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Searching for Lakdasa



A few weeks ago, when I wrote an article titled “Shakespeare in a takarang shed” about the English department at Kelaniya University in the 1970s, I mentioned of Lakdasa Wikkramasinha, the poet. Lakdasa did not teach in the English department – he was an instructor in the sub-department of English, which conducted English language courses for all the undergraduates – but he was very much a part of the scene. In the article, I recalled playing carrom with him at the Senior Common Room, and how we both escaped severe injury, perhaps death, from a mob that was coming to attack campus students.

In the article, I described Lakdasa as “a man of few words, with a disdainful stare that made lesser mortals uncomfortable, [wearing] his shirt halfway buttoned that displayed his hairy chest, the sleeves rolled up just below the elbow.” In other words, a bad ass.

To accompany that article, I needed a photo of Lakdasa. I Googled, only to be shocked by the images that popped up. The most prominent was his gravestone, streaked with a black stain that obscured some markings, and a photo of the Nigerian Nobel laureate Wole Soyinka, mislabeled Lakdasa. Other search engines also came up with the same images.

Surely, someone, somewhere should have Lakdasa’s photo. Thus, began my search. Lakdasa had been my senior at the Maharagama training college, so I reached out to his classmates for a photo. One, who said he had been the best man at Lakdasa’s wedding, did not have a photo. Another, a photography enthusiast, could not be contacted because of the lockdown. Two other classmates of Lakdasa did not respond to my messages.

I was told about Lakdasa’s sister, who had built a house on Heerassagala Road, Kandy, but my attempts to trace her petered out. A friend of a friend, who said that she may have a photo at her office, was also unavailable, due to the lockdown and a death in the family. Tracing Lakdasa’s genealogy, I contacted a second cousin of Lakdasa’s, without a response. An appeal to the head of an academic department, where Lakdasa’s wife had taught, has gone unanswered. That is understandable, because she last taught there 40 years ago, and my attempt was a desperate shot in the dark.

When I first knew Lakdasa at Maharagama, in 1970, he was known as “the poet”, although hardly anyone around him may have read his poetry, (I hadn’t). In those days, poetry meant Wordsworth, Blake, and Keats to us. Also, at that time, Lakdasa’s poetry hadn’t received much critical assessment, or much read for that matter, because his poems had been self-published in limited editions. He was courting his classmate Claire, and I would see them seated on the corridor leading to the library and chatting for long periods. Lakdasa’s collection titled, Fifteen Poems (1970) carried the dedication “For Claire”. But, they didn’t marry. By the time his next collection, Nossa Senhora dos Chingalas (1973), came out, the dedication was “To Shanthini”, who had become his wife. She taught Chinese at the University of Kelaniya.

Lakdasa’s stature as a poet hit me full in the face, so to speak, only in the early 1990s, when I read Michael Ondaatje’s Running in the Family, a rollicking memoir of Ondaatje’s Ceylonese lineage. Chapter 3 is titled “Don’t Talk to Me about Matisse”, and Lakdasa’s poem of the same title is quoted there. I was in the USA at the time, and could not access any of his poetry.

Some years later, in Hong Kong, I was introduced to the chairman of a university English department. When he realised I was Sri Lankan, Andy blurted out, “Did you know Lakdasa?”, and seemed to disbelieve when I said “Quite well”. Later, I realised that he, a British/Australian, was an ardent fan of Lakdasa’s poetry. When Andy published the volume World Englishes (2007), two of Lakdasa’s poems were included in the accompanying CD, read by Prof. Thiru Kandiah.

In personality, Lakdasa was eccentric. His philosophy was an enigma. In 1965, he stated that “to write in English is a form of cultural treason” and called English the language of the “most despicable and loathsome people on earth”. But, just four years later, he was training to become an English teacher, and went onto “commit treason” by teaching English at the University of Kelaniya.

His poetry has been called masculine, and anger, eroticism, sarcasm, and satire were clearly on display. His originality and daring can be seen in lines such as “thick black coils of hair on her head, and Elsewhere”; “the great white hunter Matisse with a gun with two nostrils … Gaugin – the syphilis-spreader, the yellowed obesity”. And satire in “What does the Professor do? He plants brinjals all day”. The soaring finale – “All roads lead to Rome!” – from “To My Friend Aldred” is matchless.

When he was being interviewed for admission to Maharagama training college, Lakdasa was asked what he had been doing in the past few years. He replied. “Growing cardamoms”. Indeed, he had, in the remote Yahanagala area in the Uva. Usually, to interpret Lakdasa’s poetry, one may have to delve into history, the Classics, Latin, Sinhala folklore. But, the appealing simplicity of “In Ancient Kotmale” perhaps derives from those cardamom growing days.


In the beautiful principality, in Kotmale

I will build my house of the good soil’s brick

With the timber of the ringing forests,

And I will cover it with the tiles flat,

One on one, as the palms of the farmers ….


And in the morning will I see

The sun wounded as my heart with a million arrows,

Rise between the mountain ranges

And spread in the green valley its golden blood.


And I will go into the fields in the seasons ….

I will sow the grain, a stream between my hands,

I will cast the grain in falling nets.

It will stream up round the calves of maidens

From the viridian fire of that clay.


And in the kilns of my sun-wed fields,

And under the haven of passing clouds

As I repose, in those almost everlasting days,

In the time ordained, in green calendars

Will come my yearned harvest


Over the years, Lakdasa’s poetry has drawn much analysis – in academic presentations, scholarly articles, an anthology here and there, theses, blog sites – and in the popular press. Some poems were also included in the English literature A/L syllabus. He has been acknowledged as one of Sri Lanka’s foremost poets writing in English. But, sadly, his poetry is scattered in various, little-known publications, and 43 years after his death, there is a possibility of his poetry receding into obscurity.

But, for now, we can focus on a more urgent matter, that of finding a photo of Lakdasa and placing it on the Internet. So, here’s my plea. If you have a photo, could you send it to me at I am also on Facebook. Thank you.



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KNDU: MBBS for the rich, crumbs for the poor




A regular day at work. A medical student, Niluka (not her real name), comes to my office to discuss the presentation she is due to make at a research symposium. In the middle of our meeting she is in tears. Her mother, a single mother, who works as a security guard in remote Polonnaruwa, cannot afford her boarding fees as she has to cover her sister’s A/L tuition classes, as well as her brother’s medicines for a recent health issue. Niluka is unable to focus on her presentation because she is worried about her financial situation. She has a year and half to go.

This is the picture of Free Education that many do not see, of students struggling to make ends meet. Such stories are commonplace at our non-fee levying state universities; as Sumathy Sivamohan wrote recently, “free education does not serve everybody equally, but over the years and across decades, it has come to represent the hope of a vast majority for a better place in society.” However, this aspect of Free Education is obscured by images of protesting students “wasting tax-payers’ money,” constructed by the media in the service of the state. While Colombo-based elites (and others) may be duped into seeing the Kotelawala National Defence University (KNDU) Bill and military repression as solutions to the problems in higher education, this article explores what the Bill really means, especially its implications for medical education.

No vision, no imagination

Free Education, despite its marginalisations and exclusions, is etched in our nation’s consciousness, so much so that governments have been reluctant to overtly dismantle the public education system. Instead, they have stealthily underfunded the system, while incentivising expansion of private education. With inadequate public investment, the state universities under the UGC are floundering to service demand, while the fee-levying Kotelawala Defence University (KDU) and non-state fee-levying higher educational institutions, such as SLIIT, receive state subsidies to finance infrastructure as well as student loans.

Fee-levying universities are simply not affordable for the vast majority in this country. To flourish, they require public-financing, both for their establishment and for student loans, to make them accessible to the masses. While escalating investment in KDU and private fee-levying universities through public funds, the government has adopted a zero-investment policy for state universities under the UGC and increased admissions by a third, this year. The fallout of increasing admissions without budgetary allocations is most felt by universities in peripheral districts, already running on meagre resources.

A government’s vision for education is inextricably linked with its economic policy. While lacking a credible vision for education, successive governments have been equally unimaginative in attempts to improve the economy. Sri Lanka relies on imports for day-to-day essentials, such as lentils, pulses, and milk, with little investment in agriculture or agro-industries for value addition. Meanwhile, billions of rupees are lost in tax incentives to attract (elusive) foreign direct investment, including in education. The Board of Investment expanded its purview to include the social sector in the 1990s, essentially opening education to the global market. The latter has changed the landscape of education in the country with international schools, private colleges and other higher education institutions proliferating in the decades since, and creating parallel systems of education for students from rich and poor families.

Enter KNDU

Faced by mounting debt, the government is desperately looking for avenues to build up its foreign reserves. In 2019, the incumbent government proposed a “free education investment zone” to attract investment from “top international universities,” with accompanying tax exemptions, yet another scheme to subsidise the private sector through public funding. With COVID-19, the plans for the investment zone fell by the wayside. However, just a few years after the SAITM debacle, the government is once again looking to expand private medical education, this time through the KDU.

In 2019, the incumbent President’s manifesto, which is the government’s policy framework, stated that “steps will be taken to expand the Kotelawala Defence University” (p.22). Why KDU? Because the majority of its students are enrolled on a fee-levying basis through mechanisms outside the UGC’s Z score-based system. Although seemingly catering to the military, a closer look at the statistics presented on the website of KDU’s Faculty of Medicine, indicate that the number of medical students recruited doubled, and then tripled, once the faculty began to enroll “non-military foreign students.” As recruitment was limited to foreign students, albeit loosely defined, KDU did not encounter too much controversy.

The KNDU Bill proposes to build a parallel militarised university system, and alternatively, a change to the Universities Act of 1978 aims to bring KDU under the purview of the UGC, as a university for a “specific purpose.” Clearly, the appeal of KDU and other “specific purpose” universities is not their potential to strengthen Free Education. That these reforms will increase the military’s involvement in higher education has been the focus of debate in recent weeks, but less attention has been paid to their implications for education opportunities for students like Niluka, and their potential impact on medical education.

‘MBBS Kada’

Both the proposed KNDU Bill and the amendment to the Universities Act can be viewed as attempts to create the conditions for the expansion of fee-levying MBBS degree programmes, which have been resisted since the days of NCMC. The KNDU Bill will give legal authority for KNDU to recognise and affiliate other institutions to KNDU, bypassing the UGC as well as the Sri Lanka Medical Council’s minimum standards. The Bill will ultimately result in the proliferation of poorly regulated ‘MBBS kada,’ and a decline in the overall standards of medical education.

Even the Association of Medical Specialists (AMS), a body not averse to private education, has made the following statement regarding the KNDU Bill: “On principle, the AMS is not against quality fee levying medical education…if it is regulated and monitored by the UGC and the Sri Lanka Medical Council. However, lack of proper process and transparency will prevent the establishment of such fee levying institutions in Sri Lanka.”

Could expanding medical education in this manner present opportunities to address problems in the health sector, such as the regional maldistribution of physicians?

First, if KNDU and its affiliates aim to attract international medical students, it is unlikely that these graduates would serve in Sri Lanka.

Second, as the Bill will enable KNDU to admit local students, if we assume the current fee structure of upwards of Rs. 1 million per year for the MBBS programme, the KNDU medical students would represent the elite who are more likely to immigrate to greener pastures.

Third, if the government intends to broad-base MBBS degree programmes, they would need to offer hefty student loans to our students. Evidence from other countries suggests that medical graduates with student loans are more likely to opt for higher paying specialties rather than work in primary care, and less likely to serve in rural areas.

It is therefore unlikely that the KNDU Bill would contribute towards advancing the health sector, except perhaps through its military cadets, who would most likely work for the Ministry of Defence and not the Ministry of Health.

Student loans may have other unintended consequences. Despite private practice being widespread, many doctors, especially women non-specialist doctors, do not engage in private practice. In fact, general doctors from peripheral districts often do return to their districts, although they may remain in urban centres owing to the poor education facilities available to children in remote rural areas. These doctors make up the physician workforce in base hospitals and above, as well as in the preventive sector, in all parts of the country. Having to repay a student loan may drive such doctors to remain in districts, where private practice is more available and lucrative, intensifying the regional maldistribution of physicians.

Crumbs for the poor

What of students like Niluka in the non-fee levying state university system? A quick perusal of the website of KDU’s Faculty of Medicine indicates that brain drain may have already commenced. Imagine the fate of our non-fee levying state medical faculties with the mushrooming of ‘MBBS kada’ across the country? They will inevitably offer higher salaries, as does KDU, attracting without any outlay teachers whose training was subsidised by state universities. Furthermore, as reported in the media, KDU has already seen massive state investment, much of it in its teaching hospital, far beyond investments in any single university or faculty of medicine under the UGC. The fate of medical education at non-fee levying state universities does not need to be spelled out here. With their weakening, the demographics of students who enter medicine are sure to change, with fewer and fewer opportunities for students like Niluka, not to mention the broader implications for medical education and the healthcare system.

Let’s stand together to protect Free Education and Free Medical Education!


(The writer is attached to the Department of Community and Family Medicine, Faculty of Medicine, University of Jaffna).

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The Prophet discouraged employing domestic servants



After reading in the newspapers that according to Police Media Spokesperson SDIG Ajith Rohana, 11 women have previously served as domestic servants at ex- Minister Rishad Bathiudeen’s residence, I thought of sharing the following authentic hadith (tradition) of our Prophet (pbuh) with regard to employing domestic servants. Given below is the gist of it.

When the Prophet’s beloved daughter Fathima complained about the unpleasant traces that making dough and kneading it had left on her hands and requested for a servant, his response was  “Shall I not direct you to what is more beneficial for you than having a servant?”

Every night when you go to bed recite 33 times the phrase -‘Subhanallah’ (i.e. ‘Allah is Exalted and clear of imperfection’), 33 times – ‘Al-Hamdu lillah’ ( ‘All praise is due to Allah) and 34 times – ‘Allahu Akbar’ (Allah is the Greatest). —- Source – Sahih Bukhari, Sahih Muslim and Bayhaqi

According to Islamic scholars, a servant is a worldly benefit, but to praise and glorify God in the manner described above will bring the person a greater and everlasting benefit in the Hereafter, and moreover, that by constant recitation one will experience a physical power that will enable him or her to fulfill the household chores more efficiently than a domestic aide.

Now that we have so many “electrical aides” – electric kitchen appliances: blenders/grinders/mixers, fryers, toasters, dish-washers, washing machines, microwave ovens and the list is endless, and with the barrage of allegations (which is now sub judice ) against the ex-Minister, wife and his in laws, isn’t it better that we follow the above prophetic tradition of not employing domestic aides?



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Benefits of rhythmic gymnastics for girls



To master this sport, a gymnast needs to master the skills and the artistry necessary to win at competitions and attain recognition, even fame.  But why do parents in some countries enthusiastically support this activity, but others, for example Sri Lanka, do not? The exponents of this art are mostly girls, who, when dressed up in costume and make up, can look really fabulous, having photogenic artistry, posture and style. Such photos make wonderful family heirlooms, recalling memories of a youth well spent!

To be successful at competitions, great agility and flexibility of the limbs is required. Therefore, it helps greatly if exercises are started from an early age, perhaps when a girl is four or five. However, she should be warned in advance that stretching leg muscles is painful, because this stretching is essential to move fully and easily and perform well. Training coaches will do this gently, in stages until complete.

Older gymnasts need to master a programme of moves, including pirouettes, rolls and backward flip and so on, usually working with hoops, ribbons, hand clubs and balls, all according to age and progress. If she takes part in circus gymnastics, this also can be a lot of fun.

What are the benefits arising from all this effort in training? The first and most obvious benefit is that the person gains a high level of fitness, which she may keep for years and it will help her keep a youthful shape into middle age. But the one unspoken benefit, and perhaps the greatest of all, is that she will develop an ability to concentrate. This is absolutely needed to enable her to perform the various routines to a high standard.  Then, with improved concentration, she has a very valuable asset which renders her a capable, competent human being, which is of great benefit to the society she lives in.                                                


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