by Sarath Amunugama
While his supporters were fitted into convenient positions on State boards, Minister R S Perera was more interested in his own nascent business interests. He set up a factory in Kelaniya to make rubber slippers. Then he set up a factory to manufacture ‘mantles’ for Kitson lamps. Since we got on well he would invite me to his spacious office to observe his experiments in firing up the gauze mantles which gave a blinding light for the Kitson lamp. He confided in me that he himself had to conduct the experiment because if anybody else discovered the formula he would take it to another investor. A sudden visitor to his office would have found the Minister and his Director of Information huddled behind a table trying to ignite a Kitsons lamp – a task which was not included in the gazette notification which detailed our respective responsibilities. Apart from his pseudo cientific experiments RS soon began to leak Cabinet secrets to SLFP Mudalalis. By this time the SLFP, and particularly Mrs. B, had nurtured a group of native entrepreneurs who using state patronage had built up lucrative businesses. They were personally loyal to the Prime Minister and a few of her like minded ministers including Maitripala Senanayake, Illangaratne and Kalugalle. Those ministers were quite willing to instruct the State Banking system and the State Trading bodies to favour these Mudalalis. ‘These lucky businessmen included J P A Piyadasa, Dasa, McCallum, Ratnapura Gem merchants, Douglas Perera and a host of other smaller fry including R S Perera, who were solidly behind the SLFP. They were now alarmed that NM was dead set on dismantling their privileges. They also succeeded in getting the ear of Felix who was willing to ally himself with anyone in order to establish himself as the intellectual leader of the SLFP government. After every Cabinet meeting on Wednesday morning RS would come back to his office and telephone his Mudalali friends about the latest outrage proposed by the Finance Minister Some of them would then come over to personally inspect RS’s copy of the offending Cabinet paper. Then they would lobby their friends to get the proposals rescinded. NM and Bernard made proposals to clean up the Banking system. Any attempt to change the structure of the People’s Bank was strongly opposed by the Mudalalis. It was the People’s Bank under its General Manager Solomons that had provided easy credit to fuel the acquisitions and investments of the Mudalalis. The LSSP had appointed Hector Abeywardene as the Chairman and he was not hobnobbing with the businessmen as his predecessors had done. In fact NM’s tinkering with the Banks based on an outdated philosophy did more harm than good.
The economy was on a downward spiral and following the shibboleths of the Marxists, NM was replacing entrepreneurship with State enterprises with neither the managerial capacity nor the enterprising spirit to be a success. He was dismantling a system which could deliver the goods and replacing it with the dead hand of the state because of an out of date doctrine. No wonder Felix and the modernists of the SUP were aghast at the blundering attitudes of `golden brains’ NM. They called him a ‘Gadol Modaya’ instead. I can recoil one occasion when we were summoned by NM to discuss publicity for his programmes. I suggested that his numerous corporations be asked to publicise their work with newspaper advertisements. NM was horrified at this idea and said that he did not want the Corporations to spend money oil propaganda. Since he was also not willing, to spend money from the Budget for publicity the case for the Government went by default. He had no time for modern publicity and was content to leave that to his party machine which was nearly extinct. This was a silly attitude when the JVP was throwing the book at the leftist leaders and creating a huge wave of hatred towards them. I had a great friend in Sarath Nawana, a dynamic LSSPer who came back from UK with the 1970 victory. He wanted to modernize the propaganda effort of the party. He became the editor of the ‘Janadina’ the LSSP paper and rival to “Aththa” which itself was becoming more critical of the Government. The leftist ministers of the Government were constantly in fear of being pulled up by the PM at Cabinet meetings for the criticisms levelled in their party newspapers. Nawana was continually warned by NAM who however resisted requests from other leaders to fire him. Sira of “Aththa” was also being warned regularly though Pieter and Sarath Muttetuwegama defended him. I had to constantly interact with these two irascible journalists particularly since my Minister RS was their favourite target. By this time RS and his Mudalali friends had become bitter enemies of NM. They were constantly bad mouthing him and complaining to the PM while at the same time Kumar Rupasinghe was poaching leftist cadres.
N M Perera
NM had been my ‘Beau Ideal’ when I was in the University. With a double doctorate in Political theory at the LSE under Harold Laski he was a scholar and writer of the first rank. His analysis of the annual budget was the best reasoned speech in Parliament. After speaking in Parliament he would come to Peradeniya to repeat his analysis and we would listen spellbound by the clarity and originality of his exposition. Whenever NM spoke at Peradeniya the Arts theatre was jam packed with both staff and students hanging on to his every word. NM was always elegantly, though simply, dressed in white trousers and bush shirt with a weatherbeaten watch on his right wrist. I noticed that the dial of the wristwatch was turned s and NM would from time to time dramatically look at the time, perhaps a habit picked up in Parliament where time is rationed. He loved fancy shoes and sandals. Later when I would meet him at Colvin’s house, where he would sit patiently to pick up his colleague for a high class social visit, I noticed his brightly polished shoes which would have been the envy of a ballroom dancer. In fact NM was a great ball room dancer and ladies would compete to take a turn with him. All this was of course hidden from his half starved worker supporters who imagined that their leader was living on ,half rations.
As the Secretary of the University Economics society, which was a LSSP front, I would visit NM in his Borella house to fix dates for his and other party bigwigs visits to the Campus for lectures. His front office was full of books and newspapers which could certainly have done with some dusting. There was a large portrait of Trotsky indifferently hung up. In the middle of the room there was a large table with a mountain of files on either side. He guffawed when I told him about our requirements. ‘You people are with us only till you pass the CCS exam’ he said. ‘Only Batty and Shanmugaraja continued with us’. I assured him that this time it would be different. Little did I know at that time that he was prophetic. Any way he consulted his diary and gave me some was prop he tic. Any way he consulted dates and a couple of dog eared books for me to read. Vivienne Goonewardene came from inside the house and seeing that I was famished after the long train journey from Peradeniya, invited me to have breakfast. NM waded into the stringhoppers and I marvelled at his appetite. He had a broad chest which was barely contained by a sleeveless banian. He wore a checked sarong and had a pair of cheap wooden clogs on his feet. His wooden clogs were the stuff of legend. Apparently after their celebrated jail break on the eve of the Japanese air attack on Colombo during the second world war, NM held up the getaway by going back to his cell to retrieve his cheap wooden clogs much to the fury of Robert Gunawardene who had coordinated the operation ‘Yathura’. Significantly the LSSP selected the key as their party symbol for the election. NM was well known for his frugality and thrift. Sarath Nawana told me how he refused to loosen the purse strings for expenses for his party paper. While having breakfast he cut short our discussion about politics and was planning a Buriyani dinner expedition to a Muslim friend’s house. He asked Vivienne, who by this time was living with him, to ring up Leslie and invite him also for Buriyani. Many years later I had to interact with him almost daily during the JVP insurrection which I will describe later. After he was defeated in 1977, and was out of Parliamentary politics which had been his life’s vocation, I visited him in his Cotta road residence which he occupied after selling his Borella property. There were not many visitors then but his faithful Sena Gunasekera and long standing driver looked after him. I remember NM affectionately talking to his dog which curled under his table and was licking his toes. I was the Secretary to the Media ministry when NM died in hospital. My Minister Ananda Tissa de Alwis and I rushed there and coordinated the final ceremonies with JRJ’s concurrence. Though he was out of Power we ensured that NM got what was in effect a state funeral. have a vivid mememory of his old comrades led by Colvin whoa walked all the way behind the cortege and were sprawled on sports ground totally exhausted and oblivious to the official ceremonies that had begun and were being broadcast island wide.
With the success of the ULF, embassies of the socialist bloc became more active in Colombo. The PM made several highly successful visits to China ina and the USSR. She was so popular as the first woman PM that the Bandaranaike name became synonymous with Sri Lanka in foreign countries. With her trade mark Kandyan saree, flashing smile and inborn courtesy she made a brilliant ambassador for her country and global leaders vied to be photographed with her. In the Information Department we were inundated with requests for interviews which she handled with great aplomb. It was her and the country’s finest hour. Whenever Somasara and I wanted to meet her we would go early in the morning to Temple Trees and she would greet us graciously and quickly decide on the issues on which we needed guidance. Her officials in the Defence ministry – Ratnavale and Ridgeway Tillekeratne – had been my bosses in Ratnapura and were constantly in attendance at Temple Trees and we could all chat with her easily because of the Ratnapura connection.
She followed her husband in only using Temple Trees for official engagements and lived in her own house at Rosmead Place. Her house was well kept but did not have any of the garish furniture that has become so commonplace in politician’s houses today. The telephone was fixed to a bracket on the wall and Mrs. B would take calls in the sitting room for everybody to hear. After her state visits she would be received ceremonially by the cabinet on the airport tarmac. These festivities were orchestrated by T B Illangaratne. I was drafted into this ceremony because I had to bring my younger daughter Varuni and her friend Lekha Ratwatte, daughter of Mackie, to the tarmac to present bouquets of flowers to the returning PM. This was a nerve racing task for me as the two mischievous children would run around and had to be dragged back just in time to greet Mrs. B who unfailingly kissed them after receiving the welcoming flowers.
This is an excerpt from Sarath Amunugama’s three-volume autobiogbraphy, the first of which is now in print.
Strong on vocals
The group Mirage is very much alive, and kicking, as one would say!
Their lineup did undergo a few changes and now they have decided to present themselves as an all male group – operating without a female vocalist.
At the helm is Donald Pieries (drums and vocals), Trevin Joseph (percussion and vocals), Dilipa Deshan (bass and vocals), Toosha Rajarathna (keyboards and vocals), and Sudam Nanayakkara (lead guitar and vocals).
The plus factor, where the new lineup is concerned, is that all five members sing.
However, leader Donald did mention that if it’s a function, where a female vocalist is required, they would then feature a guest performer.
Mirage is a very experience outfit and they now do the Friday night scene at the Irish Pub, in Colombo, as well as private gigs.
Dichotomy of an urban-suburban New Year
Ushered in by the ‘coo-ee’ of the Koel and the swaying of Erabadu bunches, the Sinhala and Tamil New Year will dawn in the wee hours of April 14. With houses to clean, preparation of sweetmeats and last-minute shopping, times are hectic…. and the streets congested.
It is believed that New Year traditions predated the advent of Buddhism in the 3rd century BC. But Buddhism resulted in a re-interpretation of the existing New Year activities in a Buddhist light. Hinduism has co-existed with Buddhism over millennia and no serious contradiction in New Year rituals are observed among Buddhists and Hindus.
The local New Year is a complex mix of Indigenous, Astrological, Hindu, and Buddhist traditions. Hindu literature provides the New Year with its mythological backdrop. The Prince of Peace called Indradeva is said to descend upon the earth to ensure peace and happiness, in a white carriage wearing on his head a white floral crown seven cubits high. He first plunges, into a sea of milk, breaking earth’s gravity.
The timing of the Sinhala New Year coincides with the New Year celebrations of many traditional calendars of South and Southeast Asia. Astrologically, the New Year begins when the sun moves from the House of Pisces (Meena Rashiya) to the House of Aries (Mesha Rashiya) in the celestial sphere.
The New Year marks the end of the harvest season and spring. Consequently, for farming communities, the traditional New Year doubles as a harvest as well. It also coincides with one of two instances when the sun is directly above Sri Lanka. The month of Bak, which coincides with April, according to the Gregorian calendar, represents prosperity. Astrologers decide the modern day rituals based on auspicious times, which coincides with the transit of the Sun between ‘House of Pisces’ and ‘House of Aries’.
Consequently, the ending of the old year, and the beginning of the new year occur several hours apart, during the time of transit. This period is considered Nonegathe, which roughly translates to ‘neutral period’ or a period in which there are no auspicious times. During the Nonegathe, traditionally, people are encouraged to engage themselves in meritorious and religious activities, refraining from material pursuits. This year the Nonegathe begin at 8.09 pm on Tuesday, April 13, and continues till 8.57 am on 14. New Year dawns at the halfway point of the transit, ushered in bythe sound of fire crackers, to the woe of many a dog and cat of the neighbourhood. Cracker related accidents are a common occurrence during new year celebrations. Environmental and safety concerns aside, lighting crackers remain an integral part of the celebrations throughout Sri Lanka.
This year the Sinhala and Tamil New Year dawns on Wednesday, April 14, at 2.33 am. But ‘spring cleaning’ starts days before the dawn of the new year. Before the new year the floor of houses are washed clean, polished, walls are lime-washed or painted, drapes are washed, dried and rehang. The well of the house is drained either manually or using an electric water pump and would not be used until such time the water is drawn for first transaction. Sweetmeats are prepared, often at homes, although commercialization of the new year has encouraged most urbanites to buy such food items. Shopping is a big part of the new year. Crowds throng to clothing retailers by the thousands. Relatives, specially the kids, are bought clothes as presents.
Bathing for the old year takes place before the dawn of the new year. This year this particular auspicious time falls on April 12, to bathe in the essence of wood apple leaves. Abiding by the relevant auspicious times the hearth and an oil lamp are lit and pot of milk is set to boil upon the hearth. Milk rice, the first meal of the year, is prepared separate. Entering into the first business transaction and partaking of the first meal are also observed according to the given auspicious times. This year, the auspicious time for preparing of meals, milk rice and sweets using mung beans, falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 6.17 am, and is to be carried out dressed in light green, while facing east. Commencement of work, transactions and consumption of the first meal falls on Wednesday, April 14 at 7.41 am, to be observed while wearing light green and facing east.
The first transaction was traditionally done with the well. The woman of the house would draw water from the well and in exchange drop a few pieces of charcoal, flowers, coins, salt and dried chillies into the well, in certain regions a handful of paddy or rice is also thrown in for good measure. But this ritual is also dying out as few urban homes have wells within their premises. This is not a mere ritual and was traditionally carried out with the purification properties of charcoal in mind. The first water is preferably collected into an airtight container, and kept till the dawn of the next new year. It is believed that if the water in the container does not go down it would be a prosperous year. The rituals vary slightly based on the region. However, the essence of the celebrations remains the same.
Anointing of oil is another major ritual of the New Year celebrations. It falls on Saturday, April 17 at 7.16 am, and is done wearing blue, facing south, with nuga leaves placed on the head and Karada leaves at the feet. Oil is to be applied mixed with extracts of Nuga leaves. The auspicious time for setting out for professional occupations falls on Monday, April 19 at 6.39 am, while dressed in white, by consuming a meal of milk rice mixed with ghee, while facing South.
Traditionally, women played Raban during this time, but such practices are slowly being weaned out by urbanization and commercialisation of the New Year. Neighbours are visited with platters of sweetmeats, bananas, Kevum (oil cake) and Kokis (a crispy sweetmeat) usually delivered by children. The dichotomy of the urban and village life is obvious here too, where in the suburbs and the village outdoor celebrations are preferred and the city opts for more private parties.
New Year games: Integral part of New Year Celebrations
Food, games and rituals make a better part of New Year celebrations. One major perk of Avurudu is the festivals that are organised in each neighbourhood in its celebration. Observing all the rituals, like boiling milk, partaking of the first meal, anointing of oil, setting off to work, are, no doubt exciting, but much looked-forward-to is the local Avurudu Uthsawaya.
Avurudu Krida or New Year games are categorised as indoor and outdoor games. All indoor games are played on the floor and outdoor games played during the Avurudu Uthsava or New Year festival, with the whole neighbourhood taking part. Some of the indoor games are Pancha Dameema, Olinda Keliya and Cadju Dameema. Outdoor games include Kotta pora, Onchili pedeema, Raban geseema, Kana mutti bindeema, Placing the eye on the elephant, Coconut grating competition, Bun-eating competition, Lime-on-spoon race, Kamba adeema (Tug-o-War) and Lissana gaha nageema (climbing the greased pole). And what’s an Avurudhu Uthsava sans an Avurudu Kumari pageant, minus the usual drama that high profile beauty pageants of the day entail, of course.
A salient point of New Year games is that there are no age categories. Although there are games reserved for children such as blowing of balloons, races and soft drinks drinking contests, most other games are not age based.
Kotta pora aka pillow fights are not the kind the average teenagers fight out with their siblings, on plush beds. This is a serious game, wherein players have to balance themselves on a horizontal log in a seated position. With one hand tied behind their back and wielding the pillow with the other, players have to knock the opponent off balance. Whoever knocks the opponent off the log first, wins. The game is usually played over a muddy pit, so the loser goes home with a mud bath.
Climbing the greased pole is fun to watch, but cannot be fun to take part in. A flag is tied to the end of a timber pole-fixed to the ground and greased along the whole length. The objective of the players is to climb the pole, referred to as the ‘tree’, and bring down the flag. Retrieving the flag is never achieved on the first climb. It takes multiple climbers removing some of the grease at a time, so someone could finally retrieve the flag.
Who knew that scraping coconut could be made into an interesting game? During the Avurudu coconut scraping competition, women sit on coconut scraper stools and try to scrape a coconut as fast as possible. The one who finishes first wins. These maybe Avurudu games, but they are taken quite seriously. The grated coconut is inspected for clumps and those with ungrated clumps are disqualified.
Coconut palm weaving is another interesting contest that is exclusive to women. However men are by no means discouraged from entering such contests and, in fact, few men do. Participants are given equally measured coconut fronds and the one who finishes first wins.
Kana Mutti Bindima involves breaking one of many water filled clay pots hung overhead, using a long wooden beam. Placing the eye on the elephant is another game played while blindfolded. An elephant is drawn on a black or white board and the blindfolded person has to spot the eye of the elephant. Another competition involves feeding the partner yoghurt or curd while blindfolded.
The Banis-eating contest involves eating tea buns tied to a string. Contestants run to the buns with their hands tied behind their backs and have to eat buns hanging from a string, on their knees. The one who finishes his or her bun first, wins. Kamba adeema or Tug-o-War pits two teams against each other in a test of strength. Teams pull on opposite ends of a rope, with the goal being to bring the rope a certain distance in one direction against the force of the opposing team’s pull.
Participants of the lime-on-spoon race have to run a certain distance while balancing a lime on a spoon, with the handle in their mouths. The first person to cross the finish line without dropping the lime wins. The sack race and the three-legged race are equally fun to watch and to take part in. In the sack race, participants get into jute sacks and hop for the finish line. The first one over, wins. In the three-legged race one leg of each pair of participants are tied together and the duo must reach the finish line by synchronising their running, else they would trip over their own feet.
Pancha Dameema is an indoor game played in two groups, using five small shells, a coconut shell and a game board. Olinda is another indoor board game, normally played by two players. The board has nine holes, four beads each. The player who collects the most number of seeds win.
This is the verse sung while playing the game:
“Olinda thibenne koi koi dese,
Olinda thibenne bangali dese…
Genath hadanne koi koi dese,
Genath hadanne Sinhala dese…”
Six nabbed with over 100 kg of ‘Ice’
Happy New Year!
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