10 January 2023

Reflections on ownership and belonging


['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Scroll down for previous articles] 

Ages ago, the Advanced Level physics syllabus had a section on properties of matter.  I vaguely remember the teacher talking about viscosity. There were some theories and probably formulae, but I’ve forgotten them all. I want to write about property and properties, so I looked up the term. Apparently it’s about characteristics that can be measured, for example ‘an object’s density, color, mass, volume, length, malleability, melting point, hardness, odor, temperature etc.

Measurable. That’s the key term here. And that’s a fixation that has contributed to a lot of tragedies including the crises of civilisation and humanity. The world has by and large learned to believe that whatever cannot be measured either does not exist or is, well, immaterial. And so the decisions are based on a body of knowledge that leaves out things that cannot be measured or categorised. And we wonder what went wrong!

Of course there’s nothing intrinsically wrong or bad in material things. The issue lies in how we consider them and how we relate to them. If you see things as property, given general trends or rather notions that have been made to appear like general laws (remember, as Pierre Bourdieu once put it succinctly, what goes without saying [actually] comes without saying), you tend to perceive them in that eminently problematic binary — mine or not mine. In other words it becomes an issue of ownership.  

It is perhaps not an accident that the words property and propriety (fitness, proper character) are derivatives of the same Latin root, proprieties (‘a peculiarity, one’s peculiar nature or quality, right or fact of possession, property’), which gave the Old French ‘propreté,’ and ‘proprieté.’  So we have learned to see these two as related and sometimes two sides of a single coin.
Now consider the properties or characteristics that are not of the material kind and the relevance of propriety and ownership. Something like love, for example. It simply defies definition. Perhaps this is why the focus is on the object or person associated with the sentiment, i.e the lover or the one enamoured with. It is not an accident, I feel, that people refer to the person they love as ‘my love.’ And once corporeality is inscribed on the sentiment, immediately we are faced with the issue of ownership, of exclusivity and a whole corpus of propriety-rules.  

She’s mine. He’s mine. Hands off. It all boils down to such things. And, as though norms of engagement are not strong enough to affirm the principle, laws are formulated.

A young man recently told me, ‘I want her, I want her to be mine.’  I asked him, ‘You want to own her?’ ‘Yes!’ That was his immediate response. I asked him, after a pause, ‘haven’t you ever wondered that the more beautiful and tender desire would be that of wanting to belong to her?’

He was silent for a while, this poet cousin who knew how to declare love in a thousand ways and in another thousand ways convey his anxieties, sorrows and helplessness on account of unrequited love. Then he said, ‘I had never thought of it that way.’

Since faith is one of those things that people are particularly fascinated about and are attached to, a few religious or philosophical questions might help unravel the knotted issue of ownership and belonging.

Does the cross (as associated with Jesus Christ and not the pagan faiths which used the same symbol long before the crucifixion) belong to Christians? Do Christians or some of them at least instead believe that they belong to the cross (and what it symbolises)? Is god someone’s private property or are theists convinced that they belong to some omnipotent entity? Do those of the Islamic faith believe that Allah belongs to those who accept the word of Prophet Muhammed with regard to god and no one else or do some of them at least feel that faith is about accepting and belonging rather than jealously guarding a name or doctrine as though it were private property?  

A recent note shared in social media insisted that the Dalada Maligawa is no longer something that is owned by (or belongs to) Buddhists. The writer, Ruwishan Vimukthi, argues that it is a Sri Lankan trade mark, no different to cricket and tea. An icon. He adds, ‘I cannot understand how those who oppose the construction of a road through Sinharaja can also cheer proposals to raze the Maligawa to the ground.’

He is correct. In part.  The Dalada Maligawa or any other place of religious significance can, technically, be ‘owned’ by anyone. As my father put it 40 years ago, ‘the sky does not become less private although it belongs to everyone.’  However, what counts is how one relates to the Dalada Maligawa. A simple question would resolve any confusion: does the Dalada Maligawa belong to you or do you belong to the Dalada Maligawa. In answering such a question, one would be forced to examine all kinds of relatedness, historical significance, the value one attaches to heritage, and one’s readiness to concede ownership to religious icons of one’s own faith to non-believers when claiming ownership of those of different faiths.

There are properties of matter. There are properties of the mind. Some can be measured, most cannot. Some, on account of measurability, can be valued, purchased, sold, bartered; others are not as easily dispensable.

Propriety. Interesting word, isn’t it? Property sounds cheap, at least to me. Belonging, on the other hand, or rather the term ‘belonging to’ far more tender and wholesome. ‘I love,’ more profound than ‘love me’ or ‘I am loved.’ That’s how I feel. 

Other articles in this series:

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road