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THE CASE FOR OUR COSMIC ANCESTRY

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The Milky Way on a dark night (our galaxy seen edge-on) reveals vast dark clouds of dust particles that we have argued are bacteria and viruses containing the all-pervasive cosmic legacy of life. Inset is the galaxy Andromeda, very similar to our own home galaxy located 2.5 million light years away

New data signals a major paradigm shift in science

by Chandra Wickramasinghe

(Vidya Jyothi Professor Chandra Wickramasinghe, MBE, is an Honorary Professor at the University of Buckingham, UK, Honorary Professor at Ruhuna University, Sri Lanka and Adjunct Professor at the National Institute of Fundamental Science, Sri Lanka)

How did life arise? Not just on the Earth, but anywhere in the Universe? Does life emerge on every Earth-like planet that have oceans and an atmosphere by spontaneous processes involving well understood laws of physics and chemistry? Or did it involve an extraordinary, even miraculous intervention?

How old is the universe itself? How did it originate, if it indeed did ever originate? Is there evidence of life outside the Earth? In comets, the space between stars in our Milky Way galaxy, on other planets, in other galaxies? Science must necessarily exclude miraculous options of course, but the questions continue to be asked and demand answers. Many of these questions have an antiquity that predates Western traditions that go back to classical Greece in the first century BCE. The answers may have a genesis that goes outside the realm of Western culture. The concepts of zero, infinity (Ananta) all have an Indian origin and are inextricably linked with Hinduism and Buddhism. It could well be for this reason that the idea of an infinite universe has been so forcefully resisted in Western science!

In the past six months many strongly-held opinions in science have been challenged by the arrival of new data. We may be now ever closer to finding answers to the age-old questions to our cosmic ancestry and the origin of the universe.

The James Webb Space Telescope (Webb) launched in 2021 is the most powerful astronomical observatory surpassing the range and capabilities of the earlier Hubble Space Telescope. It was designed to see deeper and further into our origins: from the formation of stars and planets, to the birth or possible birth of the Universe itself. Webb is an international partnership between NASA, ESA and CSA.

Discoveries using the new James Webb Telescope have shown the existence of galaxies that are much older than the age of the currently fashionable Big Bang model of the universe itself – a universe which is just 13.8 billion years old, barely three times the age of the Earth.

This unimpressive smudge of light called CEERS-93316 (Fig.1) was observed by the James Webb Telescope and is presumed to be the most distant galaxy at a distance of about 35 billion light years. This latest discovery, amongst others, lend support to ideas of a steady-state universe with an infinite age, or models of the cosmos involving alternating phases of creation and destruction. These emerging models of the cosmos are remarkably in agreement with ancient Vedic, Hindu and Buddhist ideas.

Another equally important paradigm shift that is happening now relates to the question of the origin of life, and the connection between life on Earth and the wider universe. The Kepler Orbiting Telescope in launched in 2009 was dedicated to discovering habitable Earth-like planets in our galaxy outside the solar system. A large number of such habitable planets have been discovered so far, and a few weeks ago the James Web Telescope was deployed to study one of these exoplanets in some detail.

This “Earth-twin” known by the name K2-186 is located some 120 light years from the Earth. The surprising discovery was a molecule called dimethyl sulphide, along with carbon dioxide and methane, in the atmosphere of K2-186 that has been hailed as definite evidence of extraterrestrial life. The argument hinges on the fact that the molecule dimethyl sulphide appears to be only produced by biology on the Earth – by marine plankton in particular. So rather belatedly scientists have accepted that a second living planet exists 120 light years away from the Earth. So, the outstanding question now is how and by what processes did life originate on this planet? Or indeed on any other planet?

The Galaxy CEERS 93316 at a distance of 35 billion light years from Earth

The long-held view (going all the way back to Aristotle in the third century BCE) is that life emerged and emerges easily and “naturally” on a planet like Earth (or on K2-186, for that matter) as soon as the “right conditions” prevail. The modern version of this concept that has been defended from the dawn of the 20th century is the so-called “theory of spontaneous generation”. Without any substantive proof for it and a great deal of contrary evidence this concept remains part of the holy grail of biology.

According to this theory of spontaneous generation organic molecules in the Earth’s oceans are supposed to assemble themselves naturally into primitive living systems that subsequently evolve over billions of years to produce the magnificent panorama of life of which we form the most trivial part. Needless to say, there was never any substantive evidence to support this point of view, but nevertheless it was one that has been accepted by the entire establishment of science, more or less like an act of faith.

Experiments to “prove” the process if spontaneous generation and to synthesize life from non-life have continued to be conducted in the most advanced biotechnology laboratories across the world for well over half a century. Every attempt that has been made to replicate the process of spontaneous generation in the laboratory under the widest possible range of conditions has ended in dismal failure. The reason is simple: the probability hurdle needed to go from non-living organics to the simplest evolvable living system is of a scale that is super-astronomical. The origin of life requires a system that transcends the scale of the Earth, our solar system, our Milky Way Galaxy and perhaps involves the entire universe, that is now appearing to be possibly infinite in scale.

The alternative to spontaneous generation of life is the concept of life being a cosmic phenomenon or panspermia as it has come to be called. This basic idea has an antiquity in Western tradition that predates Aristotle and is attributed to the pre-Socratic philosopher Anaxoragas. Anaxoragas suggested that the seeds of life are all pervasive in the cosmos and they take root and develop into living entities whenever the right conditions prevail. This is the theory of Panspermia (from Greek roots: Spermata – seed; Pans – everywhere). Similar ideas are implied in Buddhist, Hindu and Vedic cosmologies and of course these predate the ancient Greeks by many centuries.

From the 1970’s onward the late Sir Fred Hoyle and the present writer became torch bearers for the theory of cosmic life which was a revived form of the ancient theory of panspermia. The starting point in our investigations involved the identification of cosmic dust, the trillions upon trillions of micrometre-sized “dust” that makes up a few percent of the mass of the entire Galaxy, and shows up as conspicuous dark clouds and striation against the background of stars in the Milky Way. By 1984 we had accumulated enough astronomical evidence to conclude that a very large fraction of this cosmic dust in fact linked to life – bacteria and viruses in various stages of decay and degradation, but still largely preserving the information required to initiate life on any habitable Earth-like planet.

Case against spontaneous generation of life

The most powerful single argument for life being a cosmic rather than a purely terrestrial phenomenon was articulated by the late Sir Fred Hoyle way back in 1980, summarizing the position that we had reached at the time:

“The very small probabilities, which one calculates for the assembly of these substances (e.g. enzymes), demonstrates as near to certainty as one would wish that life did not originate here on the Earth. Indeed, the infinitesimal probabilities demonstrate that life is even too complex for its origin to be confined within our galaxy alone. The resources of the whole universe were almost certainly needed……”

If there was a deep principle of nature that drove inorganic systems towards the emergence of primitive life – the evidence for this would have long since been discovered in the laboratory, which as we noted, has not. Moreover, with calculations showing grotesquely low a priori probabilities for the transition from non-life to life only two options remain: –

(1) The origin of life was an extremely improbable event that must have occurred on Earth against all odds (because we are here!) but will consequently not be reproduced elsewhere. In that case we would indeed be hopelessly alone as a life system in the Universe.

(2) Alternatively, a very much vaster cosmic system than was available on Earth, and a very much longer timescale was involved in an initial origination event, after which life was transferred to Earth and elsewhere by processes that the late Sir Fred Hoyle and the present writer proposed many years ago – cometary panspermia.

We then went on to argue that this cosmologically-derived legacy of life, along with its full evolutionary potential (contained within the genomes of bacteria and viruses), were distributed mainly by comets and other repositories of cosmic dust onto habitable planets like the Earth. Comets in this theory are incubators and distributors of the information of life throughout the universe in the form of bacteria and viruses.

Whilst in 2023 comets are conceded by most scientists as being the repositories of complex organic molecules that may have contributed to spontaneous generation of life, their role as carriers of life itself, despite an ever-increasing body of contrary evidence is still fiercely resisted. Hard evidence of comets containing organic molecules that can only reasonably be derived from biology are coming in fast and thick. The Rosetta Space Mission to a comet – Comet 67P/C-G – launched in 2013 has yielded a formidable body of evidence, all showing consistency with the existence of microbial material in comets.

Another comet, Comet Lovejoy, has more recently been observed and found to be emitting large amounts of ethyl alcohol as well as a type of sugar into space – equivalent to 500 bottles of wine per second. These are the natural products of fermentation, which is clear evidence for sub-surface microbial activity in a comet.

Are cosmic bacteria continually falling to Earth?

One crucial test of the theory of cosmic life is to probe the stratosphere for in-falling alien genetic systems – bacteria and viruses. To urge international space authorities with the capability of doing this was far from easy. The first dedicated effort to test the idea of bacterial in-fall from comets was carried out in collaboration with scientists at ISRO (Indian Space Research Organisation) in 2001.

Positive detections of in-falling microbiota were made, and the number of bacterial cells collected in a measured volume of the stratosphere at 41km led to an estimate of an in-fall rate over the whole Earth of 0.3-3 tonnes of microbes per day. This converts to some 20-200 million bacteria per square metre arriving from space every single day.

Very recently microorganisms were discovered on many occasions between 2013 and 2017 on the outside of the International Space Station that orbits at 400km above the Earth. There is no easy way to maintain that such microorganisms could have been lofted from the surface of the Earth.

This discovery is so profoundly important for science that it needs to be repeated; but the desire to repeat it is difficult to find. A similar experiment, however, is being planned by a team of scientists led by Professor Dhammika Maganarachchi at the National Institute of Fundamental Studies and myself. A balloon launch to this end is being planned within the next six months. The team at NIFS will be assisted by my grandson, Reuben Chandra Wickramasinghe, who has a visiting appointment at the Mathematics Department of the University of Colombo.

Concluding remarks

I believe that in 2023 we have reached a crucial turning point in the history of human civilization. When it is finally accepted that life on Earth is a minuscule part of a vast cosmic biosphere the implications for humanity will be profound. Even more important would be the recognition that alien life in the form of microbes – bacteria and viruses – exist in our very midst even now and are continually raining down on our planet. Such microbes could be responsible for devastating pandemics, but more positively, we should recognise cosmic viruses and bacteria could have the potential to augment our genomes – the genomes of all terrestrial lifeforms – and over long periods unravel an ever-changing panorama of cosmic life.

Whilst advances in technology continue at accelerating pace humanity as a whole is becoming ever more fractured. Wars and bitter sectarian conflicts and heart-rending suffering are to be seen everywhere. The “climate-change” marches and protestations of young people that are gaining momentum are perhaps emblematic of a desire to rebel against reigning paradigms that seem to be threatening our very existence.

Thomas Kuhn famously declared “…when paradigms change, the world changes with them.” One could perhaps assert that a reversal of this causality is also possible – “when the world changes paradigms can be forced to change.”

Further reading

Wickramasinghe, N.C. and Wickramasinghe, R.C., 2023. Life and the Universe: a final synthesis, Journal of Cosmology, Vol. 30, No.10, pp. 30160 – 30174

Wickramasinghe, C., Wickramasinghe, K., Tokoro, G., 2019. Our Cosmic Ancestry in the Stars (Inner Traditions, NY)



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Illegality of Urumaya programme

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President distributing land deeds in Galle recently

by Neville Ladduwahetty

The Urumaya Programme, aimed at resolving land ownership issues for over two million Sri Lankans, was officially launched on 5 February in Dambulla by Minister Harin Fernando. During the press briefing the Minister is reported to have stated: “The programme’s aim is to provide permanent land ownership solutions. Over 10,000 land licensees currently holding Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi licences will be among the first beneficiaries of this programme. These licenses will be converted into freehold deeds, granting them full ownership of their land. This move is expected to significantly improve the lives and livelihoods of millions currently struggling with land ownership uncertainties” (news.lk).

Continuing he stated: “Our journey is far from over. Many of our citizens have lost homes, land, and their sense of security. To address this suffering, we have launched a special programme – “Urumaya” Through this initiative, we aim to bring about positive change for over two million people in Sri Lanka.    This involves granting freehold land deeds to those who currently hold licenses like Ran Bhoomi, Jaya Bhoomi, and Swarna Bhoomi.     By empowering our people with ownership, we hope to spark a new era of stability and prosperity” (Ibid).

BACKGROUND to the URUMAYA PROGRAMME

“Delivering the 2024 Budget proposals, President Wickremesinghe unveiled the ‘Urumaya’ programme, wherein he noted that the land slots distributed among farmers under the licences of the Land Development Ordinance in 1935 would be handed back to farmers” (The Morning, February 18, 2024).

“Although around 100 years have passed, the ownership of these farmlands has not been handed back to the farmers who own them. We are handing over the lands to farmers who lost the ownership of their traditional lands during the British colonial era. We expect to commence this task in 2024 and complete it within another few years. Two million families will get the ownership of land and farmland. I allocate Rs. 2 billion for this purpose,” (Ibid).

VIOLATION of the CONSTITUTION

The granting of freehold land deeds to over two million people in Sri Lanka raises several constitutional issues. The most fundamental issue is whether the government has the authority to grant freehold titles to lands and its resources to some, while such authority belongs to the Republic of Sri Lanka and ALL its Peoples as an integral component of their sovereignty.

For instance, the Preamble to the Constitution, which some consider to be of little significance, while others consider it to be the very embodiment of the core values of the Constitution states: “The PEOPLE OF SRI LANKA having, by their Mandate freely expressed and granted …. entrusted and empowered their Representatives …to draft, adopt and operate a new Republican Constitution…whilst ratifying the immutable republican principles of REPRESENTATIVE DEMOCRACY, and assuring to all peoples FREEDOM, EQUALITY, JUSTICE, FUNDAMENTAL HUMAN RIGHTS…”.

Arising from these core principles, Article 3 states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable ….”  The fact that Sri Lanka is a Republic is what makes its assets part of the sovereignty of all the People.    Furthermore, since it is the PEOPLE of Sri Lanka that have “entrusted and empowered their Representatives to carry out functions on their behalf, such Representatives do not have the right to grant part of the People’s sovereign rights and/or its resources that are inalienable, to a select few. However, it is imperative that a strategy is developed to address the issue at hand without violating provisions of the Constitution.

OPINION of the SUPREME COURT
SUPREME COURT JUDGMENTS RELATING to LAND
S.C. 884/99 BULANKULAMA AND OTHERS v. SECRETARY, MINISTRY OFINDUSTRIAL DEVELOPMENT AND OTHERS (EPPAWALA CASE AMERASINGHE. J.

Jurisdiction

“The Constitution declares that sovereignty is in the People and is inalienable. (Article 3).   Being a representative democracy, the powers of the People are exercised through persons who are for the time being entrusted with certain functions. The Constitution states that the legislative power of the People shall be exercised by Parliament, the executive power of the People shall be exercised by the President of Sri Lanka, and the judicial power of the People shall be exercised, inter alia, through the Courts created and established by the Constitution (Article 4)”.

“The organs of State are guardians to whom the people have committed the care and preservation of the resources of the people. This accords not only with the scheme of government set out in the Constitution but also with the high and enlightened conceptions of the duties of our rulers, in the efficient management of resources in the process of development, which the Mahavamsa, 68.8-13, set forth”.

Other Lordships of the Supreme Court have also commented on the fact that certain Constitutional procedures need to be followed when granting or disposing of State Lands or other resources that belong to the People in the Republic.    It is the unilateral action taken under the Urumaya Programme without following due process as called for in the Constitution, that makes this Program illegal.

A “Brief Guide on Land Rights in Sri Lanka” states:

“State Land is alienated: • By Permit • By Grant • By the President

“State land is all land that the State is lawfully entitled to, or land which may be disposed of by the State together with any building standing thereon, and with all rights, interests and privileges attached thereto. This also includes lands of various Corporations and Boards. State land is administered at national, provincial, district and divisional levels by the relevant government officials” (Centre for Policy Alternatives, 2014).

By Permit:

“Permits are issued to particular categories specified in the relevant laws such as low-income earners and those who are landless.   Permit holders can use the land as specified in the permit including as a residence and/or for cultivation purposes.     Permit holders are required to pay a nominal monthly rental to the State. Permits can be issued as an annual permit or also known as ‘LDO permit’ when issued under the Land Development Ordinance” (Ibid).

By Grant

“(Swarnabhoomi, Jayabhoomi, R a n a b h o o m i, Ranbima – Permit-holders can convert their permit into a grant or a deed, if they meet specific conditions” (Ibid).

By the President

“The President can grant or lease State land at a nominal price or rent it for charitable, educational, religious, scientific or any other purpose” (Ibid).

Therefore, according to the “Brief Guide” State Land cannot be converted to freehold deeds that grant them full ownership of their land under the Urumaya Program without conforming to the above guidelines.

Since State-Owned Enterprises also form part of the sovereignty of the People, the intended proposal to privatise them, also faces the same restrictions. It is reported that the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters have in a letter addressed to the President appealed to him to exercise caution about the sale of national assets such as state-owned enterprises” (The Sunday Times, 18 February, 2024).

PROPOSED STRATEGY

The reason for granting freehold deeds is to enable current Permit holders to use the asset as collateral to raise a loan since existing provisions cited above are considered too restrictive.     Therefore, it is pertinent to consider what the existing restrictions are and consider what refinements could be made to existing provisions in order to mitigate the administrative impediments as much as possible while conforming to Constitutional provisions.

The strategy adopted by current Permit holders of State-Owned Assets is to form themselves into a Cooperative. Each member of the Cooperative pays a monthly stipend.  These are forwarded monthly by each Corporative to the Development Co-Op Society for use by its members to secure loans relating to Paribooga Loan (livelihood) and/or Housing Loan.  The process involved to secure a loan is quite rigorous and involves an evaluation of the capability of the member to honour required loan commitments by the Grama Niladhari and members of the Development Co-Op Society. This procedure has enabled members of the Cooperatives to secure loans in the range of Rs. 800,000/= to one million.

The granting of freehold title to current Permit holders, amounts to converting State land on which the asset is cited into Private land. This is a violation of the collective sovereignty of the People. Therefore, existing provisions granted to Permit holders should be revised in a manner where the Permit has a legitimacy equivalent to a title deed for all administrative purposes, except for the land on which the asset is cited.

Furthermore, if Permit holders are entitled to nominate a beneficiary, the interests of the original Permit holder would continue as it would be if the asset has a freehold title. If on the other hand, the original Permit holder did not have a beneficiary of choice, the asset would revert back to the State.    Such possibilities should be explored with caution instead of rushing to grant title deeds to People that may have the potential to disappoint them if they find that the deeds they received are not legal.

 CONCLUSION

The intention of the President to correct an injustice by handing back traditional lands belonging to farmers that were taken over 100 years ago during British Colonial Rule, is indeed noteworthy.  However, there is a need to be conscious of the present context. That context is that Sri Lanka is a Republic and Article 3 of the Constitution states: “In the Republic of Sri Lanka sovereignty is in the people and is inalienable”. That being the case, Sri Lanka’s lands, its assets and resources belong to the People. Furthermore, since nearly all Sri Lankans have endured injustices of one kind or another, it is Illegal to correct the injustices committed against some, at the expense of the rest. This is what the Urumaya Programme is all about.

Therefore, it is incumbent on the part of the President and others associated with the Urumaya Program to act cautiously and revisit the legality of the Urumaya Programme before it is too late. If they proceed regardless, there is a strong possibility that beneficiaries of the Urumaya Programme may have to face disappointment later if it is found to be illegal. A similar note of caution has been issued by the Mahanayake Theras of Malwatte, Asgiriya, Ramanna and Amarapura chapters regarding State-Owned Enterprises.

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Among the Trobrianders: A Personal Journey

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Royal Thomian. March 2023

By Uditha Devapriya

You are putting me in a hole.
No, I am taking you out of it!

Somewhere in 2016, I lost my first job.I had been working at my old school for two months, and had been led to assume that I would be retained to help them draft a communications policy. I was into PR, had hopes of entering advertising, and was looking for a suitable opening.

All of a sudden, I was told they didn’t need such a person.

I was 23 at the time. I had just completed law school and was waiting for my results.

It was not the best time to be idle. I needed a job.

And now, I was out of one.

I tried contacting friends and acquaintances, clinging to any mutual contact I could find.

None of it worked.

Frantically, I fired off one email after another.

I may have sent tens if not hundreds of emails. Many replied, and some asked me to come over to be interviewed. The interviews, however, all left a bad taste in my mouth. The jobs they had either paid too low or were outside my comfort zone.

Then an ad agency, one of many agencies I had emailed, got in touch. They scheduled an interview in December. There they said they wanted someone with “zero experience in advertising.” They thought I fitted the bill. They took me in.

By now I was freelancing to several newspapers in the country. I was writing on the arts, reviewing films, plays, the occasional exhibition. The pay wasn’t good, but the exposure was: it got me in touch with artists, directors, writers, dancers.

I had always been mad about culture and the arts. At school I had inclined to subjects like history and literature. Though I did not study them for my Advanced Levels – I chose Commerce, a “safer” stream, instead – I did not abandon them. I pursued such fields as a writer and a journalist after leaving school.

There was a problem, however. For more than a decade I had studied mostly in English, and had become ignorant of my language and culture. I came from a Sinhala speaking background, but since I spent six hours at school, two getting back home, and around five or six active hours at home, this did not amount to much.

In my time, the rage everywhere in the country was for English, Western, private education. Our parents had studied in the vernacular: Sinhala or Tamil. Yet after leaving school they had felt it would be better to have their children taught in English.

Public schools used to have English medium classes, but by the time I was born these had been abandoned. As a result, a new type of school had cropped up, catering to an ever-growing demand for English education.

The problem was that while we readily immersed ourselves in English education, many of us allowed ourselves to neglect our languages. Though our parents were concerned about what was happening to us and nationalist groups bemoaned what this was doing to our country and culture, there was little anyone could do about it. It did not help that in the classroom, we were tacitly discouraged from talking in Sinhala and Tamil.

June 2022

The result was that most of us came out knowing next to nothing about our language, religion, culture, society, even our people. I was no exception. Westernised, though in a half-baked way, I could not relate to the world I had been born to.

Lester James Peries recalled undergoing a similar experience at his school.

Some of us became snobs. Even today, I can’t speak Sinhala properly.

So did Osmund Jayaratne.

If, instead of Latin, we had been given a good grounding of our native tongue, Sinhala, I would have been very happy, but unfortunately this was not to be.

And so did Gamani Corea.
[F]or my generation, the lapse [in Sinhala] was a serious one and a handicap for later life.

These were sentiments I could relate to.

A few months after I began my job, I realized that things would only get worse. I may have been writing to newspapers on local art and culture, but I was writing in English, thinking in English, operating in English, living and breathing English.

My new workplace made me more conscious of these deficiencies. A good copywriter tends to be rooted in his surroundings. He or she tends to be bicultural, if not bilingual, and finds it easy to operate in both English and the vernacular.

My problem was that I was far from being bicultural, in any sense.

It was a hole I needed to get out of, and fast.

My coworkers had, in their own way, stepped in and helped me improve somewhat. Yet they were too busy. I realized I could expect only so much from them.

Someone else had to step in. Someone from outside.

———————————–

Freelancing has its advantages and privileges. You aren’t constrained by deadlines, and you are free to write what you want to write. You get to associate with people who relate to you. You get to write on them. Often you get to learn from them.

One night in 2017, the Secretary of a school society called me. The society, the Library Readers’ Association, the oldest student-led association at the school, was organizing an exhibition-cum-quiz. They wanted a judge for the quiz, and an article written on the event. Since I had been a quizzer and was a writer, I seemed to fit the bill.

I duly served as judge, and the article, which the boys fortunately liked, duly got published. In Sri Lanka, however, events never really end: they lead to other events. Soon I was getting requests from them to write on other societies and clubs, including sports events. These were not typical press release articles, but full-length human-interest essays, different from the journalistic pieces that get written about such events.

It was then that I realised that most of these boys came from a world completely different to the world I had grown up in. Though they attended what was seen as the leading public school in the island, Royal College, they had entered it through the Grade Five Scholarship, and had been boarded at the school Hostel.

Hailing from villages that lay far away from Colombo – you had to fulfil a distance threshold to be boarded at the Hostel – they represented an antithesis of my personality. They had lived their entire childhood at home. As I talked with them, they regaled me with stories of the culture shock they underwent after they moved to Colombo.

At first our parents were worried. Would we grow up away from them?

The first English song I ever heard was our school anthem.

Some classmates mocked me, they made fun of the way I talked.

Becoming the butt-end of jokes, they adapted by either suppressing their identity or, in the more likely scenario, insulting the insulters.

In our first two years, we mocked those who spoke only in English in our classrooms.

They seemed too nerdy, too polite. They were like babies.

That, however, only heightened their fear of the language.

Of course, we were afraid of English. Some of us avoided it, others tried to master it. A few pretended it wasn’t important until it was too late.

Sri Lanka may be a small island, but it is home to an incredible range of cultures and subcultures. There is nothing monolithic about any of them.

A colourful bunch, these boys came from practically every corner of the country. In the way they talked, behaved, the way they interacted with outsiders and with me, they differed from one another. They were a microcosm of their country. Talking to them, I encountered the societies they hailed from, societies I had grown away from.

Slowly, but surely, our associations developed into friendships. As time went by, we realized that we looked at the world in different ways. Yet in one sense we were kindred spirits: we were all learning and absorbing a new culture.

For them, it was a process of discovery: living in a city, English, Western culture.

For me, it was a process of rediscovery: Sinhala language and literature, Buddhism.

In the end, we ended up teaching one another.

It was almost like Malinowski among the Trobriand Islanders. The difference, of course, is that they were as much an exotic Other to me as I was to them.

And like Malinowski and the Trobrianders, there were points of disagreement, difference, and incompatibility between us, often too big to bridge.

I found their views on culture and society intriguing. Yet beyond a point, perhaps because of my cultural conditioning, I found it hard to accept them. As an agnostic, for instance, I couldn’t relate to their religious beliefs, particularly their belief in the supernatural. Still, they expressed such sentiments with a lot of conviction.

Gods do exist.

When we feel them, we believe in them, we give them power.

Come over one day, I will show them to you.

If this is one of the more insightful comments on God-worship in Sri Lanka, or anywhere, I have come across – the notion that it is our belief in them that gives them power – it’s because it was said by someone who spoke his mind, someone who responded instinctively to such matters without intellectual obfuscations.

In other words, these boys weren’t just teaching and guiding me. They were immersing me in their moral code, their cultural universe. It was not exactly an encounter between two worlds. But it was an encounter between two ways of looking at the world.

To be sure, I still have not got out of my cocoon. I am still ignorant of cultural matters. I still make gaffes. There are times when I feel like a foreigner in my country.

Yet, largely through the intervention of these boys, I have acquired a decent understanding about things I was unaware of.

———————————–

Late last December, describing my attempts at introducing him to sociologists and historians and at getting him to talk to them, one of these boys expostulated:

You are putting me in a hole.

To which I replied:

No, I am taking you out of it!

Life ultimately amounts to the people we meet and the friendships we form.

It is about what we do for one another, the lengths we go for others.

It is about teaching new things and learning new things.

Or, as my friend put it, about falling into holes and getting out of them.

Like what these boys did for me – and like what I like to think I did for them.

Uditha Devapriya is a writer, researcher, and analyst based in Sri Lanka who contributes to a number of publications on topics such as history, art and culture, politics, and foreign policy. He can be reached at .

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Tea Library Hikkaduwa comes alive

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The Tea Library was opened recently in the heart of Sri Lanka’s most popular beach and surfing town Hikkaduwa. This is another venture of tea industry veteran Malinga Herman Gunaratne best known for ‘white tea’ – probably the most exclusive tea ever produced in the world. The Tea Library adds a new dimension to Hikkaduwa with its three story terracotta exterior and welcoming interiors.

It offers accommodation, a restaurant and a tea shop. The third floor which provides spectacular views of the beach and the Hikkaduwa town, features a mural covering the highlights of Herman Gunaratne’s life in the tea industry by artist Chandana Samarakoon. Architect Shayam Kumaradas has transformed this once derelict building into one of multiple uses and chic interiors. It features hand painted Mandalas by artist Maneesha Sewwandi on the walls of the bedrooms.

Opening times of Tea Library are 9 am – 10 pm daily and you can have an exclusive group tea tasting experience, or use the stunning upstairs restaurant space for events such as book launches.

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