26 October, 2020

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The Story Of A Sri Lankan Constant

By Mahesan Niranjan

Prof Mahesan Niranjan

Have you ever observed Physicists? They are usually searching for constants, and separating them from variable quantities aren’t they? You must have heard of Plank’s constant, gravitational constant, the speed of light and so on. I am no physicist, but I know enough of the subject to be able to say that if you don’t recognize the existence of some constants, you are in danger of solving the wrong problem.

Let me tell you a story about a particular constant to do with Sri Lanka. For this, we first go back to the year 1970. There was a little boy in the village of Karainagar, a lovely little island off the north coast of Sri Lanka. The island used to be called Karaitheevu. Theevu means island in Tamil, but when the Dutch built a causeway, we islanders changed the name to Karainagar, nagar in Tamil meaning town or city, a little recognition that this hard-working, industrious and close-knit community considered itself perfectly entitled to.

The boy’s parents were school teachers, whose jobs were transferable, and the Department of Education had a policy of transferring teachers for a few years to parts of the country that were identified as “difficult areas.” The beautiful up-country town of Bandarawela was classified as one of these, and they were sent there to serve for five years. Once the family settled there, it was thought a good idea for the boy to learn Sinhala. By then it was the official language of the country for several years.

Pushpa acca, an unemployed young lady living two houses away was contracted as tutor.

The first lesson started well, initially reading the alphabet. The boy noted several similarities and differences between his language and the new one he was learning. After introducing the alphabet, Pushpa acca began to read a paragraph and asked the boy to follow her. Six lines into the paragraph, there was the word “bambarayak” (spintop). This word, the boy could not pronounce. Pushpa acca tried several times and failed. It had to do with phonetics. The combination of the nasal sound /m/ and the bilabial plosives /ba/, /bi/, /bu/ is also found in Tamil: kumbam, thambi, kambu etc. But there is a subtle difference between the nasal-to-plosive transitions in these words and the challenging one the boy had just encountered in Sinhala. There is a short pause in the Tamil examples which is absent in the Sinhala word bambarayak. [For another example, think of the word amba (mango) and compare to the word gemba (frog).] The pause is smaller than a millisecond in fluent speech, but makes a huge difference in perception. The boy just couldn’t pronounce it to the high standards Pushpa acca expected.

Now that was a bit of an attack on the little boy’s ego. The boy had his Edu thudakkal / akuru kiyaveema (initiation of reading) session with Thiyagarajak kurukkal (priest) at the Karainagar Sivan Temple at the age of three. Not being enthusiastic about this being a ceremony, the boy had rebelled a bit by saying “neengkal vasiyungO aiya, naan kEddukkoNdu irukkiRen (you read priest, I will just listen)” and had to be brought to order by a pinch on his backside from one of the parents. The pinch or the priest that did the trick we will never know, but that day onwards the boy had paid particular attention to his three R’s. Every single teacher he was taught by had told him how good he was, and he believed them. The encounter with Pushpa acca was a different experience, shattering that firmly held belief system.

So the boy cried.

Pushpa acca, despite her enthusiasm for academic rigor, didn’t quite understand why the boy was crying. “Aney, aei andannE (oh, why cry)?”

In response to her question, the boy pointed to his stomach. Pushpa acca’s brother, loku aiya (older brother), fixing his bicycle from the corner of the veranda, saw what happened and came over. “Bada ridhenavaalu nangi (he has tummy ache sister),” he said to Pushpa, gave the boy a gentle cuddle and asked “vayiru nokuthu (tummy ache)?” in Tamil, “veeddu po (want to go home)?” Loku aiya’s broken Tamil amused the boy, but he had reasons not to show it, and continued his act of faking the tummy ache. Loku aiya walked the boy home.

During the slow walk, just a short distance past two houses, they did not say anything to each other. Yet, loku aiya knew. And the little boy knew that loku aiya knew — which was the basis of a bond the boy would never forget.

But that was the first and the last day he saw loku aiya.

One night a few days later, the boy suddenly woke up from his sleep. His parents told him not to make any noise. Without turning on the lights, the family stayed very quiet. They were paralysed with fear. Outside, there were sounds he recognized as screeching tires of jeeps, heavy boots and loud banging on doors. Could the boy have recognized the sound of rifle butts crashing into rib bones and breaking them? We will never know that, because those sounds were drowned out by the shriek of an old woman:

magE puthE” (my son).

Sinhala lessons started a few months later. Whenever the boy went to class, the old mother would move from the veranda and go inside the house and stay in the kitchen. During the lessons, the boy often got distracted by the sound of gentle sobbing coming from inside the house. “magE puthE.” Low in decibels, yet powerful enough to be remembered for over 40 years to come.

The boy knew it was the mother crying. “What’s her problem,” he would say to himself, “she can pronounce babmbarayak, can’t she?” Of the source of the distraction, the boy did not show he knew. Pushpa acca knew that the boy knew — which was the basis of a bond the boy would never forget.

Now let us fast forward to the year 2013.

Some of you might have seen a news item in Jaffna-based local newspapers — a type of news mainstream Sinhala and English media in our country don’t feel minded to report. It featured our war hero, General Sarath Fonseka, who ventured into politics after retirement, and was rewarded with what the British refer to as “at Her Majesty’s pleasure.” The General was at a Hindu temple in Jaffna, bare-chested and with a pottu prominent on his forehead, properly respecting local customs. Rather strange, for his majoritarian remarks still ring in our ears. But as the General closed his eyes in prayer, seeking the support of some subset of the two dozen Hindu deities available at the temple for his next venture, an elderly woman ran towards him and fell at his feet crying.

We didn’t hear everything she said except the phrase “Enta raasaa” — literal translation “my king”, but raasaa in Tamil in this context is precisely the same as “putha” (son) in Sinhala. If the final vowel in the Tamil word is stretched, it achieves the same morphological modification we find in Sinhala of going from “putha” to puthE”. The woman certainly wasn’t referring to the General as king or son.

As you would expect, the General was taken aback and did not quite understand what she was after. But fully aware of the cameras following him, he managed to display a smile of kindness, held her hands gently and moved on. The news item claimed that the woman had begged the General for help in getting her son released from His Majesty’s pleasure.

Had the ten year old little boy from 1970 been at the temple that day, he would have asked us an innocent question. Answering it might help us to separate constants from variables in the political puzzle we so urgently need to solve. Our inability to tell apart those that vary, from those that stay constant, as physicists might tell us, puts us in danger of trying to solve the wrong problem.

The young boy’s question: “Can she not pronounce bambarayak?”

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    This writer is so good. He writes in parables but the underlying meaning is so very clear.

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    Excellent.

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    So are most of the Karainagarans from Jaffna Dt.Very good in mathematics and business.Their neighbouring village Vaddukoddai was even better but only in Mathematics, e.g. A.Vaidilingam, M.A(Cantab) and the foremost Communist party theoretician of yester years in the company of Peter.K and Dr.SAW.However by 1977 Vaddukoddai became a dirty word in the vocabulary of many of the politicians since they thought it tries to give certain rights like S D to Tamils although it is right there in International Law and in decided cases.Although I was from Trinco Dt. and from a very remote village there more than half of which has already gone to the Indians to make polutant power plant along with 6000 acres of land (although the power plant’s requirement was only 5oo acres by a Gazette notification by the big boss with the least of concern for the occupations-farming and fishing- or concurrence of the people who owned those lands), I was able to beat many of them at a famous College in studies in Jaffna where another Communist M.Karthigesan, the first editor of ‘Forward’ Newspaper and A.S.Kanagaretnam, who was from LSSP and used to get around 10,000 votes everytime he contested the General Elections in Chavakachcheri. So did A.V. from Vaddukoddai Electorate and that too against Federal Party candidates.So all the wo/men from Jaffna were not high caste Vellaala fanatics as Dr.Rajan Hoole tries to paint them all the time in his articles. But there is a secret as to how I was able to do it. Just like my other two succesful Seniors from Trincomalee Mr.Sampanthan and Justice Wigneswaran we all have Jaffna connection as half of our ascendants are from Jaffna. In fact two of us have them from the same village in Jaffna.
    My good old friend from Karainagar who is her Majesty’s Pensioner in U.K. and is the hereditary Trustee of another told me a fantastic story about a Karainagar man and laughed. There was a patient who needed blood and a Karainagaraan sold it to him in instalments and got paid promptly. But after a while the patient refused to pay.The blood donor told the donee as to why he is refusing to pay him when he was prompt in his payments earlier and the donee said, “Earlier I had my own blood and now I have Karainagar blood fully in my body.

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      “My good old friend from Karainagar who is her Majesty’s Pensioner in U.K. and is the hereditary Trustee of another told me a fantastic story about a Karainagar man and laughed. There was a patient who needed blood and a Karainagaraan sold it to him in installments and got paid promptly. But after a while the patient refused to pay.The blood donor told the donee as to why he is refusing to pay him when he was prompt in his payments earlier and the donee said, “Earlier I had my own blood and now I have Karainagar blood fully in my body.”

      Excellent story Radish. Blood Bank in Jaffna has in store blood donated by Sri Lankans. So those who get blood from blood bank are true Sri Lankans???

      Thilina Kiringoda

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      A.Vaidilingam, M.A(Cantab) – A very good mathematics teacher. I am one of his students – taught me Applied and Pure Maths. He never talked politics in the class. A very nice person.

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      Dear Mahesan And Radish,
      If most of us could not understand ,
      And don’t recognize the existence of some constants, We are in danger of solving the wrong problem.

      But the problem was in Existence and
      there were the same Ward ” MAGE AMMAA”, [ “ENDAE THAAIYE”],MAGE PUTHE, [“ENDA RAASAA”, “ENDA MAHANE” echoing from all four corners of sri lanka and still hearing.
      From the Torture Chambers of GOSL AND LTTE in Welikada, Jaffna, Boosa, Thunukkai, Welikanda, Vavniya, Eliyakanda, Trincomalee, Embilipitiya, Mullaithiu, Kokadicholai, Vaakahrai,

      Are we hearing that again and again????????.

      ARE THERE ANY VALUE FOR A HUMANE LIVES AMONG US, BEING HUMAN BEINGS????.

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      Radish,
      OUR SRI LANKAN governance Doing HARAKIRI,

      Giving The Most fertile land in sri lanka to Indians to destroy our Land and culture for personal gains.
      .
      ranging From Manampitya to Trincomalee covering farming land of Maavil Aaru, Somapura, Sunethrapura, Kilivetti,mihindupura, Seruvila, Lankapatuna, Alioluwa, Thoppoor, Maliayathiu. Sampoor, Morakotachenai,
      Kattaiparichchan, Neelapola, where we produces much Rice production to Half of Sri lanka.
      It is a bane that they handing over our farming delta and Fishing villages for those multi national Indian Vultures
      and elimination of our milk producing cattle heards due to the fumes and acid rains of This Proposed Coal Power Plant.

      Not immediately, but Our future generation will have to pay the prices for those ugly decisions taken by Moronic Politicians.

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    Lessons for SL from Israel.

    The Israeli cabinet has backed a bill that requires any peace deal with the Palestinians to be put to a referendum.

    “Any agreement which may be reached in negotiations will be put to a referendum,” said Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu’s office as quoted by AFP. “It is important that on such historic decisions every citizen should vote directly on an issue deciding the country’s future.

    The referendum bill is seen as a goodwill gesture to right-wing members of the government who might oppose concessions Israel could have to make within the peace process negotiations – including giving up land.

    Netanyahu has said that he is firmly supportive of the idea of a referendum.

    Peace with our neighbors requires peace among ourselves, and the way to ensure this is through a referendum,” the PM stated.”

    How true!

    Peace with our neighbors requires peace among ourselves, and the way to ensure this is through a referendum,” the PM stated.”

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    This is a fantastic piece of writing and the author is a story-teller par excellence! It is also a masterful lesson in phonetics, at least for me.

    However, it remains a mystery to me as to whether the ‘physical constant’ in both the 1971 (JVP insurrection #1?)and 2006 events is the same ‘war hero’ or whether the constant is meant to be thematic in concept (i.e. ‘disappearances’ of youth, innocent or otherwise).

    Also, are readers to guess that the 10 year old boy who took Sinhala lessons in Bandarawela in 1970-71 is the author himself(?) – he seems to be more than tri-lingual enough to fit this bill.

    Will someone clarify for the benefit of this ignoramus please?!

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      If you had posed this question six months ago, I would have had to shrug my shoulders.

      But I’ve actually met this wonderful man – first I was invited by him to the Cinnamon Grand where he made the Annual Handy Memorial Oration; next he visited my home – in Bandarawela.

      He’s got himself a pretty transparent nom de guerre – to write about our sad wars. Mahesan Nirmalan, he is. Studied at S. Thomas’, Bandarawela, then Jaffna Hindu College. His parents had both been Government teachers – St Joseph’s and St Mary’s, both in Bandarawela.

      Now in Manchester University.

      A voice of sanity!

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        I need to correct myself. This writer of short stories is Dr Niranjan Nirmalan. He is currently the Professor of Computer Sciences at the University of Southampton.

        Dr Mahesan Nirmalan, is his brother. Nirmalan is a Reader(Associate Professor in Sri Lankan terminology) at Manchester University. He is also:

        Consultant and Clinical Director of Anaesthesiology,
        Manchester Hospitals, UK

        Obviously they are both outstanding; but what is clear also is that they are such wonderful human beings that I hope there are more siblings!

        It is true that this world is over-populated, but we clearly need more persons of their ilk.

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    Excellent Niranjan…
    But the issue is how many would understand importance of constants and variables in SL issues and ability to discriminate these two and then understand which problem to resolve…. even with your humane and charming story…

    Then again when you think about intelligent levels of ‘R’ Family, and Wimal, Vass, Mervin, GL type chief advisers, your attempt could be just a waste…

    Anura

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    Most evocative and subtly powerful.

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    “It featured our war hero, General Sarath Fonseka,”

    My dear friend, Sarath Fonseka may be a war hero for you,
    but for the whole Tamil race, he is a war criminal and a genocidaire, who will one day be locked up in the Hague. On that day you will be ashamed.

    Your superficial articles are demeaning the dignity of the Tamil people all over the world. Furthermore all your articles so far are patronizing in nature. You lack objectivity or impartiality.

    Thiru

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      Dear Thiru,

      Read again. The phrase “our” is used in a very sarcastic sense by the author. Clue is in the next two sentences. Do you get it now?

      Do you know, when Sarath Fonseka stood for elections, he had the support of the Tamil National Alliance. How demeaning to the dignity of the Tamil people would you say that was?

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        That too was.

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          Dear Thiru

          And what did you do to express your disgust at TNA’s demeaning act towards the Tamil people? Given TNA’s excellent support among Tamils, maybe you should reconsider your views on what is demeaning to the Tamil people!

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      Oh, the danger of using irony. What do you think Jonathan Swift meant when he wrote this?

      http://art-bin.com/art/omodest.html

      He was telling people that if you talk about another class of people the way the English in general, and the Anglo-Irish in particular, talked about the “authentic Irish” (those of Celtic descent), they might as well go the whole hog, and eat them.

      Poor man! He was beaten up in the streets of Dublin – by those who thought he seriously advocated cannibalism.

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    My friend – Kumara Kulatunga, was a third year medical student. We lived in a hostel down Punchi Boralla. For several years we ate together, laughed together, cried together and sang together. When I saw him last he was being dragged into a vehicle without a number plate, by men dressed in a black T-shirt. What I heard of him last, was when his old father – a retired school teacher from Galle, who was looking for his son…… who had not come home, digging the dust-bins along the Boralla-Maradana road saying “Anne Puthe umba koheda giye”. The constants and variables of Sri Lankan politics. Nirmalan.

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      Dear Mahesan@
      Kumara Kulatunga was one of my school mates. He is just one of the hundreds of youth across the country that lost their lives through 89 insurgency. None of us knew whether these killings were by JVP or Govt forces. He was the only child in that family. Got to know from others, that his father had gone mad not being able to find his only child.

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        None of the successive govts investigated these crimes.

        Have no hope whether the current thugs would ever investigate the Mathale grave sites. Anyway when looking at all these, not only at the war end phase in 2009, but also in 1989, they the govt (or JVPers) have taken the lives some 50k of lanken youth.

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    Human beings have the capacity to empathise with others. It is not scientifically explained but to feel the emotions of the other, or to be in communion with another is a superior human quality. The pain of the other becomes our pain, the sorrow of the other becomes our sorrow, the happiness of the other becomes our happiness. Such empathy overcomes the divisions of race, religon, language.

    Unfortunately when we are overtaken by our baser emotions like hate and anger we loose the ability to empathise with the other. We tend to demonise and suspect others although they are human beings no different from our own selves. The variables are race, religon and language. The constants are pain, suffering and joy. To empathise with the other is to realise their predicament and give them support and relief.

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    dear Prof. Niranjan,

    Three weeks ago I was hospitalized for an illness which the doctors termed as TIA (Transient Infarction Arrest). I first thought as it was something to do with Traffic Impact Assessment. (In fact it was a disturbance in the blood vessels supplying blood to the brain, which helped me to come to the instant conclusion that I have a brain.) During admission to the hospital ward the young doctor asked me say the word “Sree lankaawe prajaathanthrawaadaya” (democracy in Sri Lanka). I do not know whether I pronounced it correct because he there was a slur in speech. May be due to my not being able to understand the present status of democracy in Sri Lanka with cross overs against the will of the voters.

    When I read the comments to your beautiful article, I feel that some readers are suffering from TIA. They cannot comprehend anything without reference to Rajapakshas and the present government of SL.

    I kindly request you to write more to ease the TIAs in the brains of such people enabling them to understand what you write, which Dr. DJ has described as “Most evocative and subtly powerful”.

    Thilina Kiringoda

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      A correction:
      A transient ischemic attack (TIA) is a transient episode of neurologic
      dysfunction caused by ischemia (loss of blood flow) – either focal
      brain, spinal cord or retinal …

      That slur was a symptom.

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        Thanks Nilame Maamaa. Now the problem is there is no taste in whatever I eat.

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          Sadly you seem to have contacted the Chinese Eating syndrome.
          They say the meat does not taste the same as before during Mao’s time. Panacea- Try Mindful Eating just like the Japanese who take an hour to eat a small vegetable roll and they are full.

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    “The boy’s parents were school teachers, whose jobs were transferable, and the Department of Education had a policy of transferring teachers for a few years to parts of the country that were identified as “difficult areas.” The beautiful up-country town of Bandarawela was classified as one of these, and they were sent there to serve for five years.”

    This is exactly Niranjan’s family.

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