21 July 2014

The ‘inability’ and ‘ability’ elements of sharing

Twenty years ago, while a student in Cambridge, Massachusetts, I received a letter from a friend in Ampara. He wanted to buy a ‘Landmaster’, a hand-tractor.  He had some money but was short of some Rs.20,000.  This friend was a batchmate at Peradeniya. He wanted to buy this for his younger brother, Kumara.  The oldest in the family was a teacher and the youngest in the Police.  Kumara worked the family fields.  I will never forget the last line in the letter: ‘meka nayak nemei; mage nohekiyaava saha umbe hekiyaava padanam karagena karana illeemak’ (this is not a loan, but a request based on my inability and your ability).  The financial aid package I received from the university I was attending allowed me to save quite a bit of money. I sent the cheque.
It was not a ‘giving’ but a sharing, for I had received so many things from my friend and his family both in the university and whenever I visited their home in Ampara.  ‘Sharing’ can be learnt. It is also in our blood, I feel.  This morning I received an email from a retired senior Police officer, Gamini Gunawardane, Gamini Maama to me, for he was, like his wife Sushila, a contemporary of my parents at Peradeniya in the late fifties.    
This is what he wrote, in paraphrase: ‘Until consumerism consumed us, our style of life was one of sharing. Looking back, at life at our flat in Cambridge, that is what we did with all of you around. Of late, people only enjoy themselves, all by themselves to the exclusion of others. They have no time for the earlier pursuits; instead intent on grabbing everything for themselves and themselves alone. On the contrary, the beauty and richness of our - Eastern - Buddhist - life was in sharing, something that the GDP cannot capture. Sharing happines and sorrow for example; the old village funeral house arrangement etc., the present 'Maranadhara Samithiya' which is supposed to be one of the unique NGOs in the world.’
I remember the summer and the semester spent with them in a small flat in Peabody Terrace.  I shared a room with their son, Kosiya.  Free of charge.  There wasn’t a single moment when I felt I was a boarder. They treated me like a son and their son treated me like an older brother.  Like all sons I did rub these lovely people the wrong way now and then. Like all parents they admonished me.  Like most parents, love and caring followed the awkward moment.  Thanks to them, I saved about US$ 4,000 in those few months.  It was about their ‘hekiyaava’ (ability), yes, but not about my ‘nohekiyaava’ (inability). These things did not matter. 
It was nothing for me to give away all that I had saved thanks to the love and hospitality of the Gunawardane family.  There were several ability-inability requests made even though they were not articulated as such.  There was very little take-home money at the time I graduated. After buying a bottle of whisky and a carton of cigarettes for my father, a bottle of perfume for my late mother, some t-shirts for my brother and my closest friends, I had 12 dollars left.   A friend at Peradeniya seeing the 10 dollar note asked its rupee equivalent. ‘Eight hundred,’ I remember saying.  He kept it.  I don’t know what happened to the last two dollars.
All this is nothing compared to the sharing that has been and still is part and parcel of our lives.  There’s logic behind the saying ‘magulatai maranayatai neththam vedak nehe’ (What’s the point of a person if he is not present at a wedding or a funeral?).  We come together to rejoice, we come together to commiserate in times of grief.  Sri Lanka recovered from the devastating tsunami in record time. The first lorry-loads of relief items were sent to the North and East. By ordinary people. The largesse cut across class, caste, religious affiliation, political ideology, region, age etc. 
And it is not just in moments of calamity that the ethic of sharing turns up with hand raised. Deep down I believe that we acknowledge the superior worth of the collective (over the individual).  We are not saints, not arahats, true.  We are cruel and careless, true. And yet, there are acts of kindness and empathy that are hard to explain. All the time.  There is a term that I am convinced rests on all our lips, ‘aney pau’ (untranslatable).  That’s not about ‘self’ but a recognition of self as part of collective and understanding of associated responsibilities. 
Yes, as Ranbanda Seneviratne once said, there was a time when 50 people would gather upon seeing the carcass of a dog, a time that gave way to not a dog being bothered by the death of 50 people. There are times like that, especially when body-burning by the roadside is a common sight.  It is a tribute to the strength of our value system that we recovered from those terrible times without losing our humanity.  Our sense of the collective. Our sense of one another.  Despite consumerist drives. 
We feel terrible if we are unable to attend a wedding and don’t forgive ourselves or try to make up somehow if we miss a funeral.  This is a country that turns into a dansala (giving-shop?) twice every year (Vesak and Poson) and where neighbours share sweetmeats among each other on festival days regardless of whether or not that particular day is celebrated by recipient.  We are a nation that has not abandoned yet the idea of come-together.  We still know about hekiyaava and nohekiyaava and that these are common to all of us, one way or another.  We do what needs to be done when something needs to be done.  We have ample reason to hope.  


Dileeni said...

Beautiful article. Thank you.

Aquamarine said...

Love this article....
Thanks for sharing again