Lanil Kalubowila, school mate, President’s Scout, rowing coloursman and a colourful individual for many other reasons, had figured out many things at the age of 20 that most of us are still struggling to understand. Sometime in the middle of the year 1994, Lanil came up with a brilliant analogy about reality and illusion: ‘Everyone sees the film, but not a dog will see the screen’.
The outer covering which for the most part is fiction is a thin film and perhaps it is this flimsy quality that makes it so impregnable. Just look around. There are some 500 plus slum/shanty communities living in Colombo, but it is possible for someone to live an entire lifetime without even dreaming that half the city’s population lives in such areas.
Look at the people around you. You see them dressed in the clothes that define their moment-role; student, teacher, executive, policeman, politician etc. Is that all that they are though? What kind of woman lives behind make-up and what kind of human being beyond gender identity? We are not required to by law, convention or any other formal or informal contract to do so, but do we check out the multiple human being that reside in a single individual with the kind of scrutiny devoted to assessing appropriateness of dress, for example?
I am not saying that people should or even could figure out even a fraction of the real human being inside the figure one encounters or that such scrutiny should be par for the course in all encounters. It would have to be bored individual with nothing much to do with his or her life who would have the time and patience for such ‘interrogation’. I am not unaware of course that there are people who derive much pleasure from such examination but the vast majority of human being has better things to do. The vast majority, on the other hand, don’t bother to examine at all, for them are more worried about how they are perceived than about perceiving others.
So let’s take that as bottom line. Forget everyone else. Let’s talk about self. Let’s talk about the real us and the fiction we project; the person under the skin and the skin, that which others cover us with or want to cover ourselves with or which we clothe over our panchaskandaya (the five aggregates) because we want to be seen in a particular way or conform to ‘dress code’ so to say. Let’s forget about other fictions and focus on self.
I was thinking the other day about Snow White’s stepmother and the question she puts to the magic mirror: ‘Mirror, mirror on the wall, who is the fairest of them all?’ It occurred to me that this is not a fairy tale query but a question whose answer we tell ourselves countless times every day. We don’t ask, because we know. Each of us will say ‘I am the fairest of them all’ or some version of this thesis.
Mirrors are devices that affirm self-image. We comb our metaphorical hair or cover up a blemish with one of many powders we have such easy access to (the most potent being self-delusion), we look at pock-marks and warts and imagine them all away. We live the lie we want others to believe to be true and end up believing it all ourselves. Maybe this is necessary to get from moment to moment, job to joblessness, insult to retort, sorrow to joy.
We need to sleep well at night. We need to watch the film; after all we pay bucks to do so. Screens are boring things, free to look at, blank and uninspiring. There is a lot to be gained, though, if one were to see screen, go beyond mirror-reflection, pierce ‘self’ and caress self. Still, there is something so distorting in the mirrors we hold before ourselves, the ones that allow us to preen and strut, chin-up and cover-up.
Thinking of mirrors and mirroring, my thoughts went over once again to the humbling and empowering Pilikul Bhavanava, the meditation on revulsion. Budun Wahanse advocated a mental exercise of stripping oneself of each and every body part in order to obtain revelation regarding both impermanence and the utter fiction that we label as ‘I’. It helps put ego in context and in containment.
The dismantling of image in mirror can take the same pathway to self-realization. Just as we mentally undress ourselves of body part, so too can we divest ourselves of the non-visible warts, i.e. the ‘life-giving’ lies, deceptions, fictions, short-cutting, ant-trampling and other such character-components. We might find that we are nothing and in the process discover pathways to becoming something, i.e. something of greater human worth, to self and community, lover and friend, employer and employee, to fellow citizen and stranger.
Shakespeare said the world’s a stage. I think he would not object, if he were alive, to play with the metaphor and call life a film. We spend our days watching films unfold before our eyes, in our dreams and within us; we are the audience and the cast, the chair we sit on and every prop we see. We are a monumental lie, we feed lies and we happily inhabit a lying world. We could do better. We could look for the screen that eludes us.
I am convinced there is a mirror that would brush aside the who-is-the-fairest question and show instead all the blemishes, squints and tattoos that were poorly crafted. I don’t think that mirror is among the pages of a fairytale. In fact, it could be something you look into everyday as you brush your teeth, shave, wash your face or apply make up. Yes, right there before our very eyes. It might be good to put it to better use.
This was first published on December 8, 2010 in the 'Daily News' to which newspaper I wrote an 'everyday' column titled 'The Morning Inspection'