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Using maths to combat COVID-19

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‘The pandemic has now reached a level in which no human can make an optimal decision without the aid of a computer. Therefore, we need to start working on quantitative models to identify optimal decisions, instead of pointing fingers for not making proper decisions, when decision making is literally beyond the capacity of a human.’ – Senior Lecturer, Department of Mathematics, University of Colombo,    

Dr. Anuradha Mahasinghe

by Sajitha Prematunge

What has math got to do with a pandemic? At the outset, it might seem the two are completely unrelated. One has only to observe that the number of infected in certain districts is higher than that of others and making informed decisions based on those numbers could mean the difference between stifling a cluster and a full-blown third wave. Senior Lecturer, Department of Mathematics, University of Colombo, Dr. Anuradha Mahasinghe knows only too well how important the numbers are in combating COVID-19. This is why, in June, he and his colleagues proposed an optimization model, aimed at minimizing the damage to the economy, while confining the COVID-19 incidence to a level endurable by the available healthcare capacity in the country, while their compartment model projected COVID-19 transmission. Their study investigated the effectiveness of the control process with the aid of epidemiological models.

 

Epidemiological models

Mahasinghe explained that an epidemiological model is a model that simulates and describes an epidemic. “Modelling is essential if you want to describe a phenomenon. From the spin of an electron to the rotation of the heavenly bodies, these phenomena are understood with the aid of models. It is the models that help us describe the changes in economies and fall of financial markets,” said Mahasinghe. And pandemics are no exception. He explained that an epidemiological model, based on a reasonable theory and supported by evidence, is a collection of entities and their operations, that when put together simulate and describe an epidemic, which provides important insights into the transmission of the disease.

But how does maths factor comes in when dealing with a pandemic such as COVID-19? Mahasinghe pointed out that math is inevitable whenever dealing with numbers or quantities. “Aren’t we really sensitive to numbers in this COVID era more than ever? Every person is anxious to know the numbers of reported cases and deaths.” One might say the numbers are governing us because decisions are also made based on these numbers. However, these numbers are only the smoke, warns Mahasinghe. “One should be able to make a better decision if he sees the fire. Therefore, to make the best decisions during the pandemic you have to look into a mathematical model that can best describe the phenomenon.”

Numbers may govern us but what governs the numbers? According to Mahasinghe, this can only be uncovered by a model that captures the quantitative aspects of the pandemic. “It’s what we call a mathematical model which provides us with an explanation to the occurrence of these numbers.” Such a model can also forecast how these numbers are going to change in the future.

But how credible are these models? Hopefully, they are nothing like the local weather forecast. “Such models are based upon very fundamental and well-accepted laws in nature such as energy conservation, which cannot be falsified,” reiterated Mahasinghe. “Such models are supported and validated by empirical evidence. People use such models very often to make decisions in industry to make profit. So, why not look into the numbers and the math behind them to make optimal decisions accordingly, in a pandemic scenario?”

 

Where we went wrong

When asked where Sri Lanka went wrong in attempting to contain the pandemic, Mahasinghe said, “I guess we didn’t see the fire, we only saw the smoke. More precisely, we didn’t pay enough attention to the transmission dynamics or to optimal decision making. We were able to make some good decisions in a qualitative sense, but I seriously doubt we had the insight to make quantitatively sound decisions.” He pointed out that even when the decisions were made, the outcome could not be predicted due to a lack of a mechanism to forecast.

When asked whether the authorities were too quick to lift the lockdown, Mahasinghe answered in the negative. “I don’t think it was too early. Lifting strict lockdowns was essential at that moment. We were struggling to achieve two conflicting goals; containing the disease and sustaining the economy. Stepping down from strict curfew to partial lockdowns is indeed a good decision in such a context.” But was it methodical? Was there a mechanism to decide on the nature of the partial lockdowns? Did we know how to optimally restrict mobility in order to achieve those conflicting goals? Did we know to what extent the lockdown of a district should be optimally eased? Did we estimate the potential increase in positive cases from a district when its lockdown would be relaxed? Did we know the magnitude of the economic loss caused by shutting down a region? These are questions Marasinghe believes that authorities should have paid attention to, when easing the lockdown.

“Lockdowns could have been relaxed with the aid of proper optimization models capable of providing answers to these questions.” He repeated that such models are used very often in industrial decision making and provide promising solutions. “You can’t bring the COVID incidence down to zero even with such models, but at least you know what’s going on and the effectiveness of a decision so the health sector can take relevant measures.

According to Mahasinghe, authorities have overlooked the significance of data. “Even now I don’t think enough attention is paid to data.” According to him, some important data were not gathered. For example, he pointed out that, despite Western Province residents being advised against crossing borders, some invariably did, as there were no strict rules against it. “There is no point in regretting the fact, but we could have counted the number of vehicles that crossed the borders and used it to estimate the impact on transmission.”

He explained that the entire country can be regarded as an epidemiological network, where the nodes are the cities and the interconnections are the roads. “There are elegant models in network theory to gain many insights into transmission through such a network.” He also noted another pertinent issue, that even if data were gathered, they were not used. “Much effort was made to gather and organize COVID related data such as incidence per region etc, and that is really commendable. However, have we used them; what were the insights we gained into transmission from them except for some trivial speculations?” questions Mahasinghe. He reiterated that such insights can only be gained through an extensive study that involves the collaboration between mathematicians, computer scientists, epidemiologists and economists. “The mathematician’s part alone includes exhaustive algorithmic development and computational modelling challenges,” explained Mahasinghe.

 

Criteria

When asked what factors were taken into consideration in their optimization model, Mahasinghe reminded that a delicate balance must be struck between two conflicting goals. “We need to find the optimal compromise between containing the disease and sustaining the economy. As a developing country, we can’t afford beyond a certain level of the control process, so budgetary constraints must be considered.” It is obvious that COVID-19 is transmitted through human mobility. He pointed out that, consequently, inter-regional travel plays a significant role. “On the other hand, transmission dynamics can be modelled to a certain extent by well-known compartment models. However, human mobility affects the compartments and the relevant model has to be moderated accordingly to reflect that reality.” The optimization model considers all factors, such as medical capacity to deal with the pandemic, economic concerns, transmission dynamics, regional contribution to the economy, and generates a lockdown relaxation strategy that keeps the level of incidence below a desired threshold, while minimizing damage to the economy.

However, Mahasinghe pointed out that this was a prototype and it can be made closer to reality by incorporating more constraints. “For instance, I haven’t considered the fact that most agricultural activities are done in the North Central province. But, if required, that too can be incorporated without difficulty.” According to him epidemiologists and economists can introduce more constraints to the optimization model, and the applied mathematician’s job is to overcome the computational challenges posed by incorporating them.

 

Relevant?

There is no point in closing the stable doors after the horse has bolted. Months after the lifting of the lockdown are such models even relevant? “The compartment model that captures the transmission of COVID-19 is still applicable, irrespective of any lockdowns, unless it is quite certain that there is absolutely no community transmission. I think we were in such a stage only at the very beginning of the first wave,” said Mahasinghe. According to him, the network-based model that captures human mobility is also applicable irrespective of lockdowns or any other preventive measures. In contrast to these, the optimization model is applicable in its existing form only when lockdowns are in force. “Having said that, this model may still be useful with some changes in the present context where small regions are isolated. For instance, a slightly changed variant of that model can determine which areas should undergo isolation. Moreover, it is possible to modify the optimization model further to be used in the process of making decisions on identifying the persons to be quarantined.”

Human mobility is a critical factor in the spread of a pandemic as well as any models targeted at managing such, how could a mathematical model factor this in? “Not only COVID-19 but even dengue is transmitted mainly due to human mobility. A mosquito doesn’t travel very far during its lifetime. Humans are more responsible for carrying diseases.” Mahasinghe pointed out that COVID-19 is not very different. “If you know the way humans move from place to place, and also know the level of incidence in each place, it is not that difficult to model how the disease is transmitted through humans.” He observed that most preventive measures are also focused on restricting human mobility, which he deemed commendable. “A mathematical model can prescribe the optimal way to restrict mobility.”

What are the implications of mobility? For example are people of certain districts more inclined to travel and therefore may contribute more to the spread of the disease and are such implications reflected in the numbers? “As long as the model is deterministic and you can overcome the computational challenges by necessary algorithm development, closed-form and conclusive solutions can be generated.” Mahasinghe implied that math helps to see the big picture. “Consequences of travel from the Western to other provinces is obvious. However, considering the transport network, Southern and North Western Provinces are also at high risk.” He observed that less attention has been paid to those regions. This begs the question, are the Southern and North Western provinces a time bomb waiting to go kaboom? He reiterated that special attention must be paid to regions that are relatively less danger, such as North Central, which contributes significantly to economic growth, as the Western province is not capable of contributing to the economy in its full capacity. “It is important to keep the incidence at a low level in such places.”

The study predicted that easing lockdown in the Western Province would have adverse repercussions. “As long as vehicles cross inter-provincial barriers, the disease is transmitted to those regions. But in what magnitude? We had access to certain transport data, so we knew to a certain extent how people would mobilise within the country. Also the epidemiological data were available. So we had enough inputs to be fed into our algorithm.” The results were appalling. In fact, this computer experimentation was done in the early days when Sri Lanka was hit by the first wave and there were no strict measures to curtail inter-provincial mobility. During the days in question, Mahasinghe ranked the provinces according to their vulnerability to COVID-19, using another model, by adopting some ideas from network theory. Recently, upon perusing a map that indicated the countrywide spread of the disease Mahasinghe came to realize that the ranking has been validated, eventually. “What I don’t understand is why we failed to foresee this.”

Mahasinghe and his team had access to certain transport data, such as the number of buses, trains and bus routes. However, his models were prototypes. To make the prediction more accurate they would need current transport data, such as the number of private vehicles crossing provincial borders. “There are a number of police barriers between borders, so a vehicle count would not be impossible. If health planners are willing to use that type of model, these could be extremely valuable datasets.”

 

Quantifying the qualitative

In their model they quantify the degree of social distancing. But can criteria so human in nature be quantified? Moreover, how can something as complex as a pandemic, with so many variables, human in nature, be simplified into ones and zeroes? Mahasinghe maintained that it is possible to estimate the degree of social distancing observed, if provided with sufficient data. “I understand that it sounds quite unrealistic. It is because we think of individuals.” Mahasinghe emphasised the importance of noting that they are not modelling an individual, but rather a population. “Though a population consists of individuals, the dynamics of the population is not merely the sum of the dynamics of an individual. When you single out a person, the behaviour of that person is surely very uncertain and unpredictable. Take two persons, they may have certain things in common, so it is not that unpredictable. If you take a thousand people, a lot of commonalities can be extracted and the situation becomes predictable now.” He explained that, therefore, it is possible to assign a value to the degree of distancing with the aid of necessary data.

“Interestingly, it is true that we mathematicians seek certainty in an uncertain world. However, an event that looks uncertain from one point of view looks certain from another.” The toss of a coin is a simple example. “If you toss a coin, the outcome of it being head or tail is widely believed to be uncertain. However, it is the lack of data that makes it uncertain. Suppose the initial speed, the weight, the angle of projection and such were provided, then the outcome may be predictable by basic equations of motion.” Mahasinghe emphasised that math does not guarantee elimination of uncertainty. “That is definitely not the direction the mathematical sciences are moving, specially with the recent developments in quantum physics and unconventional computing. However, where macroscopic events like pandemics or human behaviour are concerned, there are many certainties that we misinterpret under the cover of uncertainty due to our lack of knowledge, eventually missing an opportunity to gain crucial insights into the scenario.”

Mahasinghe pointed out that many decisions are binary in nature. Let alone policy decisions, many behavioural decisions are inherently binary. “For instance, you may decide whether to wear a mask or not. So the one-zero nature of the action is inherent and not artificially imposed by a mathematician.” He further explained that some non-binary decisions can still be quantified. “For instance, if you decide to wear the mask on three days and go unmasked on four days of the week, it can be quantified using numbers and interpreted using probability.” Mahasinghe elaborated that, with recent developments in non deterministic models, applied mathematicians do not hesitate to incorporate uncertainty. “Consequently, uncertainty is no longer immeasurable. It is possible to confine uncertainty of the solution within reasonable limits.

 

What next

With all the talk on vaccination, Mahasinghe emphasised the importance of developing two mathematical models prior to vaccination. The first is a compartment model that explains the post-vaccination dynamics of the disease. “This is pretty standard in mathematical epidemiology. The second, developing a model to capture the effects of the interactions between individuals and predict the outcomes, is subtler and challenging.” He explained that once a phase of vaccination is over, persons in society can be divided into two categories: vaccinated and unvaccinated. “Take a random encounter between two persons. What type of interaction would it be? Is it a vaccinated encountering another vaccinated, an unvaccinated encountering another unvaccinated or a vaccinated encountering an unvaccinated? Obviously, the consequences of these encounters are essentially different.”

The discipline of mathematics referred to as game theory is a promising tool in modelling this type of scenario and forecasting the outcomes. In addition, once vaccination commences, there will be the issue of free riding. Due to different reasons, some people in the high risk category will also choose to remain unvaccinated, eventually resulting in a significant number of potential free riders. Mahasinghe explained that this has already been addressed in the game theory in particular, under evolutionary games. “As a nation we can’t be content with an elementary formula for herd immunity. Instead, we need to develop and upgrade elegant vaccination strategies using compartment models and game theory.” Mahasinghe is of the view that, in this pre-vaccination phase, these two are the immediate concerns that need to be addressed by applied mathematicians.

 

Benefits

When asked what are the drawbacks of not using a mathematical model are and the benefits of using one, Mahasinghe pointed out that in a scenario of conflicting goals and monetary restrictions, it is impossible to make decisions without seeing where the optimal compromise is. “It is easy to put the blame on politicians and other policy makers for not making the right decisions, but how can a human make an optimal decision in this entangled web of parameters, conflicting goals and constraints? Plainly speaking, we need computers to generate the best decisions for us.” That’s indeed what the computers are intended to do primarily, according to Mahasinghe, although they are more frequently used to watch YouTube videos and log into Facebook!

But to perform the intended task using a computer, models and algorithms that can be read by the computer must be created. “That’s why you need to look into optimization, mathematical programming, computational modelling and game theory. This way, you may be able to keep the numbers within certain limits. Also, you can pre-assess a decision quantitatively. Our health workers and armed forces have already committed much and continue to do so and to receive the full benefit of their commitments, the willingness to switch from qualitative to quantitative methods, is essential.

When asked if such models are used successfully in other countries to counter the pandemic, Mahasinghe answered in the affirmative. Since the very beginning, an extensive mathematical modelling process has been done and that’s how the predictions were made. In fact, vaccination models had long been applied to control epidemics even in African countries. In Sri Lanka, there are many misconceptions about mathematical models.” Mahasinghe has observed certain non-mathematicians presenting elementary regressions, numerical approximations and statistical tests, erroneously referring to them as mathematical models.

“Perhaps that’s why some policy makers have lost faith in math. As mentioned earlier, a mathematical model is based on an unfalsifiable conservation law. It cannot be compared to a trivial curve fitting cakewalk. Our people get easily carried away by exotic words. People tend to admire words like machine learning, artificial intelligence and such, but how many are aware of the maths behind these words?” He observed that a closer examination of news reports on machine learning or AI being used in some country to counter the pandemic, would reveal that they are mathematical models and machine learning techniques are used due to the toughness of generating a closed-form solution. “Even to apply computational heuristics, the problem has to be formulated mathematically. Correct problem formulation is a major component of a so-called AI-powered decision.

Mahasinghe explained that the subject of operations research emerged in the new industrial era to enable industrial decision making using computers, as the number of industrial parameters exceeded human ability to process. “The pandemic has now reached this level so that no human can make an optimal decision without the aid of a computer. Therefore, we need to start working on quantitative models to identify optimal decisions, instead of pointing fingers for not making proper decisions, when decision making is literally beyond the capacity of a human.”



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All communities should be treated equally without distinction

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by Jehan Perera

The government was elected on a platform that stressed national security and unity. The elections took place in the aftermath of the Easter suicide bomb attacks of 2019 that caused the highest numbers of casualties in Christian churches. As the bombers were all Muslim, the Muslim population in the country came under public suspicion which was spontaneous and widespread. There was also equally widespread fear and anxiety about follow on attacks that could target Christians in particular and also the population in general. The cause of the attacks and the master minds behind them were a mystery then as they are now.

Due to the timely intervention of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith, Archbishop of Colombo, in whose diocese the two most serious attacks took place, there was no retaliation against the Muslim population by those who had lost their kith and kin. However, in the weeks that followed, there were mob attacks against the Muslim community in parts of the country that were distant from the bomb attacks. These attacks were not spontaneous but organised and intended to loot Muslim property and cause fear in them. The government, which was under political siege for having failed to prevent the suicide bomb attacks, failed once again to adequately protect the Muslim community.

It is in this context that Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith’s statement on the occasion of the second anniversary of the Easter bombings takes on significance. About two months ago he gave a deadline by which he asked the government to identify who was behind the Easter attacks and the cause for them. The Cardinal has consistently spoken up on the issue of the Easter bombing, first to ask for restraint on the part of the victims, then to ask the government to identify the perpetrators and prior to the elections to take the position that the people needed a government that could protect them. Now he has said that “Our brethren were attacked not by religious extremism, but by a group that exploited it to use the attackers as pawns in order to strengthen their political power.”

MUSLIM OUTREACH

Two years after the Easter bombings in which they were branded as supporters of religious extremism, the Muslim community seeks in many different ways to overcome the suspicion that once engulfed them and which they fear can do so again. The use of the black Islamic dress that was an increasing trend among Muslim women has been much reduced. Muslim organisations are making energetic efforts to network with other religious organisations, join inter-religious groups and to liaise with civil society. They make available to them the Islamic teachings on peace and coexistence. This weekend I was invited to the opening of a community centre in the Kurunegala District by a Muslim organization.

On the walls of the community centre there were panels put up with sayings from the different religions on a number of important matters, such as how to treat others, and the role of spiritual values in everyday life. The foremost place at the opening ceremony was given to Buddhist monks who had come to attend the ceremony along with government officials and police officers. The monks who spoke said that the Muslim community living in the village had good relations with the Sinhalese living in the neighbouring villages, and this had continued for generations. Another monk said that after the Easter bombings they had heard there were violent gangs heading in the direction of the Muslim village, they had come there to ensure no harm would befall those people.

In this context, the announcement that the government will ban 11 Muslim organisations sends a negative message to the country at large about the Muslim community. It creates an impression that Muslims organisations are under suspicion and possibly even close to performing acts of violence which necessitates them being banned. Of the 11 banned organisations, two are foreign ones, the Islamic State and Al Qaeda which have been reported internationally as engaging in violence. However, the other nine are Sri Lankan organisations which do not have a track record of violence or illegality. Four of them have the name “Thowheed” in them, which in the Arabic language means “faith.”

 

DIFFERENT TREATMENT

The ban on these Thowheed organisations may be due to the fact that the leader of the suicide squad, Zahran, was part of an organisation that had the name “Thowheed” in it. The ban on them may also be due to the fact that the Commission of Inquiry into the Easter bombings recommended such action against them. However, the Commission also recommended that other non-Muslim organisations be banned which has not happened. This suggests that the Muslim organisations are being treated differently. The danger is that when it treats organisations differently, the government may be generating resentment in the Muslim community, especially the youth. If the words of Malcolm Cardinal Ranjith are correct, the problem lies not in Muslim extremism but in partisan power politics.

Sri Lanka has experienced Sinhalese youth insurrections twice and even the Tamil militant movement was started by youth, who were once called “the boys.” Perhaps in anticipation of such a radicalisation phenomenon, the government has recently passed an add-on called the “De-radicalisation from holding violent extremist religious ideology” to the Prevention of Terrorism Act. This will permit people who fall into its ambit to be send to rehabilitation centres for up to two years without trial. This may provide the government with an opportunity to release up to 250 Muslim citizens currently under detention on suspicion of being involved in the Easter bombings and send them for rehabilitation. On the other hand, this regulation may be used in the future in regard to other persons and other groups. The better way to prevent radicalization is to make people feel that the law is even-handed to all, and also to encourage engagement between communities.

During the discussion that took place at the opening of the community centre in Kurunegala, it was noted that the younger generation had fewer inter-community linkages than those of older generations. This may be due to the changing nature of society and the economy where people spend less time with other people and more time with machines or doing narrow and specialised jobs. In multi-ethnic and multi-religious societies in which there is conflictual relations, the tendency on the part of those from different communities will be to live in their own silos rather than interact with those of other communities. Living in peace in plural societies requires purposeful and energetic interaction which is organised. Where there has been ethnic and religious strife the world over, the better answer has been to provide people with encouragement and incentives to mix together, which is what the Muslim organization in Kurunegala was trying to do.

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TNGlive…a boon to artistes affected by the pandemic

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No doubt, Covid-19 has ruined the entertainment industry, throughout the world.

Entertainment venues have been shut down, concerts cancelled…and musicians are finding the going pretty tough.

However, it’s heartening to know that there are performers who find solace in keeping the public entertained, via online performances.

In this instance, those responsible for TNGlive must be congratulated for creating this platform, on social media, in order to give lots of folks, from around the globe, the opportunity to showcase their talent, on a regular basis.

Quite a few Sri Lankans have been featured on TNGlive, including Melantha Perera, Suzi Croner (Fluckiger), Sureshni Wanigasuriya, Yasmin de Silva, and Kay Jay Gunesekere,

Suzi did this scene twice, and on both occasions her performance was highly rated, with bouquets galore coming her way…on social media.

On Saturday, April 10th, she was featured (8.00 pm Sri Lankan time) doing songs from the country and western catalogue.

It was a very entertaining programme, which also contained some dance scenes (line dancing) from the audience present, in her living room – her friends.

Her repertoire included ‘Joline, ‘Me And Bobby McGee, “Johnny B. Goode,’ ‘Blue By You,’ ‘Okie From Muskogee,’ ‘Tennessee Waltz,’ ‘Rose Garden,’ ‘Mississippi’ and ‘Cotton Eyed Joe.’

Suzi is to make her third appearance, on TNGlive, shortly, but this time it won’t be a solo effort, she says.

“For variety, I would be having a guy from the Philippines, and he sings the hit songs of Tom Jones and Engelbert.”

So get ready for another special from Suzi, who now resides in Switzerland.

Suzi was the frontline vocalist for the group Friends who were, at that point in time, top of the pops!

Another artiste who impressed viewers, performing on TNGlive, with his daughter, was Nigel Gerrard John Galway.

Nigel is from India, and has been a Chef for the last 23 years, with 12 years spent at the Oberoi hotels. He was also an executive Sous Chef at Taj, in Coimbatore.

In fact, Allwyn Stephen, TNGlive chief, referred to Nigel as…probably the first Singing/Dancing Chef in the world!

He, and his 18-year-old daughter, Lean Pamela Mary, did get the attention of many, with their unique style of presentation; while Nigel handled the vocals, Lean, using only gestures, expression, and movements, brought out the meaning of the lyrics in most of the songs her dad did. And, she did it beautifully.

Yes, she also did exercise her vocal cords, on this particular programme

Says Nigel: “We come from a family of musicians, but we attempted singing, only during the pandemic, on various social media groups, and we did so only because we were all stuck at home.

“We joined TNGlive, through a friend, and have been performing ever since. The love and support we received from people around only encouraged us to keep growing and now we have a page of our own called THE SINGING CHEF.”

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Heard at the club

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Part II

A member reminisced an incident that happened long years ago, during those peaceful times when terrorism was unheard of. He had been driving his car, on the Deniyaya Road, when about six miles from Galle, he saw a village in a state of panic. So he stopped his car near the village boutique and asked the mudalali what was happening? The mudalali had said that the self-opinionated ‘mudliyar’ of the village (a court interpreter) had organised a ‘dane’ (an alms giving) and was awaiting the procession of monks, complete with drummers, from the temple. And, seeing it coming over the paddy fields which was a short cut, instead of the village road as show off, put him in a paddy, and he had chased the monks away. So the monks had gone back to the temple. As the meal time deadline for monks was fast approaching, the villagers brought the meals they had cooked in their homes, to serve the monks! That was the panic.

He was an unpopular villager who rose to a high position in the public service with political influence. Cussed by nature, he used his official position to harass villagers. When he met with an untimely death and, right at the moment the coffin was taken to the hearse, the whole village reverberated with the sound of fire crackers, organised by the irate villagers.

****

Once a terrible post office blunder very nearly wrecked a marriage. A certain sales rep sometimes sold his wares on credit. One such creditor was the owner of a shop named ‘Chandra Cafe’ who was slack in his payments. So the sales rep sent him a telegram that he would be coming to collect his dues, next Monday. On receipt, the owner of Chandra Cafe telegraphed the rep asking him not to come on Monday and the telegram received by him read, ‘Do not come on Monday – Chandra K.P.’ And when the rep’s wife read the telegram there was some misunderstanding at home which nearly rocked his marriage.

****

This reminded us of another telegram. An army officer was to go back to camp by the night mail. When he arrived at the railway station, he found a lady in an advanced state of pregnancy, almost in tears, because no berths were available. Gallantly the officer offered her his berth and, at the nearest post office, sent a telegram to his commanding officer saying ‘Unable to return tomorrow as ordered. Gave berth to lady. Arriving tomorrow evening.’

Obviously, the vital word ‘berth’ had been misspelt as ‘birth’, for the gallant officer received this reply from his commanding officer, ‘Your next confinement will be to barracks’.

****

A philanthropist donated a building to his old school. An opening ceremony was held with a VVIP as the chief guest. A group photograph was also taken. As the donor was keen to get this photograph published in the newspapers without delay, he sent the local correspondent in his limousine to Colombo. He met the editor who happened to be an old boy of the same school. After a look at the photograph, he folded it in such away to eliminate the principal and sent it for publication. The editor seemed to have an axe to grind with the principal!

****

It was in the early 60s and I was on my way to the club in the evening, when I met a friend near the club. With him was another, I invited them both to the club and after a few drinks we were headed out of the club, when near the gate, my friend pulled me aside and said that his friend was going for some trade union work to Hambantota and was short of funds. I told him that he should have told me that before I paid the club bill and also told him I had only Rs.18.00 which I gave. This trade union leader was non other than Rohana Wijeweera, who was to become JVP leader.

****

It was towards the end of the 1980s and a club member, a tea factory owner was on his way home all alone in his car, at the break of down, after finishing his factory work. He had to travel 12 miles. After about five miles, he saw a youth profusely bleeding with injuries, coming down a hill. The good Samaritan that he was, he took him in his car to the hospital. On the way, the police took him and the injured youth into custody for terrorist activities. Fortunately for him, Major-General Lucky Wijeratna, who was a classmate of his at school, was there to save him.

 

****

This happened several decades ago. There was a certain popular elderly club member, who was a wealthy businessman and drank nothing but whisky. That day when he came to the club, he seemed to have lost his bearings. He told his friends that he was going to donate all his wealth to the Home for Disabled Children which was close to his house, because his only child, a daughter, had eloped. His friends prevailed on him to defer his decision for a few months. About a year or so later, he came to the club one evening carrying a big flask in his hand. He said that it was for his errant daughter who has now reconciled, adding that he was a grandfather now!

****

A busy garage was located in a residential area and it was open day and night. To highlight their services, they put up an impressive signboard, ‘We never sleep’. The following day a prankster had written below it ‘and neither do the neighbours’.

During the day of insanity – 29th July 1987, the Open University at Matara was burnt down and the Ruhunu University remained closed. A wall poster came up. It read: ‘Close the Open University’ and ‘Open the closed University’.

****

A young teacher, met a young man at the Dehiwala Zoological Gardens. Although their native villages were far apart, they

became close friends and planned to get married in the near future. He posed as a private bus owner. One day on a visit to his fiancée, he stayed the night over and muttered in his sleep, “Borella – Battaramulla! Borella – Battaramulla!” This aroused serious suspicions about his identity. So a few days later, her parents came to the Borella junction, to see him in a sarong loading passengers to private buses as a ‘bus crier’. And the love story ended right there.

****

A long time ago a wealthy industrialist, a popular member of the club, was having his drink in a secluded corner of the club, most unlike him. He appeared to be quite agitated. Some concerned friends asked him what happened. He said that his only daughter (he also had a son) had married a man of her choice adding that his wife was in favour of the marriage. The daughter he said, was 22 years old. His friends told him that at that age, she was entitled to choose her partner in life and appealed to him to take things easy as his wife too approved of the marriage. After about a year or so, a friend visited him. Proudly pointing out a large multiple storey house in his sprawling garden, he had said that it was built by his son-in-law.

****

A certain member served abroad for many years. One morning he come back to his native Galle in a hired helicopter. That evening he came to the club and ordered a case of beer for his friends!

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Several years ago, a member had gone to the Galle Post Office to send a telegram to a close relative. He was informed by the postal authorities that there was a breakdown in the telegraphic services and that it was unlikely that his message, about a bereavement in the friend’s family, would reach his relative in time. They advised our friend to telephone someone in the area where his relative lived and to get the message delivered orally. Those were the days when only a few had telephones. As the member did not know anyone in that area with a telephone, he thought of S. Jayasinghe, known as Mr. S, who was not know to him personally and who was a Junior Minister residing in the area where our friend’s relative lived.

When our friend telephoned him from the post office, he had just got into his car to go somewhere. Soon after he was speaking to our friend over the phone as if he was talking to an old friend. He also told our friend that he was about to go to the site where he was building a new house. Our friend then gave him the message and appealed to him to get it delivered. The rest of the story was told to our friend by his relative who had said that during a heavy shower of rain, he found a car near his gate and that when he went up to the car he recognized him to be the Junior Minister. Like my friend, he did not personally know the Junior Minister. Instead of giving the message then and there, he had got off the car and had gone to our friend’s house and not only given the message but also consoled him by talking to him for a few minutes.

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It was in the late 1980s, at the height of the insurrection, that this member was travelling all alone to Galle in his jeep. He was going through the Kottawa Forest which was famous at the time for tyre pyres. The Navy had stopped his vehicle and asked him to take a young man who was injured in a motorcycle accident, to the Galle Hospital, about eight miles away. The young man was bleeding profusely. He got him admitted to the hospital but our friend was forced to stay there for a long length of time, culminating in his having to give his consent for a surgical operation on the injured, whom he had never seen before. Alas! The purpose of his visit to Galle was lost.

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A member had two sons, twins aged three years. As they fell ill, he channelled a specialist doctor who examined one twin and refused to examine the other, as an appointment was not made for him. So our friend had the other twin channelled as well. Certainly, it was no personification of Hippocrates!

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A popular elderly member used to come to the club only on his pay day to keep himself warm. He worked at ‘Sathosa’ (C.W.E). The younger members would then tell him that he is very fortunate to work in a historic establishment like ‘Sathosa’ which is also referred to in Guttila Kavya (an epic) thus:

‘Sara Salelu Jana Sathose.’

Highly elated he would order a round of drinks, adding ‘Surapana karathi mese’.

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This happened many decades ago. A member who was an inveterate gambler once lost heavily at the card table and mortgaged his expensive wrist watch. A member who was not well disposed towards him had sent a post card to his wife informing her that her husband sold his watch to gamble. He also had a 15-acre well-maintained tea estate which he had to sell when his gambles failed.

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This story was related by a member and is about the ‘kings’ in the planting circles. A planter in the coconut belt of the North Western Province who owned acres of coconut, once named himself ‘King Coconut’. He argued that if a planter in the Kalutara District who owned vast acres of rubber could be referred to as a ‘Rubber King’ why shouldn’t he be called ‘King Coconut’.

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One day a member related a story, which is hard to believe. A teacher who served in an uncongenial station, in his quest for higher knowledge, had studied for an external degree at a university. And he passed the examination with flying colours, obtaining first class honours and was highly commended by the university authorities for his brilliance, while serving in a different area. He had confided to his friends that his success at the exam was due to the gift of seeing all the question papers in a dream, before the examination!

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