Survival on a Deserted Island

Dr Nihal D Amerasekera, in The Island, 14 April 2022, where the title is  Ïn a desert Island”

We’ve had a turbulent couple of years with Covid-19 and its variants. Lockdowns and its inescapable incarcerations were a trial on how to cope with loneliness. Solitude is also an opportunity to think rationally. I was shut out from the outside world for long periods. The mind then began to concentrate on what is important in life and what I can do without. It was an interesting exercise to think of the bare minimum required to maintain my sanity and survive until I was able to join the rest of the world. Money cannot buy happiness. Happiness is a state of mind which is difficult to define and often hard to achieve even if we have everything we need.

Desert Island discs is a BBC Radio programme which has been on the air since 1942. This year marks its 80th anniversary. This has been named the greatest radio programme of all time by a panel of industry experts. It is now a great British Institution.

The programme invites high-profile guests to appear on the show. Each guest is called a “castaway” and is asked to select pieces of music, books and any luxury items they wish to take with them if they were to drift away inexorably into an uninhabited island. It is an interesting exercise to think what your choices would be and what really matters to you.

We take so much for granted in our lives. It is so hard to imagine a situation being alone and so far removed from people and current events. I vividly recall reading Jonathan Swift’s Gulliver’s Travels and Daniel Defoe’s Robinson Crusoe as a teenager which brought home to me the perils, desolation and the utter loneliness of being marooned in an island. Sleeping beneath the trees one could also find true peace and freedom there. The stories made me appreciate company, courage and human endurance.

The castaway’s choice is limited to eight recordings, one book and one luxury item. A music player is included. The luxury item has to be inanimate – so no mobile phones, laptops, iPads, TV etc. Call it divine help – food and drink will be provided!! It is not known when and how one will be rescued – No divine help there!!

The past programmes of Desert Island Discs are available online. It is interesting to discover what people like Alfred Hitchcock, David Attenborough, Margaret Thatcher, Bill Gates, Helen Mirren, Whoopi Goldberg, Ted Dexter and Tony Blair have selected and the reasons for their choice. One famous British TV personality chose Rod Stewarts “Sailing” in her grief to remember the death of her son. The lyrics of that piece of music encompasses her despair. I found it hard to hold back my tears. Our selections will always resonate with our own experiences of life. I sincerely hope you would find this an interesting exercise and also give you a useful insight into your psyche. Do share your experiences of being a castaway.

The opening theme music for Desert Island discs was composed in 1942 by Eric Coates. The theme music is a haunting melody called Sleepy Lagoon which is so simple yet so bewitchingly beautiful. The tune begins with the squawking seagulls and the crashing of waves. This fine melody transports me across the wide oceans and vast stretches of land to the peace and tranquillity of the Negombo Lagoon. From 1956-58, my parents lived in Katunayake when it was a beguilingly attractive small town. The lagoon was at the back of our house. On an evening, with the setting sun, I often sat at the waters-edge with the wind whistling on my face. I watched the fishermen go out to work. The sky took on a deep crimson glow at sunset as flocks of birds flew in V-formation. This enchanting scene captures the beauty of old Ceylon which has now largely disappeared.


Making this selection is not easy. It is virtually the soundtrack of my life’s journey. The advice is to let your heart rule your head. The choice is made more for the memories they bring than for the music. I have thought long and hard and made my selections.

1. Sunil Santha – Ambilimame It brings back wonderful memories of my childhood growing up in Nugegoda in the 1940’s and 50’s. When visitors arrived we were encouraged to sing a song. I sang Ambilimame with my three cousins. Sadly two of them are now no more. Humans have been fascinated by the moon since the beginning of time. It now seems like the moon was bigger and brighter when we were kids!! The fine lyrics of the song depicts childhood innocence and their magical world of fantasy.

2. Yaad Kiye Dile Ne – The music is from the Hindi film of 1953 called Patita. The song was so beautifully sung by Lata Mangheskar and Hemant Kumar. When I hear the melody it always takes me back to the love and affection of my grandfather. I loved him dearly. He was gentle, kind and a noble man from Kandy. He was a sage, a philosopher, a man with many stories and an expert in country lore. Grandfather took me to the Metro Theatre, Nugegoda to watch Hindi and Sinhala films. I was given an ice cream at the interval and a pocket full of sweets for later. These just about made up for being bitten by bugs in those theatre seats.

3. During the morning Christian worship at my old school we sang many beautiful Hymns. One that stuck with me is “Guide Me O Thou Great Jehovah” for the sheer beauty of its melody and the lyrics. This was a popular hymn with the boys. We sang it with such gusto and so much feeling we nearly lifted the roof. This hymn is still very popular and was sung at the wedding of Prince William & Catherine Middleton in Westminster Abbey. The Hymn brings back wonderful memories of those carefree schooldays.

4. Nothing brings back memories of the Faculty of Medicine than the music of the Beatles. One that stands-out is that timeless piece called “Hard days Night“. It’s a reminder of the feeling of release from the hard grind and study while dancing at King George’s Hall to the music of the Harold Seneviratne Combo. Looking around the dance hall I can still picture Razaque Ahamat, Sidath Jayanetti and Bernard Randeniya gyrate in gay abandon. Sadly, none of them are alive today.

5. In 1991 our elder son Steve was leaving the Kingshott Preparatory School in Hertfordshire, UK. He was called upon to play Mozart Clarinet Concerto which he played with zest and eloquence, age 13. I was in the audience and felt deeply emotional and so very proud. This piece was published posthumously and was Mozart’s last major instrumental composition. The piece reminds me of a very happy time in my life.

6. In the Summer of 1996 my younger son, Andrew, was leaving Bedford School in UK. At the School’s Annual Festival of Music he played George Gershwin’s Rhapsody in Blue on the piano with the school orchestra. Andrew looked so dapper in his cream formal attire and blue bow tie. With the integration of jazz rhythms with classical music this composition soon became very popular and the most performed of all American concert works. Being biased, I would say it was beautifully played and a polished performance. This will indeed remain in my memory for the rest of my days.

7. The 1945 romantic drama Brief Encounter is a film I remember for its simple story and the brilliant acting of Trevor Howard and Celia Johnson. It is enduringly popular and considered as one of the greatest films of all time. Sergei Rachmaninoff’s Piano Concerto No. 2 is played all through the film where its beautiful melody wraps around the story most elegantly. This piece of music is also considered as one of the finest concertos of all time. I have such fond memories of watching this film with my younger son, Andrew, in his flat on the 23rd floor on a warm night in Hong Kong.

8. I was born in Kandy, that beautiful citadel in the hills. Although I have lived in the UK for nearly half a century the love and yearning for that warm tropical sunshine has never left me. Every winter I wait patiently for the Spring to arrive and the leaves to appear and the flowers to bloom. All through those cold and wet days and dark nights of winter it is Beethoven’s Spring Sonata that brings life to my soul. It is also called the Violin Sonata No. 5 in F major, Op. 24. The sonata is for violin and piano and is in four movements. All four of them are brilliant pieces of music but I have a special preference for the sublime and heart-rending second movement also called Adagio molto espressivo.


Every castaway receives a religious text of his/her choice and the Complete Works of Shakespeare as a matter of routine. I would take the King James version of the Holy Bible which was a large part of my life growing up in Ceylon.

Princess Margaret and Ian Fleming are among the many castaways who’ve selected Tolstoy’s War and Peace as their book choice. To select just one book to take with me isn’t easy. For a long spell as a castaway, I did think of The Prophet by Kahlil Gibran and The Art of Happiness by the Dalai Lama. These would help me to clean up my act when I am rescued!! After much thought I have selected Nelson Mandela’a autobiography “Long Walk to Freedom“.

As a country South Africa has been through the mill. It is now on a roller-coaster. From 1948-94 politics was dominated by Afrikaner nationalism with racial segregation and white minority rule, known officially as apartheid. From 1962 the armed struggle of the ANC against apartheid was led by Nelson Mandela. From 1964 to 1982 Mandela was incarcerated at Robben Island Prison, off Cape Town. I have visited the prison and seen for myself the rigid and harsh conditions.

It is so hard to imagine how he maintained his sanity being behind bars for so long. The regime was brutal. He had tremendous courage to stand up to the tyranny. Nelson Mandela returned to normal life after 28 years of incarceration. He led the country to majority rule and showed great willingness to forgive and reconcile. This indeed showed his wisdom and true greatness. The probity, dignity and honesty with which he led the country is a lesson for all politicians.

Luxury item:

The desert Island discs radio programme lasts approximately 45 minutes. During this time there is an interesting dialogue between the presenter and the castaway. Often the discussion is amusing and entertaining. Occasionally it takes a naughty turn. When pretty Kirsty Young was the presenter, one of the castaways wanted to take her as the luxury item, which of course she flatly refused.

Pianos, guitars and binoculars are the most-requested luxuries. But I would go for pen and paper. Writing is one of the greatest of human inventions. This has helped mankind enormously to learn, teach, discover, communicate, invent and make life so wonderful for everyone. I cannot imagine a world without writing and the written word.


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