10 April 2014

Re-visit and re-learn are as important as reduce, re-use and recycle

One of the most interesting things about staying with my grandparents in Kurunegala during school holidays was the opportunity to read back issues of the Reader’s Digest.  The late nineteen seventies was still too early for me to see ‘propaganda’.  I was more interested in the ‘light’ pages of the Reader’s Digest: ‘Laughter is the Best Medicine,’ ‘All in a Day’s Work,’ ‘Life in these United States’ and ‘Word Power’ anyway.  I did enjoy ‘Drama in Real Life’ and also the human interest stories. 

I still recall titles of articles I particularly liked, memory being jolted by something related, a thought, word, act or incident.  I remembered one called ‘Have you ever seen a worn-out paper clip?’  This was in a 1978 or 1979 issue, if I remember right.  It was, as the title indicates, about wasting things. 

This was long before ‘re-use, re-cycle, reduce’ became topics for poster competitions and international conferences.  I think few in the USA would have seen a worn out paperclip even today, more than thirty years later and not just because staplers have become more common during this time.  

I was reminded of that article about a week ago.  This was at an unpretentious and charming ceremony to induct the new Chairperson of the SANASA Development Bank.  There was pirith before the official induction took place at a time considered to be auspicious.  Pirith was followed by a pithy, appropriate and even profound anusasana by the Most Venerable Nikahetiye Sandado Thero, a long time associate of the outgoing Chairperson, P.A. Kiriwandeniya, i.e. from the time they were students at Vidyodaya in the early sixties.

Ven. Sandado Thero related an anecdote from pre-Independence times.   A petition demanding independence was to be hand-delivered to the British.  E.W. Perera had been tasked to do this.  Money was required for the journey.  Perera and an associate had been going from door to door, asking for donations.  It had been late evening when they got to F.R. Senanayake’s house.  Before they could knock they had heard Senanayake berating a domestic aid for having used two matchsticks instead of one when lighting the oil lamp.  They had entered and stated their request but not with any great expectations for they thought he was stingy.  How could a man whose sense of thrift persuades him to quarrel over a single wasted matchstick be expected to donate anything, they must have thought.  As it happened, Senanayake immediately agreed to fund the entire trip. 

The Hamuduruwo observed, ‘this is our way’. 

‘We don’t waste, we don’t spend on that which is unnecessary; we do, however, give without restraint for that which is important’. 

The learned Bikkhu then gently observed that many matchsticks had been used to light the oil lamp used for the occasion. 

Thinking about Sri Lanka and Sri Lankans, I believe the Venerable Sandaso had touched an important element of our cultural and civilizational ethos.  We are a generous people.  I can’t think of any other nation that turns into a dansala twice every year, i.e during Vesak and Poson.  Funerals are not private affairs, for example.

I remember attending the funeral of one of the first Gal Oya settlers.  He was a good farmer.  So were his sons.  They had enough rice to feed the entire village for months.  The villagers, as is customary, approached the older of the sons and said they would provide meals for all those who came to pay their last respects.  The sons had thanked them for their kindness and added that they (the sons) could manage themselves.   The neighbours had politely but firmly responded ‘api genava, umbala kemathi nama visikarapalla’ (we will nevertheless bring the food; you are free to throw it all away).  The younger son, my friend Premasiri, had smiled, realized how much in error they were and agreed to the villagers’ proposal. 

There is a time for thrift and a time to give.  For years, for example, it was extremely difficult to recruit people to the Army.  That was not the time to give, perhaps.  However, when it became evident that the threat was enormous and those responsible for meeting the threat were serious, there was no lack of people ready to give their lives. 

We don’t lack in the stingy of course.  On the other hand, ‘conservation’ and ‘thrift’ are very much a part of who we are.  This is true of all communities living in this island.  Even the most humble household will have a few flower pots. The smallest plot of land will have some trees.  When the Hantane Housing Scheme was built, the entire mountainside seemed to have been raped.  My mother said it reminded her about a poem called ‘Little Boxes’.  Today, it’s all green. Those who came to occupy those houses on a few perches of land didn’t just plant grass and a few flowers.  They planted things which grew into trees. 

And yet, we too haven’t seen many worn-out paper clips.  We are still careless enough to use two matchsticks where one would suffice.  We forget that there are big lessons to be learnt from small things, and that attention to the small things enhances our capacities to give big when ‘big-giving’ is required. 

Some small lessons are good to revisit and relearn, Ven.  Nikahetiye Sandado Thero taught me a few days ago. 
[First published in July 2011 in the 'Daily News']

Malinda Seneviratne is a freelance writer who can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com