REFLECTIONS ON THE COVID PANDEMIC
BY SARATH AMUNUGAMA
Despite the carping criticism ,particularly from the social media, SriLanka is one of the few countries which has survived the Corona epidemic relatively unscathed. According to the latest figures available while writing this article 85,695 persons have tested positive for the virus and over 80,000 have now finished their quarantine period. A total of 502 deaths have been recorded. While the numbers given daily of those infected is relatively unimportant, since it is only a reflection of the numbers tested which is a comparatively small sample of the total population or ‘’universe’’- to use statistical phraseology.
The more people are tested the more likely that the numbers would increase till the effects of isolation and vaccinations kick in. The number of deaths is relatively small when compared to the death toll in developed countries. Research has shown that Asians living in tropical zones are less likely to succumb to the virus. On the other hand with the onset of winter there was a steady increase of reported cases in countries with a cold climate.
The initial ‘’roll out‘’ of the vaccine has been quite successful with nearly 730,000 people especially in the ‘’At risk’’categories receiving the injection. Unlike in many other countries the numbers resisting getting the vaccine injection seems to be small which is a good sign. In many other countries in our region that is a major problem. If we can rapidly vaccinate a large segment of the population the pace of testing need not be a priority. It would be more reasonable to deploy our limited medical services to administer the vaccine. The rumour that there will be insufficient vaccines to go round seems to be disproved by the regular shipments that are arriving.
PUBLIC HEALTH SERVICE
Sri Lanka is fortunate to have a good public medical service as the WHO has noted on several occasions. Since the introduction of the adult universal franchise our political leaders of different persuasions have all agreed on the need for an efficient public health service. The trauma of the Malaria epidemic of the 1930s led to the State Council supporting an extensive rural health programme which is associated with the name of George E de Silva, MSC for Kandy. He was the Minister of Health in the State Council and supported by Dr S A Wickremasinghe then of the LSSP and later of the Communist Party, became the ‘’Father of the Rural Health Scheme’’ which transformed the health standards of the disadvantaged village population.
It also laid the foundations of the demographic surge of the 40s and 50s, the results of which are seen in the overwhelming population configurations and economic planning dilemmas of our present times. Under this initiative Rural Hospitals were built all over the country. Midwives were appointed countrywide and pre-natal and post natal care was undertaken by the state. As a consequence there was a sharp drop in infant and maternal mortality and a rise in the years of life expectancy. A world renowned economist summarized this situation when he said ‘’Sri Lanka is third world country with a first world health service’.
Social scientists are aware of a debate that took place many years ago in the ‘’Demography‘’ journal regarding the reasons for the population surge in Sri Lanka. Some argued that this was due to the discovery of DDT and the elimination of Malaria,particularly in the Dry Zone with the introduction of colonization schemes. Others led by Ananda Meegama replied convincingly that this development was not mono-causal but depended on several innovations and policy packages associated with the Rural Health Schemes which were put in place by the State Council and continued by Parliament after Independence.
This debate drew attention of scholars to the welfare measures undertaken in our country. The Nobel prize winning Economist Amartya Sen wrote that SrI Lanka and Kerala had adopted a style of growth which could provide a model for the Third World. I must say however that whenever I met Dr Amartya Sen at meetings and discussed our situation he would say that his sanguine prognostications about Sri Lanka had been derailed by the failure to address the ethnic issue. His bets on SriLanka were off because we could not solve our ethnic problem.
I have always felt that George E de Silva has had a raw deal in our history writing. If CWW Kannangara has been lauded as the father of Free Education ,De Silva should receive a similar accolade as the Father of Free Health .
As shown above we have a health service we can be proud of. Even from the aspect of inoculations our health services have administered the polio vaccine and the triple vaccine countrywide and have been lauded by the WHO. Today no SriLankan child dies of these infections. The best example of our able medical service is Dr Sudarshini Fernandopulle, State Minister of Health who was my State Minister when I was Minister of Science and Technology. As a specialist physician she boldly and courageously held her ground when other bigwigs of the Ministry were throwing holy water into rivers and swallowing magical potions in front of Television cameras. Never in the history of the Government health sector has there been an exhibition of such stupid behavior by political authorities. Another Minister is reported to have generously provided government funds for a nutmeg crushing machine to make more of the anti-covid brew. A few intelligent journalists blew this snake oil salesman’s credentials sky high when they reported that the gullible swallowers, including famously the lady Minister of Health, had contracted Corona and were hospitalized under intensive care.
In a noteworthy coincidence two of the ‘’peni’’ drinkers were struck by the virus within a few days. Mr Speaker who hosted the swallowing session in Parliament in the glare of publicity was shown a few days later meekly getting the anti -corona jab. But what took the cake was his statement published in the newspapers that he agreed to be vaccinated because he wanted to set an example. As a former MP who was continuously in the House for 26 years I was dismayed to find the Speaker’s office used to promote dubious products merely because an MP wished to accommodate one of his constituents.
Of late Speakers have tended to act as political leaders in waiting who have no hesitation in using their high office for personal benefit. That is another recent development contributing to public disenchantment with Parliament. [As a social scientist I was intrigued by the discovery via Baas Unnehe the snake oil salesman, that Kali – a fond abbreviation for Badrakali, the demoness- was a Tamil language speaker. When this ‘Peniya’’ lost his cool with the throng of supplicants surrounding him at home, he ,on behalf of Kali ,Shouted ‘’Poda Poda Poda ‘’at a woman who also responded in gibberish .A Tamil friend told me that ‘’poda’’ is ungrammatical Tamil when addressing a female.]
While there may have been a few mishaps which have been reported in the media, the vaccination programme has been carried out smoothly thanks to the public officials and the army. Many of my friends, admittedly over 60, were anxious that they would not be able to access the vaccine but in a couple of days were able to get it without much difficulty. Whatever may have been the instructions in most centres there was a queue for over sixties and the grama sevakas could recognize the people from their divisions. All in all the initial ‘’Roll Out’’seems to be successful without the usual absentees that have been reported in other countries.
Presumably it will now be extended to other parts of the country so that we can reach a proportion of coverages so that the ‘’herd tendency’’would make it possible for us to open the economy and the social life of the country. Medical Scientists have said that to reach such immunity about 70 percent of the population have to be vaccinated. I read with interest that Basil Rajapaksa had said that we should aim at such an immunization. As a small country we should find this possible and would help in positioning us as a lead country for investment and tourism. In this Isreal provides us with a good model.
Being a small country with good links to their compatriots in the scientific and business fields in the West, Israel has set a blistering pace in vaccinating its population. Sadly their racial policies have left out the Palestinians from the vaccination programme. This discrimination is so reminiscent of what Hitler did to their forefathers in the thirties and early forties. What we can learn from their vaccination programme however is the clear prioritization of access to the vaccine. They identified the over 60s as their target group based on demographic data and covered this category promptly. According to the Economist, hospitalization of the over 60 cohort dropped substantially after 70% of the number in that cohort was vaccinated by the Isreali government.
One of the grumbles about our vaccination programme, as seen in the letters to Editors, is shifting attention away from the over 60 cohort which is abnormally large in our particular demographic profile. By uncritically following the WHO guideline in this matter we seem to have ignored the ground realities of our demography. This was shown in the unanticipated demand from this category which had to be accommodated by hastily adding a separate queue for the over sixties in the vaccination centres.
Let me now turn to some basic issues which came to the fore due to the Covid pandemic. The first is the need to recognize the role of modern science. All too frequently our media has highlighted anti-scientific ‘’ mumbo Jumbo’’ to direct the conversation away from the need to establish a science based society in our country. Many people supported President Gotabaya Rajapaksa because he was a tech savvy modernizer. Unlike our other leaders he was not seen weighed against gold, half naked in a ‘’Thulbaram’’. [It is an irony that many of these Godmen or Pusaris died recently after contracting Corona.] Indeed unlike our politicians GR knew that wars cannot be won by making Pujas. You need manpower, planning and training, use of proper modern weapons, latest communications technology and research and logistical superiority to overwhelm an opponent who had access to top weapons experts worldwide.
I was a minister when the LTTE with superior weapons such as MBRLs were on the verge of driving our armed forces out of Jaffna peninsula. One of the reforms introduced by the GR-Fonseka team was to immediately get the latest weaponry. Unfortunately the leaders of the UNP, led by Ranil, could not understand any of this and were setting up the media to question the financing of those planes and weapons.
The discovery of the Covid vaccine is nothing short of a modern scientific miracle, says the Economist of February 2021. ’’To call vaccination a miracle is no exaggeration. A little more than a year after the virus was first recognized medics have already administered 148 million doses. Although the vaccines fail to prevent all mild and asymptomatic cases of Covid 19, they mostly seem to spare patients from death and the severest infections that require hospitalization, which is what really matters’’.
Another problem which is facing the country is the inefficient provincial health system. Many of our Chief Ministers were small time politicians who had very little idea of management. I am now revealing a secret that JRJ never wanted to appoint politicians as chief Ministers. His idea was to appoint senior public servants with a proven track record of management to run the newly established provincial councils.I remember that politicians like Dissanayake of Gampola lobbied against this saying that officials had no political savvy. Instead he proposed himself for the post of Chief Minister of Central Province and JRJ was made to change his mind by confidantes like Gamini and Ronnie de Mel.
Any investigation will show that the rural hicks who became Chief Ministers plundered the revenue of the provincial councils for salaries and perks for their colleagues. Money set apart for education and health were squandered to give jobs for the boys in order to get political mileage for their attempt to enter Parliament. This irresponsibility has led to a crisis in provincial education and health. Except perhaps in the North, the public in all other provinces want this subject reverted to the Central Government as the local education and health systems have broken down.
The health services in the provinces can effectively function at present because fortunately the Councils are dissolved. It is up to the Government to make a realistic assessment of the provincial council system which has been an utter failure in the Sinhala provinces. I would suggest the setting up of an international group of experts to evaluate the provincial council system which has been in operation for over 30 years. As I shall show later a streamlined health system will become a necessity in the ‘’Post-Covid World’’. A better framework for health and education, especially in rural areas must be evolved. An inquiry must be launched as to how the funds allocated to PCs have been misappropriated and wasted in political ‘’gift giving’’.
Scientists and economists are now talking of the ‘’New Coronormal’’. The epidemic has created a new normal with which we have to live. Says the Economist ‘’To the extent that medicine alone cannot prevent lethal outbreaks of Covid 19, the burden will also fall on behavior, just as it has in most of the pandemic. Habits like mask wearing may become part of everyday life. Vaccine passports and restrictions in crowded spaces could become mandatory. Vulnerable people will have to maintain great vigilance. Those who refuse vaccination can expect health education but limited protection. But even if Covid- 19 has not been completely put to rest, the situation is immeasurably better than what might have been. The credit for that goes to medical science.’’
Finally we cannot avoid the mega question of our attitude as a country and administration to the process of modernity. Though cranks and eccentric academics may muddy the waters we cannot avoid the thrust of modernization. All countries in this interrelated world follow a path to modernity which is time tested and, above all, practical. The covid virus has clearly shown the pathetic inability of non–science to address practical issues. While individuals may be delusional and call on gods like Natha to answer their prayers, real life is different and cannot succeed by rhetoric and speech-making. We need to get our priorities right and seek rational solutions. It is clear that countries that have successfully negotiated the modernization process can give a better life for the people Covid is a wake up call. I invite all concerned politicians, administrators, business people and academics to begin a discussion on the rational path to modernization which alone can lift us out of the morass in which we find ourselves now.
India Forges ahead even arts-wise; Sri Lanka out of bankruptcy (?)
Hope springs eternal in the human breast, it is said, but if the breast is of a national-minded Sri Lankan, hope cannot rise; it is stifled by fear, worry, frustration and stark disappointment. Government persons are flapping their upper limbs and crowing about improvement in the economy; nothing much for us Ordinaries to experience or savour.
The President has announced the thuttu deke Sri Lankan rupee has risen against the dollar as if he had achieved the fall in the price of the dollar himself with his great economic expertise. Yes, the value of the dollar has declined from its 360 plus worth but if anyone has to be thanked, Cass boldly affirms, it is the Governor of the Central Bank, bless him, our Saviour at this moment. He works cleverly we have to presume, with dedication and loyalty to the nation, gaining nothing himself except his remuneration which we believe he could very well have done without as he was recalled from retirement in Australia to haul the nation out of the economic blackhole it had been pushed into by its own bigwigs – a past Prez, a former PM who, when he was Prez, borrowed mostly from the Chinaman to build his Ozymandias constructions to have his name emblazoned on them. Assisting these two, pulling the strings and side driving in government, was a former Minister of Finance who absented himself often from Parliament when the budget he presented was being discussed. Then there were ministry secretaries and CB high ups and a Gov himself who helped in pushing the rupee to near worthlessness and the country firmly into bankruptcy. This they did in brotherhood, three of them, and unitedly, willfully and most insanely with glaring mismanagement and mistakes.
And we sit and mourn and suffer on account of their mistakes. Some rose in unison and protested and we saw drastic changes in top positions but not in structures and systems. Naturally, and to be accepted, is the fact that recovery will be very slow and very painful. Those who rise up in protest now – chief among them being the IUSF and persons like Stalin whoever – are only a menace and obstacle to whatever economic progress is underway. We see and hear some of the earlier bootlickers of the R clan, or their kith and kin, pontificating again. Cass mentioned three such in her last week’s column. Add to them a horizontally gifted Minister who is guilty of and charged in court for soliciting payment to do some job he had to do; and another who is associated, wrongly or rightly Cass knows not, in the drug trade. He came to the limelight when rescued in a VVIP power driven helicopter with the said power as an actual presence. Only blood relatives are thus treated!
This is miserable Sri Lanka’s side of the picture. Cass cannot help but create the analogy of a beautiful damsel who pleases in every way, being raped by greed and lack of any sense of decency or humanity but totally for selfish gain by rapacious persons to gain power and enjoy the perks accompanying. Thus, she is grievously harmed and injured both physically and mentally. A brave person comes along and rescues her and attempts giving her the chance to recapture her charms. Cass supposes this could be the present Gov of the CB and not the IMF which organization has its own agenda.
And, so we have secured IMF emergency funding. We hear congratulations to Prez Ranil W being extended by SLPP MPs in Parliament. The SLPP may gloat but the Prez has wisely warned our troubles are far from over. TV1 in its news broadcast on W ednesday night had an accurate recalling of how the IMF loan came to be granted.
Hearing the loan was approved and the first tranche would soon be released had the immediate image crossing Cass’ mind of some in power salivating with selfish greed to get their hands on bits of it. But to her great delight she finds that one superb condition, loudly greeted, of granting relief through the IMF is that corruption must be reduced and eradicated. Tall order but it is there in black and white so maybe ticking minds will slow down and seeking/grabbing hands held back.
My title speaks of India. Yes, it is outstandingly clear how far India has progressed in its development and position it now holds in the world. She was burdened with a huge and ever bloating population; widespread poverty; a high percent of illiteracy and lack of education; internecine strife between races and religions and the ever-bubbling Kashmir problem. But just see how far she has progressed, outpacing some developed countries, almost on par with China and courted by the US and EU. I remember vividly a cartoon seen when she entered the Nuclear Club which had just five members. The cartoon showed a bare-bodied man in a dhoti entering a posh club with its wide chairs and bar. India now hopes to join the outer space travellers’ club. There was rampant corruption but laws and the right for the public to report and even bring to Court malpractices of bureaucrats and politicians has reduced the prevalence of this canker. Vigilante groups rendered great service.
I mentioned the arts in my title. This because India has bagged two Oscars this year, one for best short documentary and the other for best song. I watched both films: Elephant whisperers and RRR. The first was of an elephant nursery in South India. I thought our Uda Walawe elephant orphanage where abandoned infant animals are nurtured and rehabilitated to go back to their jungle living could have been filmed to an even better documentary. RRR had the rousing song Naatu, Naatu. Goodness! It was a typical South Indian, though Hindi film of impossible feats of bravery, blood drenched and insanely melodramatic. But the songs were superb.
It was said three conditions held the vast subcontinent as one country – after Pakistan broke away. They were: the continuation of democracy and the efficient bureaucracy the British left; the widespread use of English and it being the main language of communication between the centre and states; and communication in the way of a wide web of railways. Cass feels the most important positive that not only held the country as one vast collection of states but also aided its development and march forward to be one of the VIP countries of the world is that Indians are first and last Indians, whether of the south, east, north or west; and their ardent patriotism.
We Sri Lankans lack these great and good qualities.
We invariably intoned “poor Bangladesh”, considering it would always be battered by tidal waves and floods and continually poverty stricken with two widows clawing for power. Look at her now! She lent us money; she is moving upwards as a self-sufficient country looking after its population. While our GMOA and universities acted strong against private medical education, a college in Chittagong earned plenty forex from just our students alone among its international student body.
A radical change in systems, mass and individual behaviours and mostly in those who rule the country is urgently needed. We are in another debt, this time to the IMF. We need to get back on our feet. We stood firm a couple of decades back. With our positives, mainly of clever, educated people, and potential of the country we can get out of the dire straits we are in. Will we even now wake up and work unitedly while getting rid of the dregs of society that wield power?
The Box of Delights
Seeing through testing times and the future
Text of the Keynote address By Prof Rajiva Wijesinha at the 8th International Research Conference on Humanities and Social Sciences of the University of Sri Jayewardenepura on 16 March, 2023.
At the beginning of this year I read again, after well over half a century, a delightful book by John Masefield, called The Box of Delights. A feature of this box was that it allowed one to travel swiftly, and to make oneself very small. It struck me then that these magical properties were what is needed for us to do better in the field of English Language Teaching. Those making the running as it were must move very quickly, and they must be able to think like the young do, the very young but also all those students who need to be motivated to learn.
Unfortunately, all efforts to take things forward have to contend with the blockages imposed by the equivalent of Masefield’s coven of witches in an earlier novel, The Midnight Folk, now turned sanctimonious as potential churchmen in The Box of Delights. Who these are in real life varies from generation to generation, but what they have in common is slowness of thought and execution, and an incapacity to think except as adults, and sometimes not even that!
At the end of last year, I came to this university to celebrate a welcome initiative on the part of your Library, together with Madhbhashini Ratnayake of the English Language Teaching Department, the first major contribution to English Language Teaching – or Learning as I prefer to term it – since the nineties. In that decade too personnel at the University of Sri Jayewardenepura played a major role in taking things forward, and I was happy to learn that now too those in authority have given unstinting support to the innovations your colleagues are trying to introduce nationwide. But remember that the midnight folk are always waiting to pounce, the negative ones, though I should note that Masefield also thinks of the little people who help as midnight folk, working with their lights under a bushel.
Let me now speak briefly of those initiatives of the nineties, even though this may seem an arrogant move, given how central I was to all the developments of those days. But I should make it clear that none of this would have been possible without not just strong but also imaginative support from many others, including two fantastic practitioners of English Language Teaching at this University, Parvathi Nagasunderam and Oranee Jansz. Interestingly, the latter was not initially enthusiastic about the former joining the university, because she was a strong proponent of autonomy for the English Language Teaching Unit, and resented what she thought was potential interference by a recruit to what was then the Department of Languages and Cultural Studies. The then Vice-Chancellor had expressed the view that Paru should be appointed to head the ELTU, but there was such opposition to this that the incumbent who had resigned reassumed the position.
Oranee herelf changed completely when there was opposition on racist grounds to Paru by other members of the ELTU, and not only supported Paru thereafter, but took another Tamil recruit whom the other ladies were attacking to work with her in the Medical Faculty. Her imaginative approach there meant that USJP medical students were accepted much sooner by the medical hierarchy than graduates from other new medical faculties – since as you know the establishment in this country belittled any new medical faculty, and in turn, when that faculty gained wider acceptance, it joined the old guard in belittling new ones. Kelaniya and Ruhuna and Sri Jayewardenepura and Rajarata have suffered such persecution in turn, though perhaps that mentality has now changed for the Sabaragamuwa Medical Faculty has not had to face similar belittling.
My return to the state system was because of an initiative by Prof Arjuna Aluvihare to extend opportunities in tertiary education, and to do this in particular with regard to English. Typically, the Midnight Folk sniffed at this, anguished by the thought of English being made available at tertiary level to students who had not studied English at the GCE Advanced Level, in short, to students outside the charmed circle of Colombo and Kandy and Jaffna. After all, as one professor put it, when earlier I had suggested syllabus revision to incorporate Sri Lankan writing in English, her students could go to Cambridge for postgraduate work, though in actual fact no one from that university or indeed any other in Sri Lanka had gone there for postgraduate work for two decades.
So, it was USJP that took up the challenge, through the then Dean of Arts, Mahinda Palihawadana, whose erudition too I see has been honoured by the republication of a seminal work on the Vedas. Given his wide-ranging sense of commitment to students as well as books, he roped me in, and persuaded me to join the university, which seemed essential to keep things going, for he himself was on the verge of retirement. So, I not only took charge of the English Diploma course at six Affiliated University Colleges and of General English at five others but also transformed English at this university, introducing an English Language component in addition to English Literature. And this was available also in the External Degree we started, which rapidly became the most popular external degree in the whole university system.
I was able to do all this because of the wonderful support I had in the Department, and in time Paru expanded on this, when, finally, an English Department was established here. She also when we requested this from the Ministry introduced English Language Teaching as a component of the external degree, which was a great boon to teachers nationwide. Again, in those days, at the turn of the century, the other universities refused, for they still believed pedagogical skills had nothing to do with academia.
That situation has now changed, and all universities I believe understand the need for this, though I fear the idea has not penetrated into other skulls, whereas we also need for instance components of teaching mathematics in university mathematics degrees, if we are to develop STEM education. But while successive ministers of education talk about this, they will not ensure the elementary measures needed to promote such education, namely to produce better teachers – and swiftly, as I started by saying we must ensure with regard to all positive measures.
I have spoken thus far of the colleagues I worked with in the university system to change things so swiftly in the nineties, after half a century of moribundity as to tertiary level English. But there were also other tools essential to take things forward. The most important of these were materials, and materials that could be made readily available, for students to be able to own them and work with them on their own.
This was an area in which The Midnight Folk had a particularly baneful impact. They did not believe in materials which students could use on their own, and instead thought that education demanded power in the hands of the teacher. Thus materials were not easy to understand, and had to be explicated further, and all this meant enormous profits for those who produced materials, books prepared by teams whose members vied to impress each other rather than produce what students could readily understand, and then teachers’ guides which also had to be studied, and only by the teacher. The fact that these did not always reach students and teachers in time – the more remote the area, the greater the delay in transmission – meant nothing in a context in which the production of materials, and the money made on them, through allowances for preparation and contracts for printing, was an end in itself, with little thought for the use that was to be made of them.
I transformed this, using a system I had instituted while at the British Council, where fortunately those in charge accepted my argument that we needed to develop the reading habit, and we could best do this by producing low cost readers. A stream of these were produced, initially costing Rs. 5 each, which meant they were snapped up by students all over the country. And thus we could reprint without further subsidy.
We had produced well over 50 titles at different levels by the time I joined USJP, and we then produced dozens more which were made available to students, some at just Rs. 10. Needless to say I was accused of making money on this, though the students themselves, who had initially objected to paying for materials – provoked by The Midnight Folk who did not like the successful impact of my programmes – agreed that Rs 10 simply covered costs and that, having got money, from the Canadians who were very supportive, to publish the first copies, I was not going to go begging again to them.
Unfortunately, this very simple principle, that we cannot live for ever on handouts, is very far from the minds of our decision makers, for as you can now see, when we are hopelessly in debt, the only answer they can think of is more debt. The idea of generating income, of using borrowed money only to promote productivity that can pay for itself, the horror of sinking further and further into debt that future generations will have to repay at the cost of their own productivity, is not something that occurs to the unimaginative Midnight Folk.
To return to the idea of producing our own, I believe that over the years I have been responsible for well over a million books for language learning, which were snapped up by students all over the country. I had wonderful collaborators in this project, Nirmali Hettiarachchi and Sybil Wettasinghe and Madhubhashini Dissanayake as she then was for primary and secondary level, Madhu again and also Nirmali and then Janaki Galappatti (and a team of university scientists) and Goolbai Gunasekara and Oranee and the ELTU head Damayanthi Ahangama for tertiary level, Paru and Dinali Fernando – who was at USJP for several years – and Rapti de Silva, later of Moratuwa University, for pedagogical input.
We used these materials, refined further, when Oranee and I were also asked to take charge of the pre-University General English Language Training (GELT) project, where we changed the term teaching to training, for we were also concerned to introduce soft skills, the first time in this country, long before they became fashionable – and still with no proper system to develop them nationwide. Sadly the Life Skills curriculum developed when I headed the Academic Affairs Board of the National Institute of Education was perverted to exclude this, with a change of Minister and another of the Midnight Folk appointed in my stead. Entertainingly that same Minister is now in charge of education, and tertiary education and vocational education too, for the umpteenth time, with nothing to show for his many periods in office, only sanctimonious pronouncements.
(to be continued)
Happy Birthday dearest Mrs. Peries !
Dear Mrs. Peries,
So you would have turned 88 today, 24th March 2023. On a day like this, my mind goes back many, many years, to all those birthday parties and celebrations at the old Dickman’s Road (Dr. Lester James Peries Mawatha) house.
Birthday month at No 24 residence spanned both March and April and usually kicked off today, when in the morning you would offer dane to the Bellanwila Temple.The floors were polished, as was the gleaming brassware. The prized crystal ware would sparkle from inside the glass cabinets and the vases would brim with flowers. The birthday mood was all pervasive.
That faithful telephone, the much memorised 011.2588822, would ring incessantly right through the day and this was perhaps the only day in the year when LJP would not volunteer to answer, since the calls were invariably all for the Missus.The evening was generally a subdued quiet affair with family from both the Peries and Gunawardene sides, and a few very close friends, and even fewer from the big screen.
I remember Mrs. Paddy Mendis, a regular birthday visitor. After all it was during her husband Dr. Vernon Mendis’ tenure as Ceylon’s Charge d’Affaires in Paris in the late 1950s that LJP first met you, when en route to Cannes with Rekawa.Remember how you carefully chose your short eats. Getting pride of place were your favourite delicate asparagus sandwiches. Coming a close second would be those cheese and chicken bouchees, and the ginger beer and the iced coffee.
There would be Nuran Gomez, the great-grand-nephew from the Peries side, at the piano, tickling the ivories and entertaining everyone with music from the Peries’ films and old world continental hits much to LJP’s delectation. Aaahhh such lovely soirees those were.
Today would also begin the countdown to 05th April, when No 24 literally overflowed with humanity and when the maestro would blow the increasing numbers of candles on his cake. Oh 04th April is another story altogether !
Yes No 24 overflowed with humanity from the film industry. But then as I sadly observed over the years, as the both of you made fewer and fewer films, those crowds decreased. When the both of you finally stopped making movies, he with Ammawarune (2006) and you with Vaishnavee (2018), those numbers dwindled down to a mere handful from the film industry. You were left with family and a few very close friends.
I remember one of your birthdays a few years ago when you and I decided to go on a “loaf” one evening. We drove around, loafing around, I actually forget where, and when we finally got hungry it was past 10.30 pm when most of the restaurants were closed. We were hungry, very hungry and there was no place open.
I remember calling my good friend Harpo Guneratne who, in turn, immediately called the staff at Harpos Pizza Pasta Parlour on Mirihana Road, Nugegoda and told them to keep the shutters open despite it being way past closing time. The boys were there, all smiles, to greet and serve the celebrity Birthday Girl guest.
I remember, very, very vaguely, another birthday soiree in the late 1990s in Paris when you were our Ambassador. It was just LJP and You and I in that beautiful salon at your Ambassadorial apartment on the Avenue de Longchamps with the French cheeses and the wines, and Coq-au-Vin for mains, and as the champagne popped we sang Joyeux Anniversaire in French. Quelle nostalgie !!!
‘Carols for LJP’ at Christmastime was yet another looked forward to event at the old Dickman’s Road House with Nuran Gomez once again at the piano and everyone joining in lustily. What absolutely memorable and joyous soirées those were.
There were also those New Year’s Eves when you lit sparklers in the garden with Kumudu Casie Chetty, Surangani Wijewickrama and Lalinka Mutukumarana and much to LJP’s fretting and concern, those after-dinner chats that went on beyond midnight, the impulsive drives we went out on for iced-cream and those occasional dinners out. Those were the simple pleasures of life you also rejoiced in.If I were to go back in time, the both of you came into my life that morning in 1986 when I walked into your Dickmans Road sitting room and we shot my first ever interview with you for “Bonsoir” for the Embassy of France in Sri Lanka. I was in great awe and felt terribly small and insignificant in your presence.
Little did the three of us ever realise that this was to be the beginning of our private lifelong bond … sealed by France and the French culture and language. Yes it was our very private “Club Français”. In it we regaled. In it we journeyed through French history, gastronomy and culture through our innumerable chats. In it we constantly celebrated the francophones and francophiles in us. LJP was the first to leave us and our little Club got empty. Mrs. Peries now you, and our Club is emptier than before.
Seated in the audience at the BMICH that afternoon in January 2022 with Nadeeka Gunasekare and Yashoda Wimaladharma, I vividly remember the joy jubilantly splashed across your face when the University of Kelaniya conferred on you an Honorary Doctorate (Sahithya Chakrawarthi). Your portfolio of honours and achievements was finally complete. You were now Dr. Mrs. Sumitra Peries.
And exactly one year later you’re gone. Mrs. Peries, as I write this piece I don’t think even you realised, two months ago, that you would go, go just like that, in literally a flash. Yes you were ailing but you were ok too. And then suddenly you were gone.
That evening at the Independence Square was sad and overcast as the flames consumed all that was mortal of you, at almost the identical spot they did to LJP five years ago in 2018. And as I did with LJP too, I patiently sat there by your pyre, in the intermittent drizzle that evening, and stayed with you way past midnight, until you were finally gone, until all that was you turned into soft, burning hot ash. Those images still haunt me.
My dear Mrs. Peries, it’s already two months and a week for today, since you’re gone … gone on your journey in Samsara. The inescapable humdrum of life has overtaken us all, yet the grief still persists, thick, viscous and heavy. It sits like glue at the bottom of my heart.
The nation mourns. The film industry mourns. Family, friends and colleagues still mourn. I too grieve my very personal loss, yet celebrating the memory of two wonderful people who lit up my personal and professional lives and who were also my ‘alternate’ Father and Mother. You often referred to me as “the son we both never had”. The feeling was absolutely mutual.
Yet … just as a rainbow slowly appears after a torrential downpour, there is also a very strange sense of joy … joy as we now celebrate your life and everything you meant to a lot of people.As you journey on … what more can I say but “Thank You / Merci Beaucoup” for the memories, those warm, cheerful, nostalgic and indelible memories. May your journeys through Samsara be speedy my dearest LJP and Mrs Peries, my ‘adopted foster mother and father’. Love you both from the depths of my heart … always … and beyond always.
– Happy Birthday Mrs. Peries.
Kumar de Silva
Trustee – Lester James and Sumitra Peries Foundation
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