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The first rung of my career

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by Sumi Moonesinghe narrated to Savithri Rodrigo

It was much later that I learned I missed a first class by just one mark. But it didn’t matter. I now had my engineering degree and was ready to take on the world.

For one year, I worked at the university as an instructor. This was not a lecturer position but involved helping others conduct experiments in the lab. I moved to Ramanathan Hall because I was no longer a student and there became great friends with the Warden of the Hall, Vajira Cooke.

I also took charge of my sister Roni’s education at the time because I was now earning a monthly salary as an instructor. My parents had done so much for us that I really wanted to lighten their load. I was very conscious of the sacrifices they had made throughout my time at school and university. This sense of responsibility made me aware that I must become self-sufficient and during university, I never once asked them to fund anything, not even textbooks. I would go to the library and use the books there for reference. It was not easy but I managed.

My next job was as a Telecom Engineer at the Dickman’s Road Switching Centre. The telecommunication industry in Sri Lanka was in its fledgling years, having commenced in 1958 when the first telegraphic circuit between Colombo and Galle was launched. Coming under the Department of Telecommunications, this may have been a dream job for many, but not for me. It was utterly boring and I hated it.

My sights were set on broadcast engineering as communications engineering was fascinating. Sri Lanka only had radio at the time; television hadn’t been introduced and mobile phones were unheard of. The only phones were the landlines and I didn’t find those exciting.

Never to be deterred, I kept applying and finally got what I wanted – a transfer to Radio Ceylon, the oldest radio station in South Asia and second oldest in the world. This was a station that enjoyed the title of ‘King of the Airwaves’ with millions tuning into radio broadcasts from around the world, playing a seminal role in the advent of broadcasting alongside Great Britain, the USA and Germany. And this is where I wanted to be.

The Chairman of the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation and Director General of Broadcasting was Neville Jayaweera, a smart, impeccably-dressed man who had an excellent command of the English language. A member of the prestigious Ceylon Civil Service, it was Neville who was handpicked by Prime Minister Dudley Senanayake at the time to head the Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation, and drafted the pioneering legislation for setting up the CBC and the subsequent name change of Radio Ceylon to Ceylon Broadcasting Corporation in 1967.

It was in this pivotal year, when I turned 22 that I began working at CBC as an Engineer in Charge of the Studios and Training School reporting to Chief Engineer David Buell, a very soft-spoken, quiet gentleman. My salary was a princely Rs. 720, which was plenty in those times.

Neville would often mention that I had potential to study further and venture into more training. Armed with only my BSc in Engineering, working alongside others who were more qualified and experienced, he nevertheless, seemed to think I was doing a good job, far in excess of the academic knowledge I had gained. He called me into his office one day and said, “Miss Senanayake, there is a scholarship to go to England to do a Masters, followed by training at the BBC. I will be nominating you.”

I think my jaw dropped in surprise and my heart did a little flutter, but I retained my composure. Tongue-tied for once, all I could say was, “Thank you, Sir,” ever grateful that he had given me this opportunity because I was still a rookie in the ranks. The only blot in the plan – I had to leave by the end of the month.

This sudden turn in my life was predicted earlier although I didn’t take the prediction seriously. When I was visiting my parents earlier that month, we came across a soothsayer in the Kegalle town. She looked at me pointedly and said, “You will be going abroad by the end of the month.” In the 1960s, going overseas was a luxury as it was just too expensive and only a privileged few could afford it. I remember thinking the woman was crazy and brushed her off. These weren’t times people could simply get on a plane and take off.

While I had been quite adamant not to get distracted from my studies with any serious romances while at university, in my final year, that principle was quickly put to the test. I had developed strong feelings for a young man who was working at the State Engineering Corporation. We would meet whenever I came to Colombo, occasionally going to the cinema. He was not a Sinhalese and given Sri Lanka’s ethnic divide running deep, in my heart I knew the relationship may not be looked upon kindly, especially by my parents. Thus it was kept under wraps except for a few friends who were in on the secret.

I broke the news to my boyfriend about the scholarship and he in turn had good news. He had been conferred a Fulbright scholarship to go to America.

When I moved to Colombo from Peradeniya, I was staying with Loretta Gunaratne at Sulaiman Terrace, Colombo 5. With my impending trip to the UK, Loretta took charge of getting things ready for my departure.

As I mentioned, few people were fortunate to travel and more so to countries like the UK and the USA which were considered the creme de la creme where streets were believed to be paved with gold. For those around me, I was now among the privileged few. London was definitely paradise in waiting. There were also some unwritten rules; don’t squander your money buying unnecessary things, take everything you will need from Sri Lanka and save all that money to bring a car from England when you return. The only path to money was in this car, which would fetch a tidy sum in Ceylon. And the car of choice was the Peugeot 504.

So there we were — Loretta and I, packing everything from soap to toiletries, linen and underwear, so I wouldn’t have to buy anything in ‘expensive’ London and could save up my money to return with the car.

My parents arrived the day before I was to leave to bid me goodbye. That night, we dropped in to bid farewell to Neville Jayaweera who was surely an architect of my dreams. My good friend Asoki Gunewardene, who had found Loretta’s home for me to stay in, accompanied my parents and me to Neville’s home. My parents had also met my ‘boyfriend’ although they didn’t know that at the time. I simply introduced him as a friend. This was nothing new to them as I always had lots of male friends during my university years and they were used to seeing me in their company.

After visiting Neville, Asoki who was in the car with us and obviously couldn’t keep a secret, blurted, “That boy with the beard is her boyfriend!” Needless to mention, I was livid with her. The rest of the car ride was spent in silence.

My parents returned to Kegalle and I took my flight to London the next day. Several of my batchmates, boys of course, came to see me off that morning and some even accompanied me to the airport. I remember tears streaming down my face when I left because I was leaving both my boyfriend and my family behind. I was missing them already.

I had never left Sri Lanka before this, let alone been on a plane. Everything was very new to me, but it also brought a shark reminder that I was now very much on my own, far away from everyone I knew and everything I was familiar with. The pensive feeling remained with me throughout the flight and when the BOAC flight transited in Rome, I had to make a connection with Sri Lanka to shake off some of my blues. The first object I set my eyes on was a large doll at the duty free shop. I purchased it and gave it to the air hostess on the flight to give it to my niece Chinthi when she returned to Colombo.

In the meantime, there may have been silence in the car on the way back from Neville’s and nothing may have been said by my parents about Asoki’s revelation when they bid me goodbye, but the boyfriend matter was not to be swept under the carpet. The first letter I received from my father after I arrived in England stated: If you are thinking of marrying anyone other than a Sinhala Buddhist, then you better stay there. Don’t come back here.

(To be continued)

(Excerpted from Sumi Moonesinghe’s Memoirs)



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BRICS emerging as strong rival to G7

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It was in the fitness of things for Indian Prime Minister Narendra Modi to hold a special telephonic conversation with Russian President Vladimir Putin recently for the purpose of enlightening the latter on the need for a peaceful, diplomatic end to the Russian-initiated blood-letting in Ukraine. Hopefully, wise counsel and humanity would prevail and the world would soon witness the initial steps at least to a complete withdrawal of invading Russian troops from Ukraine.

The urgency for an early end to the Russian invasion of Ukraine which revoltingly testifies afresh to the barbaric cruelty man could inflict on his fellows, is underscored, among other things, by the declaration which came at the end of the 14th BRICS Summit, which was held virtually in Beijing recently. Among other things, the declaration said: ‘BRICS reaffirms commitment to ensuring the promotion and protection of democracy, human rights and fundamental freedoms for all with the aim to build a brighter shared future for the international community based on mutually beneficial cooperation.’

It is anybody’s guess as to what meanings President Putin read into pledges of the above kind, but it does not require exceptional brilliance to perceive that the barbaric actions being carried out by his regime against Ukrainian civilians make a shocking mockery of these enlightened pronouncements. It is plain to see that the Russian President is being brazenly cynical by affixing his signature to the declaration. The credibility of BRICS is at risk on account of such perplexing contradictory conduct on the part of its members. BRICS is obliged to rectify these glaring irregularities sooner rather than later.

At this juncture the important clarification must be made that it is the conduct of the Putin regime, and the Putin regime only, that is being subjected to censure here. Such strictures are in no way intended to project in a negative light, the Russian people, who are heirs to a rich, humanistic civilization that produced the likes of Dostoevsky and Tolstoy, among a host of other eminent spirits, who have done humanity proud and over the decades guided humans in the direction of purposeful living. May their priceless heritage live long, is this columnist’s wish.

However, the invaluable civilization which the Russian people have inherited makes it obligatory on their part to bring constant pressure on the Putin regime to end its barbarism against the Ukrainian civilians who are not at all party to the big power politics of Eastern Europe. They need to point out to their rulers that in this day and age there are civilized, diplomatic and cost-effective means of resolving a state’s perceived differences with its neighbours. The spilling of civilian blood, on the scale witnessed in Ukraine, is a phenomenon of the hoary past.

The BRICS grouping, which encompasses some of the world’s predominant economic and political powers, if not for the irregular conduct of the Putin regime, could be said to have struck on a policy framework that is farsighted and proactive on the issue of global equity.

There is the following extract from a report on its recent summit declaration that needs to be focused on. It reads: BRICS notes the need to ensure “Meaningful participation of developing and least developed countries, especially in Africa, in global decision-making processes and structures and make it better attuned to contemporary realities.”

The above are worthy goals that need to be pursued vigorously by global actors that have taken upon themselves the challenge of easing the lot of the world’s powerless countries. The urgency of resuming the North-South Dialogue, among other questions of importance to the South, has time and again been mentioned in this column. This is on account of the fact that the most underdeveloped regions of the South have been today orphaned in the world system.

Given that the Non-aligned Movement and like organizations, that have espoused the resolution of Southern problems over the decades, are today seemingly ineffective and lacking in political and economic clout, indications that the BRICS grouping is in an effort to fill this breach is heartening news for the powerless of the world. Indeed, the crying need is for the poor and powerless to be brought into international decision-making processes that affect their wellbeing and it is hoped that BRICS’s efforts in this regard would bear fruit.

What could help in increasing the confidence of the underdeveloped countries in BRICS, is the latter’s rising economic and political power. While in terms of economic strength, the US remains foremost in the world with a GDP of $ 20.89 trillion, China is not very far behind with a GDP of $ 14.72 trillion. The relevant readings for some other key BRICS countries are as follows: India – $ 2.66 trillion, Russia – $ 1.48 trillion and Brazil $ 1.44 trillion. Of note is also the fact that except for South Africa, the rest of the BRICS are among the first 15 predominant economies, assessed in GDP terms. In a global situation where economics drives politics, these figures speak volumes for the growing power of the BRICS countries.

In other words, the BRICS are very much abreast of the G7 countries in terms of a number of power indices. The fact that many of the BRICS possess a nuclear capability indicates that in military terms too they are almost on par with the G7.

However, what is crucial is that the BRICS, besides helping in modifying the world economic order to serve the best interests of the powerless as well, contribute towards changing the power balances within the vital organs of the UN system, such as the UN Security Council, to render them more widely representative of changing global power realities.

Thus, India and Brazil, for example, need to be in the UNSC because they are major economic powers in their own right. Since they are of a democratic orientation, besides pushing for a further democratization of the UN’s vital organs, they would be in a position to consistently work towards the wellbeing of the underprivileged in their respective regions, which have tremendous development potential.

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Queen of Hearts

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She has certainly won the hearts of many with the charity work she is engaged in, on a regular basis, helping the poor, and the needy.

Pushpika de Silva was crowned Mrs. Sri Lanka for Mrs. World 2021 and she immediately went into action, with her very own charity project – ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

When launching this project, she said: “Lend a Helping Hand is dear to me. With the very meaning of the title, I am extending my helping hand to my fellow brothers and sisters in need; in a time where our very existence has become a huge question and people battling for daily survival.”

Since ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ became a reality, last year, Pushpika has embarked on many major charity projects, including building a home for a family, and renovating homes of the poor, as well.

The month of June (2022) saw Pushpika very much in action with ‘Lend a Helping Hand.’

She made International Father’s Day a very special occasion by distributing food items to 100 poor families.

“Many are going without a proper meal, so I was very keen, in my own way, to see that these people had something to keep the hunger pangs away.”

A few days later, the Queen of Hearts made sure that 50 more people enjoyed a delicious and nutritious meal.

“In these trying times, we need to help those who are in dire straits and, I believe, if each one of us could satisfy the hunger, and thirst, of at least one person, per day, that would be a blessing from above.”

Pushpika is also concerned about the mothers, with kids, she sees on the roads, begging.

“How helpless is a mother, carrying a small child, to come to the street and ask for something.

“I see this often and I made a special effort to help some of them out, with food and other necessities.”

What makes Pushpika extra special is her love for animals, as well, and she never forgets the street dogs that are having a tough time, these days, scavenging for food.

“These animals, too, need food, and are voiceless, so we need to think of them, as well. Let’s have mercy on them, too. Let’s love them, as well.”

The former beauty queen served a delicious meal for the poor animals, just recently, and will continue with all her charity projects, on a regular basis, she said.

Through her charity project, ‘Lend a Helping Hand,” she believes she can make a change, though small.

And, she says, she plans to be even more active, with her charity work, during these troubled times.

We wish Pushpika de Silva all the very best, and look forward to seeing more of her great deeds, through her ‘Lend a Helping Hand’ campaign.

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Hope and political change:No more Appachis to the rescue

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KUPPI on the current economic and political crisis: intervention 1

by Harshana Rambukwella

In Buddhist literature, there is the Parable of the Burning House where the children of a wealthy man, trapped inside a burning house, refuse to leave it, fearful of leaving its comfort – because the flames are yet to reach them. Ultimately, they do leave because the father promises them wonderful gifts and are saved from the fire. Sri Lankans have long awaited such father figures – in fact, our political culture is built on the belief that such ‘fathers’ will rescue us. But this time around no fathers are coming. As Sri Lankans stare into an uncertain future, and a multitude of daily sufferings, and indignities continue to pile upon us, there is possibly one political and emotional currency that we all need – hope. Hope is a slippery term. One can hope ‘in-vain’ or place one’s faith in some unachievable goal and be lulled into a sense of complacency. But, at the same time, hope can be critically empowering – when insurmountable obstacles threaten to engulf you, it is the one thing that can carry you forward. We have innumerable examples of such ‘hope’ from history – both religious and secular. When Moses led the Israelites to the promised land, ‘hope’ of a new beginning sustained them, as did faith in God. When Queen Viharamahadevi set off on a perilous voyage, she carried hope, within her, along with the hope of an entire people. When Martin Luther King Jr made his iconic ‘I have a dream’ speech, hope of an America where Black people could live in dignity, struck a resonant chord and this historical sense of hope also provided inspiration for the anti-Apartheid struggle in South Africa.

This particular moment, in Sri Lanka, feels a moment of ‘hopelessness’. In March and April, this year, before the cowardly attack on the Gota Go Gama site, in Galle Face, there was a palpable sense of hope in the aragalaya movement as it spread across the country. While people were struggling with many privations, the aragalaya channeled this collective frustration into a form of political and social action, we have rarely seen in this country. There were moments when the aragalaya managed to transcend many divisions – ethnic, religious and class – that had long defined Sri Lanka. It was also largely a youth led movement which probably added to the ‘hope’ that characterized the aragalaya. However, following the May 09th attack something of this ‘hope’ was lost. People began to resign themselves to the fact that the literally and metaphorically ‘old’ politics, and the corrupt culture it represents had returned. A Prime Minister with no electoral base, and a President in hiding, cobbled together a shaky and illegitimate alliance to stay in power. The fuel lines became longer, the gas queues grew, food prices soared and Sri Lanka began to run out of medicines. But, despite sporadic protests and the untiring commitment of a few committed activists, it appeared that the aragalaya was fizzling out and hope was stagnant and dying, like vehicles virtually abandoned on kilometers-long fuel queues.

However, we now have a moment where ‘hope’ is being rekindled. A national movement is gathering pace. As the prospect of the next shipment of fuel appears to recede into the ever-distant future, people’s anger and frustration are once again being channeled towards political change. This is a do-or-die moment for all Sri Lankans. Regardless of our political beliefs, our ideological orientation, our religion or class, the need for political change has never been clearer. Whether you believe that an IMF bailout will save us, or whether you believe that we need a fundamental change in our economic system, and a socially and economically more just society, neither of these scenarios will come to pass without an immediate political change. The political class that now clings to power, in this country, is like a cancer – poisoning and corrupting the entire body politic, even as it destroys itself. The Prime Minister who was supposed to be the messiah channeling international goodwill and finances to the country has failed miserably and we have a President who seems to be in love with the idea of ‘playing president’. The Sri Lankan people have a single existential choice to make in this moment – to rise as one to expel this rotten political order. In Sri Lanka, we are now in that burning house that the Buddha spoke of and we all seem to be waiting for that father to appear and save us. But now we need to change the plot of this parable. No father will come for us. Our fathers (or appachis) have led us to this sorry state. They have lied, deceived and abandoned us. It is now up to us to rediscover the ‘hope’ that will deliver us from the misery of this economic and political crisis. If we do not act now the house will burn down and we will be consumed in its flames.

Initiated by the Kuppi Collective, a group of academics and activists attached to the university system and other educational institutes and actions.

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