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Spectre of world hunger acquires greater visibility



Hunger has been the taboo subject for local and international political and social elites over the decades. Fortunately, though, there are sections of influential opinion that occasionally broach the subject, thereby keeping it alive to some extent.

World hunger was in the news once again recently when the governments of Canada, Bangladesh and Japan virtually launched what was termed the ‘Nutrition for Growth Year of Action’. A news feature published in this newspaper titled ‘Addressing the hunger and nutrition crisis’ on December 31, 2020, on page 6 provided detailed information on the international project. Among other things, the feature article announced a year-long effort ‘to address a global hunger and nutrition crisis that has been exacerbated by the COVID-19 pandemic’.

The key word in this extract is ‘exacerbated’. To be sure, the pandemic has triggered a plethora of worries for the world, but hunger and deprivation has stubbornly persisted over the decades though progressively less spoken of by governments and those who matter in this connection. The silence has been so palpable that the unsuspecting among us are likely to run away with the impression that global hunger is no more as a result of the problem having been dealt with effectively.

However, the article in question makes no bones of the fact that the spectre of global hunger is very much alive and well. It adds: ‘Hunger is on the rise and poor diets are now the leading risk factor of death world wide – responsible for one in every five deaths globally, more than tobacco, high blood pressure, or any other health risk.’ This is ‘food for thought’ indeed but a question that needs to be asked by discerning readers is why the problem of hunger has been kept under wraps as it were, considering the foregoing disclosures in particular. It’s this conspiracy of silence that the public spirited everywhere should find most intriguing.

There is no denying that the UN system, for one, has been keeping the issue of world hunger in focus and been engaged in efforts aimed at eradicating or alleviating the problem. But the blight persists and one is compelled to conclude that the diagnoses of the malaise and the attendant prescriptive remedies do not go far enough to enable a substantial dent to be made in the nagging and now silent crisis. But it would be unfair to single out only the UN as an actor who falls short of expectations in this connection. Besides other international quarters, there are the governments the world over who have a lot of explaining to do. Governments are prone to pay lip service to aiding the poor but the indications are that these efforts are far from effective. Hunger is not only persisting but proving to be foremost among killers.

It is to that seminal study of the seventies, ‘How the Other Half Dies’ by Susan George (Penguin Books) that one must return to in order to understand some of the true causes of world hunger. This columnist believes that most subsequent studies on global hunger are nothing but foot notes to George’s findings. A question posed by George that goes to the heart of the matter is: Who gets ‘a cut’ on hunger. The answer to this question unravels the reasons for the persistence and flourishing of poverty and hunger.

A revelation made by George by garnering the necessary historical evidence is that even in times of the most devastating of famines in modern times the ruling strata of the relevant countries were ‘living it up’. They continued to indulge in their eating and drinking orgies in their palaces and high places while the mass of the population outside withered and died of hunger and disease. So, there were bastions of plenty and over-indulgent living amid seas of poverty and deprivation. Likewise, in contemporary times the ruling classes anywhere never go hungry. The reason is because these classes always appropriate unto themselves the lion’s share of a country’s wealth and adamantly retain it at whatever cost.

George is emphatic on the point that hunger and food scarcity is always man-made. Essentially, those sections commanding the means and the power create acute food shortages in times of economic strain by hoarding and stacking-up the relevant resources with the aim of making their prices soar. Thus do these parasitical groups ‘make a killing’ while the majority of their populations starve. With a few variations this pattern of exploitive behaviour manifests itself time and again.

Depending on one’s political convictions and values these disclosures could be seen as ‘sensitive’, controversial or otherwise. But in scientific analyses of socio-political phenomena the notion of ‘political correctness’ has no validity. Only the categories of truth and falsehood exist and the professional, authentic scientist recognizes only them as valid.

Accordingly, the issue of hunger should be seen as intimately and integrally connected to re-distributive justice. Wherever the latter exists hunger and starvation cannot exist on a ‘Biblical’ scale as it were. If governments act sincerely in the furtherance of re-distributive justice and social fairness, the chances of food scarcities and hunger going unaddressed are few. Thus, governmental intervention in these crises for the promotion of social and economic equality is of the first importance.

From the foregoing it could be seen that much will hinge on the ideological orientation of governments. It is only those governments that support re-distributive justice that could help out in the alleviation of hunger and poverty. That is, centre-left governments. Socio-economic equality stands less of a chance of being served by rightist governments that are essentially supportive of class stratifications based on wealth differences.

However, since the early nineties the centre-left cause or socialism has come to be steadily upstaged by political rightism with market economics being almost unreservedly endorsed by governments the world over. Consequently, socio-economic justice has not merited the attention it deserves by governments, resulting in deprivation and hunger going largely unaddressed. But the fact is that hunger and poverty has always been with us. Thanks to parasitic but powerful governments the issue has been virtually forgotten. The pandemic has had the effect of exposing these follies in governance. The international community needs to honestly face-up to the afore outlined roots of socio-economic equality.

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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.



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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.



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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…”

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