whether the forces that prevailed on him to do so profited by their insularity, and how we might have fared had we not listened to those forces, are questions I can’t really answer. All I know was that we had a golden opportunity, the best we ever had and the best we ever got, to forge a new future. The nationalism we should have made use of then should have been more pluralist than exclusivist, more accommodating than assertive. Yet trapped on every front, the then administration gave in to the chauvinists.

My critique of Sinhala ultra-nationalism today has always been that it differs little from the forces of neoliberalism it so strongly opposes: mired in its contradictions, it thrives on internal divisions while offering the feeblest resistance to external pressures. Andre Gunder Frank was not wide off the mark when he observed that “national” (or nationalist) capitalism was no better than its compradore variety. Amidst the resurgence of ultra-nationalism we are witnessing today, a contradiction has hence sprung up between the demonisation of the ethnic Other and an acceptance of an economic model which does not differ, or depart, radically from the sort championed by the previous regime.

We could have changed all this. Yet we did not. I still don’t know why. In Mahinda Rajapaksa we got the kind of deliverer the country was in need of: not a mythical Diyasen Kumara, but a popular unifier nurtured by the left. Today the revival of the nationalist right within not just the government, but also sections of the Opposition, threatens to eliminate everything we achieved in 2009, and everything we could have achieved in the years which followed. That is our tragedy, and the tragedy of all those who helped conclude the war. What pains me is that it did not have to be this way.



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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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