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Senarat Paranavitana, the gentleman I knew.

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by Raja de Silva

An inevitable change in our social life has resulted from the restriction to our movement caused by the onset of Covid-19. We tend to refrain from visiting friends and relatives, staying in our homes instead; we have more time to think of the past and reflect on those we knew in days gone by. Very recently I had a rare visit from a relative, a medical man who is also an amateur antiquarian. He asked me to relate something about the legendary Paranavitana, whose last living erstwhile assistant I am. Like Hercule Poirot, I consulted my little grey cells and told him old stories, which I now place on record.

1.The interview

The year was 1949 and I had appeared before Paranavitana, Archaeological Commissioner (AC) (1940-1956), who together with Director of Museums, Paul Deraniyagala and the Professor of Chemistry, A. Kandiah constituted an Interview Board at the Archaeological Department. Three of us friends had applied for the post of Archaeological Chemist to be trained in India, and I was the first to be interviewed. Paranavitana commenced his inquisition with the following memorable words.

 

AC

: Mr. de Silva, we have your biodata with us. Tell me, who was your mother?

RH de S (knowing that the purpose of this question was to find out my caste): My mother’s maiden name was Jayawickrama, Sir.

AC

: Jayawickrama from Kurunegala?

RH de S: No Sir, from the South, in Mirissa.

AC

: Any relation of Francis Jayawickrama who helped to restore the Tissamaharama Mahathupa?

RH de S: Her father, Sir.

AC

(with a gleam in his eye): If you were to join this department it is not impossible that one day you would be able to restore old dagobas in a more scientific manner.

I knew of course that the superstructure of the Tissamaharama Mahathupa was of a most peculiar shape, conical in silhouette, unlike the familiar superstructures of all restored dagobas in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruva.

After a second interview at the Public Services Commission, and being appointed a Probationer I was immediately sent for a two-year period of training by the Archaeological Chemist in India, Dehra Dun.

 

Smoking

One day the AC called me and Saddhamangala Karunaratne (SK) Assistant Commissioner, who was appointed a year after me, to his room to speak generally about our duties. His opening move was to slide two tins of cigarettes forward, a Navy Cut and Bristol, the latter of which he used to smoke. I took a Navy Cut and put it in my shirt pocket. SK declined. When we came away, I asked SK why he didn’t accept a cigarette. His reply was, ‘How could I smoke in front of the AC?’ From then on the AC used to offer me a cigarette but none to SK.

Post-luncheon nap

One early afternoon the AC had sent his peon on several occasions to my office requesting me to see him. It was about 2.10 when I appeared in the AC’s office soon after returning to work from my lunch break. The following dialogue took place:

AC

: I have sent for you many times; where were you?

RH de S: I went home to lunch, Sir.

AC

: Where do you live?

RH de S: In Ward Place, Sir.

AC

: Don’t you know the lunch period is 12 to 1? It is now past 2.

RH de S: I know Sir, but I have a nap for one hour after lunch, because my efficiency is then better in the afternoon.

AC

: Is that so?

and the AC told me what he wanted done.

From then on I was allowed to continue this salutary practice. I made a discovery 13 years later, when I moved into the office of the AC, that there was an ante-room provided with a large safe, a small table and chair for having lunch, a wash-basin and a cane easy-chair ideal for reposing in for forty-winks. It served me as it must have done the Old Chief.

 

Drinks

At the outset, the AC told me that the Sigiriya fresco pocket had been closed to the public from 1947, and I was to go there often and attend to the paintings, some of which were cracked and in danger of falling off. In 1952/53 I used to occupy room No. 2 at the circuit bungalow, whereas the AC was often in room No. 1, after peering at the ancient writings on the gallery wall. One evening after sundown, he summoned me from room No. 2 where I had taken refuge and told me to get into his Willy’s station wagon. He told his chauffeur to drive us to the Rest House one minute away. Once we were settled comfortably in the verandah, with the waiter standing by, the AC asked me what I would like to drink, to which I replied, ‘A small whiskey and water please’. He ordered a wee whiskey for me and a small brandy and ginger ale for himself. He next announced, ‘You may smoke’, at which I brought out my packet of Gold Flake cigarettes and laid it on the table. The AC extracted his tin of Bristol from his coat-pocket and lit a cigarette, while I gave my Gold Flake a rest. We spent close to half an hour at the Rest House, and I remember what the AC told me, as if it were yesterday. ‘Do not accept anything from those junior officers in the field. They might put king coconuts in your car or offer you cigarettes or soft drinks. Do not take anything’. This was (I believed) in order that I would not become familiar with or beholden to anybody.

Again in 1954, in Anuradhapura, the AC took me out one evening to the Grand Hotel (now Tissawewa Rest House) for a drink. One drink; the same, and I did not smoke. I have no doubt that Driver Grade 1 Dassanaike would have duly reported to the minor staff that the lokumahattaya had given me a drink; my reputation would have gone up through the ceiling.

After about two years work at Sigiriya, I was able to inform the AC that, in my opinion, it was safe to open the fresco pocket to the public, provided that only a few people were allowed in at any one time. This was done in 1954, and the AC was commended in the newspapers.

 

Barber’s saloon

On the occasion of the retirement of a senior Assistant Commissioner P.H. Wilson Peiris, ARIBA, in the course of the AC’s valedictory speech, he referred to an incident concerning Peiris’s little son who used to roam about exploring the Archaeological Department. One entrance to the AC’s private office had swivel half-doors (as was common in barber’s saloons). The AC related how the little boy pushed open the two flaps of this entrance and inquired of him who had looked up in surprise, ‘Barber saloon ekak the?’. AC had replied, ‘Nää puthè, barber saloon ekak nevey’. The boy had retreated in disappointment. The AC concluded by declaring that we would all miss the intrepid young explorer.

 

The gourami

In the garden of the Polonnaruva circuit bungalow, Conservation Assistant Shanmuganathan had built a pond rather like the ancient lotus pond in the archeological reserve. It contained water and a gourami fish lived there. The AC on circuit never failed to feed the gourami a crumb or two after breakfast. One day, Hinton (the bungalow keeper) was suddenly informed that the AC on circuit, was arriving at the bungalow to dinner. The resourceful Hinton executed the gourami and served a fish course to the AC. The next morning when the AC looked to feed the gourami, he was aghast to find it missing. On inquiry, Hinton had professed no knowledge of the fate of the fish. A well-wisher who aspired to be the circuit bungalow keeper had ratted to the AC that Hinton was the guilty party. It was common knowledge that Hinton was no more at the circuit bungalow. On a visit of mine to Dimbulagala, ten miles away, I met Hinton who related to me the story of his banishment. Several years later, feeling that Hinton had served a long enough sentence among wild bears, who infested the jungles around the Maravidiya caves, I restored him to the Polonnaruva Circuit Bungalow.

 

Out of favour

Misfortune had set in. In 1954, certain paintings in one of the Maravidiya caves at Dimbulagala were subject to vandalism by a fanatic carrying buckets of cow-dung and applying it in water over the paintings (ASCAR 1954, 8, para 32). On the occasion of the AC seeing me at the Anuradhapura circuit bungalow, the following dialogue took place one morning.

AC

: I want you to give instructions to Sarath Wattala to clean those paintings at Dimbulagala.

Assistant Commissioner (Chemist): Sorry, Sir, I am unable to do so.

AC

: Why?

Assistant Commissioner (Chemist): He is the Modellor, and he would not know the difference between an acid and an alkali, Sir.

AC

. You do not like him, do you?

Assistant Commissioner (Chemist): Sir, it is not a question of like or dislike. He is just not suitable for the job you wish me to give him. I shall try to clean the paintings myself.

That was the end of the conversation, which I saw had displeased the AC, who left Anuradhapura in continuation of his circuit. However, in a day or two I received written orders from the AC to give instructions to Sarath Wattala to clean the Dimbulagala paintings. I replied, from Anuradhapura, that as explained personally, I regretted it was not possible for me to do as the AC required, but that I would attempt to clean the paintings. All attempts, including an effort by Luciano Maranzi, UNESCO expert, failed. In this connection, Paranavitana later (1958) wrote ‘In caves on the adjoining hill at Dimbulagala, there were, before a fanatic recently obliterated them, fragmentary paintings of the first half of the 12th century.’

The AC was annoyed with me. In February 1956 I was given nine months duty leave by the AC to attend a British Council course in the Preservation of Works of Art. But, the AC arranged for my junior colleague, Saddhamangala Karunaratne (SK), Assistant Commissioner (Epigraphist), to study for a PhD at Cambridge University, for a period of three years on duty leave. For this purpose, the AC had addressed Government stating that “with my imminent retirement, it is necessary to have an officer trained in research work so that he may be equipped to head the Archaeological Department. SK was chosen for such a scholarship abroad. I saw that letter in the file in 1957 when I was senior Assistant Commissioner (detailed to look after administration), while the Acting AC, Claudio Sestieri, was to be free to do field work and train the staff in excavation. SK left for Cambridge in 1957.

It was now my turn to be righteously annoyed. I wanted to show the retired AC that I was capable of research work, and how better than by criticizing one of his own theories?

I published a long newspaper article in the Sunday Observer dated April 4, 1957, criticizing Paranavitana’s theory that the Dakkhina thupa, Anuradhapura, was built on the site of King Dutugemunu’s cremation (See de Silva, Raja 2005, 93 – 103). There was no reply from my old chief, who was by then Professor of Archaeology, Peradeniya University.

 

Lost ground retrieved

The Government (1959) agreed (on representation made by me) that I should be given the same facility for post-graduate research work abroad as was given to SK. I was to be given a placement at Oxford University, provided that my university professor and my departmental head testify to my good character and capability to undertake research work. The certificates were to be sent to Oxford through the Education Officer, Ceylon High Commission in London. The Chemistry Professor sent his recommendation (on my request) direct to London. I informed Professor Paranavitana of this requirement, and kindly requested that the required certificate be sent to London. Mirabileé dictu, my old AC sent me (for onward transmission) a recommendation that was couched in superlative terms. I realized what a warm-hearted gentleman Paranavitana was, and humbly thanked him for the splendid certificate. I was thus able to be on duty leave in Oxford for a period of three years from August 1959.

 

Retired AC becomes Professor

After I was appointed AC in 1967, my former AC used to visit me in my office, whenever he came to the Library to refer documents. I would get up, go round to the visitor’s side and sit down to converse about his requirements. To assist Professor Paranavitana in his researches, I was able to obtain the approval of the Ministry of Cultural Affairs to give him all his requirements free of charge. I used to take to his residence rubbings of inscriptions that he wished to inspect; I was once shown on a rubbing the spots where the words Platava (Plato), Alaksandara (Alexander), and Abrasthita (Aphrodite) were seen by him. The Professor used to give me autographed off-prints of his academic papers, which I have safeguarded to this day.

My old chief died in 1972. It gave me satisfaction to persuade a chieftan of the Lake House Press, to bring out from their press, the former AC’s latest book, The Story of Sigiriya, before the date of his state funeral.

Paranavitana was roundly criticized by latter day scholars for his study and publication of later interlinear writings on old inscribed stones. I replied to several of these critics and defended Paranavitana from the insinuated charge that there were no interlinear writings and he was therefore an intellectual fraud. My defense of Paranavitana was titled ‘Paranavitana and the interlinear writings’ in my book Digging into the past (2005: 203-216), where I showed that his peers CE Godakumbure and Saddhamangala Karunaratne had both accepted that there were interlinear writings on stones.

Senarat Paranavitana the scholar, is justly remembered as the greatest Sri Lankan archaeologist of the first half of the 20th century. But not second to him was Paranavitana the gentleman, who was not known to many people outside the Archaeological Department. It was an honour to have known him.



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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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