20 March 2014

Let’s talk of things supposedly inanimate

More than ten years ago I heard an anecdote about office equipment, especially photocopy machines, computers and printers.  Apparently, the story went, if a machine was not responding as expected, you should be patient. You are not supposed to hurry machines, press buttons repeatedly or kick them out of frustration because they rebel, get on to ‘go slow’ mode and end up exasperating you further.  There was a footnote: ‘Don’t even think of switching to another machine; they are all unionized!’ 

I haven’t really thought about the ‘animatedness’ of things inanimate, but this morning something caught my eye that made me consider the possibility and reminded me of the above anecdote. I was buying a chew of betal from a roadside kiosk.  Well, not exactly ‘road side’ because the said ‘outlet’ was located a few feet into a by-way in Thimbirigasyaya, Thunmulla to be exact, the kind which led to one of the 500 plus shanty-communities in the City of Colombo. 

A truck had arrived to pick up garbage and people started coming out with their trash. Among them was a little boy. He had a bag. He came up to a contained which was already half full. He emptied the bag and out fell a small shoe. A tennis shoe that might fit a 7 year old child. A single shoe.  I wondered immediately what happened to the other shoe. I wondered also what kind of places the shoes had carried its ex-wearer and what kind of feet he or she had, what kind of attachment to shoes and things, what paths he or she wanted to walk but did not or could not.

The old man at the kiosk gave me the bulath vita.  All of a sudden I thought of something that was not inanimate but was nevertheless absent.  A leg.  Suppiah Vijayan lost a leg, courtesy the LTTE (pro-Eelam Diaspora, please take note) on the 2nd of March 1991, less than 50m away from his bulath-vita shop, which by the way is also his residence.  That was when Ranjan Wijeratne was assassinated in a bomb blast.  He spends all day on his perch (which is also his bed), behind the ‘counter’ of his super market.  He doesn’t dream any more about places he wants to visit and doesn’t think of places he’s been, the job he did. He sells betal and says he needs around Rs.20,000 a month, which he says he earns somehow. 

Where do lost legs go?  What kind of dreams do they dream?  Do shoeless soles experience tar and grass in different ways than those that are shoed?  Do road-stories and grass-stories silently communicated get read the way they are related or is the level of distortion enhance by the roadblock of shoe-sole? 

The shoe that was trashed (and I have no doubt that it’s usefulness had expired) does not fit Vije and even if it did, he does not need it to go to the toilet (which is the place he visits most frequently when he does venture out of his home-shop).  This is however not about legs or shoes, bomb blasts and decapitation, loss of livelihood and lifestyle, tragedy and coping.  That shoe, like that leg, must have experienced something.  Or, if one were to be boringly scientific about it, must have not.  It is good to believe, even if just for mental exercise, that shoes have hearts, amputated or shot-to-nothing legs have minds; if not for anything, but so that we respect things and all the labour that is congealed therein. 

Vije is very particular about things he owns.  His shop.  The little drawer where he keeps his coins and notes.  I don’t know if he has inscribed ‘life’ into things inanimate, but he certainly treats his belongings with a great deal of respect. 

In the very least, such respect can add time to an object’s life.  We were not born to a culture that believed in throw-away, but we are quickly mimicking the West in this. Take a look around. You won’t see eyes and ears in a bookcase. You won’t hear heartbeat as you turn a page. You will not detect wistfulness in the blade of a knife or longing drip from the rim of a glass.  You will not believe me if I said that there’s a love-hate relationship between foot and football.  It is good to imagine that all these things are true, though, not for the purpose of feeding delusion, but as a harmless trick to enhance respect.

The artisan brings his hands together to worship his tools. That’s not conferring divinity to chisel and paintbrush.  It is acknowledgment of value.  It is the clay that makes me, I heard a potter repeat in Sinhala what Khayyam said in verse.  I saw an Indian creative director working in a local advertising agency worship his computer the moment has began his work day at his desk.  I’ve seen drivers run their hands several times around the steering wheel and then bringing them together solemnly before getting on the road. 

I don’t know steering-wheel language nor the preferred music of a paintbrush.  I don’t know how newspapers read me, or what kind of mischief the words I strew on a word file on my lap top are up to.  I saw a shoe and a leg. That’s all. I realized there are a hundred stories that can be written about each; the one that’s now in a garbage dump and the other whose trajectories will never be traced again. 

Unionized or not, I think it is good to treat all things with respect, those that breathe and those that are deemed by consensus to be inanimate.  I am open to correction.

[This was written and published in December 2010 in the Daily News]

Postscript:  Will follow. 



sajic said...

Excellent then and excellent now.
Awaiting postscript!

Sum said...

How trouble-free the world would be if everyone respected everyone/thing else

Malinda Seneviratne said...

Suppiah Vijayan passed on a few months ago. I didn't know until two months had passed. My visits had become infrequent after I found a permanent job. His sons didn't have my telephone number. I walked in. The 'architecture' had changed. I was surprised. I asked. Was told. Suppiah Vijayan, my one-legged friend who walked with me along strange pathways had suffered a heart attack one day and died not too long afterwards.

Anonymous said...

I can remember reading this as 'morning inspection' in 2010.Beautifully written this article actually opened my eyes to respect inanimate we are using day to day.Thanks so much ,and all past few years I take a minute to silently thank such things and the feeling is beautiful.