Saturday, March 11, 2017

The children of the past

When I was small, I was made to go out and talk. I wasn’t very sociable but my parents couldn’t have cared less: without going so far as to bribe me for it, they compelled me to talk, no matter what the topic was, with someone, anyone. It could have been a relative, a friend, or even a nathi mithura, but the important point was that I had to make my peace with him or her and strike up a friendship. Back then we didn’t have much to do, certainly much less than what today’s children have and enough to make us consider conversation as a memorable pastime. We didn’t maintain scrapbooks for those minutes and hours spent talking, but we didn’t need to. Even today, I can remember a great many of those moments, to the last detail.

Life was much easier when we exchanged conversation, when we could jump from one topic to another in rapid succession without dwelling too much on small talk. We had things to talk about, things that caught us as children and stayed with us even as we matured into adulthood. We spent time together, playacting and setting up sellam gewal and pretending that we were sons, daughters, parents, and grandparents. I have relived those memories many a time, in my sleep and in my idle moments, and I cherish them all.

People don’t talk enough today, this I’ve noticed. Sure, they indulge in something that goes by the name of talking but that, in reality, is gossip, which is not the same thing. The worst affected among these, I have come to believe, are children. Adults can at least pretend to be interested in another’s affairs and feign enthusiasm in something they are actually quite bored about, but children resort to the one thing they do when they are bored: nothing. They are more honest than their elders, but in this age of high-tech communication and access the only form of honesty they can indulge in when it comes to friendship is idleness.

The most common excuse trotted out for this, apparently, is that there’s nothing to talk about. Really? Nothing at all, even as the years and decades have gone by and even as the world churns out a hundred new topics every day? Nothing at all, even as human beings flourish and our population grows exponentially, giving us ample space for conversation? Not surprisingly, such an argument falls far short of its own mark, if at all because it is what it is: an excuse. Conversation cannot be stifled by want of topics, because there are topics. The truth isn’t that we have run out of them. The truth is that we choose to pretend we have.

For the most, I think this is a phenomenon to be met with starkly in the urban middle-class in the country (and I am thinking here of Sri Lanka only, of course). It was Ajith Samaranayake, speaking about Camillus Perera the caricaturist, who commented rather wryly that this middle-class had congealed into a special subclass in our society today. As with all such subclasses, it has its defining characteristics. They are socially and, I daresay, economically conservative. They are religiously inclined. They privilege the temple (if we are talking about Buddhists) and are ever careful to respect the clergy no matter what the clergy does. Spiritualism for them is beyond reproach, sacrosanct. They may break every rule in the gospel but at the end of the day, masking their hypocrisy under a veneer of redemption, they move on and preach.

Part of this stems from their deeply rooted prejudice against social relations. They are puritanical about getting too close to or acquainted with someone, even a nathi sahodaraya. They feign interest in a relative’s or a friend’s affairs but are actually bored about anything other than their banal lives. They compel their children to bond with their brothers, sisters, and cousins but fail miserably, because they bequeath their abhorrence of social bonding to them. I suppose we can say with some certainty that they are more closeted and secretive than their counterparts in the village, and that this, more than anything else, accounts for their rejection of conversation as a sign of familiarity. The truth is, they don’t want to be familiar. Familiarity rebels against their identity.

If postmodernism is anything to go by, though, identity is a mere construct, the function of which is to separate the hopes, prejudices, and fantasies of one social class from those of another. To differentiate itself from the rest, then, the urban middle-class, of which I am an unwilling member, does the one thing it likes to do: pretend to do something. (By something, I mean anything, but let’s worry about that later.) In the end, this becomes such an obsession that they prefer it to establishing and sustaining human relations. They become, in short, trapped in their own little social vacuum, trying to show to others that they are the productive citizens they are not.

And what things they do to avoid conversation! If they see a pen on one side of the table, they pick it and put it on the other side. If they think the mattress they are sitting on at a seth piritha is not straight (they forget that it’s all relative), they get up and make it straight. If they suspect that a piece of cardboard lying on a table might get lost (when no one really cares), they transport it in their hands to the next room. They achieve their purpose alright: no conversation, with little space for human relations. But I wonder: in their quest to avoid talk, aren’t they taking great pains showing that they are doing something when they are not? Aren’t they, at the end of the day, as guilty of idleness as those who are, yes, actually engaged in idleness?

For the urban middle-class, naturally, conversation can only be equated with doing nothing. They reserve conversation for family gatherings, and even there they extol its virtues so that they can differentiate themselves from their children (who don’t talk at all: they are too busy playing around with their tabs and phones and laptops). In the end, family gatherings amount to nothing (when you think about it), only an opportunity for one section of the family to keep up with the accomplishments (which make them unhappy) and failures (which keep them happy) of another.

I believe human beings are social butterflies, that the only thing linking us together is our penchant for dialogue. But we are so enmeshed in monologue and made to obsess over that aforementioned “nikan inna eke wadak karanna” mentality, that we can’t think anymore. Virginia Woolf once wrote that war was made by men because for men, no matter what their profession, there is “some glory, some necessity, some satisfaction in fighting.” The same could be said of our men and women and children, when it comes to avoiding conversation. Unless they are forced to, they will not talk. They will talk only when they need help. At other times, they will stay shut.

Given all this, I am amused by their prejudices against those who do (apparently) nothing. The truth is that, if we look back on our history, those who have engaged in “productive idleness” have contributed more, much more, to our identity and way of life. There are no records to show whether Martin Wickramasinghe, our foremost writer in the preceding century (not that anyone has surpassed him in this century), was a rasthiyadukaraya, but most of his characters (who I daresay are his most vividly realised) fit that category.

Take Tissa. Tissa is the only character who appears in the entirety of the Koggala trilogy, and in him we see a thinker, a dreamer, an idler. Such a person would be stoned, figuratively of course, by those who like to avoid human relations today, but in reality, the likes of him are and always will be their superior, if at all because they know how to think, how to study human beings, and how to connect with another. Aren’t these people the sort who’ll reach sainthood and Buddhahood the quickest, come to think of it? Aren’t they the real heroes in our lives and society?

The urban middle-class are overly entranced by professions that pay little but get a lot out of you: medicine, engineering, management, law. In the long term they do pay well, and their dividends are more than enough to pay the rent, but they keep us away from the very things we as human beings should cherish, prime among them companionship. I suppose that is why they detest other professions, like writing or advertising or software engineering, because in their petty minds, even a higher salary can’t compensate for their prejudiced view of them being career options for idlers, for those who have too much of time but do too little. In this they are wrong. Misconceived.

I was once talking with Sudat Pasqual, domiciled now in Calgary, Canada but always ready to share his opinions on these matters, about the arts. I put to him that those who venerate high art in Sri Lanka were and are hypocritical: they indulge in nostalgia and repudiate the present, but are quick enough to stamp on the hopes of their children to become artistes themselves. I believe Sudat told me that what I was describing was no different to policy elitists in Washington encouraging youngsters to get drafted into the Army even as they forbid their children from doing the same. That was, all in all, a good comment and a rare one at that to make.

Personally, I think we work too much. I think we make ourselves work too much. The urban middle-class are so occupied with this notion of being busy that they insist, almost as a point of honour, that all their sons, daughters, nephews, and nieces follow their path and strike gold at an audit firm, a blue-chip company or, better still, a bank. I have nothing against those who work in banks, in fact I have the highest regard for them (particularly when I run into some mild issue with my account). But I am tired with those who insist that I find a career in it. After all, not every child can (or should) be admitted to Oxford.

If those who engage in these careers are rasthiyadukarayas, then it goes without saying that those who have time on their hands to talk can also be called rasthiyadukarayas. For what, I wonder. Doesn’t the urban middle-class, or at least the children thereof, like to do things that are less productive than conversation? What is there to talk about, these children ask us, even as we offer them a million interests and topics to pontificate on (without the petty gossip) and even as they are given, day in and day out, a million other topics they themselves would like to raise conversation with. I cannot for once understand their miserly obsession with playing Clash of Clans, or even (from a gentler, kinder time) Angry Birds all the time. All that energy, all that productivity, going down the drain, when it could have been better used to rake up familiarity!

As for me, I like to do nothing sometimes. I like to lay on my bed, thinking of a vast number of topics I can write on (because, until a month ago, writing was what paid my rent, as it still partly is). I didn’t go to work, I worked from home. I woke up every morning and before eating breakfast, I was at my desktop, firing away words to get in my weekly columns (about five) on time. I was derided, ridiculed, and considered a timewaster. If I weren’t careful enough, those who lamented my manifest lack of work might have told me, the Langoliers (à la Stephen King) would get me, eat me, and what’s worse, leave no remains of me for the purpose of burial and cremation. I listened to their regrets, their barely concealed contempt for the idea of being idle, and I laughed.

I believe those who are enthusiastic about doing nothing, and hence cherish the idea of human relations, are a rare breed. I am not as yet part of that breed, because I am a member of the urban middle-class (yes, I realise I’ve been using that term far too many times already) and, by default, am ingrained with their prejudices. Nevertheless, I celebrate this subset of human beings, not because they are rare but because they, more than children who are conditioned to do something, have the patience and fortitude to wait for two minutes without fidgeting.

More often than not, I have seen younger cousins sitting, with barely concealed discomfort, as they debate with themselves on whether they should ask their busier elders for their phones and laptops, to play some game and while away the time. Their decidedly more conservative parents would frown on such rudeness, but when those parents are engaged elsewhere, the youngsters quietly come after the likes of me, who can listen to pirith without falling asleep (unless, of course, I am terribly tired or sleepy), and deftly reach for my pockets to get that most treasured, and yet misused, device: the phone. I am happy that they are happy, yet unhappy that they derive satisfaction from an unwholesome source.

A great deal of harm is being done to our children by allegiance to work. They are told to work too much, to devote every minute of their time to some pursuit or the other, to at least appear busy to the rest of the world. The road to perdition, they are told, is paved with idlers. Rasthiyadukarayas are equated with beggars and peasants, who in the scheme of things of their elders are social outcasts. Because they want to secure a stable future for their children, these elders do all they can to drive the notion that a day is composed of more than 24 hours, that sleep awaits only those who work for it, and that doing nothing is desirable only if you are living off someone else. To sugar-coat this bitter pill, they are then told, rather insidiously I should think, that they can aspire for idleness in their fifties, and that only if they work until they bleed from the time they leave school.

I am no fan of idleness, but there is, as with everything else in this world and universe, nothing to be gained from working too much. The horror of working for a salary before you are 20, I am sorry to say, is embedded in the consciousness of the upper middle-class. They believe that adequate pay can come only after toiling and sweating for more than two years, preferably five. They will look down on those who earn money engaged in such “unwholesome” professions as writing.

They will think, though not always unjustifiably, that such occupations are doomed to end sooner than later, that there is no easy way out for children who’ve just left their adolescence behind. Couple this with the fact that these children spent a great many years of their lives missing out on the joys, the sorrows, and the trepidations of childhood thanks to tuition, and you will understand why their elders want them to take to safe, secure fields of employment. One can’t blame them, but that does not necessarily condone them. Or their way of bringing children up.

Because we are so enamoured of work, because we like to tire ourselves out owing to what we feel to be productive employment, we seek solace by avoiding contact with other people. As I mentioned before, we are social butterflies. We naturally seek, or rather used to seek, shelter in another’s company. With the advent of business and the mad rush to get yourself to the top, however, we forget our own welfare to the extent of rubbishing and being indifferent to everyone else’s.

I have been to more than a hundred family gatherings, ever since I was a little boy. As the years went on, and as our weariness grew and our sense of life matured, we talked less and less. We were the children of the past, precisely because we lived at a time when talking was thought essential to companionship. The tragedy was that we ourselves changed before we knew that we had. The past is another world, another country. We can never go back.

There is, however, still hope. Hope with our children. The children of the present. They like to talk, and the younger among them are not so enamoured of work as to think that one can easily substitute the phone and the laptop for conversation. They easily take to people, people who understand their joys, sorrows, and aspirations. To date, I have found solace in either of two classes of human beings: those below the age of 17, and those above the age of 60. In both cases, the individual concerned has been ready to colour imagination or memory (depending on the age) with enough adjectives and anecdotes to make up what I can only consider as rasavath katha.

Last October I was at Thurstan College, interviewing some boys who had, with the help of their parents, started a butterfly garden in their school premises. They were all from Grade Six, and while it was not easy to get them out on a Monday morning, the fact that I was from a newspaper helped. We started talking, I remember, at nine. We ended at about 11. What we talked about, I don’t remember accurately. I do remember, however, that we talked.

There were 14 boys altogether, although the project consisted of a great many more. Some were quieter than others, some knew how to talk to the point, enough to be regarded as the de facto leaders of the initiative. There was one boy, whose name I unfortunately don’t remember, who came from a suburb (Makuluduwa) close to my hometown (Piliyandala) and who spoke with a deep voice and a barely concealed frown. There were other boys less quiet than him, who went on talking and talking without full stops and commas and constantly referred a book on butterflies to support their observations with cold, inscrutable facts. I don’t suppose one can talk about butterflies for two whole hours (try doing that with, say, a 25-year-old, or even an 18-year-old, and you will be told off as an idle timewaster), but these kids could.

The boy from Makuluduwa, who rarely talked and always seemed to frown, gave way towards the end of my little chat. In every group, in every initiative like this, you come across the subtle and the loud, the introvert and the extrovert, and in this, this boy was the quiet one. He caught my attention because he reminded me of myself (yes, I too frowned frequently at that age). And yet, no matter how quiet I would have been, and how quiet he was, we didn’t really shirk conversation. We talked when talked to, stayed quiet when we didn’t, but we didn’t actively seek a reason to avoid it altogether. In the end, when I passed my recorder around, to get each and every one of those kids to give their two cents on their own project, he was ready with his testimony, though he spoke little.

Because he spoke so little with us, I spoke so much with him. There’s a difference between kids that age, who are like that, and teenagers and adults who are like that: the latter are more repressed, almost hysterically so, while the former do not frown on conversation all the time. When we talked about our hometowns, he informed me that he lived not too far from where I lived. Inevitably, the conversation trailed off to other interests, other pastimes. I don’t know how that boy will fare out as he grows older, but I do know that nine out of 10 such children will, out of cruel necessity perhaps, grow cold, colder, hard, and hardened.

There is another boy I know, not from Thurstan but from St Joseph’s, who comes from a suburb that’s a little farther off. I met him for the first time three years ago, by coincidence. He was, if my memory is correct, in Grade Five and getting ready for the shishathyaya. Given that those who prepare for their O Levels and A Levels tend to harden and not bother talking with anyone, I was surprised, and pleasantly so, to realise how ready this boy was to talk. He too was like that other child: he rarely gave to conversation, and from what I have heard, he could count in the companionship of only three of four of his classmates. Because his interests were at odds with those of others his age, perhaps, he was selective in those he chose to talk with.

And what interests they were! He was an ardent admirer of Chandana Mendis, who made up the fancies of every boy that age with his deft, to the point translations of Sherlock Holmes. He was also an avid reader of ghost stories and pulp fiction, with stories coupling Holmes with vampires (of all otherworldly beings!) entrancing him at once. He too was from a largely urban (though not quite) middle-class background, but unlike most of his classmates he didn’t automatically delve into the kind of stuff that boys that age like to dream of: for one thing, he wasn’t a huge follower of comic books, Marvel or DC or anything else.

I suppose that is why it surprised everyone when he started to talk with me. Maybe it was Chandana Mendis, maybe it was the fact that I shared his fascination with ghosts (he told me, with eyes so honest you could have sworn it was real, that deities resided in his house and that because of this, they couldn’t own a dog), or maybe because he taught me what little he knew about literature (he cut out snippets of ghost stories in the newspapers, while I tried to get him to read Giraya and Punyakante Wijenaike). In any case, he was not too unlike that other boy, in that he was selective in what and with whom he talked. Once he got started, however, he didn’t stop. He couldn’t.

These are the children of the present. They are also, by some strange coincidence perhaps, children of the past. They don’t talk for the sake of talking. They know and value conversation for what it truly is: a means of anchoring yourself in the interests of another. Many a child, however, who behave this way grow up to be like their adults: self-conscious to a fault, enamoured of silence, and contemptuous towards social relations. The urban middle-class are not wont to bond to one another. They are wont to act busy, to pretend that they are busy, to do anything that takes them away from the burden of empathising and relating to another’s feelings. They have shut themselves up and out, the tragedy being that they themselves don’t realise they have.

Happier than some, happier than most
To find companionship, to find a set of children and adults who value conversation over phones and tabs, you must hence go to the village. The typical Sri Lankan village, however, is derided as backward and mediocre by those who live in the city. There is rape, there is murder, there is gossip. That it is pure is a myth. That it is resided by a bunch of unsophisticated goons is closer to the truth. This is undoubtedly a crass view, but it is nevertheless borne out by facts. But if it takes a bunch of unsophisticated goons, as we are wont to call them, to drive home my point, I couldn’t care less.

People in the village do not wear sandals and slippers to walk. They walk barefoot. People don’t use forks and spoons to eat. They eat with their hands. People don’t have fancy toilets. They don’t live in fancy houses. If they have urges of any sort, they let their instincts take over. It is these instincts that help them bond to one another, which in a way helps them bond socially with outsiders as well. They resort to the primitive and the primordial to help them wade through life. They are not busy, because for most of the year they remain idle. They are so dependent on their fields (for farming remains their only source of income) that they commit suicide or, arguably the less morbid option, work until they bleed. At other times however, they remain the idlers we sometimes deride one another as.

I wouldn’t know how happiness is measured or whether there is an index to gauge it. I do know, however, that life in these villages can be, sometimes at least, preferable to life in the city. There is no sense of being busy here: you wake up in the morning and you work until the evening only if you feel like it. You are not forced to work, or to quit, by an overlord (at least not in these democratic, non-feudal days). If you are an outsider, you will be served on by residents there, so self-effacing can they get. You won’t find people who avoid contact. And best of all, you won’t find adults who force their children to bond socially while bequeathing their lack of intimacy to them.

Like most Sri Lankans, I grew up thinking that the typical village lad was unhappier than the likes of me. I thought that he would be unhappy in the way he goes to school, barefoot and more often than not through half-broken bridges and the paalam paruwa. I thought that simplicity was cause for desperation, not joy. I thought also, perhaps inevitable given all those other suppositions, that he and his brethren would find infinite happiness were they to live in the same conditions that I was living in. It took a great many years, and a great many experiences, to convince me that the kind of life I was leading (as a child), even though my parents did much to make me walk and talk with others, was hollow and couldn’t be sustained for long. I was stuck in a vacuum, they were not. How could I be happy?

"... the road to happiness and
prosperity lies in an organized
diminution of work."
We have been told that we must go back to the past to plan our future. Human beings have lost their ability to talk, to converse. Why not go back to the village to reclaim that art? Why not converse with a village lad or adult (it doesn’t really matter), so as to understand the complexities, the nuances, and the shades of human conversation?

Sure, a great many of them may be able to talk at length precisely because they are what (we think) we are not: rasthiyadukarayas. But at least they have the courage of their convictions to do nothing, when there is nothing to be done. At least they can spot a spade and call it a spade, at least they can engage in conversation when there is absolutely nothing else to do. We should, ideally, take our children to the village. There they will learn to be the human beings most of them are not.

As for me, I would rather be a rasthiyadukaraya than be someone who can’t talk. I would rather idle than pretend not to help someone (if I can help him or her, that is). I would rather be a timewaster than be someone who takes a long time to get back to a friend, a relative, or an acquaintance. I would, in short, be someone who prefers to let the minutes go by talking, rather than look with painstaking intensity at a molehill to turn it into a mountain.

The urban middle-class are prone to violent outbursts. If they don’t have it their way, they will do anything to have it their way. They will weep, they will cry. They will grin, they will laugh. They will steal, they will plunder. The bourgeoisie of Colombo don’t know how to live. All they know is how to react. Reacting without living, I suspect, is not unlike living without breathing: you just exist to get someone else’s help, only to ignore them when you meet them next.

As a Buddhist, if I am to drag religion into this, I am qualified to only speak of Buddhists from this social subset. I can therefore admit here: these people may know every piritha, every kaviya, every rule from their gospel, but they don’t know how to transform it into practice. That is why, at the end of the day, they are as self-centred as those they condemn as heathens, more self-centred than those who (like me) prefer to go out of their way to help rather than stay and look after their own interests. Many a time, after all, have I been lambasted by relatives for helping others without looking after my welfare, for listening to my teachers as they advised me to take to careers my family despises. And yet, not one word to this tune do they utter when they seek my help. Not one syllable.

We are looking at the wrong places, I believe. We need a paradigm shift in the way we think. And behave. If all it takes to reclaim the lost art of conversation and establishing social relations is to either idle or take to a job where you get plenty of free time, so be it. The world doesn’t need more people who worry over a pen and piece of cardboard as a means of avoiding contact. The world needs more idlers, more people who know what to talk and how to talk. By that, of course, I am not in any way condoning gossipers. Gossip is not conversation. The two, as you and I perfectly well know, are clean different.

And so I will conclude. We are told that we are condemned to live. We are told also that we are condemned to suffer. Given that things are the way they are, we will in all probability be told that we are condemned to converse. When that happens, the day when making contact is considered out of bounds for the upper middle-class won’t be far off. I predict that this will be sooner rather than later. The ball, clearly then, is in our hands. We can take it or we can throw it. If we choose the latter, we can forget to talk. And if we forget to talk, we can forget to make contact. Simple as that.

Written for: Night Owls, March 3 2017