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Thursday, 29 December 2011






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Northward bound: last stop, Point Pedro

Song of the Palmyra trees

Three in the morning is not exactly the time for philosophical musings. Especially if you are about to embark on a journey of more than ten hours, over territory which was once no-man's-land. Even though I had known about this trip for the past two weeks I start to pack my bag thirty minutes before we hit the road, not because I was too busy all these days, or forgotten all about packing, but because...well, that's me being me.

Sunset at Dambakolapatuna
Last stop
Baskaran's grapes
Dinesh “Business is not bad”
Young man and the sea

Keerimalai shortly after daybreak

Letting my mind wonder over the days ahead is also a part of the package called Me. This meant puzzling over how many Jaffnas I know. There is the Jaffna I had seen through my father's eyes, the Jaffna of the late 1960s when “peace” was a word in the dictionary and war was an event you read about in history books.

There is the Jaffna I had read about in Nihal De Silva's Road to Elephant Pass. And there is the Jaffna I had glimpsed daily on the TV news bulletins, till three years ago. From now on there would be another Jaffna to think about. My own picture of a city also known as Yalpanam and famous for its mangoes.

Leaving Colombo at four in the morning had two advantages. One,the roads were deserted. Two, this was the most active time of the day for the youngest member of our tribe which meant not having a single moment to doze and miss the spectacular performances of the sun over lagoons, rivers, paddy fields. “Do ostriches sleep at night?” comes the first question. I think so. “Do owls sleep at night?” I don't think so. “Baby Owls?” I don't think so. “Why?” I don't think.. I don't know. I didn't study zoology at school. “What?” this line of thought ends abruptly when she spots a motorcyclist riding ahead of us. “Why is that uncle wearing a pink jacket?” I don't know. “Is that his wife's pink jacket?” Probably. No wonder before we know it we are in Anuradhapura. In the nick of time too. Had we been a minute too late to step into the restaurant in the middle of the town, we would have missed the Kiribath, made of white rice and oozing with coconut milk; elixir in an earthly form.

The journey proper begins from Anuradhapura onwards. By the time we reach Kilinochchi I have realized the consequences of procrastination and the drastic results of switching my mind to philosophical mode when packing my backpack. Where is my notebook? Where is my blue pen? Did someone take them? I am sure they were here. My mother eventually finds a pen (but it's black and black pens always give me writer's block) and suggests I jot whatever is on my mind on the back of the paper bag the Mudalali at the tea kiosk in Nochiyagama had filled with fish rolls (but with no fish inside, he had assured us when he learnt my father and mother are vegetarians). I scribble the names of the towns we pass by as the sun too travels with us and reaches his zenith just as we reach Elephant Pass. This is when the bag and I part company. A sudden gust of wind blows it from my hand and I have not the courage to run into the thick bushes by the side of the road to catch it. The yellow ribbon proclaiming there are certain areas where land-mines have yet to be cleared is surely the most effective “keep off” sign in the world.

Another warning. The wind blows off not only my notes but my carefree, happy mood too. If you are ultra sensitive and prone to uncontrollable bouts of sorrow, you may stop reading now.

For, this is when the pain begins. An intense pain that grips my heart, wrenches it and leaves it a crumbled, pitiful mulch. First come the families by the side of the road, living in makeshift huts no bigger than the vehicle we are travelling in. Small children dressed in rags, a middle aged man meddling with an old worn out push bike, a mother feeding three children from a plate with only a handful of rice on it. Next the ruined houses. No roofs, windows, doors. Only the walls remain. Houses built by proud fathers for their progeny. Houses once filled with love, warmth, friendship. Where has it all gone? Will laughter and joy ever walk through those front doors again?

To gaze at the walls covered with shrapnel means shedding a million unseen tears. How many lives were devoured by the bullets which are not visible today because unlike those on the walls, they found their targets? Does it matter if only one, or a hundred had died at this time, on this soil on some other day in the past? Does it matter if those who fell had been on “their” side or “our side?”

The palmyra trees stand silent, watchful, cloaked in a shroud of sorrow. They moan their brethren; those who, to this day, stand by the side of the road with bullet ridden trunks, charred branches, waiting till the sun and rain will finally let mother earth fold them into her bosom.

As the vehicle speeds through acre upon acre of abandoned land, terrain where once heavy battles raged, it is impossible not to feel a tremendous sense of sorrow; the sorrow of those who breathed their last on this soil. It is as if, even as they succumbed to death, the young hearts which would have harbored so much love, hope, fear, joy and sorrow till that last fateful moment, would have released them into the soft breeze blowing through the palmyra leaves, taught the leaves to sing, so that today, I would hear their song.

A song that would follow me throughout the four days I stay in Jaffna, a song I would hear when the wind caressed the water at daybreak in Keerimalai, when Dinesh, the young man from Ratnapura who has a stall of kottakelengam near the bottomless well in Achuweli said “business is not bad”. A song I would hear when I visited the Jaffna ramparts, ate a Thattu Wadei at Point Pedro, or dug into the most delicious ice cream called the “Raja special” in the Jaffna town.

A song that has now become a permanent resident in my heart. A song I will not forget for a long time to come.

Jaffna. For me, a city, “too early “seen” unknown, known too late.”

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Signs of hope

It is very difficult to identify Carbide treated fruits in the market

Seventeen year old Gurupriya Rathnasabapathi is an epitome of determination. The youngest daughter of the High Priest of the Kanthaswamy Kovil, she is taking English Literature, ICT, and Communication and Media Studies for her Advanced Level exams next year. “I chose these subjects because they are new and I find them challenging.” says Priya. Even though she is the only student offering Media Studies in the English medium from Jaffna, even though this means having to study on her own, translating the notes in Tamil into English all by herself, she is determined to get through her exams with flying colours. “My sister is an electrical engineer and my brother is a software engineer. So technology runs in our blood” she explains.

A.V Anandan buys and sells wood in the Jaffna town. But he is no ordinary woodcutter. For every fallen tree in his shop he wishes to plant two new trees. He feels guilty about the harm his business is doing to mother nature and does his best to ease his conscience by distributing free plants from his nursery of over 20,000 saplings. His garden, where he runs his business is partly a graveyard of dead trees and partly the birthplace of young plants. “This is my way of apologizing for the destruction I am doing to mother nature” he says.

In the Jaffna market I meet forty-seven year old Vijaya Baskaran, selling grapes grown in Achuweli. He makes a profit of fifty rupees from each sale after deducting a few rupees for the samples his customers insist on tasting. “Some customers eat whole bunches of grapes before purchasing hundred grams” he laments but admits business is good. On a good day he makes a profit of around Rs. 2,000. Here are signs of hope. For every abandoned house, new houses have come up. Everywhere you look you see construction sites; roads under repair, supermarkets, banks, hotels, reminders that, however stormy the past might have been, the future promises sunny days.

SAFE methods of fruit - ripening

Ripening of fruits using chemicals has been a problem that Sri Lankan consumers have faced in the recent past. These fruits may pose serious health problems and Daily News spoke to a Senior Research Officer of the Sri Lanka Council for Agricultural Research Policy Mahinda B. Sakalasooriya to find out what is being done about this problem.

“Traders and vendors are using a chemical called Carbide which is actually a by product from the Metal industry. It is an inert chemical product present in iron kilns. This by product contains Calcium Carbide. Calcium Carbide releases a gas called Acetylene gas when it reacts with water. This Acetylene gas is used for ripening purposes as it can activate fruit ripening process. However, the natural fruit ripening plant hormone that induces ripening is in fact is Ethylene. This Acetylene acts as a mimic to Ethylene. Carbide contains Arsenic and Phosphorous in addition to calcium carbide and these are poisonous,” said Sakalasooriya.

When Carbide is put onto the fruit, it accelerates the ripening process. However, the indiscriminate use leads to contaminate fruits with arsenic. This is directly affecting the human health and it is not the ethylene analogue acetylene gas which is helping the ripening process.

However, the use of ripening hormones has created a national issue of reducing the fruit quality as the artificial fruit ripening is done by nontechnical fruit sellers and they use chemicals to ripen immature fruits together with properly mature fruits.

When the fruit is ripened naturally, the ripening starts from the core of a fruit. When the fruit is ripened artificially it starts from the outside surface to the internal core as the hormone transfer is in reverse direction.” Therefore, when you use a ripening chemical to induce the ripening process, the external colour change indicates the appearance of a ripened fruit but the inside hasn't ripened properly. Due to above reasons, people always complain that the fruits taste stale. The Ministry of Health has banned the use of Calcium Carbide for fruit ripening since 1993. However, it is very difficult to identify Carbide treated fruits in the market.

“Consumers themselves identify that these fruits are not tasty and that there is something wrong. So consumers avoid stalls selling these fruits. This problem is prevalent not only in Sri Lanka but also in other South Asian countries. Therefore, we need a safe method to ripen fruits. So the question is: “Are we using the correct chemicals or hazardous chemicals?” explained Sakalasooriya.

The other problem is that vendors and traders don't know the alternatives. They don't know how to ripen fruits in the correct way. “We have given them the technology to artificially ripen fruit in the correct manner. Now people are utilizing the technology in the correct manner,” added Sakalasooriya. Our Ministry promotes the use of safe chemical which are containing Ethylene known as Etheral. Here we have recommended to expose fruits to ethylene gas for about 24 hours without direct contact to ethereal solution.

When importing fruits from other countries we don't know what sort of chemicals have been inserted. In the market place in Sri Lanka there are fruits hanging for months. If chemicals have not been used how can this be?

“In Sri Lanka the standard of the fruit quality is very poor and that is why people opt for imported fruits. The bottom line is we know what is injected into our fruits, but we don't know what chemicals have been artificially inserted in those countries. Therefore we have to improve the standards of our fruits” said Sakalasooriya.

The Council for Agriculture Research Policy recently conducted a national seminar under patronage of Minister of Agriculture Mahinda Yapa Abeywardena,. The purpose of this seminar was to create an awareness among those who are in the fruit industry about safe methods of fruit ripening.

Several people were instrumental in conducting this seminar. Among them were K E Karunathilake, Secretary; Dr. DBT Wijerathne, Additional Secretary of Ministry of Agriculture; Dr. K H Sarananda, of Department of Agriculture; Dr. Shanthi Wilson, Additional Director of the Industrial Technological Institute; and Dr. Ananda Jayalal, Director, Environmental and Occupational Heath Division of Ministry of Health. This seminar was conducted as an activity of the National Committee on Post Harvest Technology and Value Addition (NCPHT &VA).

The Ministry of Agriculture and Council for Agricultural Research Policy is willing to promote safe ripening methods in future as well. Sakalasooriya highly appreciated the efforts of Dr. J D Samarasinghe, Chairman, Mr. Prabath Wimal Kumara, Director of Council for Agricultural Research Policy, and Prof. D N Dharmasena of the Faculty of Agriculture, University of Peradeniya, who contributed immensely to make this awareness programme a success.


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