30 April 2014

Citizenship that cannot be robbed

A string of pearls does not always refer to a necklace adorning a woman’s neck.  These days it refers to a network of Chinese facilities/relationships along its sea lines of communication from China to Port Sudan.  It’s a term tossed around by some who are concerned about growing Chinese influence around the world.  Not surprisingly, the ‘concerned’ have their own ‘pearls’. They don’t lie neat in a way that ‘threading’ is possible. Rather, they pockmark the world. Worse, they are all about first-strike capacity.

This string of pearls is relevant because Sri Lanka is one of the nodes.  A pearl, let’s say, or more precisely a would-be pearl or a wannabe pearl, depending on who is describe it.  Sri Lanka is eyed for pock-marking too in the manner that Diego Garcia is a pockmark.  In this business, sweetness of term means little. A pearl is as pernicious as a pockmark. 

But Sri Lanka is a pearl.  It is as pearl to her people as any other nation is pearl to its citizenry. Sri Lanka was and is pearl to others for many reasons. This is why it is sometimes called ‘Pearl of the Indian Ocean’.  This is why, a few weeks ago, when a group of people who decided to cycle around the island in order to create awareness about Cerebral Palsy and raise money to purchase 1,000 wheelchairs for victims of the disease called their project ‘Around the Pearl’.

There are approximately 40,000 people suffering from Cerebral Palsy. They won’t get better. A wheel chair, however, can make an immediate difference.  Those who organized, helped and took part in this wheels-for-wheels exercise of cycling 1350km in just ten days in the scorching sun and over unforgiving terrain, need to be applauded and more than that, supported.

There are many lessons that traveling of any kind confers on traveler.  In this case there are the hard lessons of endurance, the re-discovery of body and self, courage, determination and resilience.  Then there are other lessons that warrant mention. These refer to pearls. 

The first, one of the riders, Peter Bluck, made a pertinent observation: ‘This is the result of the war ending’. True.  War-end opens territories and opens hearts.  People don’t think about it all the time, but if one were to reflect on what one does and what one sees being done and asks the question, ‘Would this have been possible before May 2009?’ the answer would be ‘no’ nine times out of ten.  It’s simple: people don’t count blessings, they count curses. The result is frustration.  Next comes the blame game.  Then barbs this way and that.  That way is patently unproductive.

Another rider, Yasas Hewage, spoke of the positives: ‘It took me 36 years to finally see the full coastal belt of Sri Lanka....and when you are greeted with smiles in every town ...you are convinced Sri Lanka is a free country ......while we search for a perfect world...makes sense to enjoy what we have in the mean time.’

There are enough imperfections around us. Some of them have nothing to do with the long years of conflict or what are said to have been the causes.  It goes without saying that those with power can do much more.  Power makes for change. It makes for undoing things as well.  The balance sheet is nothing we can be proud of as a nation.

However, even as relevant authorities including elected representatives, do nothing, or worse, complicate matters further, there’s ample room for ordinary people to take ownership over this pearl. They can admire. They can capture in photograph or word.  They can polish it.  They can make it gleam.  Those who went around the pearl did exactly that.   

Belonging to the land is at one level a personal choice.  No law can rob that kind of citizenship.  There is a way that pockmarks can be smoothed over.  There is a way to unearth pearls. There is a way to acknowledge imperfections and yet not let them drag you down.  There are many ways to go ‘around the pearl’.  Indeed, one might even argue that the exploration of those many ways is the one way to resist being pockmarked by outside interests, whether or not it is called pockmark or pearl.