Friday, October 3, 2014

For the heroes who remain nameless and timeless

A country cannot develop unless it's ready to acknowledge its shortcomings, however dwarfish they may be. Celebrating achievement is alright and quite justifiable; doing so while ignoring the one or two problems which may or may not grow bigger as time goes by, however, isn't. I have often come to believe that every country has its share of neglected heroes. All too often, the media glorify the sensational. Lost in this are the small-time personalities, those because of whom we can retain our faith in humanity. Not a very promising symptom for the future.

It is not just that the media ignore them (after all, let's be reasonable here, newspapermen cannot be expected to delve into every little newsworthy event in every corner of the country): we ourselves take part in the "shrug-off" game and belittle those little efforts that can help us be happy at who we are as human beings. This isn't all, of course: we even disparage these same forgotten ones. I met one of them fairly recently. This is his story. Sort of.

A temple is not usually the place for animal orphanages. It is a place for spiritual refuge and not secular shelter. Unfortunately, times change. Nowadays, people regardless of religious affiliation (be they Buddhist or Christian) but (not surprisingly) united by their upper-class social backgrounds dump pups and kittens by the dozen there. That's what we've reduced "holy" sites to, folks. But this is looking at things in one way. Forget the "desecration" part to this sorry state of affairs. I have wondered whether that label should befit an act involving an animal I have come to regard as being superior to human beings. I'm not being vulgar here, but the thing is, I've had very few reasons to pin down my faith on those of my own race. But that's another story.

Batakettara cannot be located in your conventional map of Sri Lanka easily. Perhaps this is because the name doesn't "sound nice" when uttered out loud. I don't know. It's situated along the Madapatha road in Piliyandala. You have kiosks, houses, communication centres lined up in plenty there. It's a fairly decent town, although there have been known to be rough-and-tumble brawls once in a way. Overall, though, it's a place that revolves around the temple, which is where I come to now. That temple is being "desecrated" by the dropping off of pups and kittens every other day. The monks residing there, like in countless other temples and churches I have been to, take kindly to them, and allow them to roam free in the premises.

The Batakettara temple, though, is special for another reason. There is a man there, perhaps the only one of his kind for miles around, who takes these abandoned ones in and dotes on them all by himself. He "lives" in a cowshed-like encampment in one corner of the temple, overseeing a telecommunications tower (that's his job, by the way). This is where he keeps all the neglected ones in, safely guarded by an iron gate and provided for amply by this kind man. The monks, he tells me, are quite helpful too. Typical.

Of course, the way I got to meet him was through a pup. This one had been playing near the temple, as is common for dogs that age. A motor-cycle had hit it. Badly. The driver, well-meaning perhaps but not quite up-to the level of decency he should have shown then, had tried to bury it. Mind you, he had known it wasn't dead. One or two neighbouring residents had got together and "treated" it. Perhaps it was a sense of fatalism in them (though that doesn't absolve what they did), but they had been content in providing water for it every few minutes or so, thinking that its time was "soon to come". If you had substituted a human baby for the pup in that context, I don't think the residents there would have done the same thing.

My mother had chanced across this pup. Luckily for it. One call later, she had taken it into the car and gone to the vet. Everyone had berated her, "It won't live long" being the inevitable refrain. The vet thought otherwise. And this is where my mother met this man. Having seen the pups near the "cowshed", she asked him to help us out with this one. An Odel-sponsored visit to Best Care in Nawala followed, and it has now fully recovered (notwithstanding those naysayers). All this is another story, of course. What stuck with me (it still has) throughout, however, was the man. My mother couldn't attend to the pup every day. Having paid for the necessary medicine, she had asked him to take care of it. Needless to say, he had. I still think the level of attention he concentrated on that pup ensured its survival. It happily trots by his side now, just like the other pups and grown-up dogs which have come to expect and get from him what others are unwilling to give to them.

I don't know much about him. I don't know what school he went to, what kind of parents he had, what jobs he held before being reduced to what he does today, or what he has gained from life which can be said to explain his optimism and faith in humanity. The only thing I know is his name, but out of deference to his privacy, I will not put it here. And I don't need to. Men like him come and go, but very rarely. They are nameless beings, though far dwarfing many of those whose names we celebrate but whom we never will meet. There's a reason for that. No-one likes to be humiliated and embarrassed. The thing with "Badulla aiya", as he's called by pretty much everyone who knows him, is that no-one appreciates him. True, there's my mother. And there are those neighbours who weren't very unwilling to help us out. But they are the exception.

He has his detractors, hence. They can hardly be called "critics". Criticism involves analysis and dissection. What this man doing cannot really be criticised from this angle. Can one put in words, in critical terms, what someone does purely out of goodwill and humanity? I have often asked that question of myself. Today, we look at things wrongly, perhaps a little too wrongly. Selflessness in more cases than one has led to people being (unjustly) ridiculed. That's natural enough. We are after all human beings; we err and we are flawed.

Unfortunately, this way of looking at things clinically (or prudishly) with no allowance for human-goodness has caught up with our people. Badly. "Badulla aiya" is just one example of this. He tells me the amount of humiliation he is subjected to by those who visit the temple. I myself was witness to this when I saw one (supposedly) very devout and pious lady cast what was clearly a contemptuous look at him and the pack of dogs which follow him during lunch-time for some food and say, "අපෝ, තව බල්ලො ගෙනහල්ල ද?" (More dogs?)

This would of course put the woman completely at odds with any kind of "devotion" she exhibits at the temple, but then again, as someone once told me, we have limited "පින" to offering flowers and reciting stanzas, not unlike how many people following other faiths "practise" their tenets. I am not just including Buddhists here, therefore. No doubt "Badulla aiya" has an answer to this: "ඒ ඒගොල්ලන්ගෙ හැටි, මේ මගෙ හැටි" (That's their way, this is mine). Still, it doesn't come close to belittling the ridicule he's (still) being subjected to.

The only consolation I can get from this is the support he says the monks are giving him. No big surprise, that. I have always believed in clergymen (be they Buddhist or Christian) when it comes to "abandoned beings". One can think of both Patachara and the leper cured by Jesus Christ here. Not that there aren't exceptions to this. But the context here neatly fitted what I had come to trust them with. This really doesn't marginalise what the outside-temple "secular" world looks at "Badulla aiya's" good works with: condescension. But it's a start nonetheless.

Today, doing good involves quite a lot of lambasting and all too often the person doing the good deed must be at the receiving end of it. Our society has repressed them, so much so that, except for one or two newspaper reports, they escape the public gaze. I'm sure they don't need this, of course, but I'm also sure that there's just so much criticism and ridicule a man with dignity can put up with. Judging by this, the man by the Batakettara temple has lost much, just like the countless volunteers and helpers across the country whose choice of vocation has been ridiculed and pooh-poohed by their own friends and families.

We as a nation aren't grateful enough for the "Badulla aiyas" in this country. Why, I don't know. I'm not too much of a temple-going person. There's a reason for that. But I know this much: if we as much practised even half of what we utter and memorise every day in class and elsewhere, if we keep to both letter and spirit of what we learn to be indisputable truths according to religious dictates, we wouldn't be shunning all the "Badulla aiyas" every society can rightly be proud of. There are those who will no doubt look upon what these one-of-a-kind people are doing with horror, disgust, and snobbishness. Like I said before, human beings are by nature frail. But that will never stop those unique individuals to stand out and help bring some ray of hope to this ambition-ridden world.