30 January 2018

The things time finds hard to take away


Friendships, gentleness and humanity had only matured since '1983': we were one then and one we remain.
A senior Army officer told me a story about recruitment once.  He said he would ask any candidate for any job a few questions.  Among them, he said, were the following two:

‘What was the first job your father did?’ was followed by ‘What does he do now, or if he doesn’t work now what was his last job?’

Strange questions.  He had his reasons, though.

‘If a man begins life as a cleaner in a bus and ends also as a cleaner, then it means he is incapable of bettering his circumstances.  In general, sons follow their fathers.  I would be reluctant to hire such a man.’

I assumed he was talking about parents and children and not fathers and sons.  If it was a mere matter of material advancement then it would seem unfair.  Not all wealthy people were born into wealthy families, after all. 

The officer was talking of attitude.  Even then, there are probably many examples of industrious men and women who were born to vagrant fathers and mothers.    

He explained further: ‘People change very little in a lifetime.  They may accumulate wealth and improve considerably their standing in society, but their core compulsions don’t change by much.  By way of elaboration he said, ‘It may happen in the rare case, but in general attitudes and valuesr remain pretty much the same. If that were not the case, then the matter of entering the right path and achieving Enlightenment wouldn’t take so long that we had to talk of the saaraa saankhya kalpa lakshaya.’

Even for the Buddha, it is said, it took countless lifetimes before the final bhava in which he discovered the Four Noble Truths and eventually reached a place devoid of all the suffering associated with the birth-death-birth continuum.     

The Army officer, perhaps, was working with a small margin for error.  Everyone has recruitment theories, everyone who has to recruit has the challenge of picking among the equally qualified.  Everyone has rules of thumb.  The officer claimed that his was a time-tested method.  

The story reminded me of an incident that took place two years ago at Royal College.  Old boys of the Group of 83 had planned a grand reunion one Saturday evening.  It was to be grand because this was the year that the ‘boys’ turned 50.  What was even more special about this reunion was that some 30 ‘boys’ who had studied in the Tamil medium and who, apart from one person, lived abroad, had planned to attend it. 

This is how it happened.  The Tamil medium old boys had been planning a reunion of their classes.  Some, who lived in North America, wanted to have it in Canada.  Those who lived ‘down under’ wanted to do it in Australia.  A neutral venue was proposed.  Bali.  Then Raj Rajadurai, who although domiciled in Australia, has been visiting Sri Lanka almost every year, had suggested the following: ‘let’s meet in the land of our birth.’  And so they came.

It was special.  The Group, as the name suggests, is made of those who sat their A/Ls in 1983.  There are many ways to describe 1983.  The following would work as well: “It is a year that fractured the nation or rather saw cinders hidden by hastily strewn ash of multiple histories suddenly burst out as flames.”

Almost all those who had studied in the Tamil medium left the country and restarted lives in all parts of the world.  The war, hurt, fear and for other reasons including bad timing resulted in them not attending the annual ‘stag’.  But this year, they had come.  

And so, on the day before the event, someone sent out a message on a whim: ‘Let’s meet Saturday morning under the tamarind trees and play cricket.’

Almost fifty people turned up, including most of the Tamil medium ‘boys’.  Some of them were visiting Sri Lanka for the first time in 32 years.  Most of them were meeting their Sinhala and English Medium brethren after decades.  

A lot has happened in the interim but friendships and familiarity surprisingly had not suffered one scratch.  What’s pertinent to our story, however, is the cricket match.  

Those who wanted to play, were selected into two teams by two captains randomly appointed by the crowd that had gathered.  Like always, some preferred to watch.  Others preferred to ignore the cricket and indulged in other entertainment.   

Out there in the middle, ‘boys’ who were fifty were trying to be boys who were 15.  The pace was just not there; the heart was though.  And minds it seemed had neither evolved nor degenerated.  

Those who loved to bat, tried to retain strike.  Those who were bad fielders hadn’t improved.  Those who were too lazy to run after the ball, didn’t. And that was not because of age.  Those who used to be competitive, remained so.  Those who just didn’t care about the result, were as uncaring.  

Off the field, those who loved to relate dirty jokes regaled their friends as they had always done.  The quiet ones were quiet.  

It was as though people, at 50, had turned into schoolboys, although with less hair and more belly.  A lovely time, by all accounts.  

Bottom line: people hadn’t changed much. Really.  The Army officer may have had a point.  


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