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The Retreat

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By Michael Patrick O’Leary
Tobacco Bungalow

Twenty years ago, we moved from a land without snakes to a place where snakes abound. St Patrick (allegedly) drove all the snakes out of Ireland. There is a job for him in Sri Lanka (if only he exists). I heard my wife scream from the bathroom. She had trodden on a snake which looked about ten feet long. Distinctly displeased, it slithered sullenly out of the house. I am told the garandiya is not dangerous – unless you happen to be a rodent. It is not venomous – but you wouldn’t welcome a bite from it.

Deadly serpents were spotted in our Garden of Eden. We suspected that Pipistrelle, one of our dogs, died after being bitten on the snout by a Russel’s viper. The krait is a particularly unpleasant fellow, who has a habit of hiding its head under its flattened body and concealing itself under piles of leaves. It has been known to indulge in cannibalism. You stop breathing if you don’t get rapid treatment for a bite. One night we were sleeping soundly when our cat alerted us at 3 a.m. to the presence of a krait on our bedroom floor. We calmly swept it into a bucket and disposed of it outside.

Another night we saw six baby serpents emerging from a hole in the wall near the kitchen door. One day, I heard a susurration in the tea bushes two feet to my left and a spectacled cobra came towards me, fanning out its hood and staring. I stared back. We both made our excuses and left. My philosophy is, “if you leave them alone, they will leave you alone”.

Someone asked me if I missed the Cork rain. I said that I missed its moderation. Despite occasional droughts, in Uva, it sometimes felt as if the rain persisted for 25 hours a day, 13 months a year. Even indoors, it felt as though we were living underwater. After heavy rains, our river roared like an angry god and during calmer times it sounded like human voices murmuring or a radio on low volume. The rain flushed out scorpions like prehistoric Humvees, centipedes like malevolent moustaches and swarms of suicidal meroos emerging from holes in the wall and heading for the lights to provide fodder for frogs.

When we lived in Bandarawela, our water supply was metered, paid for and rationed. There were often periods when no water at all was available. After moving to Gonagala in 2003, we were never short of water in our house but the nearby villages sometimes needed bowsers to bring water in. At Gonagala, a tributary of the Menik Ganga (Gemstone River) formed the boundary of one side of our acre.

We live in a place of water.
Our house rests in the embrace
Of streams gushing
From the heights of Namunukula.
Spouts feed the fruit.
Rivulets plash into tarns
Collecting down in the paddy,
Birthing pools for mosquitoes.

 All night, rain surrounded our senses
As if we were underwater.
The susurrating storm flushed
Scorpions from the dank undergrowth.
Giant black beetles battered
Doors and windows for admittance
To the light.

 In the morning, sharp light focuses
Lunugala, free of its customary
Wisps of cloud.
All around the house,
Mass suicide of meroos – ants
Conscientiously eat the cadavers.
A black robin, its blackness so profound
That it strains the boundaries of black,
Transgressing into iridescent blue,
Framed against the azure,
Calls us out to the sun.

Our household water came straight from the Namunukula Mountains. It is difficult to stomach Colombo or London water after this because it reeks of chlorine. The frequent and lengthy heavy downpours could make Namunukula water muddy, and there were numerous cattle, goats and monkeys to shit and piss in it before it reached our house, but we got it to a clear state by filtering it through a series of tanks and pumps and boiling it. The garden was always lush because we set up a series of pipes and taps on all the terraces. Any surplus water flowed back into the river.

Too much water from the skies sometimes meant our water supply was threatened. Incessant heavy rain for over a month in the October monsoon brought down about a kilometre of road above our property. The landslide rearranged the water courses and the crashing boulders irreparably broke the channels that customarily brought water into our land. We soon got together a rapid reaction force to assemble a system of pipes to pump up water from the river.

Although there was much rain and wind, sometimes the sun was intense. This combination gives Uva tea its unique flavour. There was plenty of shade from the many trees in the terraced garden. The house was built of black stone (like our Irish cottage, The Sanctuary) and had good ventilation so there was no need of AC and we rarely used fans. In Ireland, we built fences to stop rabbits eating the lettuce. Here fencing will not stop the monkeys from the jungle eating our guavas. Our cousins the monkeys show typically human selfishness and wastefulness.  I watched a monkey sitting in our peach tree, fruit in each hand, both of which will be discarded half-eaten.

They picked avocadoes when they were still hard and then cast them on the ground in frustration. They also ate clothes pegs. I have seen the tiny intricate nests woven by tailor birds thrown to the ground by the monkeys, the eggs smashed to shards. The dogs went berserk when the monkeys arrived, emitting a particular piercing howl dedicated to monkeys. The monkeys responded by derisively throwing their shit at the dogs.

The borderline between man and nature is porous. Even in Ireland, it was not easy to impose order in our garden newly hewn from meadow. There rested and rusted a gate bought from a traveller, a barrier to deter errant sheep, a boundary to mark what we had bought from nature, human purpose stamped on wild fecundity. The gate disappeared in a tangle of thistles tall enough to look me in the eye.

Our vegetable production was not as successful in Uva as it had been in County Cork. Apart from beans, we had little success in growing “English” vegetables. The soil was sandy and was eroded by heavy wind and rain. We did our best to rearrange the flow of the water and to enrich the soil with compost and manure from our neighbors’ cattle. In County Cork, we were surrounded by farmland and all of the farmers were called Barry. John, James, and Dan (who had a finger missing) and a non-Barry called Walter. Perhaps that was why it was called the Barony of Barrymore. More Barrys than you could shake a shillelagh at. John Barry had sheep, cows and elegant racehorses. All our neighbouring farmers were generous in their donations of shit. We got a fine concoction of manure from the fragrant horseshit, mixed with sheep, cow and kitchen waste with a special ingredient of seaweed fresh from the strand. Plus a dash of citrus from the lemons we had with our gin and tonic. Our compost was a potent concoction which smelt good enough to eat.

We were fortunate that there were many good things that Mother Nature provided without any effort on our part, jak, billing, avocado, lemon, lime, grapefruit, pomelo, loquat, oranges, guavas, pomegranates, coffee.

We lived in the middle of a tea estate. Sun and rain brought lush abundance in myriad shades of green. Plants familiar in the west as tame houseplants – bromeliads, anthuriums, money plant, and amaryllis – were rampant in the wild.  The plant sold in small pots in the west as cheese plant, monstera deliciosa, grows wild to a height of 100 feet with leaves big enough to shelter a family of monkeys.

Mother Nature invaded the house itself. One evening a gecko landed in my eye. On another occasion a baby rat landed on my head. It was rather disconcerting to observe that the sugar was on the move as huge red ants tried to escape from the jar. I prefer my food to be immobile. I did not much like the way, in another jar, evil little weevils reduced the chick peas to gram flour. In the bathroom, mosquitoes the sizes of small helicopters emerged from the toilet bowl and swarms of wasps landed on my head. In the shower, a small frog, the size of a mung bean, with big bulging eyes like Ray Bans, glared at me. A larger frog, warty as Robert Redford, leapt around the tiles.

Taking an improving tome from the shelf, I discovered that I was holding only the spine in my hand and a pile of dust; armies of white ants hurtled about the shelves carrying their eggs. The library ate my books. There are 67 accepted species of booklice in Sri Lanka. The scientific name for this order of insects is Psocoptera. They first appeared in the Permian period, 295–248 million years ago. Were there any books to devour then? They are often regarded as the most primitive of the hemipteroids.  Many species live gregariously. Mating behaviour can be elaborate but I will not go into detail in a family newspaper.

Sometimes hooligan elements of the rodent domain set up home as squatters in the car and ate various bits of foam and plastic. No doubt, they will soon set to work on something important like the brake cables. Small, but probably rabid, bats flew dangerously close to my face as we relaxed in the evening with a glass or two on the porch. Much larger sinister bats, hung like innumerable Christopher Lees from the Sapus. In an Irish summer it was sometimes still light at midnight. It gets dark early in the Sri Lankan mountains (“It gets late early”, as my father used to say.) However, true darkness never descended on the bedroom. Fireflies blazoned the night, roosting in my hair like stars. It was like trying to get to sleep inside a fully lit Christmas tree.

During the day a serpent eagle rode the thermals looking for snakes full of frogs which were full of ants and flies. I think it may have had its eye on the cat, which was full of geckoes. Huge skrawking crows circled doomily around the Muslim slaughterhouse next door. Large frogs hopped about eating the flying ants. Coucals (of the subfamily Centropodinae and the genus Centropus) and snakes carried away the frogs for supper.



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Credibility in governance through elections and not security forces

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Ranil Wickremesinghe

By Jehan Perera

President Ranil Wickremesinghe’s warning that he is prepared to declare a state of national emergency and use the military to suppress any public protests for change of government would reflect the pressures he is under. The manner in which he has used the security forces to deal with the protest movement has been unexpected. His words and deeds are contradictory to what he has previously stood for as a five-time former prime minister. This is especially true in the case of the ethnic and religious minorities who have consistently voted for him and his party at elections. They have felt safer and more secure under his governments which always sought to reduce the heavy hand of state oppression in which national security is given pride of place. He has always promised them much though he has been unable to deliver on much of what he promised.

Notwithstanding the unfortunate rhetoric and actions of the present time the belief still persists that President Wickremesinghe is the best of the available options. Recent pronouncements of the president have reignited hope that he will address the problems of the religious and ethnic minorities. He has stated that he does not want to leave this problem to the next generation. He has said that he wants to resolve this intractable national problem by the country’s 75th independence anniversary on February 4 next year. The hope that the president will make a fresh effort to resolve their problems has led the main Tamil party, the TNA, to desist from voting against the budget which passed with a relatively small majority. Their spokesperson, M A Sumanthiran said in Parliament that due to the president reaching out to them, stretching out his hand, they did not vote against the budget although they disagreed with it.

It is not only in words that the president has reached out to the ethnic and religious minorities. Reports from the north and east indicate that the Maveer (Heroes) Day commemorations this year took place without incident. During the past two years scores of people were arrested and a massive presence of security forces blocked the people from participating in public events. On this occasion the security forces did not get involved in any attempt to stop the commemorations. University students distributed sweets and even cut a birthday cake to celebrate slain LTTE leader Velupillai Prabhakaran’s birthday. The analogy that the president drew to himself being seen as a Hitler who exterminated ethnic and religious minorities is misplaced. The release of those held under the Prevention of Terrorism Act for engaging in similar acts in the past would further contribute to the reconciliation process.

WORSENING CRISIS

In this context, the president’s use of militaristic rhetoric can only be understood in relation to the growing economic crisis that shows no sign of abating. The anticipated IMF bailout package is at risk of getting indefinitely delayed. It was initially anticipated to come in September then in November but now January is being targeted. Japan’s top brokerage and investment bank, Nomura Holdings Inc, has warned that seven countries – Egypt, Romania, Sri Lanka, Turkey, Czech Republic, Pakistan and Hungary – are now at a high risk of currency crises. Sri Lanka is in third place on the table of risk. The next devaluation of the rupee could see another spike in inflation that will make the cost of living even more unbearable to the masses of people.

The president is on record as having said that the economic crisis will get worse before it improves. Both anecdotal and statistical evidence indicates that it is indeed worsening. University teachers at the University of Sabaragamuwa reported that attendance in their classes was down by at least a quarter. Students who come from other parts of the country are unable to afford the cost of meals and so they stay at home. A study by the Institute of Policy Studies has shown that about four percent of primary, 20 percent of secondary and 26 percent of collegiate students had dropped out of school in the estate sector, which is the worst affected. The future costs to the country of a less well educated population is incalculable and inhumane.

As it is the situation is a dire one for large swathes of the population. Research from the University of Peradeniya has revealed that close to half of Sri Lanka’s population, 42 percent (up from 14 percent in 2019) are living under the poverty line. Professor of Economics Wasantha Athukorala has said there is a dramatic increase in the poverty level of over three-hold across the past three years. In 2019, nearly 3 million people lived below the poverty line, but that number has increased to 9.6 million in October 2022. In these adverse circumstances stability in a polity can be ensured either through legitimacy or through force. It would be tragic if the latter is the choice that is made.

ELECTORAL SOLUTION

President Wickremesinghe has been stressing the importance of political stability to achieve economic development. His recent statement that the security forces will be used to negate any unauthorised protest is a sign that the government expects the conditions of economic hardship to escalate. The general public who are experiencing extreme economic hardship are appalled at the manner in which those who committed acts of corruption and violence in the past are being overlooked because they belong to the ruling party and its cliques. The IMF has made anti-corruption a prerequisite to qualify for a bailout, calling for “Reducing corruption vulnerabilities through improving fiscal transparency and public financial management, introducing a stronger anti-corruption legal framework, and conducting an in-depth governance diagnostic, supported by IMF technical assistance.”

It is morally unacceptable even if politically pragmatic that the president is failing to take action against the wrongdoers because he needs their votes in parliament. As a start, the president needs to appoint a credible and independent national procurement committee to ensure that major economic contracts are undertaken without corruption. Second, the president needs to bite the bullet on elections. The country’s burning issues would be better accepted by the country and world at large if they are being dealt with by a statesman than by a dictator. Government that is based on the people’s consent constitutes the sum and substance of democracy. This consent is manifested through free and fair elections that are regularly held. Local government elections have been postponed for a year and are reaching their legal maximum in terms of postponement. These elections need to be held before March next year.

Elections will enable the people to express their views in a democratic manner to elect their representatives for the present. This would provide the government with guidance in terms of the decisions it is being called to take to revive the economy and place the burden in a manner that will be acceptable to the people. The provincial council elections have been postponed since 2018. Democratically elected provincial councils share in the burdens of governance. The devolution of power that took place under the 13th Amendment was meant to promote ethnic harmony in the country. The president who has taken the position that he is for a solution to the ethnic conflict should seriously consider conducting the provincial council elections together with the local government elections se their financial costs. By doing so he will also gain legitimacy as a democratic statesman and not a dictator.

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WEDNESDAY – Movie Review

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The Addams Family is back with a new tale to tell! Originally created by Charles Addams as a comic strip published in The New Yorker, it offered readers a sarcastic take on the ‘typical nuclear family’ by substituting it with a more macabre bunch of strange and eerie individuals. Since then the titular family has been adapted on to the big screen many times, from live action movies to animated versions, the Addams Family has gained many fans throughout the years. Created by Alfred Gough and Miles Millar, with Tim Burton working on four episodes of the eight-part series, Wednesday is a welcoming tale for young fans, but unfortunately fails to think outside the box and remains anchored to the floor with a messy storyline.

Dead-eyed Wednesday Addams (Jenna Ortega) is a stubborn, independent and intelligent teenager in this new series. Her penchant for attracting trouble wherever she goes alarms her parents, Morticia (Catherine Zeta-Jones) and Gomez (Luis Guzmán). With an already strained relationship with her parents (specifically her mother), Wednesday is enrolled at Nevermore, an academy for outcasts like herself. Having attended the academy themselves, Morticia and Gomez are hopeful that their daughter will ‘fit right in’. Caught between trying to build her own identity and other teenage complexities, Wednesday soon finds herself in the middle of a twisted mystery.

This is the first time audiences are introduced to a teenage Wednesday, which allowed the creators to build a new world on their own terms, but while keeping true to the original nature of the character. The creators do a fair amount of world building by introducing other outcasts like the Fangs (vampires), Stoners (Gorgons), Scales (sirens) and Furs (werewolves), among others. Nevermore Academy itself is beautiful and comes with the classic package of creepy crypts, hidden rooms and secret societies. The series also offers a decent amount of gore, although they could have added more given Wednesday’s proclivity for gore-related activities. The series deals with classic young-adult tropes which includes teenage crushes, bullies, relationships and even prom, among other things. The series navigates through Wednesday’s journey of self-discovery, which is a new avenue for both the character and the fans. From understanding and displaying her emotions to discovering her identity and understanding her peers, the series takes a deep dive into heavy material.

Ortega’s performance as the titular character plays a major role in keeping audiences glued to the screen. This is also the first time viewers are shown a teenage Wednesday Addams, which works to Ortega’s benefit as she depicts more dimensions to the ghoulish, morose character many are associated with based on previous renditions. Her facial expressions and ability to deliver on seriously emotional moments strengthens her role as the lead. The rest of the Addams Family, even with limited screen time, lack the eccentricities their characters should have. Hopeless romantics Morticia and Gomez seem incompatible in this version and Uncle Fester is far less crazy than he ought to be. The only member worth mentioning is the Thing—a severed hand— who brought more character and spirit to the series acting alongside Ortega. With barely any room to develop a majority of the characters are prosaic and tedious, even though they remain vital to the plot.

Apart from Ortega, Gwendoline Christie and Emma Myers deserve honorable mentions for their roles as Nevermore’s head teacher, Larissa Weems and the peppy Enid Sinclair respectively. Enid quickly became a fan favorite as the character was the polar opposite to Wednesday. Her character is vital to Wednesday’s character development and their journey to find common ground as mismatched individuals is amusing.

Christina Ricci who played Wednesday in the 90s returns as ‘normie’ teacher, Miss Thornhill and unfortunately barely stands out and this in large part due to the messy storyline. The series is bogged down with numerous subplots and overlapping tropes and the characters with potential for growth are completely overlooked. With love triangles, bullies and killer monsters on the loose, the series self-destructs and the climax sinks into disappointment.

At the end of the day, Wednesday plays to the beat of the new generation and touches on new themes, which is welcoming seeing as the character should grow up at some point. While not everyone may relate to Wednesday’s teenage perils, it is interesting to witness her growth and her journey as an ‘outcast’ or ‘weirdo’. And while Wednesday doesn’t exactly offer a distinctly unique story, it gives audiences a small taste of what Jenna Ortega’s Wednesday is capable of. Creating a story around a well-established franchise is a difficult task, and in this case the creators fail to add value to their visions. If the series continues, the creators will have the opportunity to think further outside the box and push the limits to Wednesday’s character and give audiences a bone-chilling experience. Wednesday is currently streaming on Netflix.

 

 

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Stage set for… AWESOME FRIDAY

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The past few weeks have been a very busy period for the new-look Mirage outfit…preparing themselves for their big night – Friday, December 2nd – when they would perform, on stage, for the very first time, as Donald Pieries (leader/vocals/drums), Benjy (bass), Niro Wattaladeniya (guitar), Viraj Cooray (guitar/vocals), Asangi Wickramasinghe (keyboard/vocals), along with their two frontline female vocalist, Sharon (Lulu) and Christine.

They have thoroughly immersed themselves in their practice sessions as they are very keen to surprise their fans, music lovers, and well-wishers, on opening night…at the Peacock, Berjaya Hotel, in Mount Lavinia.

Action starts at 8.00 pm and, thereafter, it will be five hours of great music, along with EFFEX DJs Widhara and Damien, interspersed with fun and excitement…for the whole family!

Yes, opening night is for the whole family, so you don’t need to keep some of your family members at home – kids, especially.

Working on their repertoire for Friday, bassist Benjy says “what we will dish out will be extra special, with lots of action on stage.”

It would be interesting to see Sharon (Lulu) doing her thing with Mirage, after her early days with the Gypsies, and, I’m told, a dynamic performance from Sharon is what is in store for all those who make it to the Peacock this Friday

Edward (Eddy) Joseph (centre) with Donald and Benjy

While the band was at one of their practice sessions, last week, they had a surprise visitor – Edward (Eddy) Joseph, a former member of the group Steelers, who is now based in Germany.

Eddy is here on a short visit and is scheduled to return to Germany, tomorrow (30).

He spent an hour with Mirage, at their practice session, and says he is disappointed that he would not be around for the group’s opening night.

However, there is a possibility of several well-known personalities, in the showbiz scene, turning up, on Friday night, to experience the sounds of the new-look Mirage, including Sohan Weerasinghe and Joey Lewis (from London).

Rajiv Sebastian, too, says he is keen to be a part of the fun-filled evening.

You could contact Benjy, on 0777356356, if you need to double check…their plans for AWESOME FRIDAY!

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