29 April 2016

Are you a parasite or an oasis in a desert?

Ask not what your country can do for you; ask instead what you can do for your country. Yes, it is a famous quote. US President, John F. Kennedy made this famous statement on citizens’ responsibility during his inauguration speech in 1961. It was not quite as original as a lot of people made it out to be though.

The line is drawn from something written by Khalil Gibran 36 years earlier, titled ‘The New Frontier’. This is what Gibran wrote: “Are you a politician asking what your country can do for you or a zealous one asking what you can do for your country? If you are the first, then you are a parasite; if the second, then you are an oasis in a desert.”

Kennedy, then, didn’t just ‘borrow’: he turned what he borrowed on its head. Gibran was pointing finger at politician and Kennedy, a politician, was throwing the line back at citizen. Nations are made not just of leaders and therefore there’s nothing wrong in Kennedy tossing the ball back to the people. In general, though, there is no harm in asking ourselves every now and then whether we’ve done for the country what we could do.

And it doesn’t have to be ‘country’. It can be community, organization, neighbourhood or any other collective entity we are associated with. It’s something anyone can do; politicians, doctors, teachers, students, garbage collectors, policemen, pedestrians, farmers, consumers, ruggerites, officials, arbiters, coaches, commentators or friends. About eight months ago, I wrote about our responsibilities. On Friday, someone I know asked me to draft a ‘service letter’. To those who don’t know about ‘service letters’, they are what heads of institutions give employees who are quitting or moving to another department in the same organization. I asked her, ‘koheda yanne?’ (where are you going?). She said she was migrating to Australia.

I am not against people migrating. I just wish, however, that they are aware of ‘responsibilities’ when they make such decisions. Well, ‘debts’ actually, more than ‘responsibilities’.

I asked her the following questions: Where were you born? What hospital? Which schools did you attend? Do you have a degree and if so from which university? Where were your children born? What schools do they attend? In which hospitals were your children born? From which banks have you taken loans and if you have were there concessions because you work in a Government department?

The purpose, as you would guess, was to ascertain the extent to which she is aware of how much she’s been subsidized by the State and therefore the people of this country. I wanted to know if she was aware that bucks were spent to ‘create’ the person who she is now. I wanted to know if she felt any guilt about leaving after a few years of ‘serving the people’, where her decision was (dis)coloured by the consideration of the fact that the State gave her free textbooks, uniforms and midday meals. I asked her a question: ‘naya gevala ivarai kiyalada hithanne?’ (Do you think you’ve finished paying your debts?). I drafted the ‘service letter’ for her and went to have a cup of tea.

I like to read something whenever I have a cup of tea and even when I am eating. Bad habit, I know. Even if I am in one of those street-corner eating places, I would take a piece of ‘wiping-paper’ from the cylindrical containers they keep on each table and read. Even if it is just an advertisement. I picked a piece. A section of page 16 of the Lankadeepa of January 25, 2010. It was a story about a man called D.M. Wimaladasa, aka D.M. Juvanis Appuhamy of Pitamaaruwa, Meegahakivula, a father of three, a little over 50 years of age.

The title said it all: Palaath sabhavatath rajayatath barak node gamata enna paarak thanai (Built a road to the village without burdening the Provincial Council or the State). Wimaladasa is a humble villager, who had earlier worked in several state institutions and now grows vegetables for a living. It took him two years to cut this road with the help of some villagers. He did this even as his neighbours teased and insulted him, called him a lunatic. That road does not have a name. Indeed he had been very reluctant to tell his story to the journalist, Nishantha Kumara of Viyaluwa.

Wimaladasa says that the teachers in his village school in Pitamaaruwa didn’t give them an education so they could find employment: ‘Apata igennuwe rekiya karannama newei’ (not just to find a job). The ‘teaching’ was simple: ‘honda minihek wela ratata samaajayata barak nowee inna’ (to become a good person and live without being a burden to society or the country). That’s Gibranian, isn’t it? Kenndian? Does the label matter?

Wimaladasa asked himself a question and answered it. The migrating graduate probably asked herself some questions too, but there’s one question she did not ask: have I paid my debts?

Someone has been a parasite and someone else an oasis in a desert. We all are one or the other and in most cases one and the other. Could we resolve to be less parasitical and more oasis-like? Shall we try?