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The Teachers who taught and inspired me

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by Dr.Nihal D Amerasekera

‘Education is not the filling of a pot but the lighting of a fire.’ –W.B. Yeats

George Bernard Shaw in his drama “Man and Superman” commented ‘Those who can, do; those who can’t, teach’. His words have since been a consistent irritation to teachers. Long years before G.B Shaw, Aristotle in his wisdom said “Those that know, do. Those that understand, teach”. The Greek philosopher also went on “The roots of education are bitter, but the fruit is sweet”. We know that only too well.

As the years pass and memories fade there are some things we will never forget. Entry into the Faculty of Medicine was the culmination of years of preparation and sacrifice. We still had the security of home. Our parents fed and clothed us and paid the bills. We dreamed it was a passport to fame and fortune. There was such a great sense of myopic optimism, we lost ourselves in the adulation. Life always has ways to bring us back to reality!!

It’s been said before, ours was the golden age of medical education in Sri Lanka. I feel greatly privileged to have been taught by some remarkable teachers. I still consider our Professors, lecturers and clinical tutors as some of the best in the world. I marvel at their clinical skills and recoil at their egotistical arrogance. We remember them all with gratitude. We soon learnt to survive and even thrive in that air of toxicity. We tread cautiously and endured the arrogance and conceit in silence in the hope of better times. In reality it wasn’t all bad. Surprisingly I don’t feel resentful. The tough life gave us self-reliance, confidence, grit and determination. I am told, the atmosphere and attitudes have evolved significantly to reflect changes in society. I remember our teachers with much affection and gratitude and thank them for their commitment to teaching.

As the sunset on our student days, there was a new dawn of a career in Medicine. Although we left the faculty, it never really left us. Time ticked on and decades passed swiftly. Many of us have now bade farewell to our professional lives. Here we are on our onward journey recalling memories of a time now long gone.

Prof Milroy Paul

Prof Milroy Paul had the advantage of having medical luminaries in both sides of his family of distinguished academics and public servants. After schooling at Royal College Colombo he went to Ceylon Medical College. After a year he proceeded to Kings College Hospital in London where he was awarded prizes in surgery, orthopaedic surgery, hygiene, psychological medicine and forensic medicine. He qualified MBBS in 1924 and later gained both, the MRCP and the FRCS, a brilliant and rare accomplishment and a badge of his intellectual merit. Subsequently he obtained the MS from London. He was an intellectual who was invited to deliver the Hunterian Oration on three separate occasions at the Royal College of Surgeons in London.

Many from my era and before will recognise Prof Milroy Paul as the Godfather of Surgery in our island. From 1936-1965 he was the founder Professor of Surgery at the Colombo Medical College and the Children’s Hospital. I presume his sharp intuition was an enormous help in his profession as a surgeon before the days of digital scans. He was a man of great presence and striking appearance and his charisma seemed magnetic. I believe as the Professor he was unable to do any private surgery but never did any after retirement although he was popular, widely known and respected. The richness of his career was his priceless gift.

I remember with great fondness and nostalgia his erudite lectures in surgery at the administration block of the faculty. The Prof delivered his lessons with such effortlessness and aplomb without even a scrap of paper to jog his memory. Listening to him, his brilliance was never in doubt. They were lectures in commonsense as much as surgical diagnosis and treatment. He was charismatic and eloquent. His simplicity, modesty and humility stood out. I was saddened to hear that in later years he became blind in both eyes after a tennis injury. It seems he never gave the impression that he was perturbed by ill health. He passed away in 1989. May his Soul Rest in Peace.

Monumentum requiris, circumspice (if you seek his monument, look around)

The service provided by his students is a lasting legacy to show his immense contribution to medical education in Ceylon.

Dr U.S Jayawickrama

I have never felt so emotional doing a portrait as I did with this one of my former boss. He is one of the finest human beings I’ve met in my life and consider working with him a great privilege. He was at Royal College Colombo and entered Medical College in 1949. After the MBBS in 1954 he completed his MRCP and MD in 1963. He was a Consultant Physician at the General Hospital Colombo (GHC) for 18 years. He was also elected President of the Ceylon College of Physicians in 1980.

My final assignment with the GHC was in 1973/74 when I was a Registrar to Dr U.S Jayawickreme. I learnt much more from USJ than clinical medicine. A deeply thoughtful man, he taught us how to connect with our patients.

One such patient was Wimal, a clerk working in a government department. He was around 50 years old. Wimal had a young family and was terminally ill with myeloid leukaemia. I remember speaking with him everyday. I became closer to him than any other patient in the ward. I spoke and joked with him just before I went for my lunch break. On my return the guy in the bed next to Wimal gave me the sad news that he passed away. Wimal had asked him to say thank you and goodbye to me for all the help and friendship. I still remember his friendly face and his soft voice.

USJ took over the ward from Dr W Wijenaike. He was a fine clinician and a dignified unassuming gentleman. Always immaculately dressed he showed tremendous kindness to his patients and to the staff. In turn he received great loyalty and enormous respect. He showed us how to conduct ourselves calmly and with dignity in the ward. His patients adored him. His work ethic and bedside manner had a tremendous impact on me. That was a fine finale for my clinical years at the GHC. In his written reference his generous praise and expression of pride in his (imperfect) registrar meant so much to me.

He passed away at the age of 88.

May he find the ultimate Bliss of Nirvana

Dr R.S Thanabalasundrum

On starting Clinical work at the GHC in 1964 I was immensely fortunate to belong to a generation taught by a plethora of superbly dedicated and gifted teachers. Although they lead busy lives with a thriving private practice they never failed to give their all to the students. I am greatly indebted to all of them for their dedication and commitment. In that firmament of shining stars I would consider Dr Thanabalasundrum as the one that shone the brightest.

My first clinical appointment as a medical student in Colombo was with Dr Thanabalasundrum. Then he was at the zenith of his profession and remained as one of the best teachers of clinical medicine in the country. He was a brilliant professional and a consummate physician. He took teaching seriously and introduced a system and structure into history taking. He brought logic into our clinical methods, diagnosis and treatment. When presenting cases nothing incorrect went past his sharp intellect. He always tested and challenged the student’s narrative. The little book of Clinical Methods by Hutchison and Hunter held more reverence than the bible. His pearls of wisdom filled our notebooks.

Dr Rajadurai Selliah Thanabalasundrum was born in Kokuvil in 1922. His father was a doctor. After a stint in the local primary school he entered Royal College Colombo where he had a glittering academic career. In the Ceylon Medical College he worked diligently to obtain first class honours in all examinations achieving the rare feat of distinctions in Medicine, Surgery and Obstetrics in the Final MBBS in 1946. After obtaining his MD in 1954 and MRCP (Lond) he returned to become the Visiting Physician in Jaffna. He was appointed Consultant Physician to the GHC in 1956. In that same year he was married to Pamathy Sivagnanasundrum. They had two daughters and a son.

After retirement from the GHC he continued with his private practice in Colombo for many years until he became the Professor of Medicine of the North Colombo Medical College in 1985. There he remained until 1995. As Professor he was greatly respected as an exceptional lecturer and good colleague. In recognition of his long years of service to the nation the Government bestowed on him the honour of Deshabandu in 1998.

All through the political upheavals and the grim era of ethnic tensions his love for the country of his birth sustained him and never wavered. He continued to live at Horton Place Colombo-7 until his death in November 2007. His remains were cremated with Hindu rites at the General Cemetery Kanatte. The likes of him are a rarity and irreplaceable in this selfish and egotistical world.

His name will be etched in the Hall of Fame of Medical greats in Sri Lanka to be remembered for all time.

May he find Eternal Peace.

Don Jinadasa Attygalle

He was educated at Royal College Colombo and qualified LMS from the Ceylon Medical College. He was a Visiting Physician at the GHC until his retirement in 1972 when he continued seeing patients privately at his home and in the private hospitals.

Dr Attygalle was a fine physician, a meticulous teacher, and a consultant of the old school with clinical acumen and insight of the first quality. I remember well his ward classes when he taught us the basics of taking a good history, eliciting physical signs and collating the facts to reach a diagnosis. He was softly spoken and treated the houseman, nurses, medical students and other staff with great kindness and respect. Many of Dr Attygalle’s junior medical staff speak of him in glowing terms as an excellent and astute physician and of his conscientious sense of honour. As a Consultant Physician he had a distinguished career that rivalled the best.

Dr Attygalle married Dr Daphne Kanagaratne. She became professor of pathology and dean of the Colombo medical faculty. She predeceased him in 1989. They did not have any children.

He was one of the great physicians of his time admired, loved and respected by his patients and medical colleagues. Through his enthusiasm he inspired many young junior doctors to sustained achievement. A veritable role model for all doctors from all disciplines. Rather reclusive and even enigmatic, he was a very private man away from the GHC. Dr Attygalla was a devout Buddhist well known for his generous donations to a multitude of charities. After a lifetime of service, he passed away in 1997. May he find the ultimate bliss of Nirvana.

Prof Valentine Basnayake

He was born in 1925 and had his schooling at St Joseph’s College Colombo. After the MBBS Dr Basnayake spent his postgraduate years at Oxford University and joined the Department of Physiology in Colombo in 1949. I recall with nostalgia attending one of his tutorials in his office with all the curtains drawn. In the warmth of the room, the soft melancholic drone of his voice put me to sleep. I did see several others struggling to keep awake. Perhaps there was a booze up in the Men’s Common Room the previous evening!!

He had a lifelong love of music and was a fine pianist. He soon became Sri Lanka’s foremost accompanist and a regular performer at the Lionel Wendt. In 1968 he joined the Faculty of Medicine at Peradeniya as its Professor of Physiology which was the ultimate accolade. Soon he became the Dean of the Faculty a position he held for three years with poise, tact and equanimity. Prof VB was a softly spoken unpretentious gentleman who had no harsh word for anyone.

He belonged to a fast vanishing era of privileged aristocrats of the Medical Profession. Doubtless that was part of his appeal as a cultured gentleman. Despite his posh diction he was tolerant and non-demonstrative and never pompous. He wore those privileges with modesty and charm. In an era when some senior professionals had big egos and treated students with contempt Prof Basnayake treated each of us with courtesy, dignity and respect. That is how I would remember this erudite scholar. He passed away in 2014. May he find Eternal Peace.



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PLANES OF EXISTENCE

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(from THE BUDDHA AND HIS TEACHINGS by Venerable Narada Mahathera)

“Not to be reached by going is world’s end.” ANGUTTARA NIKAYA

According to Buddhism the earth, an almost insignificant speck in the universe, is not the only habitable world, and humans are not the only living beings. Indefinite are world systems and so are living beings. Nor is “the impregnated ovum the only route to rebirth.” By traversing one cannot reach the end of the world, says the Buddha.

Births may take place in different spheres of existence. There are altogether thirty-one places in which beings manifest themselves according to their moral or immoral Kamma.

There are four states of unhappiness (Apaya) which are viewed both as mental states and as places.

They are:

1. Niraya (ni + aya = devoid of happiness) woeful states where beings atone for their evil Kamma. They are not eternal hells where beings are subject to endless suffering. Upon the exhaustion of the evil Kamma there is a possibility for beings born in such states to be reborn in blissful states as the result of their past good actions.

2. Tiracchana-yoni (tiro = across; acchana = going), the animal kingdom. Buddhist belief is that beings are born as animals on account of evil Kamma. There is, however, the possibility for animals to be born as human beings as a result of the good Kamma accumulated in the past. Strictly speaking, it should be more correct to state that Kamma which manifested itself in the form of a human being, may manifest itself in the form of an animal or vice versa, just as an electric current can be manifested in the forms of light, heat and motion successively — one not necessarily being evolved from the other.

It may be remarked that at times certain animals particularly dogs and cats, live a more comfortable life than even some human beings due to their past good Kamma.

It is one’s Kamma that determines the nature or one’s material form which varies according to the skilfulness or unskilfulness of one’s actions.

3. Peta-yoni (pa + ita) lit., departed beings, or those absolutely devoid of happiness. They are not disembodied spirits of ghosts. They possess deformed physical forms of varying magnitude, generally invisible to the naked eye. They have no planes of their own, but live in forests, dirty surroundings, etc. There is a special book, called Petavatthu, which exclusively deals with the stories of these unfortunate beings. Samyutta Nikaya also relates some interesting accounts of these Petas.

Describing the pathetic state of a Peta, the Venerable Moggallana says:

“Just now as I was descending Vultures’ Peak Hill, I saw a skeleton going through the air, and vultures, crows, and falcons kept flying after it, pecking at its ribs, pulling apart while it uttered cries of pain. To me, friend, came this thought: O but this is wonderful! O but this is marvellous that a person will come to have such a shape, that the individuality acquired will come to have such a shape.”

“This being,” the Buddha remarked, “was a cattle-butcher in his previous birth, and as the result of his past Kamma he was born in such a state. “

According to the Questions of Milinda there are four kinds of Petas — namely, the Vantasikas who feed on vomit, the Khuppipāsino who hunger and thirst, the Nijjhamatanhikaā, who are consumed by thirst, and the Paradattapajavino who live on the gifts of others.

As stated in the Tirokudda Sutta these last mentioned Petas share the merit performed by their living relatives in their names, and could thereby pass on to better states of happiness.

4. Asura-yoni — the place of the Asura-demons. Asura, literally, means those who do not shine or those who do not sport. They are also another class of unhappy beings similar to the Petas. They should be distinguished from the Asuras who are opposed to the Devas.

Next to these four unhappy states (Duggati) are the seven happy states (Sugati). They are:

1. Manussa The Realm of human beings.

The human realm is a mixture of both pain and happiness. Bodhisattas prefer the human realm as it is the best field to serve the world and perfect the requisites of Buddhahood. Buddhas are always born as human beings.

2. Catummaharajika — the lowest of the heavenly realms where the Guardian Deities of the four quarters of the firmament reside with their followers.

3. Tavatimsa — lit., thirty-three — the Celestial Realm of the thirty-three Devas where Deva Sakka is the King. The origin of the name is attributed to a story which states that thirty-three selfless volunteers led by Magha (another name for Sakka), having performed charitable deeds, were born in this heavenly realm. It was in this heaven that the Buddha taught the Abhidhamma to the Devas for three months.

4. Yama — “The Realm of the Yama Devas.” That which destroys pain is Yāma.

5. Tusita — lit., happy dwellers, is “The Realm of Delight.”

The Bodhisattas who have perfected the requisites of Buddhahood reside in this Plane until the opportune moment comes for them to appear in the human realm to attain Buddhahood. The Bodhisatta Metteyya, the future Buddha, is at present residing in this realm awaiting the right opportunity to be born as a human being and become a Buddha. The Bodhisatta’s mother, after death, was born in this realm as a Deva (god). From here he repaired to Tavatimsa Heaven to listen to the Abhidhamma taught by the Buddha.

6. Nimmanarati — “The Realm of the Devas who delight in the created mansions.”

7. Paranimmitavasavatti — “The Realm of the Devas who make others’ creation serve their own ends.”

The last six are the realms of the Devas whose physical forms are more subtle and refined than those of human beings and are imperceptible to the naked eye. These celestial beings too are subject to death as all mortals are. In some respects, such as their constitution, habitat, and food they excel humans, but do not as a rule transcend them in wisdom. They have spontaneous births, appearing like youths and maidens of fifteen or sixteen years of age.

These six Celestial Planes are temporary blissful abodes where beings are supposed to live enjoying fleeting pleasures of sense.

The four unhappy states (Duggati) and the seven happy states (Sugati) are collectively termed Kamaloka — Sentient Sphere.

Superior to these Sensuous Planes are the Brahma Realms or Rupaloka (Realms of Form) where beings delight in jhanic bliss, achieved by renouncing sense-desires.

Rupaloka

consists of sixteen realms according to the jhānas or ecstasies cultivated. They are as follows:

(a) T’he Plane of the First Jhana;

1. Brahma Parisajja –– The Realm of the Brahma‘s Retinue.

2. Brahma Purohita — The Realm of the Brahma’s Ministers.

3. Mahaā Brahma — The Realm of the Great Brahmas.

The highest of the first three is Mahaā Brahma. It is so called because the dwellers in this Realm excel others in happiness, beauty, and age-limit owing to the intrinsic merit of their mental development.

(b) The Plane of the Second Jhāna:

4. Parittābhā — The Realm of Minor Lustre,

5. Appamānābhā — The Realm of Infinite Lustre,

6. Ābhassarā —

The Realm of the Radiant Brahmas.

(c) The Plane of the Third Jhāna:

7. Parittasubha — The Realm of the Brahmas of Minor Aura.

8. Appamānasubha — The Realm of the Brahmas of Infinite Aura.

9. Subhakinhaā — The Realm of the Brahmas of Steady Aura.

(d) The Plane of the Fourth Jhana:

10. Vehapphala — The Realm of the Brahmas of Great Reward.

11. Asaatta — The Realm of Mindless Beings,

12. Suddhavasa — The Pure Abodes which are further subdivided into five, viz:

i. Aviha — The Durable Realm,
ii. Atappa — The Serene Realm,
iii. Sudassa — The Beautiful Realm,
iv. Sudassi — The Clear-Sighted Realm.
v. Akanittha — the Highest Realm.

Only those who have cultivated the Jhanas or Ecstasies are born on these higher planes. Those who have developed the First Jhana are born in the first Plane; those who have developed the Second and Third Jhanas are born in the second Plane; those who have developed the Fourth and Fifth Jhanas are born in the third and fourth Planes respectively.

The first grade of each plane is assigned to those who have developed the Jhanas to an ordinary degree, the second to those who have developed the Jhanas to a greater extent, and the third to those who have gained a complete mastery over the Jhanas.

In the eleventh plane, called the Asaatta, beings are born without a consciousness.

Here only a material flux exists. Mind is temporarily suspended while the force of the Jhāna lasts. Normally both mind and matter are inseparable. By the power of meditation, it is possible, at times, to separate matter from mind as in this particular case. When an Arahant attains the Nirodha Samāpatti, too, his consciousness ceases to exist temporarily. Such a state is almost inconceivable to us. But there may be inconceivable things which are actual facts.

The Suddhavasas or Pure Abodes are the exclusive Planes of Anagamis or Never-Returners. Ordinary beings are not born in these states. Those who attain Anāgāmi in other planes are reborn in these Pure Abodes. Later, they attain Arahantship and live in those planes until their life-term ends.

There are four other planes called Arupaloka which are totally devoid of matter or bodies. Buddhists maintain that there are realms where mind alone exists without matter. “Just as it is possible for an iron bar to be suspended in the air because it has been flung there, and it remains as long as it retains any unexpended momentum, even so the Formless being appears through being flung into that state by powerful mind-force, there it remains till that momentum is expended. This is a temporary separation of mind and matter, which normally co-exist. “

It should be mentioned that there is no sex distinction in the Rupaloka and the Arupaloka.

The Arupaloka is divided into four planes according to the four Arupa Jhanas.

They are:

1. The Sphere of the Conception of Infinite Space.

2. The Sphere of the Conception of Infinite Consciousness.

3. The Sphere of the Conception of Nothingness.

4. The Sphere of Neither Perception nor Non-Perception.

It should be remarked that the Buddha did not attempt to expound any cosmological theory.

The essence of the Buddha’s teaching is not affected by the existence or non-existence of these planes. No one is bound to believe anything if it does not appeal to his reason. Nor is it proper to reject anything because it cannot be conceived by one’s limited knowledge.

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Sins of Fathers and Comrades

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“The sins of the father will be laid upon the children.”

Exodus 20:5 (5th of Ten Commandments)

The Merchant of Venice (Act 3, Scene 5)

by Kumar David

It is a terrible, a terrifying curse that the sins of one generation will be visited upon successors. Some Christian sects, to this day, hold the Jews responsible for the murder of Jesus Christ though a learned Christian scholar, Lay-Preacher and friend assures me that this is perverse – Pontius Pilate must carry full responsibility he declares. But another with lesser ecclesiastical credentials (he never would have made it to Lay-Preacher though lay was not the obstacle) assures me that unlike JR in 1983, Pilate had good reason to fear that he had no choice and that the mob threatened governance. Actually, JR never made that lame-duck excuse – I think he rather enjoyed watching it. (Aside: Ranil was JR’s nephew in whose Cabinet he loyally served throughout the treachery and slaughter – Bahu please note).

Two organisations are paying a high price for their past, the blame for which is laid on their heads. The example in the headlines this month is the Taliban. The curses of centuries of faith-based relics have submerged it, though internal conflicts may still reverse the worst of the dark age. The other, always in the rear-view mirror of Lankan politics are the 1971 and 1989 events. I promised in a previous piece that I would stop bugging the JVP for long ago follies for which present leaders bear no responsibility. I intend to keep that promise. The misfortune is that that we the NPP still face “Didn’t your people do that?”, “Can we trust them again?” and such flak. A giant blunder by one generation of comrades hangs over the heads of their successors. This piece however is about the Taliban, a theme to which I seem to be getting addicted.

That Chairman fellow said “Women hold up half the sky”, but the Taliban by imposing cruel dress codes and obsolete conduct on unwilling women who have tasted personal freedom for two decades have created an implacable foe. (If some prefer to adhere of their own volition, that’s fine). Opposition to gender oppression and the Pashtun power grab will ignite conflict. There were sporadic protests by small groups of women earlier, but on September 7 a large one, thousands strong marched for miles through the streets of Kabul and was finally dispersed by shots in the air. There are videos of beating and detention of well-disciplined women protesters by bloody fool machismo in the lower ranks of the Taliban who will have to be crushed. It remains to be seen if the leadership has the guts to do this or whether it will go the way of all Lankan regimes on inter-racial and religious injustice. I am not holding my breath. On September 8 the regime impose a ban on demonstrations; this will be defied. If the Taliban mows down Afghan women with grapeshot what is left of its Islamic credentials?

So far, I have written in support of the expulsion of NATO. This has been done and now Act 2 of the drama has commenced. It is time to hold the Taliban to acceptable standards of human and democratic rights but instead it has formed an all-male mainly Pashtun government of aged hard-line dotards and given the lie to promises of ethnic inclusivity and recognition of women. It has slipped back to primeval faiths and primitive customs. The Taliban Education Minister who has never been to school, when challenged about his fitness for the job responded: “Education is irrelevant so long as you are pious.” There will be a push back by younger Taliban cadres as the economy goes into free fall and conflict with women and non-Pashtun ethnic-minorities swells. I am of the view that we are passing through a period in which nothing is settled and foresee changes within the Taliban and in the nature of the state.

Foreign occupation has had contradictory effects. On the one hand liberal values and a liber-democratic state were the proclaimed objectives. On the other hand, drones and artillery killed thousands of civilians, the Afghan army murdered and plundered, and billions of dollars unloaded on foreign contactors spread a plague of corruption from the President down. In sum the occupation was a disaster and a failure.

Confessional slavery

Saudi Arabia, the Gulf States, Iran, the Taliban regime and some others impose dress codes, curtail commonplace democratic rights, deny education and horse whip or stone to death women who defy primitive religious injunctions imposed on all whether these practices are egregious to other genders, faiths or ethnic collectives. (I avoid the term Islamic as I am not schooled in whether Islam actually sanctions such incongruity and cruelty). In the best-case, the Taliban will see the writing on the wall and retreat, give or take a few tactical adjustments. If it is deaf to half its population it will engender a women’s uprising; these women have nothing to lose but their chains and a world to gain. It will take time for a clandestine but identifiable leadership to mature and resistance organise itself. The Taliban does not want to give any rights to women and it will concede only what it is compelled to by domestic and international pressure.

The best Sri Lankans of all faiths, ages, communities and genders can do is to extend moral and if possible practical support to women enslaved by confessional states. Did you know that Afghans were making creative and aesthetically sensitive films from well before Taliban-I? Muslim women in open societies have shone in the professions, academia and public service. Their fathers, brothers and husbands now have a duty to help this process everywhere. It is a shame that Islamic clerics and Muslim laymen and scholars across the world have failed to denounce the Taliban’s behaviour. Many, not only in the thuggish lower ranks, who obstruct progress gun in one hand and whiplashing women on the streets, are alarmed by their own limited educational and intellectual horizons and nativist ignorance. That’s the long and the short of it.

The New Taliban Government: a formula for strife

The Taliban proclaimed an Islamic Emirate, but a Republic is emerging on the streets of Kabul and Herat. Two weeks ago I wrote about the internal dynamics in political movements in watershed periods. It is necessary now to admit that in Afghanistan and in the Taliban the first round has been won by the reactionaries. Nevertheless, professed pieties and hermetic decision making notwithstanding, the conflict within Taliban driven by anger on the streets and dissent in the countryside, is only beginning. Yes true, the Taliban did not fight for 20 years in the mountains to win power and then create a liberal state. Nor do the hardliners care a whit about the hardships people suffer without medical services and food. What will forces change within the movement is if these deficits provoke challenges to its power in the country at large, and if internal cracks within the Taliban widen under stress. The real world will in the end win over the imagined world of faith, ideology and ignorance.

You would be justified to reckon that the government was formed in a home-for-the-aged. Aging Mohammad Hassan Akhund, an aide of the Taliban founder Omar, is PM and Abdul Ghani Baradar his deputy. Omar’s son Yaqoob is defence minister. Two senior Haqqani network members, leader Sirajuddin Haqqani and his aging uncle Khalil Haqqani are interior minister and minister for refugees respectively. Akund, Siarjuddin and Khalil are on UN sanctions lists for terrorism. It’s as if after victory in the Panjshir Valley they cocked their thumb at the world, especially the West and said “Bugger off! We won the war. We will do as we please”. That in broad terms is the government though described as “Interim”. Unsurprisingly, Beijing welcomed the new government. It is playing at global foreign policy and currying favour with the Taliban not to interfere with its repression of Uighur Muslims. China will be of no help in the democratisation of Afghanistan (or Sri Lanka or Burma or anywhere).

The leaders professed that women will play a prominent role and have access to education, but they were excluded from talks when forming a government and there is no longer any mention of a ministry of women’s affairs. About 40% of school children are girls and 30% sitting the university entrance exams are women; unrepentant religious aboriginals in the leadership will attempt to roll all this back. I keep returning to the women’s issue because my sense is that repressing women who have tasted education and employment and then oppressing them socially is not sustainable and will engender conflict. Attempts to impose a Pashtun state on other ethnicities by an aged ideologically primitive leadership in the context of an economic meltdown will aggravate conflict and create splits and realignments within the movement. This may bring younger leaders to the helm and then modify the state itself. The signals as yet are mixed. If the leaders refuse to budge, conflict between the people and the Taliban will break into the open. This is not a desirable scenario; a compromise is better.

This essay has continuity in views and content with my column of September 5, “A perspective on conflicts in the Taliban” which readers may wish to consult.

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My personal experience and perspective of Astrology and Palmistry

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by Dr Nihal D Amerasekera

I was simply fascinated by the stories about his experience with palmistry revealed by my erstwhile colleague Prof Sanath Lamabadusuriya in a recent article to the Sunday Island Newspaper.

Palmistry or Cheiromancy originated in ancient India more than 5,000 years ago and spread to China, Greece and Rome. Now palmistry as an art is practiced worldwide. At present there are three types of palmistry, Indian, Western and Chinese. The Western and Chinese palmistry now show a significant divergence from the original Indian palmistry. The Indian Vedic astrology is closely linked to the notions of karma. Palmists believe Palmistry is both a science and an art. Astrology originated in Babylon far back in antiquity around 2,400 years ago.

I spent much of my childhood with my grandparents both of whom were measured and well-mannered health care professionals. Bringing up their children in the aftermath of the first World War they endured the nomadic life of government transfers every four years serving in some of the most inhospitable places. Those were troubled times of malaria, dysentery and typhoid epidemics. In those days without TV and radio they developed a hobby which was all consuming. They were excellent and adept palmists and astrologers.

I still recall the many books on the subject that filled the bookshelves of our house in Nugegoda. Friends and family got my grandparents to cast horoscopes and got their palms read. For them it was a hobby for which no money changed hands. According to family folklore, when I was born at the Kandy hospital my grandma, was there with her watch recording the time of birth with accuracy. The local time in Ceylon was changed during World War II to what was called ‘War Time’. This caused enormous upheaval in the astrology community in getting the time correct for casting horoscopes.

I grew up in a milieu with great belief in the ability to predict the future. We all had our astrological charts on rolled up ola leaves. My grandparents were well aware of its difficulties and shortcomings and also how, when and what information to divulge. My grandfather was a fine palmist. He never lost his sense of playfulness or the ability to find humour in his predictions. When I was a young kid I was told that I will be a doctor and my future lies in another country. In retrospect I am amazed how accurately he summed up my future.

He was always discreet in his predictions and did so with great sensitivity. In the fullness of years, I can acknowledge now, the predictions were remarkably accurate. I had a cousin who was my age and attended the local school with me. When I asked my grandpa about her future he was reluctant to discuss it. It brought us great sadness when she died tragically age 35. There were times he did get things wrong. His clientele was family and friends. These errors came to light many years later and no one came to any serious harm.

My grandfather did tell me that I had the perfect chart to be a good palmist. I did learn the basics from him and loved it. He often said “practice makes perfect” and that I should read palms regularly. The idea did appeal to me. It is wonderful to be able to predict the future. As a teenager there were too many other interests and distractions. Although my interest receded it never died. I took it up again briefly after retirement, just as a hobby. On a Mediterranean cruise I discovered palmistry was a good ‘party trick’. The mere mention at the dinner table that I could read the palm generated great interest. Despite my disclaimer of being a novice the ladies lined up for their futures to be revealed.

When I was a first year medical student we visited a family friend in Kollupitiya. There was a large gathering. Amongst the crowd was a professional palm reader. They asked me if I want my palm read. Without much thought I agreed and realised later that was a huge mistake. As there was an audience the palmist played to the gallery. Some very personal events of my future life were bared for all to hear causing me great embarrassment and distress. Much of the past was incorrect and in retrospect the future predictions were a load of rubbish. In those days I wasn’t vocal enough and suffered in silence. I still blush when I think about it. This is an excellent example of how NOT to read the palm. There are many such unscrupulous quacks and rogues that hoodwink the people to earn a living.

All palmists should learn the trade as an apprentice to a true professional who should pass on their wisdom, teach the obligations and the refinements we call “bedside manner”. Like in the Hippocratic oath they should be taught “primum non nocere” ( first, do no harm). In my childhood I recall the village astrologers and palmists who frightened the people with impending doom and gloom and extracted money to counteract the forces of evil. Perhaps with increased literacy and learning these practices have now largely disappeared. It is my belief that like in every profession, for astrology and palmistry too, well beyond the aptitude, some have the special gift of instinct or intuition that set them apart from the rest. I have met a few such brilliant professional astrologers and palmists who have made a name for themselves and make an honourable living.

The art of predicting the future has always fascinated people all over the world. For a young person with all his/her life before them there is that inevitable desire to know what is in store. Even In the 21st century that desire still exist. There are some who would say “why know the future, just get on with life”. As a septuagenarian, knowing the fragility of life, I agree with that sentiment completely. Que sera sera – whatever will be will be.

On a personal level, my future has been predicted with great accuracy and I have good reason to believe in both palmistry and astrology. The accurate time of birth and proper casting of the horoscope is the key to its reliability. Even with all that the predictions are neither fool-proof nor flawless. Finding a genuine bona-fide palmist or astrologer is like searching for a needle in a haystack.

There is a conflict between my scientific background and those imprecise and unregulated business of astrology and palmistry. As a medical professional I am trained only to trust evidence-based information and have some scepticism and even some cynicism about matters I cannot deduce logically.

I never allowed my decisions to be guided by astrology or palmistry. Those predictions have no guarantee of accuracy although it gave me a fairly clear picture of what the future held for me. I have lived my life as I wanted making much of the decisions on the hoof. In the main I have no regrets. I have always believed that although my future lay in my own hands much what happens to us in life is governed and influenced by the awesome forces of destiny.

As old age came to my grandparents, they had the respect and love of the extended family. I will always remember grandma’s diligence, energy and enthusiasm, and grandpa’s calm reflective kindness. Their demise to me was an end of an era. The memory of my grandparents still remains with me as a dear and precious possession.

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