28 April 2012

On idleness and rasthiyadukarayas

[Originally published in 'The Island', September 8, 2002]

Book titles fascinate me. One of the more appealing ones I have come cross is that which Peter Gourevitch used for his book about the then unfolding tragedy of Rwanda, "We wish to inform you that tomorrow we will be killed with our families". Chilling, I thought. When I mentioned this title to a friend, she told me about an equally breath-catching title: "This way for the gas, ladies and gentlemen". It was about the Jewish holocaust that Tadeusz Borowski and Barbara Vedder wrote. I am sure other holocausts are written about with as much passion. Who knows, such narratives might have titles whose heart-stopping potential is higher.

There is another interesting title "The right to useful unemployment". I think the author was Ivan Illych. It is a book that I have been meaning to read for the last twenty years. Anyway, it got me thinking.

How can one be "unemployed", usefully? Would this mean that a rasthiyadukaraya has some intrinsic worth? What would a rasthiyadukaraya choose as his handbook? "The right to useful unemployment" or Bertrand Russell’s "In praise of idleness"? I haven’t read either of these books so I don’t really know if they speak of rasthiyadukarayas or if a rasthiyadukaraya would find anything useful (!) among the pages. But a few months ago, something really interesting happened.

I was interviewing a lady who had a story to tell. It was about a bank loan and about how the bank was going out of its way to ensure that she is forced to fold up her business. For some unexplainable reason, this lady was quite taken up with they way I questioned her. Almost at the tail end of our conversation, she said that she was convinced that I could "do much better" than journalism. I suppose different world views, life expectations and other factors make people see things differently. In any event, the lady, to my surprise (for I had never associated myself or my "potential" with that kind of figure) said that she could easily find me a job which paid Rs. 80,000 a month plus a car. I laughed and told her that I can’t guarantee that I will continue beyond the first month.

Anyway, when I returned to Kotikawatte, where I lived with a couple of friends, I told them about this "offer". Asanka, a brilliant young man of around twenty said, "I was offered a job to teach three hours a week in an international school. They said they’d pay me 20,000 rupees. I refused." Priyantha, idealist, visionary, unemployed and happy chipped in: "I was offered 150 rupees a day...badaama ananna. I refused." We all laughed.

I am not sure if we are unemployed, under-employed, under-paid or what. I am not sure if we are "usefully" unemployed, or whether our "idleness" is praiseworthy. Wasantha Wijewardena, self-confessed "Professional Rasthiyadukaraya" advocates a "do-nothing" life style, following the time-tested and efficient model of agriculture, "Do nothing farming". He says that the typical villager often responds to life thus: "anicce dukkhe". According to Wasantha, this is not the remark of a defeatist. "It is life-affirming, positive and lends to beneficial engagement".

Too many ideas and concepts crowd my mind. Nothing should cause headaches in life. So let me stop with this thought. "Life is relaxing. Always. If only we choose to live in a particular way. For example, as the Buddha advocated, treating the vicissitudes of life with equanimity."

POST SCRIPT:  My friend Wasantha (referred to in the previous blog post, arrived in Sri Lanka last night, deported from India and thanks to monumental efforts by our High Commission in Delhi.  His long suffering mother, who was feverishly communicating with the Delhi mission from my office, frequently breaking into tears, met him at the airport early this morning, after the CID and NIB were done with recording statements.  She called and gave me the phone.  Wasantha, naturally, was in high spirits.  He said, 'Malinda Aiya, Budusaranai!'