Sunday, 18 January 2015

When Pope Francis was here in Colombo

When His Holiness Pope Francis landed in Colombo, we were just returning to work days after the holidays given for the presidential election in Sri Lanka. On 13 January morning, when I stepped out of my house to the main road at Punchi Borella, the road was decorated with flags and banners to welcome the Pope. And there was a major diversion of traffic.

Banners on the walls of Archbishop's House to welcome Pope Francis

On that day, we were to visit the Family Planning Association (FPA) that was located just behind the Bandaranaike Memorial International Conference Hall (BMICH). Traffic was allowed in the morning and we could get through in a three-wheeler. Actually we had planned to take the bus but the bus routes were closed.

While at the FPA, every action of the Pope was telecast live on television. Health institutions have television put in every place possible including the doctor’s lounge in the Operation Theatre. While doing work, we took chances to see the Pope on television.

A similar curiosity had been taking a toll inside the Operation Theatre in the hospital. The chief surgeon, who was very keen on the Pope was more interested to watch television than to supervise a surgery. An extra cut was made by the junior surgeon into the patient’s ureter and the surgery was complicated, but doctors quickly repaired the damage and the patient did not suffer.

Around noon, while I was walking from the FPA towards BMICH, we met scores of people waiting along the Bauddhaloka Mawatha roadside to get a glimpse of the Pope. The road was cleared and taxis were nowhere near to be found. So, we also waited under the shade of a big sprawling tree. First the ice cream man came pushing his cart; it was a blessing in the gradually mounting midday heat. A cone ice cream cost thirty rupees – I paid 20 in cash and 10 in coins. Then the pineapple man came, the sour pineapple only aggravated our hunger. By that time, even devout Catholics were complaining of hunger. It had been one hour standing and waiting.

With my Sri Lankan friends, waiting along Bauddhaloka Mawatha (the Buddha's road) to get a glimpse of Pope Francis

But to our luck or to our lack of luck, the Pope had delayed his coming through that road and traffic was allowed. We then caught a three wheeler and came back to college.

Towards late afternoon, the Pope had come for lunch at the Archbishop’s House in Colombo, which is a walking distance from our college. By that time huge crowds had gathered and I had very little chance of seeing the Pope. The premise at the Archbishop’s has a basketball court in which I played little of what I know about playing basketball.

Gate that welcomed Pope Francis at the Archbishop's House, a walking distance from my house
(picture taken on 15 January 2015, the day when His Holiness left for the Philippines)

Though I did not see the Pope in person, from the news stories and reports, he is a very respectable and impressive man.

Written on 18 January 2015

Practical Aspects of Learning

I cannot teach anybody anything; I can only make them think – Socrates

Learning is a process through which a subject acquires new information, knowledge, skills or capabilities. It can occur as a part of an organised, intentional and systematic institution in the presence of a trainer (formal learning); or as a part of intentional and self-motivated conduct (non-formal learning); or we might automatically learn and process information unintentionally through our daily living conducts (informal learning).

Learning involves the basic physiology of collection of stimulus information via any of our five fundamental senses – sight, smell, hearing, taste and touch – that are associated with various parts of our brain. The basic Thus, the brain as an organ of learning and intelligence is invariably undisputed.

According to the encephalization quotient scale, humans are graded the most intelligent followed by bottlenose dolphin, orca and chimpanzee, etc (Jerison, 1973). Therefore, keen theories have been developed on learning.

Theories on learning have been categorized into three frameworks: behaviourism, cognitivism and constructivism (humanism).

Behaviouristic Theory of Learning
Behaviourism considers all actions, thoughts and feelings as the behaviour of an individual. The acquisition of such behaviour through training or repeated practice is termed learning. This theory is proved by the famous Pavlov’s dog experiment which shows that response to particular stimuli can be learnt and reinforced through repeated practice.

Cognitivistic Theory of Learning
Cognitivism states that each individual has a unique understand of things based on their personal experiences. This means that learning can be subjective and personal at times where organization and processing of newly learnt information is based on individual prior learning. Stimulation of prior learning allows schema activation where information is arranged in a meaningful way for its easy retrieval.

Constructivistic Theory of Learning
Constructivism states that individuals learn by doing, thus promoting active learning. It is also called as humanism as it takes into account the physical as well as emotional factors that influence learning processes such as the learning environment, state of anxiety, motivation, etc.

Central to all these theories of learning is the information processing model that describes how learning is stored as memory (figure in the following page). Memory is the ability to encode, store and retrieve information and data.


One of the major challenges in learning is ‘forgetting’. It is a natural phenomenon whereby sensory and short-term memory are lost whereby the individual is unable to retrieve or recall some previously learnt information.

Despite the fact that we forget, these are the concepts that prove useful at one or the other point in the process of learning:

1.  Classical conditioning: This was proven by Ivan Pavlov (1927) through experimentally conditioning a dog to produce a certain response to a particular stimulus. This indicates that repeated practice induces learned responses in subjects. Eg: Drivers press on their brakes if they suddenly see a pedestrian crossing the road.

2.    Stimulus generalization: This refers to the fact that in some instances, individuals effect those previously conditioned responses even after the initiating stimulus is withdrawn. Eg: If a child has been conditioned to fear a stuffed white rabbit, it will exhibit fear of objects similar to the conditioned stimulus such as a white rat toy.

3.   Operant conditioning: As the name implies, operant conditioning influences the response of individuals to stimuli depending to the consequence it suffers. If the consequence is a reward, the response is reinforced. Eg: Some children study hard aiming at the prizes and rewards that he can win by passing or topping the exam. However, if the consequence is unpleasant, the response is discontinued. Eg: If a child gets punished every time he gets late into the class, he will ultimately become punctual and his response of getting late will become extinct.

4.      Escape and avoidance conditioning: Escape conditioning occurs when a subject tries to avert an aversive stimulus. Eg: If we see a huge ball of fire razing a building in town, we avoid going near the accident site to prevent ourselves from getting hurt. Avoidance conditioning is inherent in subjects that can judge what is good and what is bad for ourselves. Eg: While walking, we avoid walking over water puddles and take an alternative course. Although walking over the puddle has no grave consequences, we tend to select the most enabling and enhancing comfort for ourselves.

5.  Observational learning: Also known as social or vicarious learning, it occurs when a subject observes a function, keeps it in memory and replicates the novel action. Eg: This applies mostly to how some children pick up soft and polite ways of talking by observing their parents’ actions in good families.

Thus, as said by Socrates at the head of this paper, learning involves gathering of information from the environment, retaining them as memory and replicating or recollecting them when required. Because it is our own brain that is involved in learning, it is imperative that we take personal effort in making ourselves learn the world.

Though there may be biological or idiopathic difficulties in learning, by adapting any of the various theories of learning, we can make the best use of the human-intelligence-capability that we are born with.

Jerison, HJ, 1973 Evolution of the brain and intelligence. Academic Press, New York.
Karunthilake, I, 2012, Lecture presentation, UCFM, Colombo
Lecture presentation, SLFI

This article was written on on 18 January 2012 as an academic requirement for Behavioural Sciences Stream, Faculty of Medicine, University of Colombo .

Thursday, 1 January 2015

The Guide

The Guide is the most famous novel written by R K Narayan. I had seen this book long ago, started to read it but could not complete it. Not until I read Natwar Singh’s autobiography where an incident regarding the author RK Narayan and Dev Anand had the book into the movie. Now that I have read these two books and watched the 1965 movie on YouTube, I venture onto writing about this book.

The book is set in the times of the 1960s in south India though the setting is even more relevant to the present times. It is about Raju, a clever boy, who, from a shopkeeper at a small stall at the Malgudi railway station becomes a tourist guide. On one occasion, he meets a married couple Marco and Rosie at the railway station. Marco is a scholar and is on the quest to study the history of south India. Though Rosie was born into a caste of a temple dancer and loved dancing (into classical Indian dances), Marco prefers his wife to remain a housewife forbidding Rosie from dancing. This leads to quarrels where Raju steps in to take care of the needs of the couple so that Marco can do is research peacefully.

During their stay in Malgudi, the couple breaks down and Marco leaves for Madras leaving Rosie behind. Rosie takes shelter with Raju and his mother. Raju helps Rosie become a famous dancer not only in Malgudi but in towns of Madras, Bombay and Ceylon and earns grand enough to live a celebrity life. Raju and Rosie now lead a life like a married couple, though not formally, when Marco sends her a legal paper demanding her signature to formally divorce and divide the jewelry between them. This letter however is signed by Raju without the knowledge of Rosie. For this, Raju gets convicted of forgery and is sentenced to three years in jail.

When the jail term is over, he chooses not to go to his old town where his dreams with Rosie is shattered and his reputation dismal, he travels on and finds an old temple where he takes shelter. There people come to consider him as a swami and he lives on the patronage of the people of the area.

The book makes a mockery of social fallacy of those times in the context of strong classical culture.

That was the book.

To make this into a movie, the author RK Narayan denied copyright claiming that the movie will not do justice to the story. However after the death of the author, Dev Anand makes it into a movie in 1965.

It is a movie, with strong classical taste. Raju is played by Dev Anand and the movie has many songs by Lata Mangeshkar. The movie deviates from the book on many occasions and movie portrays Marco as the antagonist while in the book he is rather a passive character. For this and many other changes introduced into the movie, many people from those times criticized that it did not do justice to the story. However, the movie was an instant hit in the theatres, had won many awards and accolades and is considered one of the masterpieces of the Indian film industry.

Thinley Dorji, New Year Day 2015, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Natwar Singh’s Autobiography

As autobiographies are written with a personal touch, let me begin this write up on Natwar Singh’s autobiography with how I came to know about this man.

I have always been fascinated to read and hear news. Even during exam times, I would take time to listen to the BBS, BBC or NDTV. On one such day when I was in class VIII in Changzamtog school, I remembered watching news on how an Indian Congress minister named Natwar Singh was removed from office on charges of corruption (which are still unproven in court), and later the news that he and his son joined the opposition BJP.

It was not until 2014 when the change of power took place through the General Elections, many books came up one of which was Kunwar Natwar Singh’s autobiography, “One Life is Not Enough” came about and made a buzz in Indian media, which is otherwise never noisy.

His life through his book takes one through all the major world events from the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi to the grand election of Narendra Modi. In this write up, I will pen down some of his subtle moments that is interesting to mention for its humour and wit.

1.    Natwar Singh is born to a highly court official of the Maharaja of Bharatpur, one of the many princely states of British India. This office of Maharaja did not officially support the independence movement led by Mahatma Gandhi. So, when in 1945 when the train Gandhi was travelling in passed through Bharatpur railway station, young Natwar Singh gets through the crowd, climbs to the coach of Gandhi, holds on to the window railings and shouts “Bapu, autograph please”, stretching his hand with a newspaper cut out of Gandhi’s picture. He is admonished and shooed away the personal secretary of Gandhi. There he sees the great soul for the first and the last time and mentions, Gandhi looked much darker than the pictures (even the black and white pictures of then perhaps).

2.  Natwar Singh joins the Indian Foreign Service (IFS) and works closely foreign dignitaries on visit. In 1955, he attends to the visit of King of Cambodia, Norodom Sihanouk and his entourage of five Buddhist monks. To receive them, the foreign ministry took five of Indian Buddhist monks. The two groups spoke to each other in Pali. The leader of the Indian group of monks asked his Cambodian counterpart about their food preferences while in India. The Cambodians said they wanted to eat beef. The Indian monks all but collapsed. Such was the contrast of Buddhism from these two places (and illustrates the talk on vegetarianism of current days).

3.    Later when Natwar Singh serves as the Indian Ambassador in Islamabad, in one of his meets with Pakistani President, General Zia-ul-haq, he mentions that “Kashmir is in my blood”. To this Natwar Singh with his clever wit answers, “Kashmir is in my bone marrow”. Kashmir is a problem to these two nations and to describe biologically as blood, nothing beats better than going to the synthesis of blood. Blood is produced in the bone marrow!

4.    Natwar Singh through British novelist E M Forster goes to meet the renowned south Indian author of the 1960s, R K Narayan. He takes effort to find the address and locate the house where Mr Narayan lived. He rings the door bell and a man who looks not so dignified comes at the gate. He introduces himself as Natwar Singh. And the literary Narayan replies, “Are you a brother of Khushwant Singh?”

5.    While he was posted at the UN office in New York, Dev Anand approaches him to help contact R K Narayan to obtain copyright to make the latter’s book, “The Guide” into a feature film. To this Narayan obstinately rejects the idea. However, a few years after the death of Narayan, Dev Anand produces the movie which was heavily criticized by some while it was a successful houseful at theatres (The book and the movie is described in my other post).

In this write up, the readers may not understand the context of the short stories I have mentioned. But these stories in isolation, shows interesting points of wit and humour.

Thinley Dorji, New Year Day 2015, Colombo, Sri Lanka

Comparison of Tibetan Theocracy and Bhutanese Dual System

The following points are drawn from the book "The Fourteen Dalai Lamas" by Glenn H Mullin, Jaico Publishing House, 2008 and the authors readings on Bhutan history.

1. Besides Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel, there were others who were zhabdrungs by title in Tibet. Some of the zhabdrungs in Tibet played some roles in the reincarnate lives of the Dalai Lamas.

2. Of the many regional leaders in Tibet, the Desi of Tsang region, located in the southeast of Tibet, has been powerful to influence some events in the reincarnations of Dalai Lama, but there seems to be no effective national political leader. The leaders of other regions went by the titles gongma, gongsa, ponpo, wangchen, gyelpo, gyelchen, miwang, etc. Thus Tibet was considered a federation of nations.

3. The Dual System of Government, established by Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel in Bhutan, in my opinion, was a system that was less susceptible to absences of reincarnations and whims and incapacities of regents in its contemporary Tibet. While Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel immediately began on his political work soon after arrival in Bhutan in 1616 marked by the construction of Simtokha Dzong in 1629, the contemporary Tibetans established the Fifth Dalai Lama as their Spiritual and Temporal Rulers only in 1642.

In Tibetan system, the Dalai Lama is the spiritual and temporal head of Tibet. Under the Dalai Lama, he appointed his chief attendant, changdzo, as desi and gave him the authority over most of the temporal affairs. However, this system of desi, drawn from lay people (including monks who turned lay people) died off by the time of Sixth Dalai Lama. Since then, the country was ruled by the Dalai Lama and by the Regents during the absence or during minority years of the Dalai Lama. It is seen that aristocrats in Lhasa has many dealings with Regents some of whom were mere puppets. The English equivalent for desi in the office of Dalai Lama is “viceroy”.

In the Bhutanese system, when Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel entered long and final retreat in Punakha Dzong in 1651, the polity of Bhutanese nation was firmly established through the Dual System. In this, the spiritual authority was given to the Je Khenpo while the temporal authority was given to the Druk Desi, his three Poenlops and Dzongpoens. This system had a well-defined chain of power, accountability and geopolitical regions of control and dzongs as regional offices. The added advantage of this system is it did not depend on the reincarnation of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namyel while the Tibetans spent so much time and risked while in the search of Dalai Lama reincarnate.

4. When Zhabdring Ngawang Namgyel entered into retreat in 1651, his death was kept secret for so many years. The Fifth Dalai Lama entered retreat and his death in 1682 was kept secret for many years by his trusted Desi. While this technique helped consolidate the Bhutanese state, in the case of the Dalai Lama, it led to some complications in the process of recognition of the Sixth Dalai Lama.

5. In the biography of Sixth Dalai Lama (1683-1706), references are made to Arunachal Pradesh but there are not many evidence to say it was part of Tibet. However, in this part of the story, Bhutan is written as a separate nation. In fact, the attendants of Dalai Lama express fear of Bhutanese military, their might and power in the nearby regions of Mon Tawang, present day India.

6. Kazi Ugyen Dorji had been involved in mediation processes with Tibet before the Younghusband mission of 1904. Over time, it becomes difficult for him to carry out his work to the satisfaction of the British and the Tibetans alike. Thus, First King Ugyen Wangchuck steps in to work as the mediator, which in fact (looking at it from the present standing) was a marvellous diplomatic feat.

7. The Younghusband mission of 1904 (of which First King Ugyen Wangchuck was a part of) made gains for the British India through the Anglo-Tibetan Treaty. However, in the process of getting this treaty signed, Younghusband fell out of favour of the Home Office of the United Kingdom (as described below).

The mission to Tibet in 1902-03 was jointly led by Lord Curzon, the viceroy of British government in Calcutta and Colonel Francis Younghusband. This mission travels up to the western Tibetan border and returns.

In 1904, the mission is led by Colonel Francis Younghusband. He travels up to Yatang, the border town in western Tibet and waits for order from the British Government to invade Tibet with much caution in the context of the Great Game of the British and Russian empires. He was a kind invader as he compensates the locals for the damage and pays for food for his soldiers.

While in Tibet, the Thirteenth Dalai Lama was in a losum retreat, and Younghusband forces the Regent to sign the Anglo-Tibetan Treaty of 1904. The terms of the treaty greatly favours British India. These manners of Younghusband is not favoured by the Home Office in UK, Lord Curzon is replaced by someone less knowledgeable of the situation. The gains made here is lost in the following years as all terms of this treaty was repudiated by the British-China Treaty of 1906 and British-Russia Treaty of 1907.

This mission and events surrounding 1907 was undesirable to Tibetans. However, it did so much good for Bhutan leading to establishment of secular monarchy and knighthood of Sir Ugyen Wangchuck.

8. In 1905 when Trongsa Poenlop Ugyen Wangchuck attended the reception of Prince of Wales in India, it was clearly understood that Bhutan had political unison and a state leadership. For this event as a representative of Tibet, the Panchen Lama attends it after much political, diplomatic and bureaucratic harassment in his own country.

9. The political predicament of Tibet can be understood in the context of the Great Game of Empires. Notable of the legal documents relating to this is the Chefoo Convention 1876 and revised 1886, British-China Treaty of 1906, British-Russia Treaty of 1907 and Shimla Convention 1913-14 (interested readers may explore more on this point).

10. Through the biography of series of reincarnation of Dalai Lamas, it can be seen that the Chinese (also through the course of change in their own history) claims control over Tibet using events long gone in history through interpretations suited to fit the interest of present times. As mentioned earlier in point number 4, 5 and 7, Bhutan has stood independent and stood clearly away from the Tibetan political situations through the functions of the Dual System since 1651 and the Wangchuck Monarchy since 1907.

In conclusion, I would like to focus on the significance and relevance of Zhabdrung Ngawang Namgyel and King Ugyen Wangchuck to the understanding of the present standing of a prospering Bhutanese nation. These thoughts came about after reading the book, "The Fourteen Dalai Lamas" by Glenn H Mullin, Jaico Publishing House, 2008.

The book was a biography on the sacred legacy of the Dalai Lama reincarnations. The stories and events cover almost all of Tibetan history. As biographies of lamas are written in Tibetan or Bhutanese context, it gives more importance to the religious activities and less on other activities. The comparisons drawn here are only few aspects of political state of contemporary Tibet through history.

The Dalai Lama and many other sacred lineages of reincarnations associated and mentioned in the book merit its own reverence and respect.

In this write up, the names and dates of events are not mentioned to avoid loaded-information and readers are welcome to explore on these from other sources.

To end this write up, I acknowledge that I am neither learned on the sacred masters of Tibetan and Mahayana Buddhism nor a studied scholar on history. Written on the New Year Day of 2015, Thinley Dorji, Colombo, Sri Lanka.