19 October 2011

‘One plus one is not equal to zero plus two’ and necessary extrapolations

Addressing a seminar organized by the Institute of Policy Alternatives recently, the Regional Advisor (Social and Economic Policy), UNICEF Regional Centre for South Asia, Andrea Rossi is reported to have proposed that 1+1 is not equal to 0+2.   Speaking on the topic of child poverty and equity in the region, Rossi contended that the ill-effects of poverty may not be permanent in adults but the consequences of lost opportunities in childhood could be permanent in children. 
To elaborate, while the loss of a year or two (say, on account of reduced circumstances due to job-loss) doesn’t impact drastically an adult’s ability to bounce back, but similar footnoting in a child results in the immediate shutting of doors for improvement, cripples life chances and in other ways straightjacket the individual. 
Rossi had spoken about incomes, inequalities, vulnerabilities and exclusion, the measurements, achievements and the gaps.  Most interestingly, Rossi had proposed that one of the best ways of getting a sense of the values given by a particular society to social and cultural things is to ask children the names of their grandparents.  I suppose one can stretch the exercise to include great grandparents as well.  Knowing names indicates some degree of knowledge and also the kind of importance attached to the elderly.  It speaks of stories told by parents, grandparents and other elders which of course contain important segments of transcripts that can be called ‘Who we are’ and ‘Where we came from’. 
The idea reminded me of something that Sri Lanka’s President, Mahinda Rajapaksa, said a couple of years ago.  He encouraged parents to take their children to places like Anuradhapura so they can learn about heritage. He wanted them to be taken to Hambantota so they could see how a nation we being rebuilt.  Most importantly, he wanted the children to spend some time with their grandparents during the school holidays.  He wanted them to listen to the stories that their grandfather and grandmothers had to tell. 
Mahinda Rajapaksa is not a saint.  His regime is full of imperfections and his tenure has been marked by many inconsistencies.  He’s achieved much and yet he has shown remarkable resistance when it comes to using his considerable political sway to enact constitutional provisions to correct governance flaws.  Under his stewardship, Sri Lanka saw terrorism being eliminated.  He was applauded and much of the gratitude could have very well translated into the votes necessary for re-election. 
And yet, gratitude is transient and there are no such things as blank cheques from voter to politician, cashable at each and every election.  There are expiry dates and the gratitude cheque became un-cashable quite some time ago.  And yet, even counting out incumbency-edge and the abuse of state resources, there is absolutely no argument that the regime is stable and enjoys wide support across the country.  ‘How so?’ is the question being asked.
The answer, perhaps, can be found in the fact that Rajapaksa has an easy and natural ability to say things which even though they seem simple and unimportant speak to something deep in the nation’s psyche.  He puts people in touch with a lived reality whose worth is constantly devalued in terms of the reality they are urged to worship and aspire to live in (but cannot).  He reminds them of things that are not tradable, things that have little or no exchange value in the free market of being and becoming. 
Interestingly, I now believe, that not only were these generally devalued and/or ignored attributes of immeasurable import in surviving natural and human-made calamities, they are what will count in the end whenever it becomes incumbent on the people to take matters into their own hands, including, if necessary, regime-depose. 
We need to know the names of our grandparents because that’s a first step in discovering what they did and why.  Last night I saw a long-lost video of a funeral, that of my wife’s maternal grandfather (see my piece ‘This country belongs to Pinchi Appuhamy’ in the Daily News of March 17, 2011).  That man was a giant and a legend and he was not alone. 
He knew the names of his ancestors and he told stories to his grandchildren that made them remember his name, his deeds and those of his ancestors.  He was a ‘honda govi mahattaya’; a good, gentleman farmer, ‘gentle’ in ways and ‘good’ in his determination, values and principles.  He never saw any great grandchildren but left his signature or rather added his to the collective and ever evolving signature of resilience that gives this land and her people character and surviving skills.  They will know his name and even though they won’t know the names of his friends, their legacy will not go unnoticed or un-accessed. 
One plus one is not equal to zero plus two.  The lessons relevant to taking care of children are valid and must be remembered.  We are not a child-nation and are not at zero. We lost some decades, but the effects will not be permanent, unless we forget the names of our grandparents or choose not to learn them.