A former chairman of George Steuarts remembers
by S. Skandakumar
As the clock moved towards 10.50 a.m ,on January 31, 2021, my mind went back 25 years to that fateful day.
It was a Wednesday, and having finished our weekly meeting of the Parent Board of Directors in the Board Room on the eighth floor of Steuart House around 10.30 am, we sat around to exchange views on matters of a non-official nature as was customary, before returning to our rooms.
Enjoying the view of the sea beyond the Central Bank that faced us from the opposite side of Janadipathi Mawatha, was a favourite pastime of ours on such occasions.
Janadipathi Mawatha on that last day of January was as busy as always as people flocked into the banks, business offices and hotels that stood imposingly along it . Yes, The human traffic on this busy street was as heavy as the vehicular.
Nearer to 10.45 a.m., we heard what sounded like gun shots and sensed trouble.
Moving to the large french windows that were the hallmark of “Steuart House,” we observed a lorry like the ones that used to bring down tea from the plantations to Colombo, attempting to scale the pavement bordering the Central Bank.
The intention to enter the lobby of the Bank seemed obvious. An alert and courageous security guard shut off the access only to pay for his noble deed with his life as the occupants in the vehicle shot him dead.
“Gosh that looks like a suicide bomber,” exclaimed Chairman Scott Dirckze and then the bomb exploded! We were all thrown to the floor as the glass of the board room windows shattered and scattered.
The intensity of the after effect of the explosion was so severe that the sturdy teak board room door on the eighth floor was wrenched from its hinges and ended up many yards beyond.
The grandfather clock that stood majestically on the Chairman‘s floor escaped damage and chimed 11 o’clock as Scott and I staggered out of the room, dripping blood, followed by our colleagues who were more fortunate. The Chairman‘s PA, Saumya, was on hand and provided assistance .
As we limped down the eight flights of stairs, the ensuing mayhem was apparent . Our uninjured employees rallied round bravely and heroically while those of our tenants, American Express and Indian Overseas Banks, together with Reuters struggled to do the same.
The Chairman and I declined offers of assistance although we were bleeding from injuries sustained. EncouragIng those who were unaffected to continue their excellent work, we took to the street past the Hilton by foot, when an ex- planter of George Steuarts recognized us and drove us to the accident ward at the General Hospital.
By this time, we both realized that our injuries were not life-threatening and, as ambulances screamed in ferrying the injured, we decided to walk across to the Hayleys Office to seek assistance.
Understandably the security personnel at their gate nearly freaked out on seeing us both in that state until we asked them to let Chairman Sunil Mendis know that there were two Directors of George Steuarts to see him.
Sunil was down in less than a minute with his colleagues and swiftly arranged for us to be transported to Asiri Hospital at Kirula Road.
There an X ray revealed that I had a fractured nose. A gash at the back of my head which was still bleeding slightly did not require sutures..
Scott ‘s face was cut in many places but mercifully his eyes were unaffected.
By this time the tragic news of fatalities and brutal injuries came filtering through and we both struggled to control our emotions.
I turned down a well-meaning surgeon’s offer to “fix ” my fractured nose by assuring him that I wished to retain it as a grim reminder of my relative good fortune.
Our delay in getting back to our respective office rooms after the Board meeting also turned out to be fortunate for me, as the very heavy ceiling in mine had crashed on to my desk and chair! A tiny statue in Jade of Lord Ganesh that faced me on my desk had miraculously remained intact, and when Saumya handed it to me at the hospital I felt assured that there was a way ahead.
Our employees stood firmly and loyally by the Group in the ensuing months and together, with professional guidance from Architect Ranjit Samarasinghe, and Engineer Sugi Rajaratnam, we restored Steuart House and moved back into occupancy in May that year knowing that life down the most prestigious street in Colombo was not going to be the same again for a very long time.
The Group ‘s Directors and our employees swiftly refocused on their official responsibilities from makeshift offices at the Galadari and Trans Asia hotels, while a few including me took a modest office down Hospital Street to keep an eye on the rehabilitation of the building. The Travel subsidiary‘s initiative in arranging a charter flight for that famous World Cup final in Lahore on March 17, 1996, barely a month and a half after the devastation was a tribute to that commitment. Through all this we continued to assist our injured some of whom had suffered damage to their eyes and head
Our ensuing Parent Board meetings until we moved back into Steuart House in May that year were held at the Chairman ‘s residence in Nawala.
In the new millennium the Group reaped the rewards of that loyalty and commitment of our employees.
In a coffee table book compiled by the succeeding Board following my retirement in 2008, to commemorate the Company ‘s 175th anniversary in 2010, the initial eight years of the new millennium were referred to as perhaps the most successful in the Company ‘s prestigious history.
I stood in silence on January 31, 2021, at the same time that explosion occurred 25 years ago, as I have done every year since that destructive day, to pray for the repose of the many innocent lives that were lost, remembering the pain, heartache and suffering of their families, and those who were injured.
I remain grateful for my second lease of life, even if it offered little consolation for the devastation caused to life and limb of innocent civilians, and to prime property, and have been conscious of the debt I owe providence: one I know I can never adequately repay.
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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