( 05/01/1928 ~06/02/2021)
A son-in-law remembers Our beloved Amma, Beatrice, is no more.
The rock around which the family’s hopes and fearsflapped, sometimes swirled and raged is no more. In Khalil Gibran’s deathless verse,
“The most beautiful word on the lips of mankind,
Is the word ‘‘Mother’……..
The mother is everything,
She is our consolation in sorrow,
Our Hope in misery,
And our strength in weakness,
She is the source of love,
Mercy, sympathy and forgiveness.”
I remember the first day we met. She and her husband had come to see my parents and me as a prospective son-in law-for their second daughter, Kanthi. Beatrice was one of the most beautiful Sinhala women I had seen. Secretly I was delighted. Surely her daughter must be equally or more beautiful. In fact Mrs. Welgama was more captivating than all her daughters.
Kanthi’s father was moved by my ‘simplicity.’ A self-made man from the hinterland of the Kalutara district, he was warmed by my unpretentious attire – a sarong and shirt.
The bonds forged on that propitious day would last a lifetime.They both treated me like one of their own, more so after my own parents passed away.
Amma was born in a sylvan hamlet in the Kandyan hills and the grandeur of the mountains and the beauty of the valleys seemed etched in her. She was betrothed as a beautiful teenager to a mature but equally good looking and imposing husband. At first she may have been overawed by him, an entrepreneur who went onto build one of the largest trucking companies of the land,; but soon became an equal partner.
Her first and highest priority after her spouse was the family; the children, children’s children and us children by marriage. When I was dealt an injustice by the department of health, she who was welcome in the highest circles of the land endured agonizing waits and arrogance of the then health minister. She was as disappointed as I that I was not able to accept a training position in a major American centre due to the intransigence of bureaucrats. Being a woman, the minister should have been more sympathetic to a mother’s anguish. In some ways I was glad that her efforts didn’t bear fruit;I ended up in Australia rather than USA.
Again when part of Kanthi’s property, in a fashionable suburb of Colombo was annexed, it was she who toiled and laboured to get us some compensation. Similarly when a large extent of land that belonged to her husband was seized by the State it was she who obtained some recompense which, though meagre in comparison to its value, enabled her to build a hospital in memory of her much loved husband. This had been his cherished ambition.
His own mother had died at childbirth and his aspiration for the impoverished women of his village was an easily accessible, well equipped and staffed maternity health centre.She worked like a Trojan coaxing and cajoling suppliers, contractors and craftsmen and even attending to even the most minor details.The day that the hospital was declared open by the then President would have been one of the happiest days of her life. She may well have echoed the poet’s words “My task on earth is done, by thy grace,the victory’s won”.
She would be the first to rush to the sides of her daughters having their babies and to other afflicted relatives. When I had major surgery, she travelled alone across two continents to be with me and Kanthi the next day. Arriving direct from the airport to the intensive care unit, her mere presence hastened my recovery.Staying on for a month, leaving her husband and rest of the family at home, the counselling and support she gave Kanthi and me was immeasurable.
When my father was hospitalised for the first and last time in his long life it was Amma who visited him everyday. He was widowed and both sons were unable to come quickly. On his last day he told her, “Sister, for what you are doing to me you will be born an Imperial Princess in your next birth.”
Her hospitality was legendary. We would look forward eagerly to the weekly lunch on a Sunday.The repasts were magnificent, fit for royalty; an excellent cook herself every delicious dish was checked and augmented by her. Our favourites were the pork curry and biscuit pudding.The family gathering was convivial and full of fun and we retired for the conventional siesta only hours later.
Whenever Kanthi and I arrived from Australia she was at the airport even if the hour was ungodly.The journey to her house in Wellawatte was long in the pre-highway days. Mother and daughter in the back seat would catch up on news and gossip while I snatched forty winks.The house was sparkling clean and brightly lit and the dining table loaded with ripe bananas and sweetmeats. We would quickly adjourn to the bedroom, airconditioned to dispel the heat and humidity.The bed and linen were luxurious and we would sleep soundly until the houseboy Gamini’s deferential knock next morning woke us for bed tea.
Afterwards I would go for a walk on the beach, only a quarter mile away, with Gamini and the faithful hound, Jimmy.To quote my own words “the bracing cool of the morning, the fresh air, the soft breezes and the music of the waves ,crashing on the shore was the perfect start for a new day. Gamini and Jimmy squatted on a rock ,watching me walk barefoot on the sand, with the warm salt water wetting my feet only now and then. They did not need the workout.”
Every meal was a delight. She got the choicest fruit, vegetables and fish in season from the Kollupitiya market.Her favourite vendor Sanath whom she had helped gave her only the best.
The car and chauffeur were at our disposal for shopping -books and music for me, clothes,gifts and souvenirs for Kanthi.There were of course innumerable parties and the occasional visit to a coastal resort down south and sometimes a hill country resort.
These holidays with Amma are an indelible memory; although we have had vacations in many exotic parts of the world, we will always treasure these grand times with her.
With five daughters of marriageable age, wedding planning and dressing brides became her metier long before it became a lucrative business.She dressed six brides at home, the sixth being our Australian sister-in-law; she dressed countless other brides too as her fame had spread far and wide.
Months before the event, she would go on shopping sprees to Chennai and Mumbai for sarees, jewellery and other paraphernalia deemed essential for brides from affluent families. Her husband gave her free rein, but being prudent she would get the best only at the right price.There were a thousand and one other matters and people to be dealt with. She did them all, maybe with some fuss, but well nevertheless.
The weddings themselves were spectacular events graced by the esteemed, the chic and friends and relatives.One of our attesting witnesses, J.R.Jayewardene and a guest, R.Premadasa, went on to become Presidents.The other attesting witness Maithripala Senanayake,the then deputy prime minister, was a rarity even then – an honest gentlemanly politician.
Our nuptials were at the Mount Lavinia Hotel overlooking the azure waters of the Indian Ocean and my alma mater, S. Thomas, the famed school by the sea.The pomp and splendour of the ceremony overawed me. I remember an aunt whispering to me ‘ smile putha ,smile’. Very few of the guests may have known the immense efforts that Amma put in to stage this breathtaking event.
She was fearless in the mould of our national hero, Madduma Bandara or even Lord Horatio Nelson of whom she would have learnt at school. It could have been inborn or acquired from her husband whose forefathers were soldiers in the service of the Sinhala kings. Perhaps, many pregnancies and childbirths would have made her immune to pain and fear.
On the first day of the disturbances of July 1983, returning from Ratnapura, we were stopped many times by goons wielding clubs, knives and swords,enquiring about our ethnicity.Our driver was timid and so was I. But Amma who was in the backseat with Kanthi ordered them loudly to let us proceed. And they did.
When we reached Wellawatte the street was ablaze with household goods set on fire.The house itself was packed with Tamil neighbors,numbering more than 50. Without batting an eyelid and unmindful of her own safety and that of the family she set about looking after them till they moved to a refugee camp the next day. Nearly 40 years later, I can scarcely believe how she managed such a feat.
Travel was a passion and It gave us much satisfaction to indulge her.Their first vacation in the West was in Britain in 1975.They were blessed with a golden summer.We were then living in Shotley Bridge, a picturesque town halfway between Newcastle upon Tyne and Durham. From there they visited the Lake District ,Edinburgh and other famed tourist spots.
In London their gracious and caring hosts were our good friends, Lalitha and Gemunu; they were taken around to many vibrant tourist attractions and Amma was able to shop for her daughters in Oxford street and the bustling markets. She had been given long lists of items to buy.
Kanthi and I then accompanied them to Freiburg in the Black Forest district where a son, Mahinda, was a University student. He spoke German like a local, knew all the important sights and had many good friends, young and old. One of them, Frau Laufer welcomed us to her opulent mansion where we stayed. I remember specifically the cellar as large as the house where she stored homemade wines, jams and pickled fruit.
Two unforgettable visits were to the Mercedes Benz factory in Stuttgart and the other, a day trip to Switzerland. Father,a Mercedes enthusiast was enthralled with the automated production of cars. They were enchanted with all the places they visited and language barriers didn’t hold them back from socialising with the locals. As Germany and Switzerland were very different to Britain, their holiday was as varied and fascinating as they could have wished.
Their last vacation together was to Hawaii and Disneyland and as I was working in Los Angeles able to guide them around Anaheim.
After the passing away of Father we were able to take her with us on two European tours, a couple of USA vacations and a Scandinavian tour which she much enjoyed. Born to a Catholic family, the tour of the Holy Land enchanted her the most. We also visited Egypt afterwards. A good traveller, she revelled in fresh experiences and cuisines and enjoyed meeting people of all ages.
The childlike astonishment at her first sight of snow in Vancouver alone made that journey worthwhile.The following day was sunny with blue skies and the Grouse mountain covered in a white blanket was a sight to behold.Walking and riding in a snow cart on the mountaintop thrilled her.
Now,there is only a void that can never be filled. Yet we rejoice in a life lived to the full, mostly in the service of others.
“A mother is she,
Who can take the place of all others,
But whose place, no one can take”
May her journey in Samsara be short and may she attain the supreme bliss of Nibbana.
Emeritus Consultant Cardiologist
Foreign policy dilemmas increase for the big and small
‘No responsible American President can remain silent when basic human rights are violated.’ This pronouncement by US President Joe Biden should be interpreted as meaning that the supporting of human rights everywhere will be a fundamental focus of US foreign policy. Accordingly, not only the cause of the Armenians of old but the situation of the Muslim Uyghurs of China will be principal concerns for the Biden administration.
However, the challenge before the US would be take this policy stance to its logical conclusion. For example, the murder of Saudi journalist Jamal Khashoggi was one of the most heinous crimes to be committed by a state in recent times but what does the Biden administration intend to do by way of ensuring that the criminals and collaborators of the crime are brought to justice? In other words, how tough will the US get with the Saudi rulers?
Likewise, what course of action would the US take to alleviate the alleged repression being meted out to the Uyghurs of China? How does it intend to take the Chinese state to task? Equally importantly, what will the US do to make light the lot of Russian opposition leader Alexei Navalny? These are among the most urgent posers facing the US in the global human rights context.
Worse dilemmas await the US in Africa. Reports indicate that that the IS and the Taliban have begun to infiltrate West Africa in a major way, since they have been compelled to vacate the Middle East, specially Syria and Iraq. West African countries, such as, Mali, Burkina Faso, Nigeria and Mauritania are already facing the IS/Taliban blight. The latter or their proxies are in the process heaping horrendous suffering on the civilian populations concerned. How is the US intending to alleviate the cruelties being visited on these population groups. Their rights are of the first importance. If the US intends to project itself as a defender of rights everywhere, what policy program does it have in store for Africa in this connection?
It does not follow from the foregoing that issues of a kindred kind would not be confronting the US in other continents. For example, not all is well in Asia in the rights context. With the possible exception of India, very serious problems relating to democratic development bedevil most Asian states, including, of course, Sri Lanka. The task before any country laying claims to democratic credentials is to further the rights of its citizens while ensuring that they are recipients of equitable growth. As a foremost champion of fundamental rights globally, it would be up to the US to help foster democratic development in the countries concerned. And it would need to do so with an even hand. It cannot be selective in this undertaking of the first importance.
The US would also from now on need to think long and deep before involving itself militarily in a conflict-ridden Southern country. Right now it is up against a policy dilemma in Afghanistan. It is in the process of pulling out of the country after 20 years but it is leaving behind a country with veritably no future. It is leaving Afghanistan at the mercy of the Taliban once again and the commentator is right in saying that the US did not achieve much by way of bringing relief to the Afghan people.
However, the Biden administration has done somewhat well in other areas of state concern by launching a $1.9 trillion national economic and social resuscitation program, which, if effectively implemented could help the US people in a major way. The administration is also living up to the people’s hopes by getting under way an anti-Covid-19 vaccination program for senior US citizens. These ventures smack of social democracy to a degree.
The smaller countries of South Asia in particular ought to be facing their fair share of foreign policy quandaries in the wake of some of these developments. India, the number one power of the region, is in the throes of a major health crisis deriving from the pandemic but it is expected to rebound economically in an exceptional way and dominate the regional economic landscape sooner rather than later.
For example, the ADB predicts India will recover from an 8% contraction in fiscal 2020 and grow by 11% and 7% this year and next year. South Asia is expected to experience a 9.5% overall economic expansion this year but it is India that will be the chief contributor to this growth. A major factor in India’s economic fortunes will be the US’ stimulus package that will make available to India a major export market.
For the smaller states of South Asia, such as Sri Lanka, the above situation poses major foreign policy implications. While conducting cordial and fruitful relations with China is of major importance for them, they would need to ensure that their relations with India remain unruffled. This is on account of their dependence on India in a number of areas of national importance. Since India is the predominant economic power in the region, these smaller states would do well to ensure that their economic links with India continue without interruption. In fact, they may need to upgrade their economic ties with India, considering the huge economic presence of the latter. A pragmatic foreign policy is called for since our biggest neighbour’s presence just cannot be ignored.
The Sri Lankan state has reiterated its commitment to an ‘independent foreign policy’ and this is the way to go but Sri Lanka would be committing a major policy mistake by tying itself to China too closely in the military field. This would send ‘the wrong signal’ to India which is likely to be highly sensitive to the goings-on in its neighbourhood which, for it, have major security implications. A pragmatic course is best.
In terms of pragmatism, the Maldives are forging ahead, may be, in a more exceptional manner than her neighbours. Recently, she forged closer security cooperation with the US and for the Maldives this was the right way to go because the move served her national interest. And for any state, the national interest ought to be of supreme importance.
A Sri Lankan centre for infective disease control and prevention
The need of the hour:
BY Dr B. J. C. Perera
MBBS(Cey), DCH(Cey), DCH(Eng), MD(Paed), MRCP(UK), FRCP(Edin), FRCP(Lon), FRCPCH(UK), FSLCPaed, FCCP, Hony FRCPCH(UK), Hony. FCGP(SL)
Specialist Consultant Paediatrician and Honorary Senior Fellow, Postgraduate Institute of Medicine, University of Colombo, Sri Lanka.
On 01st July 1946, the Communicable Disease Center (CDC) of the United States of America opened its doors and occupied one floor of a small building in Atlanta, Georgia. Its primary mission was simple, yet highly challenging. It was to prevent malaria from spreading across the nation. Armed with a budget of only 10 million US dollars, and fewer than 400 employees, the agency’s early tasks included obtaining enough trucks, sprayers, and shovels necessary to wage war on mosquitoes.
It later advanced, slightly changed its name, and transformed itself into the much-acclaimed and reputed Centres for Disease Control and Prevention (CDC). It became a unique agency with an exceptional mission. They work 24/7 to protect the safety, health and security of America from threats there and around the world. Highest standards of science are maintained in this institution. CDC is the nation’s leading science-based, data-driven, service organization that protects the public’s health. For more than 70 years, they have put science into action to help children stay healthy so they can grow and learn, to help families, businesses, and communities fight disease and stay strong and to protect the health of the general public. Their are a bold promise to the nation, and even the world. With this strategic framework, CDC commits to save American lives by securing global health and America’s preparedness, eliminating disease, and ending epidemics. In a landmark move, the CDC even established a Central Asia regional office at the U.S. Consulate in Kazakhstan in 1995 and have been involved in public health initiatives in that region.
More recently, the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC), was established. It is an agency of the European Union, aimed at strengthening Europe’s defences against infectious diseases. The core functions cover a wide spectrum of activities such as surveillance, epidemic intelligence, response, scientific advice, microbiology, preparedness, public health training, international relations, health communication, and the scientific journal Eurosurveillance.
Still later on, the African CDC (ACDC) was born. It strengthens the capacity and capability of Africa’s public health institutions, as well as partnerships, to detect and respond quickly and effectively to disease threats and outbreaks, based on data-driven interventions and programmes.
All these organisations are autonomous, independent, and are confidently dedicated to hold science to be sacred. They play a major role in advocacy and work in a committed advisory capacity. With the cataclysmic effects of the current coronavirus pandemic COVID-19, the contributions made by these institutions are priceless. What is quite important is that they are able to provide specific recommendations based on the latest scientific information available for countries and nations in their regions, even taking into account the many considerations that are explicit and even unique to their regions. All these organisations have been provided with optimal facilities and human resources. The real value of their contribution is related to just one phenomenon: AUTONOMY.
Well…, isn’t it the time for us to start a Sri Lankan Centre for Infective Disease Control and Prevention (SLCIDC)? It should be formulated as an agency constantly striving, day in and day out, to safeguard the health of the public. Science and unbending commitment to evaluation of research on a given topic should be their operating mantra. It would work as a completely apolitical organisation and what we can recommend is that it would be directly under the President of the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka, unswervingly reporting to and accountable to the President. It would consist of medical doctors, scientists and researchers but no politicians of any sort, no non-medical or non-scientist persons, no hangers on and no business persons. All appointments to the SLCIDC will be made by the President of the country, perhaps in consultation with medical professional organisations.
The prime duty of the SLCIDC would be to assess the on-going situation of any infective issue that has any effect on the health of the public. The organisation will undertake in-depth examination and assessment of a given situation caused by an infective organism. They need to have all relevant data from within the country as well as from outside the country. There will not be any vacillation of the opinions expressed by them and their considered views should not be coloured by any consideration apart from science and research done locally and worldwide. Their considered opinion would be conveyed directly to the President of the country. They are free to issue statements to keep the public informed about the results of their deliberations.
We believe that it would be a step in the right direction; perhaps even a giant step for our nation, not only during the current coronavirus pandemic but also on any major problems of an infective nature that might occur in the future.
This writer wishes to acknowledge a colleague, a Consultant Physician, who first mooted this idea during a friendly conversation.
Kudurai Madiri Pona
The big jumbo has come from the French land and as the French themselves say it is ‘annus mirabillis’ the miracle year, finally, and finally the wait is over. The world will now see the Big- Bus that we all waited for so long to see. As the years roll by, none would talk of delays regarding the delays on delivery dates and how late the bird flew in. These would be like words written on a blackboard, erased forever. But the aeroplane will grace the sky and, perhaps rewrite all the records of commercial aviation when the mega-miracle A380 dominates the international air-routes.
Singapore Airlines went into the record books as the launch customer. Some of my old friends from SIA would fly the A380. Perhaps, Luke would, too, and this story is about him. Luke of yesteryear and how he first flew as a cadet and how young Luke and I went romping the skies in our own special way, writing a few new lines in the flight training manual.
Luke was from Johor Baru, in Malaysia. His roots were in South India where years ago his grandfather had done a Robinson Crusoe and ended up in the Malayan Peninsula. Luke was named after one of the four Gospel scribes. Luke really isn’t his name. It is a pseudonym, I use just to give him some anonymity. Not much protection, but one is to three are playable odds. Like in Rumple stiltskin the manikin, you are welcome to guess the name.
We first flew to Seoul. He, straight out of flying College, and yours truly, as old as the hills, driving the ‘Jumbo’ classic, the lovable 747. The first thing I noticed about him was his socks, black and white diamond shapes, a mini version of the flags they swing at Grand Prix finals – if Luke swung his feet, a Ferrari would pass underneath. That we sorted out the first day itself. In Seoul,he went shopping and the next day he was Zorro, waist to toe, black as a crow.
His flying credentials were all there, somewhat mixed up between what they teach in modern flying schools and how to apply the ‘ivory tower’ jargon to cope with the big 747. As for raw handling of the aeroplane, all his skills were intact, only they were in bits and pieces and spread in places like an Irida Pola (Sunday Fair). They had to be streamlined, the wet market needed to be modified to a ‘Seven-Eleven’ – that was my job.
The next round we went flying to Europe, his first run to the unknown, like Gagarin in his Sputnik, young Luke flew to Rome. The flying was same as before, a bit mixed up amidst the hundreds of aero dynamical paraphernalia that spelled out from the encyclopaedic collection of books that he had to study.
That’s when I decided to change the tide.
‘Luke my friend,” I said to him in a fatherly fashion.
‘You and I are from similar fields, you from Kerala and me from Sri Lanka. These Min Drag Curves and VFEs and WAT limits and VLEs are too much for us. Just remember when you pull the stick back, the houses will become smaller and when you push the stick down, the houses will become bigger, that’s climbing and descending this monster,” I explained the simple theory of flight.
“As for landing my friend, Kudurai Madiri Pona, just ride it like a horse.”
That was it. We flew, over Europe and he flew like a Trojan, bravely battling the weather and the overcrowded skies. Every time he came in to land it was pure and simple Kudurai Madiri Pona and the big jumbo responded and touched down on the concrete as smooth as a honeymoon lover.
On the way back, we flew via Colombo, that’s my home ground. I requested the radar controller to give Luke a very short ‘four-mile’ final. They know me well here and the controller said “No problem, Captain.”
I was depicting what we did in the Old Hong Kong Airport or what we do in the Canarsi Approach in New York; both, most demanding. A ‘four-mile’ final is a challenge for anyone. I was throwing him in at the deep end and I had no doubt Luke could manage. He came in tight and right, like Hopalong Cassidy and rode the horse straight and beautiful to do a perfect landing. Gone was the Kampong kid and his ‘Irida Pola’ flying, this was Takashimaya and Robinsons rolled into one, everything was in place, nice and shining and professional to the tee.
That was our little story, Luke the ‘jockey’ and me. Sometimes in the field of training, the script needs a little changing. New acts to be introduced to suit the stage. That is the essence of teaching, different hurdles for different horses. It wasn’t for Luke to learn what I knew, more so, it was for me to know who he was and what he could cope with. That part was difficult to find in the flying training manual, and so was Kudurai Madiri Pona.
The world has gotten older and young Luke now wears four stripes and flies in command of Boeing Triple Sevens, fly-by-wire and multiple computers. I met him a few times, flew as his passenger, too, with great pride. “Captain Luke is in command,” the stewardess announced, and silently and gratefully I said, ‘Amen’.
I saw him walking down the aisle, looking for me. Same old Luke in his flat and uncombed Julius Ceaser hairstyle. He came to my seat and grinned and shook my hand and lightly lifted his trouser leg and said,
“Captain, the socks are black and it is still Kudurai Madiri Pona.“
I am sure Luke will fly in command of the gigantic A380 one day. That’s a certainty. It would be the zenith for any pilot. Luke is ready, that I know. He is competent, polished and professional and will wear socks as black as midnight. It’s nice that he remembers his beginnings. That’s what flying is all about, that’s what life is all about.
Kudurai Madiri Pona
– ride it like a horse. Some flying lesson.
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