10 April 2023

It is good to be conscious of nudities

I’ve heard people give crisp, clear instructions or orders. Commands which are delivered with a tone so insistent that the threatening words ‘or else…’ need not be uttered. These are common in hierarchical relationships, an extreme version of which is evidenced by the recipient's classic rationale for compliance, ‘It’s not ours to reason why, it is but ours to do and die.’

Then there are directives which, for the sake of appearances, have to be kept polite. A bit like ‘friendly’ countries coming to the aid of other countries in crisis. It allows attached strings to be made invisible. It’s like conditions that are not always stated but are insisted on with a friendly pat before ‘bailouts’ that ensure entrenched servility are rolled out.

They sound like suggestions, well-meaning advice which the receiver may or may not accept at no cost. They begin with ‘you may want to…’. I’ve mostly heard it from Americans of the United States. Sometimes there’s genuine concern and not even an iota of ill-intent. Not always. At other times, the subtext says, ‘you had better…’

There is nothing wrong in giving advice. Indeed, that’s almost a given among friends and, depending on how strong the friendship is, you can retire niceties and even bark out that which you insist the other people should do. Typically, such commands are taken in the right spirit. No ill-intention and none perceived. All good.

And then there are instructions that are overbearing simply because the instructor whether or not he or she is qualified to toss pearls of wisdom or, indeed, whether or not he or she has pearls of wisdom to toss nevertheless proceed to insist, order and command.

There are at least two words that get in the way of civilised discussion where every opinion is considered and can only be shelved by alternatives that are better substantiated or are backed by superior logic and not just eloquence-frills: ‘must’ and ‘should.’  

You must. You should. Such phrases often carry the unspoken rider, ‘I know better than you.’ Put another way, ‘you don’t know.’  And this too, ‘you are not qualified to suggest anything.’ Or this: ‘I am superior, I know; therefore no further discussion is warranted — just do as I say.’ Big-brotherly. Condescending. Presumptuous.

We all do it to various degrees. The problem is, we do it in the case of subjects we don’t have the requisite expertise in. We do it without any qualifications, any riders, without caveats, without brackets. And we expect compliance and even sometimes expect wild applause. Indeed, if what we receive is silence, we assume agreement. We don’t consider the possibility that the silent may have drawn some conclusions; for example, ‘discussion is not possible because there’s simply an absence of respect for a contending opinion,’ or ‘the Know-All does not seem to understand that no one knows all and that know-all claims indicate the inevitable handicap of blinders.’

There’s an illustrative analogy.

All that one person knows is but a grain of sand compared to the universe that is the sum total of human knowledge. The sum total of human knowledge is like a grain of sand in comparison to the universe of things yet unknown.

How then can anyone who is less than omniscient make grand claims about anything outside of say the most trivial such as ‘the sun rises from the East,’ or ‘if you jump up, you will most certainly be pulled down by gravity.’

Musts and shoulds or, put another way, must-nots and should-nots subvert conversations, disrupt collectives; they create and affirm unnecessary hierarchies.

There’s a saying in Urdu which, if acknowledged and allowed to inform practice, political and otherwise, perhaps provides a way out of the labyrinth of arrogance in which well-meaning activists and activism get lost: Iss hammam meiN sab nangey haiN. It means, I am told, ‘in the bathtub everyone is naked.’ I am sure there are equivalent sayings in other countries, other cultures, and other communities.

We can cover ourselves with garments, accessories, tattoos, frills, fine language and impressive curriculum vitae, but we know what’s underneath. Others know too. Only, we think we are clothed and others naked. And that, perhaps, is what stops us from deploying what is perhaps one of the most potent instruments of collective action and of course more wholesome engagement with life even as individuals, namely humility.

And we wonder how, when and why our well-meaning struggles floundered and were buried. It would be more honest to say at the get go, ‘look, you are stupid and I am wise, so just shut up and listen to me.’ The room, physical or virtual, will quickly be emptied. The humble, those aware of fallibility and endowed with the will to learn will then have the space to re-gather in less toxic countries and engage in meaningful conversation and action.

Bottom line: it’s good to be conscious of nudities. Of all kinds.

['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. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

Saturday slides in after Monday and Sunday somersaults into Friday

There's a one in a million and a one in ten

Gunadasa Kapuge is calling

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

Hemantha Gunawardena's signature

Pathways missed

Architectures of the demolished

The exotic lunacy of parting gifts

Who the heck do you think I am?

Those fascinating 'Chitra Katha'

The Mangala Sabhava

So how are things in Sri Lanka?

The most beautiful father

Palmam qui meruit ferat

The sweetest three-letter poem

Buddhangala Kamatahan

An Irish and Sri Lankan Hello

Teams, team-thinking, team-spirit and leadership

The songs we could sing in lifeboats when we are shipwrecked

Pure-Rathna, a class act

Jekhan Aruliah set a ball rolling in Jaffna

Awaiting arrivals unlike any other

Teachers and students sometimes reverse roles

Matters of honor and dignity

Yet another Mother's Day

A cockroach named 'Don't'

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

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