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The poem Neruda never wrote

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In an exclusive interview with the Sunday Island, film maker Asoka Handagama shares the story behind his latest film- Alborada (The Dawning of the Day) inspired by the celebrated poet Pablo Neruda’s stay here as the Chilean Consul. The film is to be internationally premiered at the 34th edition of the Tokyo International Film Festival opening on October 30.

by Randima Attygalle

It is the year 1929. Young Chilean poet and diplomat Pablo Neruda whose fame preceded him arrives in the British-occupied Ceylon as the Chilean Consul. By then Neruda, had already become an international literary celebrity. His work, Twenty Love Poems and Song of Despair was among the bestselling books of poetry in the 20th century. He was called ‘the poet of the people, the oppressed and the forgotten.’

The activist-Consul arrives in Ceylon, barely 25 and empty-handed except for his memory of the disengaged relationship with his former Burmese lover, Josie Bliss. She was obsessively devoted to Neruda and possessed by an overwhelming jealousy. Neruda who called Josie ‘a love terrorist’ and ‘a species of Burmese Panther’ would document in his memoir: (completed shortly before his death in 1973) ‘Sometimes a light would wake me, a ghost moving on the other side of the mosquito net. It was Josie, flimsily dressed in white, brandishing her long, sharp knife. It was she, walking round and round my bed, for hours at a time, without quite making up her mind to kill me. When you die, she used to say to me, my fears will end.’

While his ‘Bliss’ was turning into a taunting jealousy, Neruda receives a cable from Santiago informing him of his immediate transfer to Ceylon. Welcoming his emancipation from his lover, Neruda settles in a beach-front cottage in Wellawatte and is taken care of by a man servant.

He attempts to bury his memories in the vast tropical shores and takes refuge in an atmosphere of solitude he creates for himself. In his memoir is a chapter dedicated to his stay in Ceylon titled Luminous Solitude where he writes: ‘each morning I was overpowered by the miracle of newly cleansed nature.’

Neruda was soon found in the artistic inner circles of Colombo. He was acquainted with Lionel Wendt and George Keyt. The young Chilean poet had a bevy of female admirers whom he called ‘dusky and golden girls of Boer, English and Dravidian blood.’ They bedded him ‘sportingly, asking for nothing in return,’ as he documents.

The young diplomat was infatuated with a Tamil woman of a low caste who came every day at dawn to clean his outdoor latrine. He found her to be the most beautiful woman he had seen in Ceylon. To win her attention, Neruda left her gifts of fruit or silk on the path leading to the latrine, but she took no notice of them. One day he gripped her by the wrist and stared into her eyes. ‘Unsmiling, she let herself be led away and soon was naked in my bed. Her waist, so very slim, her full hips, the brimming cups of her breasts made her like one of the thousand-year-old sculptures from the south of India. … She kept her eyes wide open all the while, completely unresponsive. She was right to despise me. The experience was never repeated.’

The act became a subject of international scrutiny in later years, even prompting a reassessment of the Nobel Laureate’s merit. Neruda who was celebrated as ‘the greatest poet in the 20th century in any language’ by Gabriel Garcia Marquez was even labeled a ‘rapist’. Activists challenged his documentation of ‘she let herself be led away’ as a blatant lie. The decision to rename Chile’s busiest Santiago International Airport after Neruda was met with outrage from human rights activists who argued that the honour was inappropriate for a man who admitted to rape in his own memoirs.

“Although there are many accounts of Neruda’s life portrayed in fiction and film, this part of the story is often carefully left out. Though his poems about love outwardly sound romantic, they hide within them the eroticization and objectification of women and particularly, women of colour,” reflects the film-maker Asoka Handagama whose latest film Alborada (The Dawning of the Day) is an elaboration of Neruda’s controversial sexual assault.

The film which is to hold its world premiere in Tokyo (Oct. 30 – Nov. 8) is a fictionalized account of Neruda’s stay in Sri Lanka (then Ceylon) from 1929 to 1931 as the Chilean Consul. The film explores the psychological and the emotional factors behind Neruda’s attraction to a woman bound by her caste: a woman considered to be ‘untouchable’, unknown to her playing a part in a bizarre fantasy that ended in a sexual assault.

A fan of Neruda’s poetry, Handagama found the poet’s mixed element of art and controversy a tempting subject for a film script. The script which was inspired by Neruda’s Memoirs is a fruit of 10 years of research on the poet. Handagama left his position as a Deputy Governor of the Central Bank three years before his formal retirement age to complete what he calls his ‘dream film.’

A rebel himself with his cinematic expression, Handagama intrepidly unearths the famed poet’s often interred infamous chapter in what he calls an ‘ironic act.’ “It is ironic that an Asian film-maker, coming from a so called restrained cultural landscape is throwing light on Neruda’s sexual antics when all the while Western cinema makers and fiction writers chose to leave them out in the exposition of him,” smiles Handagama.

Reference to Neruda’s Burmese lover Josie Bliss in his poetry is plenty although she is widely regarded as a figment of the poet’s imagination, notes the film maker. “The depiction of her as a perceived threat, a desire and barbarity in his poem Widower’s Tango, combined with his confession show Neruda’s complicated relationship with women and race.” However, no poem of Neruda’s alludes to the ‘untouchable woman’ by whom he was smitten, despite being described as the ‘most beautiful Ceylonese woman’ or one resembling a ‘thousand-year-old sculpture’ from South India. Handagama’s tagline for his film, The poem Neruda never wrote validates this exclusion. It is also an allegorical reminder of the poet’s element which many tended to discount.

Alborada reinvents the rustic west coast of the island Neruda saw in the 1930s. This was no easy task says its creator. “We had to recreate Wellawatta of his time and this was not possible within Colombo due to the changing skyline. We set it up in Nonagama and in Ranminithenna Tele-Cinema Village.”

Lending a cinematic interpretation to an isolated incident at home which is unfamiliar to the authentic Sri Lankan film print, Alborada is to be a refreshing new experience for the local audience. The film also hopes to spur a public discourse, says its director. Starring Spanish actor Luis J Romero as Neruda and French actress Anne Solene Hatte as Josie, the dialogues are in English with Sinhala and Tamil subtitles. The film also debuts several artistes. The main cast comprises Rithika Kodithuwakku (Tamil woman), Malcolm Machado (Neruda’s man servant), Dominic Keller (Lionel Wendt), Nimaya Harris (Patsy), Thusitha Laknath, Kaushalya Mendis, Samantha Balasuriya, Kasun Perera and Kanchana Nandani. Edited by Ravindra Guruge, the film is produced by H.D. Premasiri.

The Tokyo International Film Festival (TokyoIFF) which will feature Alborada is among the invited films for its ‘international competition’ which is the highlight of the festival. Multi-award winning French screen and stage actress Isabelle Huppert will chair the competition jury. This year’s theme of TokyoIFF is ‘Crossing Borders’. “There are plenty of international film festivals today. But only 14 of them are regarded as ‘A-Grade film festivals. TokyoIFF is one of them and the only Asian festival to get this recognition so far,” remarks Handagama. This year’s festival will be opened with the world premiere of Clint Eastwood’s latest film Cry Macho.



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Giving Sri Lankan street dogs love, respect and a home

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by Zanita Careem

An epitome of courage and wisdom, she is one of the top entrepreneurs in Sri Lanka, founder of Sri Lanka’s most stylish department where she served as Managing Director. Otara Gunawardena is truly inspirational.

She has earned many awards and notched several achievements. She was awarded the best female entrepreneur award at the Seventh US Stevie awards for Women in Business and 2018 Women of the Year Award by Women in Management (WIM).

Embark has become a popular brand. How do you account for it, its beginnings and its progress?

“Back in 2007, pedigreed dogs were popularly in demand but there were countless street dogs who needed care and love. Many of them were abused and unwanted. I wanted to change their circumstance and initiated Embark with the dream of providing a better life for our Sri Lanka’s street dogs and to give them the love, respect and the home they deserve.

“The brand was set up so that the profits would support the work we do with street dogs. It was also meant to help people to live a lifestyle supporting the cause and being ambassadors for the dogs with the clothing they wear. Most of the T- shirts have slogans conveying a positive message about street dogs in a fun way and many items became popular fashion statements.”

Explain the concept behind embark and the advocacy campaign for the welfare of homeless dogs?

“The concept was to make the street dog fashionable to own. And we have succeeded in doing so as more than 6,000 street pups have been re-homed, more than 60,000 vaccinated and sterilized throughout the island. Close to 35,000 plus street dogs have been rescued and treated over the last 15 years. Many people also now do their own rescues and adoptions.

“Embark mainly provides free medical treatment for sick and injured street dogs, the majority without owners. We also help find homes for pups who are abandoned on the streets. Besides the direct rescues we do there is also a foster network who rescues these pups, looks after them temporarily whilst we provide the required medical care – vaccinations, de-worming etc. and bring them to our monthly adoption programs where they find forever homes. We carried out many sterilization programs throughout the country and ensure there is population control within the street dog population in Sri Lanka. We also have a free medical clinic weekly at our head office in Colombo where we provide vaccinations, treatments and sterilizations for street/ adopted dogs.

What is your main focus in initiating this project?

“As explained previously, the main reason behind Embark is to give our Sri Lankan street dogs the love, respect and most of all the home that they deserve.”

Don’t you ever find the work you’re doing depressing and do you find any changes for the better?

“Sadly, the situation is quite dire in Sri Lanka but it has definitely improved from the past. There is now a no kill policy and sometimes there are programs of vaccination and sterilization implemented but unfortunately not done well. There is a lot more awareness and concern with people now against cruelty and also many more helping stray animals than before. However, there is still a lot of cruelty to elephants, an increase in terrible pet shops which are filled with suffering animals, cruel pedigree breeding, inhuman zoos, animals suffering in captivity etc.

“Lack of laws is a big issue too, something that has not changed despite many governments that have come and gone. It can be quite depressing to be aware of the cruelty and see it daily in a country such as ours where the need for compassion is stressed. We just do what we can each day to make a positive difference in the current situation.”

What has been the highlight of setting up Embark?

“Well, there are many, but I can say it has been rewarding to see a paralysed dog walk again, a dog who was severely ill recover and a rescued pup finding their forever home and living the best possible life. These may seem small achievements but they are close to my heart and I am glad I am able to help these amazing beings recover and live a good life. “

What are your programs to improve and protect animals and the environment in Sri Lanka?

“Embark under, Otara Foundation has been working on improving the lives of street dogs throughout the country, conducting rescue and re-homing initiatives whilst managing the canine population and preventing rabies through sterilization and vaccination programs across the country. Most of the rescues and treating of the injured are focused in the Western Province, but we do try our best to reach as best as we can in other areas.

“Embark has been at the forefront influencing policy in relation to animals and playing a vital role in making a significant change in the lives of animals and people alike.

“The Otara Foundation works with its accredited partners to promote large and medium-scale reforestation projects in the country. In addition, because it is the Foundation’s mandate that all life matters and every little effort is a step in the right direction, we support and promote smaller individual initiatives in reforestation and replanting. I personally advocate a better life for animals, speak out on behalf of the animals and participate in awareness.”

Any drawbacks?

“I can only look at the change I have been able to make for animals and the environment and be grateful for what’s been achieved. The drawbacks are knowing how much more we need to do and can be done if there was conscious caring leadership as a lot of bigger change has to be initiated from the top.”

How does it feel being a female entrepreneur?

“It has been a challenging yet enjoyable journey. I am happy to have been able to change the direction of retail and fashion in Sri Lanka and to give a lot more women hope to follow their dreams and be who they want to be.”

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Understanding fibroids

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Uterine myomas, commonly called fibroids, are very common in South Asian and African women. However, the risk of them turning malignant or cancerous is very rare. In an interview with the Sunday Island, Consultant Obstetrician and Gynaecologist and Senior Lecturer in Obstetrics and Gynaecology from the Kotelawala Defense University, Dr. Romanie Fernando throws light on the causes and treatment of fibroids which are found in 30% of Lankan women over 30 years.

by Randima Attygalle

Uterine fibroids are benign or non-cancerous muscular growths which could appear in the uterus (womb), uterine wall or on its surface. The uterine wall which is made of smooth muscle becomes harder as a result of fibroids. “There is a genetic pre-disposition involved in fibroids; South Asian and African women are at a higher risk of getting fibroids and why they are more pre-disposed is still unknown,” says Dr. Romanie Fernando.

Fibroids usually appear in women of reproductive age- generally between 30-40 years although in some, they could appear earlier than that. “They are very common, so much so, one in three Lankan women above 30 years will have fibroids. However, the risk of having a malignant change is very rare. Only less than 0.5% of uterine fibroids will have the risk of turning into cancer, hence women should not have unnecessary fears about them,” Dr. Fernando says.

Causes

Genetics and hormones largely influence fibroids and their growth. Estrogen and progesterone imbalance affect fibroid growth. When hormone production slows down during menopause, these fibroids usually shrink. “Family history, age and race are the other factors which could place a woman at a higher risk of developing them,” explains the obstetrician.

Symptoms

Symptoms depend on the size and site of the fibroid. Only about 30% of women with fibroids will have symptoms and the majority will be asymptomatic (not showing symptoms). “Some fibroids are so small and are of a size of a shirt button that they will go unnoticed and won’t cause any harm, while others grow in big masses and can affect the uterus and adjacent structures causing symptoms.”

If a fibroid is found inside the uterus or the uterine cavity, it could affect the menstrual cycle resulting in pain during menstruation, heavy periods and spotting (bleeding in between two cycles). “If a fibroid is found in a woman close to menopause and if it is not causing any menstrual or pressure symptoms, we usually wait until she reaches menopause without intervening because with low estrogen, the fibroids will naturally shrink.”

Diagnosis

Diagnosis is largely an incidental or accidental finding during a clinical examination. “During a routine pelvic exam a doctor may suspect fibroids if the shape of the uterus feels irregular or unusually large. Fibroids are also diagnosed during pregnancy when routine scans are done.”

Treatment

Treatment too depends on the age of the woman, size and site of the fibroid. The growth of most of the fibroids is very slow, usually about half a centimeter in two years, explains Dr. Fernando. “However, if the growth is very rapid within a short time, it could be worrying and we need to intervene to remove it.”

Although not a very common presentation, severe backache could also be a symptom of fibroids. “Some women with fibroids could also be anemic due to increased menstrual blood loss and in such instances, we address anemia as well.”

Fibroids are treated symptomatically. If a fibroid is found to be causing pain, heavy menstrual flow or pressure on other organs such as the bladder for example, (causing frequent urges to urinate or inability to control urine) investigations will be done to determine the best mode of treatment. “Treatment could be either with oral medication or surgery depending on the severity of each case.”

Fibroids and pregnancy

If fibroids larger than five centimeters are found in a woman before her pregnancy, they are usually surgically removed to avoid complications during pregnancy. During pregnancy, the blood supply to the womb is increased, hence removal of fibroids is very risky and is postponed until after the delivery. “After a pregnancy the hormone levels and the blood supply become less and the fibroids too tend to become smaller. There had been maternal deaths when trying to remove fibroids during cesarean operations because of the inability to control the heavy bleeding,” says the consultant.

Fibroids can cause foetal growth restrictions and premature labour in some women. The positioning of the baby could also be abnormal in some cases. “If the fibroid is found closer to the uterine cavity, there could be a higher risk of miscarrying and after normal delivery heavy bleeding (post-partum haemorrhage) is also common.

Types of surgery

There are many ways to treat fibroids. The treatment that works best for each woman will depend on symptoms, reproductive plans, age, and the site of fibroids in the womb. “In younger women with reproductive wishes (those who hope to get pregnant in future), we usually remove the fibroids with myomectomy. This type of surgery removes them while retaining the healthy tissue. Myomectomy could be performed in many ways from abdominal surgery to laparoscopy,” remarks Dr. Fernando.

Although several other non-surgical interventions including the latest high intensity focused ultrasound (HIFU) device which was developed for treating uterine fibroid and drugs to shrink fibroids are available in other parts of the world, locally we are still limited to treating fibroids surgically with myomectomy (removal of the fibroid) or hysterectomy (removal of the uterus), says the consultant.

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Vibrant hair colours and subtle make-up for 2022 –Ramani

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by Zanita Careem

As 2022 begins, the beauty boom continues. In this article Ramani Fernando takes a daring leap into the overarching themes set to trend 2022.

How we express ourselves through products, to progress in sustainability and inclusion across the country.

Ramani Fenando’s deep passion to beauty trends in hair, and engagement with, its growing enthusiastic followers continues to dominate the beauty scene in 2022.

A beacon for new trend beauty entrepreneurs will not be short of support and guidance helping to bring a growing number of mission driven beauty brands to life and scale. My passion became my career and that’s why I also say do what you love, you never know where it will lead.

Q: The past year has witnessed a significant shift to people who discover and indulge in beauty category, what your take on it.

I want to inspire people to understand that no matter what they look like, they are people. For me beauty is timeless. We want everyone to accept and love themselves for themselves and be comfortable in their own skin.

From being a beautician and handresser to becoming the founder of many Ramani Fernando salons I have come a long way. My name in the beauty industry is most recognizable, she gets candid about her passion,her salons, her favorite make up products and share words of encouragement for women entrepreneurs.

What do you think your brand Ramani Fernando salons is synonymous to?

I’d like to think that Ramani Fernando Salons has been a pioneering, inspirational and passionate brand with more than 45 years within the hair industry, having grown from a single unit into a large chain of salons around the country.

I wouldn’t want to compare my salons to other brands in the industry as each brand or individual has their own pioneers which makes them unique in their own way.

What kind of make up do you like?

Something I live by is “Less is More” I like subtle classic looks when it comes to bridal makeup, I feel elegance and simplicity are my focus.

Have you ever faced any crticism for your work?

Yes of course, I take it very seriously and in a positive manner as constructive criticism which I feel, we all need in our lives to learn and grow from.

Your words of encouragement for women who want to have identity of themselves?

“Each of us has unsuspected power to accomplish what we demand of ourselves.”

The new trends in hair styles, hair colour and hair cuts.

Hair Styles

Ten years ago, people were just styling hair and not thinking about the haircut underneath it.” It’s a way of approaching your hair that allows you to embrace all manner of trends, from embracing your natural curls to air drying your layers, and gives your hairstyle its unique character.

For a while now, we’ve favoured hairstyles which appear artfully undone, low maintenance and effortless, but many hairstylists are predicting a return to the old-school blow-dry and a more finessed approach to hair.

Hair Cuts

Undoubtedly the haircut of 2021, the bob is going nowhere for this year. But for young teenagers the bob remains at the forefront. There are so many new variations in the hair—changes in length, shape, volume and styling—for 2022

What do you think are the new make up trends this year?

Yet another popular type of makeup application is HD makeup. This makeup is done using regular brushes but products that contain pigments with light-diffusing coatings that blur the imperfections when light reflects onto them.

Mineral makeup is all about getting that natural finish with makeup that looks like your skin, but better. The products for this type of makeup style are made using compressed minerals and they don’t have any oil. This is generally the preferred makeup technique for oily skin types, but with the rightful application can work fabulously for any skin type.

The signature products that will dominate the skin industry.

There are many products that I consider as signature products for skin car, some of the more dominant ingredients, like niacinamide, hyaluronic acid, salicylic acid (to name a few) focusing on creating healthy moisturized, blemish free, pigment free and glowing skin.

Any hair colour that will dominate the young teenagers.

At the moment we see many teenagers coming in to the salon asking for many vibrant colours like blues, greens, purples and pinks.

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