31 March 2015

We don't own what we write...so what?

"People are misreading my book!" exclaimed a scientist. She was livid that the "science" in her book was being ignored and that all kinds of interpretations wide off the mark of her "purpose" were being expressed and circulated.

This reminded me of a batch-mate of mine at Peradeniya, a bikkhu, who told me several years after leaving campus that he planned to disrobe. I asked him why. He said, "I spent many, many years working for the poor and downtrodden people in the villages close to the temple. I bought a book from each instalment of the Mahapola Scholarship, started a library, taught the children and did my best to show them a path that would lead them away from poverty and ignorance. And yet, when those who were of different political leanings, attacked me and tried to destroy me with threats and all kinds of fabrications, not a single person came to defend me."

Rev. Nanda was at that time a member of the NSSP. He had previously been involved with the Revolutionary Communist League. Later he moved to more moderate political positions and told me that in the interest of democracy, he was willing to work with anyone except doctrinaire Marxists and extreme nationalists. When he told me of his disillusionment with the people whom he loved and tried to protect and organise, I told him what Arjuna Parakrama once told me: "I dedicated my master’s thesis (or was it his doctoral dissertation?) to my teachers. We never acknowledge that much of who we are, is made up of what our teachers gave us. Typically, we believe that it is our hard work and skill that was critical in our triumphs."

Teachers never know what their students will become. Hundreds of children pass under their tender and nurturing gaze, the vast majority of whom will never say "thank you" or even remember. Teaching is a profession which is unrewarding to the extent that teachers rarely get to see their ultimate products and worse, almost every one of those products never recall or acknowledge what they owe those who guided them.

Rev. Nanda was a teacher first and foremost. The political activist in him was always secondary. Ideally, all his students would embrace his politics and his vision of a better world. This can only be hoped, never demanded and for this reason alone, there is no reason to lament or regret the time and energy spent in helping a child become more sensitive to the human condition. Or learn about frogs and cockroaches.

Those "beneficiaries" of Rev. Nanda’s generous heart and unrelenting resolve may not have followed him into the NSSP or even to embrace a lifetime’s engagement with the burning issues of the time. Who knows what they would do or who they would become? Their respective world views and vision of a better world would be influenced by other people too, and by books other than those Rev. Nanda made available to them. But then again, what is to say that none of them will ever live his life in a way that adds value to the human condition?

We don’t own what we write. We don’t own what we say. Given that the universe of our ignorance is infinite, the possibility of error is always with us. We can, with the best of intentions, unleash the worst tragedies. Our work will always evade capture for it has a life of its own and can walk along avenues that are beyond our own imagination. We can do our best to mould our children in the image of our ideal citizen and still be powerless to prevent them from breaking the mould with a casualness that hurts to the core.

A friend of mine recently agonised, "Malinda, I do not mind suffering defeat after defeat after defeat, politically. But what is there at the end? The image of your father comes to my mind often. He has spent his entire life doing his best for our people. Now, past sixty years of age, he is alone with no one to talk to, seeing everything fall apart and no one appreciating all that he has done. Is this what will happen to us? How will we cope?"

I do not know the answer. But I do know that lives lived honourably are not worthless. If one day someone helped an old man across a busy street, the act, which both the old man and the Good Samaritan may well forget, might spur some random observer to do wonderful things. One might tirelessly attempt to teach the worth of literature to a set of children and none of them may become poets or even learn to see the beauty of words. But what is to say that the act of teaching alone or the simple effort to share knowledge would not nourish the seeds of giving in those children?

We cannot change the world with a drop of love or poetry, as Pablo Neruda has keenly observed. But both these things fertilise the will to engage honourably and relentlessly to make the world a better and happier place for our children. Against all odds.

Rev. Nanda, to this day, has not disrobed. "Class" is a concept that has not abandoned his fertile and sensitive mind. The scientist may or may not find readers who read her book in the spirit she wishes them to read it with. Those who do read it that way, may understand it but go about their business disregarding the lessons. Those who misread it, on the other hand, may live out their lives without harming a single human being in any way and taking care never to pollute the earth, the air and the waterways.

We are all "writers". When we act and when we speak, when we are silent and when we refuse to act, we are actually writing something in that all these things may be "read". We can hope that the reader reads exactly what we have written and nothing else. We can do better, by hoping that whatever the reader reads, he or she will take away a smile, and that even if the writing draws a tear, it will empower in some way.

Each step we take, we help transform a barely visible path into a road. Hopefully these roads lead to pleasant and beneficial discoveries. I am convinced, that if the journey is honourable, even the hardest and most unforgiving terrain would not injure or hurt. So let us walk, for life stultifies when stuck in one place. Love and poetry will follow, I have no doubt. Because of science, or, more probably, in spite of it.

First published in 'The Island', October 13, 2002
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