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Refreshing, Peaceful and Romantic

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CONFESSIONS OF A GLOBAL GYPSY

Dr. Chandana (Chandi) Jayawardena DPhil
President – Chandi J. Associates Inc. Consulting, Canada
Founder & Administrator – Global Hospitality Forum
chandij@sympatico.ca

The Lodge and the Village are two, iconic resorts in the dry zone of Sri Lanka. In the Village, Architect Somaratna Silva had cleverly created a rustic resort with an open concept with individual rooms appearing like small houses in a remote village. Located in the centre of the resort are the front office, bar, restaurant, kitchens, stores and swimming pool. Recreational facilities, including elephant rides, boating, tennis etc., are located close by, facing the Habarana Lake. Even on extremely warm days, the open concept design of the two resorts ensured free circulation of breeze in a refreshing manner.

The greatest compliment the Village Habarana received was when competitors copied the concept and operated similar resorts. However, none were able to match the charm of the Village Habarana, and the innovative management style of the hotelier who opened it in 1976, my friend, boss and bestman, the late Bobby Adams.

Two young architects, trained by the best-known architect of Sri Lanka, legendary Geoffrey Bawa, continued the open concept in Habarana, but with more sophistication, when they created the concept for the Lodge. Architects Pheroze Choksy and Ismeth Rahim extended the concept of ‘Tropical Modernism’ – an architectural style of wide-open spaces connected to the sprawling outdoors made popular by Geoffrey Bawa.

The end result was simply a masterpiece of architecture, blending beautifully with nature, and the seamless delivery of world class hospitality. These architects working with the visionary board of directors of John Keells/Walkers Tours, had created two resorts, which were simply a delight for any hotelier to operate. I considered it a great honour for me to get an opportunity to manage both resorts concurrently.

Judging from its simple brand, first-time guests arriving at the Lodge usually did not have high expectations of standards. From the time they arrived, I could not help watching tourists become amazed with what they saw, the welcome they received, the service they experienced and the quality of public areas, gardens, bedrooms, food, etc. which always exceeded their expectations. Under-selling and over-delivering standards is a good strategy.

I was often amused to meet newly arrived guests with orchid flower garlands around their necks, wandering in the beautifully landscaped gardens holding their welcome cocktails served in King Coconuts. They would be looking up at the majestic pillars and seven, decorative balconies above the reception area, while refreshing their faces with the ice-cold, white towels we served them. “Wow” expressions were written all over their happy faces.

A large section of our employees was from the farmer communities around the resort complex. They were gentle and eager to provide ‘authentic Sri Lankan hospitality’ showcasing their best practices at homes and paddy fields. With a little training, their service delivery blossomed to outstanding levels.

Unprompted by management, the room attendants wished their guests ‘good night’ using wild flowers during the bed turn-down service. This thoughtful service was done while the guests were having their dinner. My wife and I were always touched with this beautiful daily gesture. Soon I realised that they even did the flower greetings in German, French, Italian etc., after checking the nationality of each guest with the front desk.

The birds provided continuous welcoming sounds in the Habarana Resort Complex. I often woke up early in the morning, long before my alarm rang, to the gentle chirping of exotic birds near our apartment. During my time in Habarana I learnt that Sri Lanka is home to 34 endemic bird species, and total number of bird species recorded in the island is nearly 500.  With over 120 bird species, Habarana is widely considered to be a favoured location for bird watching in Sri Lanka.

Although Habarana is in the dry zone of Sri Lanka, which is always much warmer than the wet zone, the Habarana Resort Complex was relatively cooler. When the occasional rain showers that graced us, we had some challenges. In the 260 rooms of the complex, we had placed 520 large umbrellas for guests to use to move from individual rooms to the main building for meals.

I loved the rain in Habarana. Rain was also welcomed by over 2,000 trees located on our 40-acre land. It was peaceful and romantic. One evening, while walking from our cottage to the restaurant at the Lodge to have dinner, in the middle of heavy rainfall, my wife and I finally decided that after five years of married life and hectic global travels, now the time was right to start a family.

After successfully introducing sports tournaments for the staff, social events and training programs for supervisors and managers within the Habarana Resort Complex, our team got some new ideas. In addition to the Lodge and the Village, there were 13 smaller hotels in the North Central Province. “Can we do something to help these small hotels by pooling our resources?” one of our departmental managers asked during a brainstorming session.

Within a month, we formed a trade association which we termed ‘Rajarata Hoteliers Association.’ Based on the votes from the 15 member hotels, I was elected as the Founding President. We organized a monthly, best practice-sharing meeting and a get together of the managers of all 15 hotel. We also organized a monthly training session for the supervisors. Annually, we organized a large-scale sports festival for all of the staff.

One day I received a call from Mr. Jayantha Panabokka, the Managing Director of the Mahaweli Reach Hotel in Kandy. “Kandy hoteliers are hearing excellent reports about your association, Chandana. Can you please help us to form a similar trade association in Kandy?” So, I made a special trip to Kandy to share our best practices and the constitution. Later they formed the Kandy Hoteliers Association.

The largest professional association for hospitality managers in Sri Lanka was the Ceylon Hotel School Graduates Association (CHSGA). Having served CHSGA for four years from the late 1970s as the Treasurer and then as the General Secretary, I was very familiar with this body. Gradually a large number of senior members of CHSGA spoke with me, prompting me to become the President of CHSGA. With all this support, I was elected to this position uncontested in late 1985. My boss, Bobby Adams and the Chairman of John Keells Group, Mark Bostock fully supported me in these honorary contributions for the well-being of the industry.

As there were a few members of the CHSGA working at a nearby competitor hotel, Sigiriya Village, the Habarana Resort Complex had a special relationship with this resort. We shared best practices, coordinated room rate structure and regularly met their management team for recreational activities.

One of their managers, who was also a former student of mine at Ceylon Hotel School (CHS), Nimal Sangakkara, was a bodybuilder. We always targeted Nimal underwater because he was so strong. One day after a violent game of water polo, Nimal told me, “Sir, every time I come to Habarana to play water polo, I end up making an appointment for a post-game visit with the famous ayurvedic physician from Horuvilla who specializes on fractures and broken ribs!”

Unorthodox Management Development

A month before Christmas of 1985, Dave Kellaart, the manager in charge of food and beverage operations of the Village approached me with a personal request. He had worked as a waiter on my team at Havelock Tour Inn where I was the Assistant Manager in 1974. Dave was also one of my students at CHS in 1982, so I knew him well. I admired his ambition to succeed in the industry but when he asked me if I could let him leave the Village with just one week notice, I refused. It was very difficult to find managers at short notice to work in North Central Province or as some hoteliers called it, ‘in the jungle’.

“I have been offered the post of a Restaurant Manager at a five-star hotel in Dubai, with a salary six times higher than my current salary. They are demanding that I sign the contract now and join them next week. My family will benefit greatly from this offer. Can you please help me Sir?” Dave pleaded with me. After further thought I agreed, issued a good reference letter, released Dave on the same day and wished him every success.

I was happy to help my former student but now I had to find a replacement immediately, as we were in the middle of the high season for tourism. I brainstormed with the Executive Assistant Manager of the Village but we could not identify anyone suitable for the new vacancy among our 320 employees. While walking towards the front office of the Village, I was greeted by a young CHS trainee. “What is your name?” I asked him. “Anura Basnayake, I am doing my six-month industrial training in the front office,” he replied nervously.

I had not spoken with Anura before but had regularly noticed him. He was always well-dressed, well-groomed, well-spoken, very polite and professional in dealing with guests. He created a good first impression. I asked the Front Office Manager, Krishna, to release Anura for thirty minutes for me to have a chat with him. I sat with Anura at the pool deck and asked him, “Have you done the CHS four-month basic program in Restaurant and Bar Service?” Anura said, “No Sir, I have only done two basic programs in Front Office Operations and Housekeeping.”

Within a few minutes, I determined that Anura had the potential of becoming a good hotelier. I told Anura that we needed a manager or supervisor for the restaurant for the very next day. Anura stopped talking and looked very scared. “I have never done any meal or beverage service in my life,” he said.

“No problem, I will train you personally with the ‘must know’ basic technical stuff. You have the right attitude and will be doing us a big favour by taking on this responsibility,” I said. As Anura looked very nervous and confused, I told him, “Look Anura, those who jump into the deep end when there is an opportunity will learn to swim quickly.”

Anura was appointed as the Trainee Restaurant Supervisor of the Village that evening. From that day, I spent an hour a day for a week privately with Anura training him one-on-one, about essentials on tray carrying, order taking, food service, menu knowledge, wines, liquor, cocktails, sales, bar controls and supervision. Anura acquired the skills very quickly and eventually specialized in food and beverage management in a five-star hotel. Today he is the Director/General Manager of a number of hotels in Kandy.

Recently when we reconnected and became Facebook friends, Anura sent me the following message: “After I left Ramada about 26 years ago, I joined Hotel Topaz and still continue to work there. You changed my career and it helped me to reach the highest position of the Food and Beverage Manager at Ramada. It’s a very long story, but in short, you told me in 1985, that ‘if your administration is right, you can do any job.’ To date, I tell this amazing career development story to all my subordinates. Thank you, Sir!”

A Bachelor’s Party with Mark Bostock

John Keells Group Chairman Mark Bostock and his wife loved visiting the Lodge and the Village. Mr. Bostock was a very nice man and a charismatic leader. He was also very particular about standards. One day, when I met him at the restaurant of the Lodge, during lunch service, He complained about an old stock of gin we had in the bar. He said, “Chandana, from my experience, that Red Spot Rawlings needs to be taken in about five tots if I want to go pretty blind! Please tell the central purchasing people at Keells to get you some decent Chelsea gin as soon as possible.”

I told Mr. Bostock that evening after dinner that the 18 managers will hold a ‘surprise’ bachelor’s party for Krishna, who would be getting married next week. “Where is the party being held?”, Mr. Bostock asked me and I said, “It will be at the lakeside cottage.” “Perfect, I love that cottage. If you don’t mind, I will join you guys at 9:00 pm, the Chairman said. “That’s great, Mark. I can finish reading my book peacefully after dinner,” Mrs. Bostock nodded with a smile.

Immediately, I called Anura and gave him a special assignment. “Call all the member hotels of Rajarata Hoteliers Association and find two bottles of Chelsea gin, on loan, within two hours.” Mr. Bostock was very impressed to see the Chelsea gin at the bachelor’s party. He liked quick action. He was in a jovial mood and narrated a number of funny rugby jokes and practical tips for married men!

“Wives always test what their newly married husbands can do well. Krishna, if you impress the wife, you will end up doing certain tasks during your entire married life. Therefore, be careful, not to impress your wife!”

When we asked for an example from the Chairman, he said, “Well, when we were about to go on our honeymoon, my wife delegated me to pack a suitcase. I immediately placed some muddy rugger boots right over some of her elegant, evening dresses. She was horrified but after that experience, over the last 35 years, my wife never asked me to pack a single suitcase again!”

1985 Christmas and New Year’s Eve

Christmas and New Year’s Eve celebrations at both resorts were held on a grander scale. I shared with the team my recently acquired experiences in five-star London hotels. The main changes were full entertainment packages in each resort and planning well in advance.

In addition to the resident band ‘Burn’, we contracted another band and entertainers from Colombo. By getting the Executive chefs and Food and Beverage manager/executive/supervisor to share their suggestions and plans with all 18 managers in the resort complex, I managed to create a friendly, competitive spirit among the two sister resorts.

Some of the managers knew me well, long before my Habarana days. Two of them were my classmates from high school. Two of them were my contemporaries from CHS and two other managers had worked with me at previous hotels. While leading a large team, having previous “one-on-one” relationship with some of the team members is always helpful.



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Features

Twin personas; reaction long after the action

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I am pleasantly surprised and marvel too most times I read the editorial in The Island. Why? Because they are so very apt on the most current issue in the land. The editor has the clever knack of hitting the nail right on the head and is fearless even when the nail represents a VVIP.

Friday 25 November had the sharp, truth writing editor commenting on President Ranil W and his stunning metamorphosis from a peace promoting, democracy advocating politician to a persona that he himself says is Hitler like. And as the editor has written, one wondered if he and his immediate predecessor, Gotabaya Rajapaksa, had swapped bodies, for the former sounded just like the latter. Gota was expected to be a dictator; a monk called out to him to be Sri Lanka’s Hitler while his brother Basil bracketed him with the ‘Terminator’.

Ranil seems to hear cries for protection of human rights as a cover for violent protests. Gota, though an army man and later as a civilian, cosseted the army at great cost to the exchequer, did not threaten to bring the army out to quell protests. It was done once or twice: e. g at Rathupaswela and at an FTZ. These orders were not proven to be directly emanating from him nor directly connected to him. However, peace proclaiming Wickremesinghe with his new surname added on is outdoing the former army officer. He maintains the PTA and now says (probably in all truth and belief – scarce characteristics of politicians) that he will call out the army to quell protests, which have been and will be, mostly peaceful.

What this woman, a former teacher and counselor, opines with common sense and intuition is that he is going about it all wrong. He is inciting protest and lawlessness, even violence, since the youth of the country, with others, are utterly frustrated, angered, troubled and volcanic – waiting to erupt and so are the sideline catalysts: the terrorism promoting core politicized protesters of the IUSF, FSP and certain JVPers. Ranil should have been wiser and less outreaching, and negotiated with leaders of the groups mentioned, including trouble rousers like Stalin, and convinced them of the dire state the country is in. Negotiating with die-hard protesters may not be his cuppa; he shies away from direct contact with the hoi polloi. But talk to them he must. He should include persons like Guv CB to the negotiating table since Dr Nandalal Weerasinghe is one of the very few, if not the only high-up, that all respect. The rabble-rousers should be convinced, even threatened privately, that at this juncture what the country needs and the IMF promotes is encouraging money making projects, the surest and largest-inflow-of dollars earning tourism to resume and continue with peace prevailing in the country. With so many countries with so much to offer, why should tourists visit a near warring Sri Lanka? The reality of course is that this dot of an island has most to offer the tourist as pronounced by even Lonely Planet guides.

However, as is always the case, the country pleases but men in it are vile and utterly stupid. The protestors do not realize their protests will not change things immediately. But they most certainly cost the country much. These fire breathing, loud mouthed protestors and so-called protectors of peace and human rights are at present the principal harmers of the land.If after sincere one-to-one negotiation, some remain recalcitrant, then the police should be called in to deal with them.

Bang shut empty stable door

Mentioned many times before by Cass and other writers, Sri Lankans in general suffer short memories: will vilify a person today and praise him tomorrow not only because they are turncoats but because the people have forgotten and of course forgiven yesterday’s sins of leaders. Another characteristic is shutting the stable door once the horse has bolted. The preliminaries of the flight of the horse are seen but no alarm is raised. Once the horse has bolted; then come forth loud hues and cries of damage done.This last character trait of the Sinhala race mostly, was exhibited and exposed in the news telecast on MTV 1 Channel on Sunday November 27.

Villagers of a certain forest area, with voices raised women to the forefront, confronted a man who was in a new built, multi roomed hut-like construction. He seemed settled down. The crowd that walked across a vast area of bare land accused that the forest that covered this area had been illegally decimated. They demanded evidence of his right to settle down there. He said the police and other officials had cleared him. Trespassing was not even mentioned. Cass’ wonder at this loud fracas was why the fuss now with land bare and a house built when the villagers surely heard if not saw trees being felled en masse. Why had they not informed authorities then? Why wait for the deforestation and illegal building to be completed before protesting? Had they been waiting all these past months for the TV cameras to arrive to act angry and national minded?

It was suspected, if not known for sure, that vociferous Diana Gamage was a dual citizenship holder or maybe even a citizen of another country visiting her home turf. She was up front for long and since being made a State Minister by Prez Wickremasinghe, his hand guided by a crow pulling strings from even thousands of miles to the west, became prominently vociferous with forex earning projects foundationed on fun and good times. She proposed the growing of ganja plants; creating a Disney theme park; making Mannar an international gambling den and what else Cass fails to recall. Now firmly in Parliament as an elected member she faces the public rising up and declaring she is not eligible to hold a Parliamentary seat since the passage of A21 or 22. The mare had bolted to the green pastures by the Diyawanne and now people are a-rising to close the door she galloped through. Confine her at home with no powers and privileges or deport her to turf in her adopted country?

Bandula Gunawardena, holding the portfolio of Minister of Trade, held forth on the subject he thinks he is omniscient in. He claims economics as his forte of intellectual knowledge; certification of this fact being he was a tuition master in the subject. He refers to himself as Doctor Bandula G; the doctorate coming to him from where we know not. In a pontification in Parliament on the Sunday, he waxed eloquent on mismanagement of the Central Bank and trotted out figures in billions and decimals thereof of printed money. He blamed past CB persons. Why was this economist considering himself on par with Amartya Sen, Paul Krugman and Maynard Keynes, silent then when Nivaard Cabral kept the printing machines in the CB turning day and night churning out 5000 rupee notes? (PS. Cass wonders very much whether he has heard of Krugman and knows Keynes was one of the Bloomsbury Group. Cass can wager her life that he does not know who this group was).

Speaking of this Mr Cabral, he was recently seen on TV at a press interview passing the buck adroitly and proclaiming he was obeying orders to print money. Was he a robot and of whom?

Short take

A very good move was mooted recently in Parliament and will soon be law. Cass refers to the stricture that university students will be allowed one extra year after their graduating date whether they fail the final exam and wish to repeat or when they dodge sitting the final exam. Here again the closing of the loophole after damage is done. Firebrand Wasantha is said to have been in the University of Sri Jayawardenapura for eight solid years. Wasn’t this truancy of sitting the finals seen earlier? Authorities too scared to report the fact; saving their scalps by ignoring anomalies. just as they turn blind eyes to filthy and dangerous ragging in universities?

This land of ours which is truly incomparable, is derogatively a land like no other when speaking of it with tongue in cheek.

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Maris Stella College in 1950s and 60s

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By George Braine

Maris Stella College, Negombo, is celebrating its centenary this year. These are my recollections of the years I spent there.Maris Stella had classes from Standard Two. For lower and upper kindergarten (as they were called those days), all boys attended Ave Maria Convent, along with girls, of course. One teacher I recall is Sr. Mary Imelda, diminutive but a formidable force. As she taught, her two dogs, spoiled rotten by the children, roamed the classroom.

Maris Stella sits on the road that extends from Colombo to Chilaw, and beyond to Puttalam and Anuradhapura. Despite the heavy traffic on the road, the school displays a somewhat serene ambience because of the large, well maintained playground, and the lovely main building set some distance from the road. Two storied, with a lengthy Italianesque facade, the main building is reached along two narrow roadways lined by long, single storied classrooms. In the center, shaded by massive mara trees, is a smaller playing field – for soccer, softball cricket and gymnastics- in the 50s and 60s. These buildings, the trees, and the playing field, now a lush green, have been well preserved.

My father recalled that, during World War II, when Allied troops were stationed at the school, these mara trees were covered with camouflage nets to hide the anti-aircraft guns mounted below.

Teachers and students

My father had been at Maris Stella in the 1930s and 40s, and when I entered in 1957, some of his teachers were still there. Elias, dark, wizened, and with a tousle of grey hair, taught me in Standard 2. Capt. Jayamanne, a big man, tough as nails, had been the cadet platoon commander during my father’s time, and still was. Bro. Jonas had been in charge of sports for years. Obris, who taught English, had become the vice-principal. My father also recalled Bros. Nizier, Valentine, and Xavier, a Spaniard. Mahaboob, physical training instructor and Bro. Gerard had been his classmates. Undoubtedly, the most unusual teacher was Johannes, who taught Sinhala. The only teacher who wore a sarong to school, worn high up on the waist and held up with a broad belt, he had an owlish, scholarly air; our textbooks on Sinhala had been authored by him. Ms. Wallace, lustily playing the piano, taught us singing. Two younger teachers were Dabarera and Kurera.

One hilarious memory is that of Bro. Jonas, coaching the football team even during matches, running up and down the sidelines, grey hair and cassock flying. He was strict, liberal with the cane and slaps. Another is of Mahaboob, the PTI, in his impeccable polo shirt, pants, and tennis shoes, all in spotless white, taking us through various drills on the playground.

The principals during my time were Bros. Stanislaus and Peter, and the headmasters Bros. Nizier and Gerard.We were living near Ave Maria Convent when I joined Maris Stella, which meant a walk of more than a mile, crossing a railway track and walking along Main Street till I reached Copra Junction along the Colombo – Chilaw road. The street is chock-a-block with shops now, but, in those days, I only passed houses with well-maintained gardens, a couple of boutiques, a dispensary and a dental clinic. A well-off classmate was driven to school and passed me on the way, but never offered me a lift.

Most students walked to school or rode bicycles, in wave after wave. Others came by train or bus. The only person who drove was a senior student named Jayakody from Dankotuwa. This was extraordinary, when no teacher owned a car, and some rode rickety bicycles. His Peugeot 203 was parked under a mara tree while he attended classes and later stayed for football practice.

At Maris Stella, a Catholic school, most students were Catholic. But, ethnically, we were an eclectic band, marked by the Bharatha community and Burghers. The family names of schoolmates I can recall is evidence of this: Siriwardena, Jayawardena, Abeysekera, Swaminathan, Bolonghe, Salgado, Leitan, Tissera, Hettiaarachi, Jayamanne, Franke, Croos-Dabarera, Dabarera, Jayamaha, Coonghe, Aserappa, Rodrigo, Fernando, Pereira, Costa, Gomez, Mirando. Ives Swaminathan had immigrated from Mauritius, and sang French songs in a lovely voice.

After my brother entered Maris Stella, we were five cousins there: Roy and Lloyd Chelvaratnam, George Wambeck, George and Roy Braine. Roy C and Lloyd were in the Tamil stream. Two Georges and two Roys.Latin was compulsory from the Junior School Certificate (JSC) class. All that memorizations were intimidating, so I was relieved when the requirement was taken off when I reached the JSC class. But, Latin prevailed in the daily mass conducted at the chapel, and in the hymns sung there. I recited prayers and sang those hymns, without any idea of what was being said or sung.

Sports

Mention Maris Stella and sports during my time, and the name that springs to mind is Melvin Mallawaratchi. Tall and good looking, with a ready smile that lit up his face, Melvin was already legendary when I entered school. Our age gap was more than 10 years, so I had no opportunity to know him personally. All I knew was that, whenever he batted, he lit up the cricket field. I, along with other schoolmates, simply hero worshipped him.

Home games were thronged with enthusiastic spectators. When Melvin came to bat and took his stance, a collective hush fell on the ground.  Soon, we were cheering wildly as the ball sailed over our heads, over trees, onto the main road, or sped along to the boundary in a flash. In his stride, Melvin was unstoppable.

In one game against St. Anthony’s College, Wattala, I watched as he scored a blistering 96 in the second innings, having scored an unbeaten century in the first.  In 1957, playing Ibbagamuwa Central, Melvin had scored 96 in only 20 minutes, which included two sixers and 18 fours.

Melvin’s flamboyance did not stop at cricket. He was also a champion sprinter. Maris Stella’s rival school in Negombo, St. Mary’s, had a champion sprinter named Mello. At every meet where they met, he dueled it out with Melvin in the 100-yards sprint, running neck to neck. We stood near the finish line to see Melvin triumph every time.

Eddie and Rukmani

By 1958, we had moved to a house across the road from Maris Stella; 120 Colombo Road, if memory serves. Now, I only had a 5-minute walk to school. It also meant that we went to Sunday service at the Maris Stella college chapel.

Eddie Jayamanne and Rukmani Devi, husband and wife, were at the peak of their popularity. She was the reigning queen of Sinhala cinema, and the nightingale of Sinhala music. Eddie was less flamboyant, somewhat short, with curly hair and spectacles.  He was a comedian. Even to a mere schoolboy, Rukmani’s luminous beauty and grace was overwhelming.

So, on Sunday morning, a two-toned Buick convertible would drive up regally, passing those majestic mara trees, Eddie at the wheel, and the couple would walk up to the chapel. They did not put on airs, and behaved just like the rest of us, sitting on the benches, singing hymns, and walking up to the altar and kneeling to receive communion. After the service, they mingled and chatted. And nobody asked for autographs!

I think Eddie and Rukmani were fond of Maris Stella. They attended fund raising events, like the Maris Mela carnival and a football match, which I recall vividly. Their nephew, Gamini Jayamanne, was my classmate.

Scouting, and a school take-over

Cousin George Wambeck and I were Cub Scouts, Wolf Cubs as they were called those days. The chip-a-job weeks were the best, because we got to roam all over Negombo and beyond, with no adult supervision. Most people treated us kindly, giving 50 cents or even a generous rupee for the odd “job” we did, and also a snack and a soft drink into the bargain.

One day, cousin George and I, along with another friend, visited a relative’s house in search of a “job”. He had been drinking, and was stretched out on a hansiputuwa when we dropped-in. Thinking of having some fun with us, he assumed the role of a drill sergeant, lined us up, and put us through military “maneuvers”: attention, right turn, quick march, left turn, halt. Scouting doesn’t teach marching, and we were mere 8-year olds anyway. Our female cousins were watching from behind curtains, and we could hear the giggles. But, the man did reward us well, and also insisted that we have a meal before letting us go.On another day, we walked down Temple Road to Jaya-Ruk, the residence of Eddie and Rukmani. But they weren’t home.

Perhaps the most memorable event was planned take-over of schools by the government, in 1960. The Catholic church was opposed to the move. The conflict escalated, and, as a final resort, parents of students occupied some classrooms, bringing mats and pots and pans. They cooked, ate, and slept there. They came to “defend” the school, but from whom wasn’t certain. From a new principal appointed by the government, from the police, the army?

Classes were suspended, and we enjoyed loitering around the school, waiting for the confrontation to take place. Eventually, the matter was resolved, but, in Negombo, only Maris Stella and Ave Maria Convent remain as private fee-levying schools.

When my father moved to Nattandiya for work, my brother and I travelled to school from there, by steam train. We wore khaki pith hats and carried our books and lunch in little, cardboard suitcases. Every day was an adventure. Later, when father moved to Madampe, we were boarded at Maris Stella.

What I recall most from the boarding is the constant hunger. We didn’t have much pocket money, so gouging at the tuck shop was not an option. On Sundays, a long line of boarders was taken for a walk, most often to the beach. Going through town, the aroma from the thosai boutiques was irresistible. Despite Bro. Raphael, an Italian, keeping a sharp eye, boys would take turns to dart into the boutiques and buying up the vadais. Our pockets would be stuffed and we salivated at the feast to come.

In 1962, my last year at Maris Stella, my brother and I were boarded at a home on Temple Road. Bertram Fernando, a pioneer comedian of Sinhala cinema, also lived there. Every Sunday, a game of bridge went on for hours on the verandah around a round table. A regular attendee was Eddie Jayamanne, who drove up in his Buick convertible.

All our teachers named earlier have long departed. One by one, former classmates are also passing away. When I drive by Maris Stella now, the memories come flooding back. For some, the past is a foreign country. Not for me. Even after 60 years, the school anthem that we sang so robustly is fresh in my mind.

“All ye lads of Maris Stella proudly sing

May your voices boldly ring

Face life’s trials bravely

Act upon your motto gravely

Iter para tutum”

GEORGE BRAINE

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Features

China’s Covid Trap

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by Gwynne Dyer

“Our COVID-19 policy is the most scientifically effective, the most economical, and yields the best result,” insisted the ‘People’s Daily’ newspaper in China after mass public protests against the government’s ‘zero covid’ policy last weekend. If President Xi Jinping believes that, he is in for a lot more trouble.

The protests were unprecedented in their scale and daring. They broke out spontaneously in twelve cities all across China after ten lockdown-related deaths in the remote province of Xinjiang. All sorts of people took part, from students to workers to pensioners. A few even called for the dethroning of Xi and the Communist Party.

That doesn’t mean the regime is on the brink of collapse. Public anger at the endless lockdowns and resulting loss of income is strong, but the regime’s surveillance technology is excellent. There was relatively little official violence last weekend, but many of the protesters will have an unpleasant visit by the police in the coming days.

Xi’s problem is that the protests will probably recur and may well escalate, because over-long mass quarantines and lockdowns are a non-political issue that can unite almost everybody against the government’s policy. Or rather, against Xi’s personal policy, for he has deliberately chosen to portray zero-covid as the greatest achievement of his time in office.

That made sense in the first year of the pandemic, for China’s relentless lockdowns and mass testing campaigns saved a great many lives then. Total covid-related deaths in China have been around 5,000 out of a population of 1.4 billion. The United States, with less than a quarter of China’s population, had more than a million covid deaths.

Xi and his propagandists naturally used this contrast as evidence that both Chinese medicine and the Chinese political system were superior to their Western equivalents. Was he even aware that the zero-covid policy could only be a stopgap measure until effective vaccines were developed, never a lasting solution?

His scientists must have tried to tell him that, but, somehow, he didn’t take the message on board. There was a vaccination programe, but not a very rigorous one – and Xi kept chasing the fantasy of completely eliminating the covid virus. He is caught in a trap, but he built it himself.

“Lockdowns should always be a temporary phenomenon, not a long-term strategy,” explained Dr Anthony Fauci, now President Joe Biden’s chief medical adviser. Continuing them for almost three years “without any seeming purpose or endgame” is sheer folly. Moreover, Xi seemed unaware that the covid virus was growing more infectious with time.

The latest versions of the omicron variant, which first appeared a year ago, are estimated to be up to ten times more infectious than the original virus that appeared in Wuhan in late 2020.

Those versions haven’t reached China yet, due to drastic curbs on travel into and out of the country, but the Chinese population is so poorly protected that the only alternatives if they arrive would be semi-permanent nationwide lockdowns or nationwide carnage.

Chinese-made vaccines are only 70% effective against earlier variants of the virus, and may be wholly ineffective against the later omicron versions. The elderly are particularly vulnerable: only 40% of the over-80s have had even a single booster shot.

An article published in Nature Medicine last March estimated that ending the covid-zero lockdowns and quarantines in current circumstances could overwhelm hospitals, with 15 times more people needing hospital beds than those currently available. It predicted around 1.5 million deaths.

That would still be a far better outcome than the US record, but arriving all at once so late in the game, when the rest of the world is long past lockdowns and mass deaths, it could spell political disaster for Xi Jinping. Perhaps even for the Communist regime.There is a way out. First, Xi has to eat humble pie and import several billion doses of the highly effective mRNA vaccines. Let’s say six months for that.

Then he has to control the rising infections with the hated lockdowns and quarantines as best he can, containing popular anger as much as possible, until a high enough portion of the population is properly vaccinated – say another six to twelve months.

Then, sometime in 2024, he can relax the restrictions and let the Chinese rejoin the rest of the world. That strategy worked for the Australians and New Zealanders, who ended similar mass lockdowns as soon as most people got their (imported) mRNA vaccines.If Xi can’t bear the humiliation of doing that, he could gamble that an effective Chinese-made mRNA vaccine will become available soon. Several are under development, and one is allegedly about to enter Phase 3 clinical trials.But if he bets on that and it’s not ready soon, his newly acquired status of de facto president-for-life will become a nightmare. Covid infections are rising fast.

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