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Sachintha Pilapitiya’s wanderlust

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‘Farren the Wanderer’, written by Sachintha Pilapitiya and published by Neptune Publications, will hit the shelves at the Book Fair from September 19

By Uditha Devapriya

At S. Thomas’ Prep, Kollupitiya, Sachintha Pilapitiya had trouble speaking in English. The problem hadn’t been his articulation or pronunciation; it had been his grammar. “Every time I opened my mouth,” he remembers, “I knew I’d trip somewhere.”

Ordinarily, this would have discomfited someone, draining his or her confidence, preventing him or her from talking ever again. For Sachintha, though, the way forward seemed clear. “I resolved to speak no matter how many mistakes I made.” Having wound up as Head Prefect, he knew he had to brush up quickly. “I invariably had to speak at official functions, especially at the Assembly. So I’d go through the speeches I had written many times before I walked to the podium and delivered them.” For a while, he says, it worked.

But such a temporary solution couldn’t last forever, and Sachintha knew that only too well. So when two of his friends – twins and batch mates – ‘introduced’ him to the Prep School Library, he was thrilled. They would have been in Grade Three or Four then. “We discovered Enid Blyton: Famous Five, Secret Seven, and so on.”

From there they graduated to Hardy Boys, “though we didn’t move on to Nancy Drew.” When in Grade 10, he was indulging in Dan Brown, and when he offered English Literature for his O Levels, his tastes had considerably widened. By then he was poring over ‘serious’ writers: Dickens, the Bronte sisters, and of course Shakespeare.

The Local O Level English Language paper lasts three hours, but can be completed in less than 30 minutes. At a term test, Sachintha had written it in 10. That left well more than two hours to do anything he wanted in the classroom. So he reflected on the books he had read, the speeches he had made, and wrote down a story. The story was about an adventurer, an explorer, or as its author put it, a ‘wanderer’. It incorporated the genres he’d grown up on and grown up with, especially fantasy, sci-fi, and adventure. “I finished the basic structure in two hours. When I came back to it, I fleshed it out even more.”

That was years later. By then he had completed his A Levels, finished school, and entered university. Having added other characters and subplots, he felt ready to publish it. Through an uncle, Chamikara Pilapitiya, he met a publisher, and did just that.

‘Farren the Wanderer’ will hit the Book Fair at the BMICH on September 19, 2020. While I have read the book, pored over its illustrations, and let it take me back to a childhood spent dreaming of fantastic beasts, unrelenting explorers, charming princes, and beautiful princesses, I am less interested in its story, and how it will captivate young readers, than I am in its author, and how he grew up.

Sachintha Pilapitiya was born in Kelaniya in 2000. His father had found employment in the medical industry, while his mother worked in the IT Department at Brandix; after his sister was born two years later, she quit her job to look after them.

His parents fuelled his love for writing. From an early age his mother would tell him bedtime stories: of beasts, explorers, princes, and princesses. His father, a more practical and hands-down person, would take him and his sister out exploring, “from the north to the south and virtually everywhere in-between.” This soon brought him into contact with the immense diversity and richness of the land of his birth, a theme he has woven into all his written work thereafter. “My father put wanderlust in my blood. My mother, on the other hand, instilled a love for imagining things, for writing them down.”

These two interests met later on, but as Sachintha tells me, “while my parents inspired me, they didn’t overly influence me.” The distinction, he emphasises, is important.

All that had been long, long before his education began. His first school, S. Thomas’ Prep, had contained a close-knit community, where, he remembers, differences of race and faith just melted away. “Even today, I can remember the names of almost everyone three years my junior there, and practically all the teachers and staff.”

Soon enough he bonded with this community, and while they weren’t ignorant of what was happening outside the four walls of their classrooms – like the war – they relished the little things that brought them together. “We ended up becoming brothers.” It was against this backdrop that Asher and Dan Abeysinghe, the twins from his batch, introduced him to the library. “We’ve remained close friends ever since.”

A whole flurry of extra- and co-curricular activities, of sports and clubs, followed. In Grade Three he joined the school rugby team, and in Grade Eight he joined cadetting, two activities at which his father had also excelled.

While indulging in these, he straddled other pursuits as well: Cub Scouting until Grade Five (though he didn’t take up Scouting afterwards), Badminton from Grade Six (winding up as the Captain), and the Interact Club from Grade Eight. Of these Cadetting had occupied him the most, and he climbed up to the post of Cadet Sergeant.

The schedule he had to endure was, to say the least, gruelling. “I had to be at school by 5.00 every day for Cadetting practices, and stay there until about 7.15 or 7.20. Rugby took three to four days a week, and unlike Cadetting which came up only seasonally, it lasted the whole year. Interact got me and my friends out into the world, to visit communities I’d normally not have encountered. I’d say these broadened my horizons, and helped me in my writing. What became more important to me were the contacts I forged through them.” Knowing people, he adds here, is absolutely essential to any writer.

School concerts had also taken up his time. “I was always a girl: Goldilocks, Sleeping Beauty, Rapunzel, you name it,” he chortles. (I tell him that he could have fared worse; after all some of us were flowers, trees, and bushes!) “I pursued Kandyan dancing and underwent an ada ves ceremony, short of a complete ves mangalya. Given my deficiency in grammar, I began attending St Theresa’s School of Speech and Drama in Kelaniya as well.

Having done both Trinity and LAMDA, obtaining a Diploma in the latter, Sachintha feels that elocution is more than just a colonial spill-over we’re still having hangovers over. “It’s easy to denigrate it, but as someone who started out with a rudimentary grasp of grammar, it helped me weave words from my thoughts. I can never forget that.”

For his O Levels, as I pointed out earlier, Sachintha had offered English Literature. “Not that the books we did were that interesting, though they were – R. K. Narayan’s The Vendor of Sweets, plus an anthology of poems – but I personally found the stories I discovered at the library much more fascinating.” Nevertheless he came to like his subjects, and having passed them secured a placement at S. Thomas’ College, Mount Lavinia.

 

Sachintha entered S. Thomas’ Mount in 2017. At first, he didn’t see any difference. “It was the College version of Prep, or so I thought.” Later, however, those differences came to light, especially after he was sent to the College hostel. “At Prep we had been a tight and close-knit community: everyone knew everyone else. Here, on the other hand, it was difficult to establish contact with everyone you met.” This issue had been heightened by his parents’ decision to enrol him at the hostel, “a necessity, given that otherwise I’d have to travel to and from Kelaniya every day.”

One of the most frequent themes and motifs that run through ‘Farren the Wanderer’ is the importance of understanding other communities and collectives. This came to Sachintha in his hostel years, particularly due to the people he befriended there. According to Sachintha, most of them were even less equipped with English than him. That had underlined a more glaring division: not just of language, but also of class.

“Most of those in the hostel hailed from far-off places, and nearly all of them had attended S. Thomas’ Gurutalawa or Bandarawela. They were encountering English for the first time here, in Mount. The first few days at the boarding became hard to adjust to. Once I got to befriend them well though, they taught me about life and taught me certain important life skills. In turn I endeavoured to teach them English. I believe, and I hope, that I succeeded, because it was my way of repaying my debt to them.”

The crowning moment of these encounters had been an Inter-House Drama Competition in 2018. Accordingly, the boarding students who belonged to Sachintha’s House – Sachintha being the House Captain – had to somehow jump over their linguistic handicap, since they were competing against ordinary College students. “All or most of whom hailed from English speaking backgrounds and could muster only broken Sinhala.” The odds were not in their favour, clearly; everything seemed to favour their competitors.

And yet, they emerged runners-up. That had shocked everyone. For some time thereafter, the feeling persisted that, somehow, the ‘bounders’ had triumphed.

 

Sachintha found the experience refreshing. “It showed not only that we could prevail, but also that we could rebel against the stereotype of us being rasthiyadukarayo, which is how the ordinary students viewed those boarded at College.” Along the way, he managed to seal his friendships with them. “Even now, I know that if I call them up, they’ll be with me and by my side. They may have been demeaned as loafers, but I know that they are much, much more sincere than those who demean them.”

 

In a way, this found its way to his writing commitments as well. By now he had published a story about his dog, a stray, and had written a novel titled ‘The Super Five’ – telling, since it reveals his fascination with fantasy AND Enid Blyton – which remained unpublished. They remain a world away from ‘Farren’, of course, less because of the differences in the plot than because of the differences of the themes explored in, and by, them.

 

While I won’t reveal what takes place in Farren’s universe – influenced more by C. S. Lewis and Narnia than Tolkien and the Hobbit – I will say this: in his quest to discover what lies beyond his father’s kingdom, the hero and his sidekick discover certain values Sachintha no doubt picked up from his boarding years.

 

I feel I’ve written too much. I’ll conclude by mentioning that Sachintha offered an unusual combination for his A Levels – Combined Maths, Literature, and Economics – and topped them to such an extent that New York University Abu Dhabi offered him a scholarship. He plans to leave next year, in January or February, and “to carry forward my childhood wanderlust.” He could have added, though he didn’t, that he’ll continue to write there, as he has here: While majoring in Economics and Legal Studies, he plans to minor in Creative Writing. In those two paths, no doubt, lies the key to his future.

 

udakdev1@gmail.com


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Islamophobia and the threat to democratic development

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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.

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Pakistan’s love of Sri Lanka

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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!.

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Covid-19 health rules disregarded at entertainment venues?

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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!

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