Tuesday, 24 February 2015

Our Ancestry, Nationalism and Patriotism

Recently, I attended a workshop as a part of the ‘Aboriginal Water Initiative’ of NSW Office of Water, where I work.  The program, ‘Aboriginal Water Initiative’, is to ensure water used by Aborigines for their cultural services are taken into consideration and provided for when water is allocated and managed in river basins.  This is one of the four categories of ecosystem services provided by water, others being provisioning, supportive, and regulatory.   I had been in the water sector for a long time, and I believe this ‘initiative’ is one of a kind, and again, Australians are showing the way forward.
The prime objective of the workshop was to sensitize non aboriginal Australians to sensitivities of Aborigines in Australia.  There were 24 participants, none of them were Aborigines.  The instructor had Aboriginal mother and Italian father.  This gave him the liberty to use a wide ranging vocabulary, some are politically incorrect.  Those words did drive his messages though.

His first exercise was to remind everyone that occupation of Australia by non-Aborigines is only for the last 227 years, Aborigines inhabited this vast continent for more than 40,000 years, and the continent itself is very much older than the people who live(d) in it.  Well, everyone knew this, but the reminder set the scene.

Then he asked the group to split into two, those who were born in Australia and those who immigrated.  The split was 50:50.   Those who immigrated were separated on the basis of their country of origin, and those born in Australia were separated on the basis of their parents’ country of birth.  By this time, there were almost 24 groups, each with one member.  The point was made again, we are all different, yet we are all the same.  We differ, if we choose to, we conform when we choose to.  He maintained, although we differed, we are all unique and should be very proud of our ancestry.  No one could disagree.

Then what’s the problem?  The problem is when one group thinks their ancestry is some or other better than the others’ ancestry.  I see this as the root cause of conflicts.  In Sri Lanka some Sinhala-Buddhists consider their ancestry is some or other better than Tamil-Hindus or Tamil-Muslims.  In the Arabian Gulf, ISIS considers it superior to everyone else.  I can go on.

What we do not remember is that most of us did not choose our mother tongue, nationality or religion.  We were born into whatever we are.  Every one’s ancestry has lessons for others to better themselves.  Our focus, especially in societies like in Australia, should be to cherish the opportunity and learn the best from each other.

There’s also confusion between Nationalism and Patriotism among some.  I can be a proud Jaffna-Tamil, and a patriotic Australian, can’t I?  Patriotism will be challenged only when I expect every Australian to be like Jaffna Tamil.  After all, Tamil is only 5000 years old,and Hinduism is only 12000 years old.  In comparison with the period Aborigines have inhabited Australia, I haven't got much to brag about, isn't it!

So, let’s be proud about our ancestry, let’s not insist ours is better than that of others’, and definitely not insist on everyone to become like us.

Wednesday, 7 January 2015

Reflections from Cemeteries

During the past two weeks, I was at two Cemeteries, one in Colombo, Sri Lanka and the other in Sydney, Australia.  I probably spent about 90 minutes at each one, mostly observing and reflecting.

In Colombo, I was at the square where Hindu cremations take place.  Deceased are brought in, rituals carried out, the pyre is set on fire, and then everyone leave.  My mind kept humming a Kannathasan's song - Veedu varai uravu, Veethi varai Manaivi, Kadu varai pillai, Kadasi varai yaro (Kith & Kin come home, wife to street, the sons to the cemetery, BUT, who will come till last).

The last time I was there was 18 years ago, cremating my mother.  This time the circumstances were different.  I was to attend a funeral, but I got there well after it was over, and waited for 90 minutes not knowing that the funeral was over.  There weren't anyone, and I assumed that all will come with the deceased.  But the truth was, no sooner the grieved left, the area for the funeral pyre had been cleaned, and prepared for the next cremation.  All looked clean and proper.  This business has no dearth of customers.

But the waiting period gave me time to walk-about, watch and reflect.

At another part of the cemetery - I believe that was for the Buddhists - a baby's funeral was on.  The coffin could not be more than 75 cm long.  The family were squatting on the floor, grieving, and a monk was condoling citing religion, and God, I think.  Quite an emotional setting, the monk was speaking very softly, yet it came out loud and clear, because of the silence prevailed.  I wished I could understand Sinhalese better.  I would have benefited from his service.

I kept walking, and witnessed a burial of an elderly man, a Christian by birth.  He was a Tamil, and the rites before burial were from those of Hindus.  The burial pit was ready.  The coffin was set on the ground.  Then a close relative carried a mud-pot of water around the coffin three times, another man followed him, and after each round, the man behind pricked a hole on the pot, allowing water to leak.  This rite for a Hindu symbolizes the release of the soul.

Then close relatives were putting pounded rice on the mouth of the deceased.  By putting broken rice (which can't germinate) on the mouth of the deceased, it is believed that the soul will not be born again.  Hindus believe in re-incarnation of those sinned, but this rite is a remedy for all sins committed, I suppose.

It's clear that Christians, who lived among Hindus have adapted some Hindu rituals over the years.  My trespass ended when the coffin was about to be lowered.

I continued my prowl, and my mind engaged in a weird exercise.  I started estimating the age of those buried, and it ranged from teens to sixties, only a few above seventies, and hardly any above eighties.  I told myself - my time is running out.  I am already sixty.

I also walked through a part where almost everyone buried was a military personnel.  This part of the cemetery is a reminder of the price many families paid for the Civil War, we need not have had.  Among them was the tombstone of Mr Ranjan Wijeyratne, former Defense Minister of Sri Lanka.

Despite the flow of depressing thoughts, one sight was refreshing.  I saw two women, one possibly in her fifties, and another probably in her twenties, must be mother and daughter.  Both looked like those settled in the West, but on a holiday in Colombo.  They were desperately looking for a tomb.  The memory of their elder has brought them from where ever they were to the Cemetery after a long time.  In their minds, the deceased still lives.

Overall the cemetery was maintained well, gardeners busy weeding and raking.  Flowers all around too.  The Cemetery was maintained by a successful company owned by a Muslim businessman.

The second funeral was in Sydney.  I was at the cemetery, about ten minutes earlier, and several mourners were coming out of a chapel.  Among them at least one-hundred bikies, in their leather strapping.  Bikes roared, as sign of salute.  They are coming out of another bikie's funeral, I guessed.

The funeral I went to attend was that of an elderly lady, who had two sons and a daughter.  All three were at least 50 years old.  Her funeral was held in a Chapel, and two Hindu community elders carried out her last rites.  A Hindu's funeral in a Christian Chapel!  The rites had to be modified to suit the Chapel, and the time allocated.  Her sons were in peace, that the mother lived 91 years and died peacefully.  The daughter kept crying, so were the grand daughters.  Those in attendance were multi-racial and multi-religious.  All mourned.  Having lived in Sydney for 28 years, the lady had made a lot of friends, I could see.  At the end of the ceremony the coffin was handed over to the undertakers, and the curtains were drawn.  The coffin will then 'roll' gently into an incinerator, and the ashes to be collected later.  No funeral pyre, and the works!  

What I witnessed was a merger.  Baby and a Bikie.  Christian funeral with Hindu rituals, and a Hindu funeral at a Chapel.  A cemetery for Hindus, Christians and Buddhists maintained by Muslims.

Cemeteries coalesce!  They equalize.  A Tamil poet called them "samarasam ulaavum idame", a place where all are equal.  A perfect metaphor.

P.S. For those who understand Tamil, see this clip on YouTube.


Friday, 24 October 2014

Globalisation of Norocholai

Norocholai is the tip of Kalpity peninsula in Puttalam District.  I was at the beach strip, possibly 3-4 km long, and was amazed at the extent of globalisation of this rather pristine and quiet strip.

I could see a coal power plant belching smoke through its three chimneys.  This plant was built with Chinese aid, coal to the plant is supplied by a bulk freighter (bulker) possibly sailed its way from Australia.  It is so big, it can’t sail closer to the power plant.  So, a handy, a smaller vessel, shuttles between the bulker and the plant continuously.  900 MW of electricity is expected from the plant, feeding the national grid.  This increased supply is expected to bring down the electricity prices, especially for small consumers across the country.  A few kilo meters from the plant is a labour camp (actually this is a modern residential complex with dozens of 100 duplexes), built for Chinese technocrats for their stay during construction.  Now it houses employees of the coal power plant.

Evenly spaced wind mills had been installed along the beach strip.  They are probably 200 m apart, just enough space to prevent the long wind blades colliding from each other.  There were several of them, constructed by a Sri Lankan company with support from Indian companies.  I was told a temporary jetty was built so that the spares for the wind mills can be brought directly from India to this remote part of Sri Lanka.  The mills rotate all day and night long producing electricity for the National grid.  I am not sure how cost effective they are but, at least for now, almost all of them are in working order.

Now to the traditional economic sector – fishing.  The fishermen come all the way from Batticaloa.  They are hired by the local businessmen for a four month period, with an advance of two month wages.  They fish the old-fashioned way, the lay the nets about 2 km long in a loop, a man on a dingy at the tip of the loop signals the ‘pullers’ at both end of the loop.  They move in tandem, as they pull the net towards the land.  Laying the net, and pulling it back to the shore takes more than four hours, but it brings a few tons of fish – their skins just shine like silver sheets.  By the way, nets from Japan and Korea are sown together to trap the fish.  That’s the local innovation.  As the fish is pulled to the shore, a small ice truck awaits the harvest; fishermen sort the fish and pack them in boxes of ice.  The truck then rolls its way to the markets in Colombo, which is about 125 km away.  A portion of the harvest is also brought to huts along the beach, where it is processed, mixed with salt, and dried for dried-fish.

As you move your eyes from the shore towards in-land, tall coconut trees wave their long leaves in merriment. As we the Sri Lankans know, every part of the palm has an economic value, and the locals take full advantage of them.  Once you get through the coconut groves, there are sand dunes intensively cultivated.  Almost any vegetable is grown, throughout the year.  Soils have no structure, so, the fields are irrigated twice a day.  Irrigation water is from the groundwater, which is about 10 m deep.  Watering them with a drag hose is labour intensive and expensive, so, the farmers have designed their own sprinklers for irrigation.  The vegetables are sprayed and fertilised very much in excess, frequent irrigation leach them down, so the groundwater is not suitable for drinking.  The locals are well aware of it, they buy drinking water from a distance.  Labour for agriculture is provided by migrants from Mannar.  A woman makes about 7 dollars, and a man makes about 8 dollars in a six hour shift.  Usually they start very early, work till 11 AM, go home and then they go to a different farmer in the afternoon.  Two shifts are very common, so, 12 to 15 dollars a day is easily made by these labourers.  Again the harvest is trucked immediately to markets – there’s no local storage for the produce.

I met a farmer/fisherman who ‘owns’ fishing and farming operations on this strip.  He was very impressive. He is sixty five, spoke all three languages, recited a few ‘Kurals’ as we conversed.  He has done Year 12 at St Patricks College in Jaffna, and was appointed as an English teacher for a salary of 300 Rs.  He decided to do farming and fishing, and was proud that he now supports 50 to 60 families.  His son is a graduate, who looks after the day to day operations, daughter a MSc graduate, teaches at a local high school.  He hosts University students occasionally and speaks to them about agriculture in the field.  He was proud that he does not get any assistance from the Government.  The Government Agent of Puttalam confirmed this.   Based on the numbers cited, a person who owns one acre land will make 1000 USD profit per month from agriculture.  That is not a small sum anywhere.

Another traditional industry is salt mining from sea water - presence of salterns are not easy to miss.

The peninsula is also home for several hotels for tourists.  I saw the hotels, not the tourists – possibly basking in the mild but bright sun somewhere.

This the strip of land supports a coal power plant, wind mills, hotels, fisheries and agriculture.  I could feel the ‘presence’ of technology or investment made by Australians, Chinese, Japanese, Koreans, and Indians.  Even among Sri Lankans, there were laborers from Batticaloa and Mannar supporting investment of Puttalam business men.

I can’t think of any other places I have been to, where globalisation of local economy was so evident!

Tuesday, 9 September 2014

A note on a Hindu Custom

Despite being a Hindu by birth, my knowledge of Hinduism is very minimal.  All what I know is from my religious education up to Year 8 – learning stories miracles performed by God or Gods’ men, and memorizing Thevarams in Tamil (poems praising God, and requesting blessings), and then watching what my parents and grandparents did.  Most Hindu rituals are conducted by Priests in Sanskrit, a language I did not learn.  They did traditional rituals, with or without understanding the motives for the rituals.  I am the same, except, last weekend, when we offered ‘thanks’ (Thivasam in Tamil) to my deceased mother on her death anniversary. 

The priest is a young man, an officer at one of the leading banks in Australia.  He noticed my daughters, nephews and nieces, all in their teens, and decided to explain the rituals, as he went through them.  Not only the teens, I too benefited from his prudence.

First, the priest wanted a list of names and Nakshatras (stars at birth) of all family members before the ceremony started.  We are six children to my parents, all married, and from us there are thirteen grand children to my parents.  So, the list had twenty-five names and corresponding Nakshatras.  He also informed that that the ceremony involve six Poojas (steps, rituals, etc.). 

Pooja 1:  The priest read all names with Nakshatras on the list, and invited the souls to be present and accept our offerings.  He said that by reading all names on the list, the Souls will be able to identify us and come to the occasion. 

Pooja 2:  Lord Ganesha, the first child of Shiva and Parvati is said to have strengths of both of His parents.  Lord Ganesha was invited to witness and bless.  This is a standard ritual at all Hindu ceremony.

Pooja 3:  Earth, Fire (energy), Sky, Water, and Wind, the indestructible elements were invited ones to witness and bless.  Interestingly, the Energy goddess (Gowri) is considered as the prime element of all.

Pooja 4:  An offering was made to three generations of deceased.  My parents, paternal grand-parents and paternal great-grand parents.  Each ‘parent’ was symbolized by a ‘ball of dough’ made with rice flour.  Other ingredients were ghee (purified butter), honey, and milk.  In addition, a larger ‘ball of dough’ was made to represent all others deceased.  For each ball, a bread (rotti), a savory (Vadai), and a sweet (Paayasam – Kheer), were offered.  All these offerings are assumed to be accepted by a Bull (Rishabam – Lord Shiva’s mode of transport).  I recall that the offerings are offered to cows or bulls in my home town, Jaffna.  In the absence of a bull or a cow, they are ‘disposed’ in a stream.  In our case, the priest accepted the responsibility to dispose them.

Pooja 5:    Hand-washing – all attended were required to wash hands with sesame seeds and water.  Sesame seed is said to have purifying/cleansing effect.  The priest was conscious that all seeds were washed away.

Pooja 6:  Food is served and the souls were invited consume the ‘flavors’, and bless. 

Then we thanked the priest and gave him some grocery, fruits, vegetables, a sari and some money.  He accepted them on my parents’ behalf and said that he was ‘satisfied’, on behalf of my parents, of course.  The Ceremony took about 90 minutes.  The combination of thoughts of my mother and understanding what was going on, were very refreshing to me.  

Friday, 29 August 2014

If it’s there it is, if not, No!

Often, I take part in debates on the existence of God, Heaven and Hell.  It also extends to spirituality, group-singing (Bhajans), benefits of fasting or meditation etc.  Often these discussions ends up ridiculing one's beliefs, or imposing one's belies on another, I have observed.

Does God exist?  Are there any benefits in discussing my remaining years in spirituality etc.?  And more importantly, should I engage in this debate any more to advance my knowledge, I wonder?

Knowledge seeking is defined as an inquiry into nature of things based on logical reasoning.  A school of thought suggest that it is through falsifying a ‘statement’ or theory, knowledge is derived.  Statements can be classified into (a) untrue and falsifiable, (b) true but falsifiable and (c) not falsifiable.

Examples of ‘untrue and falsifiable’ statements are (1) It never rains on Wednesdays; or (2) All substances expand when heated.  Both these statements are untrue and easily falsifiable.  It has rained on Wednesdays and it will probably rain on Wednesdays in future, and ice, while melting reduces in volume.  A ‘true but falsifiable’ statements is “Heavy objects when released from a height will fall straight downwards”.  This is largely true, except when the object was released in space where gravitational pull does not exist.  A statement that is ‘not falsifiable’ is “It may or may not rain”.  Statements, which are untrue and falsifiable and not falsifiable, do not tell us anything.  Therefore they do not form a part of scientific knowledge.  Only those statements, laws or theories, which are true but falsifiable, can improve our knowledge.

To me, the existence of God is “not falsifiable”, i.e., "'God may or may not exist", and therefore the debate on this topic can hardly advance my knowledge.  So, I will avoid this debate in future.

I will settle for what my parents, grandparents and teachers taught me.  I will also take comfort from a famous Tamil poet, Kannadasan, who said, if it’s there it is, if not, No!

Yes, there’s God, I believe, and I am not getting into this debate hereafter!

Tuesday, 29 July 2014

The price of (e)immigration

I recall very well what my English teacher taught.  Emigration - E for exiting, and Immigration, I for incoming.  When I learnt this, I did not have any inkling that I will emigrate and immigrate one day.  What I also did not realize at that time was one has to emigrate to immigrate.  When I did so, again I was not thinking of the real price to pay, and how lingering that could be.

I read very sympathetically, when immigrants take unsafe boats to travel.  What a price they were willing to pay - their lives.  Some are are detained in the middle of the sea leaving their fate in others hand.  Some of them end up in detention centers in various islands, hoping that they will one day reach their intended destination.  Yes, some of them are economic refugees, Yes, they are jumping the queues, and so on.  But their treatment only begs me to compare how the Americans welcomed economic refugees from Europe, and in their honor, the French Government built the Statue of Liberty for them.  It happened only 140 years ago!  And how about the reception for "10 pound POMs", just about 60 years ago at Sydney harbor.  Surely, the times have changed fast.

I often run into immigrant adults trained to something in their country of birth, but do something completely different in the chosen country.  I am aware of a nuclear physicist working as a postal clerk, a veterinary surgeon working as a security guard, and an accountant selling grocery.  The price of immigration here is their academic qualifications earned with hard work during their prime years.  Only a very few pursue their original professional interests, and do so in a competitive manner with natives.  Competition is always stiff, if a local put 100%, then the migrant has to put 120% to be noticed. Those who aren't fluent in the language of their chosen country, end up cleaning houses and washing dishes at restaurants for rest of their lives.

Then the emotional price everyone pays for emigration.  Leaving family and friends behind, except for everlasting memories of childhood.  Occasionally hear from their family or friends when someone gets married, have a baby, or passes away.  With the new born there's hardly any bond, and with the one who passed away, a lump in the throat and misty eyes for a second or two.  Too many things prevent mourning the death longer than that.  Yes, immigrants are always in a fast lane in the chosen country.

I think that the price paid by the children of immigrants is a heavy one.  At home, there's pressure to reflect parents' values and culture, and at school, pressure on them to be the same as their peers.  I feel they belong to a confused generation, and many parents do not make their life easy.  Occasionally, I read about a teenage girl killed by parents for the sake of perceived honor, or one running away from their parents, because of the lure from peers.  Where's the solution, for such confusion I wonder.  Even when the parents managed to establish a compromised culture at home, it's still inadequate to meet the demands of peers.  The only way out for them is to be within groups of  children of migrants from similar cultural backgrounds, and the support they provide to each other.

I see many migrants'  children in their thirties, still finding it difficult to settle in life.  They have good education, good jobs, but not ready to make a commitment to another person and start a married life.  Proposals from family friends are frowned upon, but a cocoon they and their parents have built around them during their teenage years stop them from breaking out.

As I undergo these tribulations, and in the absence of a social net work to provide comfort, only thing that comforts me is the material wealth built by the migrants, and the social security provided by the state in the chosen country.  There's something to fall back on, when the young ones are unemployed, or when the old ones are unhealthy.

So, what's my final take on e/immigration?  After living in foreign countries for most of my adult life, I think its worth the price, despite paying a heavy price on a daily basis.  I can only pray and hope that the price my children pay or will pay for my decision to emigrate is outweighed by the benefits they will experience in my chosen country.

Wednesday, 18 June 2014

Turning Sixty

The dreaded 60 has come and gone.  Why has this number bothered me all my life?  How do I feel now?

I sense a feeling of relief and increased financial security.  Relief that I need not engage in a rat race called career, trying to convince someone that I have something useful to offer, and therefore they should keep me in my job.  It turned out that I have often exceeded their expectations, and therefore promoted within the organisations I served.  The sense of financial security comes from the fact that I have met most of the expenses without accumulating debts, and I am now entitled to a pension.  I could call on it when I need it.  Furthermore, I do not have a long time to liveJ.

The past sixty years were not necessarily a bed of roses.  I had my ups and down.  Overall, however, I have had good education, good family, good friends and good jobs.  I was able to travel and witness some of the best and worst during my career.  Many had been supportive of me during this journey, but two stand out.  One was my mother who prayed for me ceaselessly, and the second is my wife, who supported me unreservedly.

As a kid, I always thought, sixty is when one gets old.  I have read about Shashtiabdapoorthi, a Hindu tradition of celebrating 60th birthday.  As per the Hindu culture, the age sixty is of great significance because it is considered as a turning point in a man's life.  At this age one has usually fulfilled his commitments to family and home and so he can turn his mind to spirituality.  In my case, my family commitments aren’t fulfilled, so I am not entitled for Shashtiabdapoorthi.

For many years, I wanted to retire at 55, although my grandfather drove his lorry till he turned 65.  I wasn’t planning to idle at home, but thought I should become a writer, write stories for children.  I am not sure how good I would have been as a children story writer, but, I am sure I would not have made enough money for the needs of my family. 

Until very recently, just recent as three years ago, I was mentally prepared for retirement at 60.  But, it changed, and my desire to continuously be employed as long as I could be, is reinforced after my resettlement in Australia a few months ago.  Reading and following the debate about the expenses associated with aged care in Australia, and the propensity for us to live longer, I am now mindful about being healthy, and wanting to be employed longer. 

But, there’s another reason, a stronger one wanting me to be active longer – my daughters.  Both remind me that I am sixty (not sixteen as I claim when they are around).  I hold their hands when they need me, and their successes – small and big, and their mischiefs brighten my life.  These girls are full of joy, thank God.  My kids will be schooling for another ten years, and schooling is expensive everywhere these days! 

Anyone who looked at my palm or my horoscope has said that I will have a long life, but, none said a number higher than 84.  Most stopped at 80, a few also mentioned 82.  I think I will be happy with 80, but I may change my mind and may want to live longer.  This is of course, if I stay healthy till 80. I hope I do, I want to get a few things done, witness a few more, and enjoy everything else this world has to offer.  It’s a wonderful world.

So, the next number I am looking for is 70, to retire, and then will look forward to 80.