by Rajiva Wijesinha
Oranee Jansz died last month after a brave battle with cancer, one day after her 77th birthday. I knew her for just less than half her life, having first met her when I joined the University of Sri Jayewardenepura in 1992.
I had moved there mainly to look after the English courses at Affiliated University Colleges, the brainchild of Arjuna Aluwihare. But of course USJP wanted to make greater use of me, both to restructure its English courses and build up a Department, and also to revitalize teaching of English to all students through the English Language Teaching Unit.
This latter request did not go down well with the host of long serving ladies who ran the ELTU at the time, and amongst the most opposed to the intrusion of an outsider was Oranee. But fortunately, before I took any steps, I engaged in a thorough survey of the customers as it were of the ELTU, the heads of the different Faculties and Departments whose students were supposed to learn English through the ELTU.
I found almost total despair as to what they saw as the incapacity to enthuse or teach well of the different ladies, but they all thought very highly of Oranee and asked me to allocate her to their students. I realized from that that she was an exceptional person and I treated her with great respect, to which in time she responded positively. I believe we bonded when we walked up one day from the shed which housed the ELTU to the main gate of the university, and she asked me whether I believed the assurances her colleagues had given me that their programme was going well. I think she was relieved when I told her I knew there were problems.
Prof Palihawadana, a thorough gentleman as that other great gentleman J B Dissanayake described him, was acting as Vice-Chancellor at the time given the kerfuffle about the appointment of the university Librarian, Mr Dorakumbura, as Vice-Chancellor. Palihawadana was a shrewd judge of character and ability and had wanted to make Oranee the ELTU head, since the lady who had been there had resigned when told that I would be asked to take charge of their programmes. But Oranee’s colleagues, who were I think nervous of her, protested, and the former head took over again.
Instead Oranee was asked to take charge of English for the medical faculty USJP had just started. This was a salutary measure for she did a great job, using the participatory techniques she had developed, and her students blossomed. In the strange world of Sri Lankan medicine, where established universities roundly condemn the new ones and claim standards are being lowered, with the new universities that achieve respectability then joining the old brigade to condemn newer ones, USJP has the distinction of being the university that soonest gained enough respect to join the charmed circle. And while this was obviously due to the excellence of its teaching staff, I believe too that the self confidence Oranee developed, along with excellent communicative confidence in English, contributed to the speed with which USJP doctors achieved parity with their peers.
Oranee selected her own team for the medical faculty, and made short shrift of one of the nastier of her peers who fell like a vulture on the Tamils we recruited after I was put in charge of English. Even Parvathi Nagasunderam, whom I had enticed from the NIE, was driven to tears by the viciousness, claiming that USJP had been free of Tamils earlier and there was no room there for terrorists. But she had been recruited to the Languages Department and decided that she would have nothing more to do with them. This was their loss at the time, though soon enough the younger staff there looked on her as mentor and inspiration, as did the products of the English Department she presided over for many years.
Less confident was a Tamil gentleman who had in fact settled in Colombo as a refugee from Tiger violence, totally unprepared for the onslaught of the Amazons. Oranee promptly took him under her wing, and he became a loved teacher for the Medical Faculty.
That was Oranee, a woman of infinite courage and kindness, and a fantastic and inspiring teacher. She developed her own course for the Medical Faculty but deigned to make use of some of the materials I had prepared, which fortunately the other ladies teaching other students did not resist, not least because I took on the book for the AUCs that the ELTU head had prepared. This book, ‘People’ was actually quite good and, though I had to do some editing, this was much less than was needed for the second book. As to that I was delighted when, after I had revised it thoroughly, Prof Chitra Wickramasuriya of Colombo who had been Consultant to the AUC programmes before I took over remarked enthusiastically that ‘Objects’ had been transformed.
My own productions were a set of Student Workbooks which I later divided into two texts, ‘A Handbook of English Grammar’ and a reader called ‘Read, Think and Discuss’. This latter was in collaboration with Oranee for by then she and I were working together as Coordinators of the pre-University General English Language Teaching programme, the GELT which we rechristened a Training programme.
I had got involved because, on coming back to Sri Lanka in 1993 from my stay at the Rockefeller Centre in Bellagio, I met Prof A J Gunawardena on the plane and he said that they had not been able to find anyone satisfactory to take over the GELT. He knew I was acquainted with the programme, for while at the British Council I had been commissioned by the Canadians to produce readers for the course. A J suggested I call Arjuna Aluwihare and offer my services.
I did so, for it fitted in well with the AUC work, but Arjuna told me he had asked Oranee to take it over. I suggested that I could work with her, which pleased him for I think he had been wary about what the traditionalists in the ELTU would have said about Oranee, whose original degree had been in Chemistry, though she had of course qualified since in ELT through the Colombo University Master’s programme. This was a professional course unlike the one year apology for a course that Kelaniya offered at the time (since, I believe, upgraded to a reasonable one).
Oranee was not I think pleased at my involvement for she had looked forward to doing her own thing, but she soon found that I had no intention of restricting her. I was delighted at the many ideas she had for developing initiative and thinking skills, well aware then as others in her field were not of the importance of what are now described as Soft Skills. She was a great believer in group work, in setting exercises to get students to develop and defend their own ideas, and then setting guidelines for developing a productive consensus.
We got on superbly in the little office allocated to us at the UGC, along with the staff who had started the programme way back in the late eighties, Mr Saparamadu, Lilani Samaranayake, the indefatigable typist Padma, and the stolid office aide Joseph. Oranee kindly took charge of the office work, including the checking and signing of innumerable vouchers, while I travelled to monitor the centres, making it to almost all of them including Mannar Island and Tirukkovil, closing those which had few students and lazy teachers, encouraging the many who did excellent work.
I tried to get Oranee to visit the centres, but she was a good family woman and did not like to leave her husband and children. But she was wonderful at the training sessions for staff we held regularly in the auditorium, trying to ensure that traditional talk was abandoned and group work with unobtrusive but clear guidance was done. And Oranee also developed a system of getting the centres to Colombo, or rather those who came to the finals of the competition we established for dramatization of the projects we insisted all students engage in. These proved wildly successful, and the enthusiasm of the students, to look into a local problem and propound solutions for problems, was a joy to see.
When we started work Oranee was not enthusiastic about my effort to ensure accuracy, for she was then in thrall to the theories of a man called Krashen who pushed fluency and claimed insistence on accuracy inhibited that. But before long she granted that errors would get entrenched unless corrected, and became even more enthusiastic than I was about accuracy. She became a great proponent of the Grammar Handbook, while I bowed to her wonderful imagination and gave her free rein to introduce innovative exercises in the companion reader.
These were much loved by students but of course no other university wanted to use them, since they all made much of what they termed the production of materials for which of course they were paid (neither Oranee nor I took any money for what we produced). Later, when I was moving away from the university system, and realized that no one else would ensure the books were kept in print, I accepted the offer of Cambridge University Press in India to publish the two texts under their Foundation Books imprint.
Oranee was pleased that I attributed sole authorship of ‘Explorations’, as CUP entitled ‘Read, Think and Discuss’, to her, and delighted that she received royalties for the book, which had not of course happened in Sri Lanka. Indeed CUP had the books prescribed by some Indian universities, so we did well out of them, though in Sri Lanka endemic jealousy makes it impossible for students at other universities to benefit thus.
Indeed this came home to me when a member of the current UGC asked me about the GELT materials we had used, since he had been put in charge of reviving the GELT course and thought there was no need to reinvent the wheel. I sent him details, but since then I gather that the traditionalists have stepped in, and I suspect the new effort at a GELT will be as disastrous as the GELT became at the turn of the century when the UGC decided to decentralize it. Within a couple of years of that decision the UGC closed the programme on the grounds that very few students attended, which was indeed the case in urban areas run by the old universities but of course by then there was little concern about the rural students who had been the main beneficiaries. Incidentally the bonding we had developed had stood the students in good stead during the rag but that confidence was no more after GELT was abolished.
Oranee by then had enough to do for she had finally been appointed to head the ELTU at USJP. Meanwhile I had used her, as well as Paru, for the training I embarked on when I took on responsibility for the reintroduction of English medium in government schools at the end of 2001. Sadly Ranil Wickremesinghe forbade the Minister renewing my contract to coordinate this in the middle of 2002, and the programme began to collapse, as indeed Ranil’s brother told me in urging me to persuade the Prime Minister to take remedial action (which did not happen though I am not sure whether his animosity to English medium or to me was the greater reason for this stubbornness).
Fortunately Chandrika revived the programme, and by then Oranee was retired from USJP so I could get her to work at the Ministry, where she headed the lovely team I set up in 2004 and 2005. Once again I was fascinated by how much she inspired the staff I had taken on from Sabaragamuwa.
I saw less of Oranee later, after I entered the world of public affairs, but we kept in touch and when I heard she had cancer I made it a point to see her regularly. That had to cease when COVID struck, but I kept in touch on the telephone, and resumed my visits over the last couple of months. And whereas towards the end of last year she seemed to be weakening, she was much more feisty in the last few months, and was a great pleasure to talk to. As usual she did not mince her words and, having been enthusiastic last year about GELT being revived, she too thought this year that the initiative had fallen prey to the incoherence that bedevils our system, and lots of people will make lots of money reinventing wheels and producing second rate materials.
But we talked about much more, mutual friends, students whom she had nurtured, politics, fellow academics about whom she had entertaining stories. And her zest for life was exemplified too when she insisted on seeing my dog, who was generally with me for I usually saw her when travelling to my cottage. His name is Toby, but she insisted that he had to have a surname that matched his distinguished appearance, and designated him Toby Parker Bowles.
That too, that zany zest for life, along with a deep affection for all those weaker than herself, a forceful commitment to social justice, an indefatigable appetite for action, and a vivid imagination, contribute to the memory of a wonderful colleague and a dear friend.
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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development
There’s an ill more dangerous and pervasive than the Coronavirus that’s currently sweeping Sri Lanka. That is the fear to express one’s convictions. Across the public sector of the country in particular many persons holding high office are stringently regulating and controlling the voices of their consciences and this bodes ill for all and the country.
The corrupting impact of fear was discussed in this column a couple of weeks ago when dealing with the military coup in Myanmar. It stands to the enduring credit of ousted Myanmarese Head of Government Aung San Suu Kyi that she, perhaps for the first time in the history of modern political thought, singled out fear, and not power, as the principal cause of corruption within the individual; powerful or otherwise.
To be sure, power corrupts but the corrupting impact of fear is graver and more devastating. For instance, the fear in a person holding ministerial office or in a senior public sector official, that he would lose position and power as a result of speaking out his convictions and sincere beliefs on matters of the first importance, would lead to a country’s ills going unaddressed and uncorrected.
Besides, the individual concerned would be devaluing himself in the eyes of all irrevocably and revealing himself to be a person who would be willing to compromise his moral integrity for petty worldly gain or a ‘mess of pottage’. This happens all the while in Lankan public life. Some of those who have wielded and are wielding immense power in Sri Lanka leave very much to be desired from these standards.
It could be said that fear has prevented Sri Lanka from growing in every vital respect over the decades and has earned for itself the notoriety of being a directionless country.
All these ills and more are contained in the current controversy in Sri Lanka over the disposal of the bodies of Covid victims, for example. The Sri Lankan polity has no choice but to abide by scientific advice on this question. Since authorities of the standing of even the WHO have declared that the burial of the bodies of those dying of Covid could not prove to be injurious to the wider public, the Sri Lankan health authorities could go ahead and sanction the burying of the bodies concerned. What’s preventing the local authorities from taking this course since they claim to be on the side of science? Who or what are they fearing? This is the issue that’s crying out to be probed and answered.
Considering the need for absolute truthfulness and honesty on the part of all relevant persons and quarters in matters such as these, the latter have no choice but to resign from their positions if they are prevented from following the dictates of their consciences. If they are firmly convinced that burials could bring no harm, they are obliged to take up the position that burials should be allowed.
If any ‘higher authority’ is preventing them from allowing burials, our ministers and officials are conscience-bound to renounce their positions in protest, rather than behave compromisingly and engage in ‘double think’ and ‘double talk’. By adopting the latter course they are helping none but keeping the country in a state of chronic uncertainty, which is a handy recipe for social instabiliy and division.
In the Sri Lankan context, the failure on the part of the quarters that matter to follow scientific advice on the burials question could result in the aggravation of Islamophobia, or hatred of the practitioners of Islam, in the country. Sri Lanka could do without this latter phobia and hatred on account of its implications for national stability and development. The 30 year war against separatist forces was all about the prevention by military means of ‘nation-breaking’. The disastrous results for Sri Lanka from this war are continuing to weigh it down and are part of the international offensive against Sri Lanka in the UNHCR.
However, Islamophobia is an almost world wide phenomenon. It was greatly strengthened during Donald Trump’s presidential tenure in the US. While in office Trump resorted to the divisive ruling strategy of quite a few populist authoritarian rulers of the South. Essentially, the manoeuvre is to divide and rule by pandering to the racial prejudices of majority communities.
It has happened continually in Sri Lanka. In the initial post-independence years and for several decades after, it was a case of some populist politicians of the South whipping-up anti-Tamil sentiments. Some Tamil politicians did likewise in respect of the majority community. No doubt, both such quarters have done Sri Lanka immeasurable harm. By failing to follow scientific advice on the burial question and by not doing what is right, Sri Lanka’s current authorities are opening themselves to the charge that they are pandering to religious extremists among the majority community.
The murderous, destructive course of action adopted by some extremist sections among Muslim communities world wide, including of course Sri Lanka, has not earned the condemnation it deserves from moderate Muslims who make-up the preponderant majority in the Muslim community. It is up to moderate opinion in the latter collectivity to come out more strongly and persuasively against religious extremists in their midst. It will prove to have a cementing and unifying impact among communities.
It is not sufficiently appreciated by governments in the global South in particular that by voicing for religious and racial unity and by working consistently towards it, they would be strengthening democratic development, which is an essential condition for a country’s growth in all senses.
A ‘divided house’ is doomed to fall; this is the lesson of history. ‘National security’ cannot be had without human security and peaceful living among communities is central to the latter. There cannot be any ‘double talk’ or ‘politically correct’ opinions on this question. Truth and falsehood are the only valid categories of thought and speech.
Those in authority everywhere claiming to be democratic need to adopt a scientific outlook on this issue as well. Studies conducted on plural societies in South Asia, for example, reveal that the promotion of friendly, cordial ties among communities invariably brings about healing among estranged groups and produces social peace. This is the truth that is waiting to be acted upon.
Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka
By Sanjeewa Jayaweera
It was on 3rd January 1972 that our family arrived in Karachi from Moscow. Our departure from Moscow had been delayed for a few weeks due to the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It ended on 16th December 1971. After that, international flights were not permitted for some time.
The contrast between Moscow and Karachi was unbelievable. First and foremost, Moscow’s temperature was near minus 40 degrees centigrade, while in Karachi, it was sunny and a warm 28 degrees centigrade. However, what struck us most was the extreme warmth with which the airport authorities greeted our family. As my father was a diplomat, we were quickly ushered to the airport’s VIP Lounge. We were in transit on our way to Rawalpindi, the airport serving the capital of Islamabad.
We quickly realized that the word “we are from Sri Lanka” opened all doors just as saying “open sesame” gained entry to Aladdin’s cave! The broad smile, extreme courtesy, and genuine warmth we received from the Pakistani people were unbelievable.
This was all to do with Mrs Sirima Bandaranaike’s decision to allow Pakistani aircraft to land in Colombo to refuel on the way to Dhaka in East Pakistan during the military confrontation between Pakistan and India. It was a brave decision by Mrs Bandaranaike (Mrs B), and the successive governments and Sri Lanka people are still enjoying the fruits of it. Pakistan has been a steadfast and loyal supporter of our country. They have come to our assistance time and again in times of great need when many have turned their back on us. They have indeed been an “all-weather” friend of our country.
Getting back to 1972, I was an early beneficiary of Pakistani people’s love for Sri Lankans. I failed the entrance exam to gain entry to the only English medium school in Islamabad! However, when I met the Principal, along with my father, he said, “Sanjeewa, although you failed the entrance exam, I will this time make an exception as Sri Lankans are our dear friends.” After that, the joke around the family dinner table was that I owed my education in Pakistan to Mrs B!
At school, my brother and I were extended a warm welcome and always greeted “our good friends from Sri Lanka.” I felt when playing cricket for our college; our runs were cheered more loudly than of others.
One particular incident that I remember well was when the Embassy received a telex from the Foreign inistry. It requested that our High Commissioner seek an immediate meeting with the Prime Minister of Pakistan, Mr Zulifikar Ali Bhutto (ZB), and convey a message from Mrs B. The message requested that an urgent shipment of rice be dispatched to Sri Lanka as there would be an imminent rice shortage. As the Ambassador was not in the station, the responsibility devolved on my father.
It usually takes about a week or more to get an audience with the Prime Minister (PM) of a foreign country due to their busy schedule. However, given the urgency, my father spoke to the Foreign Ministry’s Permanent Sectary, who fortunately was our neighbour and sought an urgent appointment. My father received a call from the PM’s secretary around 10 P.M asking him to come over to the PM’s residence. My father met ZB around midnight. ZB was about to retire to bed and, as such, was in his pyjamas and gown enjoying a cigar! He had greeted my father and had asked, “Mr Jayaweera, what can we do for great friend Madam Bandaranaike?. My father conveyed the message from Colombo and quietly mentioned that there would be riots in the country if there is no rice!
ZB had immediately got the Food Commissioner of Pakistan on the line and said, “I want a shipload of rice to be in Colombo within the next 72 hours!” The Food Commissioner reverted within a few minutes, saying that nothing was available and the last export shipment had left the port only a few hours ago to another country. ZB had instructed to turn the ship around and send it to Colombo. This despite protests from the Food Commissioner about terms and conditions of the Letter of Credit prohibiting non-delivery. Sri Lanka got its delivery of rice!
The next was the visit of Mrs B to Pakistan. On arrival in Rawalpindi airport, she was given a hero’s welcome, which Pakistan had previously only offered to President Gaddafi of Libya, who financially backed Pakistan with his oil money. That day, I missed school and accompanied my parents to the airport. On our way, we witnessed thousands of people had gathered by the roadside to welcome Mrs B.
When we walked to the airport’s tarmac, thousands of people were standing in temporary stands waving Sri Lanka and Pakistan flags and chanting “Sri Lanka Pakistan Zindabad.” The noise emanating from the crowd was as loud and passionate as the cheering that the Pakistani cricket team received during a test match. It was electric!
I believe she was only the second head of state given the privilege of addressing both assemblies of Parliament. The other being Gaddafi. There was genuine affection from Mrs B amongst the people of Pakistan.
I always remember the indefatigable efforts of Mr Abdul Haffez Kardar, a cabinet minister and the President of the Pakistan Cricket Board. From around 1973 onwards, he passionately championed Sri Lanka’s cause to be admitted as a full member of the International Cricket Council (ICC) and granted test status. Every year, he would propose at the ICC’s annual meeting, but England and Australia’s veto kept us out until 1981.
I always felt that our Cricket Board made a mistake by not inviting Pakistan to play our inaugural test match. We should have appreciated Mr Kardar and Pakistan’s efforts. In 1974 the Pakistan board invited our team for a tour involving three test matches and a few first-class games. Most of those who played in our first test match was part of that tour, and no doubt gained significant exposure playing against a highly talented Pakistani team.
Several Pakistani greats were part of the Pakistan and India team that played a match soon after the Central Bank bomb in Colombo to prove that it was safe to play cricket in Colombo. It was a magnificent gesture by both Pakistan and India. Our greatest cricket triumph was in Pakistan when we won the World Cup in 1996. I am sure the players and those who watched the match on TV will remember the passionate support our team received that night from the Pakistani crowd. It was like playing at home!
I also recall reading about how the Pakistani government air freighted several Multi Barrell artillery guns and ammunition to Sri Lanka when the A rmy camp in Jaffna was under severe threat from the LTTE. This was even more important than the shipload of rice that ZB sent. This was crucial as most other countries refused to sell arms to our country during the war.
Time and again, Pakistan has steadfastly supported our country’s cause at the UNHCR. No doubt this year, too, their diplomats will work tirelessly to assist our country.
We extend a warm welcome to Mr Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan. He is a truly inspirational individual who was undoubtedly an excellent cricketer. Since retirement from cricket, he has decided to get involved in politics, and after several years of patiently building up his support base, he won the last parliamentary elections. I hope that just as much as he galvanized Sri Lankan cricketers, his political journey would act as a catalyst for people like Kumar Sangakkara and Mahela Jayawardene to get involved in politics. Cricket has been called a “gentleman’s game.” Whilst politics is far from it!.
Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?
Believe me, seeing certain videos, on social media, depicting action, on the dance floor, at some of these entertainment venues, got me wondering whether this Coronavirus pandemic is REAL!
To those having a good time, at these particular venues, and, I guess, the management, as well, what the world is experiencing now doesn’t seem to be their concerned.
Obviously, such irresponsible behaviour could create more problems for those who are battling to halt the spread of Covid-19, and the new viriant of Covid, in our part of the world.
The videos, on display, on social media, show certain venues, packed to capacity – with hardly anyone wearing a mask, and social distancing…only a dream..
How can one think of social distancing while gyrating, on a dance floor, that is over crowded!
If this trend continues, it wouldn’t be a surprise if Coronavirus makes its presence felt…at such venues.
And, then, what happens to the entertainment scene, and those involved in this field, especially the musicians? No work, whatsoever!
Lots of countries have closed nightclubs, and venues, where people gather, in order to curtail the spread of this deadly virus that has already claimed the lives of thousands.
Thailand did it and the country is still having lots of restrictions, where entertainment is concerned, and that is probably the reason why Thailand has been able to control the spread of the Coronavirus.
With a population of over 69 million, they have had (so far), a little over 25,000 cases, and 83 deaths, while we, with a population of around 21 million, have over 80,000 cases, and more than 450 deaths.
I’m not saying we should do away with entertainment – totally – but we need to follow a format, connected with the ‘new normal,’ where masks and social distancing are mandatory requirements at these venues. And, dancing, I believe, should be banned, at least temporarily, as one can’t maintain the required social distance, while on the dance floor, especially after drinks.
Police spokesman DIG Ajith Rohana keeps emphasising, on TV, radio, and in the newspapers, the need to adhere to the health regulations, now in force, and that those who fail to do so would be penalised.
He has also stated that plainclothes officers would move around to apprehend such offenders.
Perhaps, he should instruct his officers to pay surprise visits to some of these entertainment venues.
He would certainly have more than a bus load of offenders to be whisked off for PCR/Rapid Antigen tests!
I need to quote what Dr. H.T. Wickremasinghe said in his article, published in The Island of Tuesday, February 16th, 2021:
“…let me conclude, while emphasising the need to continue our general public health measures, such as wearing masks, social distancing, and avoiding crowded gatherings, to reduce the risk of contact with an infected person.
“There is no science to beat common sense.”
But…do some of our folks have this thing called COMMON SENSE!