31 October 2014

On mansions and masters, institutions and adornments

There are times when I lament my abysmal acquaintance with Greek and Roman literature and of course the political and historical tracts it contains and indeed which makes much of it.  I see a quote here, a reference there, that’s all. I then look it up somewhere.  I had heard of Cicero and had come across a quote, a reference, yes.  Not this one though, sent to me by my vocabulary-enhancer, Errol Alphonso, made me dig deeper than I am usually persuaded to do. 

‘The mansion should not be graced by its master; the master should grace the mansion.’

It reminded me of the following remark made about a man who was MC of sorts in a literary trust: ‘samahara aya aayathana valata aabharanayak venava, samahara ayata aayathana abharanayak venava’ (some people are an adornment to the institutions they are associated with while others use institution as accessory. 

Look around you.  There are name-droppers. There are people who wear designation on their person, through dress, accessory, language, word and accent.  There are people who just have to throw the CV at each and every stranger they encounter, if not by subtle reference, by handing out a visiting card.  These days ‘importance’ and ‘institution’ (or at least location in an institutional structure) is evidenced by entourage, a security detail and escort vehicles. 

Then there are people who get un-noticed precisely because they either don’t have what it takes to be noticed, or choose not to wear institution, profession, job-title or social status as badge and pendent.  Those of the latter kind do get noticed eventually, for CVs have a way of getting passed around, making those who did not notice earlier turn their heads, look more carefully and inhabit a moment or two of self-doubt.  Well, to be honest, not all. Just some. That’s the way it is. 

What of the others?  Just do their thing. They come from dust and end up as dust.  If they’ve done anything of significance in their brief earth-residency, that’s good.  If they haven’t, that’s not bad either.  The world moves. People come and go. Nations are made an un-made, civilizations are birthed, they grow up, grow old, weary, fall sick, die.  The dust of forgetting falls, as sprinkle yes, but give a dust-drizzle time and it will obliterate all, event, personality, metaphor, narrative, narrator, institution, adornment and the adorned.

On the other hand, we all live in the here-and-now, most of the time. We see people and are blind to others because some come advertised, others just materialize without entourage or notice.  It is not easy for us to figure out who is an adornment and who is adorned all the time.  Sometimes, all it takes is for a person to open his/her mouth and we just know, we can conclude ‘Adornment!’ or ‘Needing Adornment’.  Sometimes we have to do a mental-visual trick: undress the person of frill.  Remove clothes, remove skin, suck out perfume and delete embellishment.  Sometimes we have to discard claim and promise, deconstruct CV and endorsement.  Sometimes we have to read silence, the moments when voice was so necessary but was not raised, moments when this was word was needed but that was used instead. Things like that.

It is not impossible.  In most situations, it is not important.  On the other hand, if we are talking of kings and kingdoms; rules, rulers and the ruled; offices and officers; designations and the designated, then it is probably important for all our here-and-now affairs (into the reasonable future), to think of what Cicero said and draw some conclusions. 

Let me re-quote: ‘The mansion should not be graced by its master, the master should grace the mansion.’

Marcus Tullius Cicero was a Roman philosopher, statesman, lawyer, political theorist and constitutionalist.  During the chaotic latter half of the first century BC in that part of the world, marked by civil wars and the dictatorship of Gaius Julius Caesar, Cicero championed a return to the traditional republican government. 

Let me not cast the first stone. Let me not judge. I am going to do a mirror-check.  Perhaps after that I can talk of particular mansions and particular masters, institutions and adornments. 

 *This was first published in the 'Daily News' in October 2010.  

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com