03 November 2023

The virtues of unemployability

Sometimes people ask me what I do. And when such questions are asked, I say, with pride and a wide grin, ‘I am an unemployed graduate.’ I add, ‘for the eighth time.’  

It is not true though. I am unemployed only in terms of what employment is usually taken to mean: a steady job with a regular income. Sometimes I do say, ‘I am unemployed and perhaps unemployable.’ I am never sure if that should be said with pride or shame. Probably pride.

‘But you write.’

Yes, I do. Freelance. Journalists know what this means in terms of ‘steadiness’ and ‘regularity’ as per the above definition. I will not elaborate except to refer to an article I wrote twelve years ago. It was published in the Daily News of the first ‘The Morning Inspection’ series which ran from September 2009 to October 2011.

The title was, ‘On the “free” and “lance” of freelance.’ I remember wishing that I had called it ‘On being lanced by the free.’ I referred, in that essay, to an admonishment from my younger daughter, then just eight years old. She had figured it all out.  

You don’t need a lot of time for your work; you need time for other people’s work,’ she said, and elaborated, ‘I have heard you speaking on the phone.  You are always telling people “hari, hari, machang, karala dennam (ok, ok, I’ll do it)”.’
I've described my 'work' at times as being akin to that of a cobbler. I don't go around knocking on doors asking if there are shoes to be repaired. I sit under a tree and if someone comes to me, wanting a shoe to be mended, I do it.
And so, there’s my work. There’s ‘other people’s work.’ And there’s a lot of time outside of work. Those are the unemployed hours, the pluses of unemployability, if you will. One might say that’s making a virtue out of inevitability, but no, these are happy hours, really, which I once described in a poem titled ‘The virtues of unemployment.’

Like an ethereal scavenger sweeping
over the litter that collects in tiny piles
on the architecture of the political
those made-up faces and faces that are beyond repair;
I see the epic narratives missed by literatures
in a scar, in the plain tea quick-fix
the marshmallows and poisons
the varnishing that makes palatable
ineffective and yet bitter medicines
prescribed by these quack doctored times;
I stand at a window without a frame
by a petti kade too humble for name
but which is sentinel to monotony unnoticed
same faces at the same time
same voices asking for the same things
same greetings, same smiles and same conversations
layered over the unspeakable
in the courtesies that say nothing
but are warm nevertheless and true as well
kohomada? vahiy da? Ennam....
'We are one,' I tell myself
'We are solitary people,' I also add,
take a breath and think of you.
Life is good.

I was not writing a daily column, i.e. from Monday through Saturday, at the time I wrote this. So, I can’t even say that I just kept eyes and ears open for ‘material.’ That’s simply because there’s so much around that one doesn’t really have to look. The delightful thing about it is that the obvious depravations are more than adequately compensated for by freedom from the tyranny of clocks and work-briefs.

I’ve realised that time passes slowly. I’ve also realised then when liberated in this manner, things move slowly too. Put another way, there’s ample time to stop, say hello and chit-chat about everything or nothing with people known, familiar or absolutely unknown. All it takes is for the eye to meet an eye. People smile. All it takes is a chance comment or question to which you don’t have to react but will not be faulted for doing so.

And then, there are times when there’s not much said or indeed nothing is said. There’s still so much that happens. You can pick and choose where to rest your gaze. You can choose to dream and daydream.

You can worry too because underemployment, which is what freelance journalism is, sends expendable income racing to zero. There’s a trick that cures this malady too: simply separate things into that which one has some control over and that which is beyond control. The latter is a universe, the former a few grains of sand. Retire the latter and that’s how one manufactures expendable time. It’s value that is not tangible, value that does not make for exchange. Value that is invisible and therefore assumed to be non-existent and deserving of sympathy. Or disgust.

But we know, us freelancers do. We know how to make do. And we know that those who lance us for this ‘freedom’ don’t know that we know all about the abuse of 'free' and the poisons in which the tip of the 'lance' has been dipped.  

What do I do, do you really want to know? Nothing machang, and don’t you wish you could say that too? 

['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 the 257th article in the new series that began in December 2022. Links to previous articles are given below]


Other articles in this series: 

A breathless hush at the close

Ahmed Issa, fearless and audacious in Gaza

Let us take a deep breath now...

How Grolier Poetry writes 'Harvard Square'

Let us write beautiful poetry

Following children and their smiles

Let's plant words in cracks and craters

Re-weaving lives and love

When the earth closes upon us...

Let us now march to the battleground of words

The most pernicious human shield

Who bombed Frankfurter Buchmesse

The truly besieged 

Love's austere and lonely offices

The mysteriously enjoined in the middle of nowhere

Serendipity now!

Reflections on the unimaginable 

Jackson Anthony is a book and will be read 

A village called Narberth Bookshop

Gateway drugs to A-B-C

'Irvin' and other one-word poems

Earth pieces Kerala and Sri Lanka

Obligation as bomb and ocean

In the land of insomnial poets

In and out of shadows

Over to Eve

When you don't need an invitation, it's home

When the Canadian House of Commons applauded a Nazi...

Touching the touch-me-nots

The importance of not skipping steps

No free passes to the Land of Integrity

Hector Kobbekaduwa is not a building, statue, street or stamp

Rajagala and the Parable of the Panner

Let's show love to Starbucks employees!

You've got mail?

Octavio Paz and Arthur C Clarke in the stratosphere 

Enduring solidarities 

Coco 'Quotes' Gauff!

9/11 and the calm metal instrument of Salvador Allende's voice 

What a memory-keeper foregoes 

Whitman, Neruda and things that wait in all things

Thilina Kaluthotage's eyes keep watch

Those made of love will fly

Profit: the peragamankaru of major wars

Helplessness and innocence

The parameters of entirety

In loving memory of Carrie Lee (1956-2020)

Mobsters on and off the screen

Transfixing and freeing dawns

We're here because we're here because we're here

Life signatures

Sha'Carri Richardson versus and with Sha'Carri Richardson  

A canvas for a mind-brush

Sybil Wettasinghe's shoes

Love is...

A stroll with Pragg and Arjun along a boulevard in Baku

Meditation on tree-art

Daya Sahabandu ran out of partners but must have smiled to the end

Gentle intrusions 

Sleeping well

The unleashing of inspiration

Write, for Pete's sake

Autumn Leaves Safeness

 Sapan and voices that erase borders

Problem elephants and problem humans

Songs from the vaekanda

The 'inhuman' elephant in a human zoo

Ivan Art: Ivanthi Fernando's efforts to align meaning

Arwa Turra, heart-stitcher

Let's help Jagana Krishnakumar rebuild our ancestral home

True national anthems

Do you have a friend in Pennsylvania (or anywhere?)

A gateway to illumination in West Virginia

Through strange fissures into magical orchards

There's sea glass love few will see 

Re-residencing Lakdasa Wikkramasinha

Poisoning poets and shredding books of verse

The responsible will not be broken

Home worlds

Ownership and tenuriality of the Wissahickon

Did you notice the 'tiny, tiny wayside flowers'?

Gifts, gifting and their rubbishing

History is new(s)

Journalism inadvertently learned

Reflections on the young poetic heart

Wordaholic, trynasty and other portmanteaus

The 'Loku Aiya' of all 'Paththara Mallis'

Subverting the indecency of the mind

Character theft and the perennial question 'who am I?'


A degree in people

Faces dripping with time

Saji Coomaraswamy and rewards that matter

Revolutionary unburdening

Seeing, unseeing and seeing again

Alex Carey and the (small) matter of legacy

The Edelweiss of Mirissa 

The insomnial dreams of Kapila Kumara Kalinga 

The clothes we wear and the clothes that wear us (down) 

Every mountain, every rock, is sacred 

Manufacturing passivity and obedience 

Precept and practice 

Sanjeew Lonliyes: rawness unplugged, unlimited 

In praise of courage, determination and insanity 

The relative values of life and death 

Feet that walk 

Sarinda's eyes 

Poetry and poets will not be buried 

Sunny Dayananda 

Reunion Peradeniya (1980-1990) 

What makes Oxygen breathable?  

Sorrowing and delighting the world 

The greatest fallacy  

Encounters with Liyanage Amarakeerthi 

Beyond praise and blame 

Letters that cut and heal the heart 

Vanished and vanishing trails 


A forgotten dawn song from Embilipitiya 

The soft rain of neighbourliness  

The Gold Medals of being 

Jaya Sri Ratna Sri 

All those we've loved before 

Reflections on waves and markings 

A chorus of National Anthems 

Saying what and how 

'Say when' 

Respond to insults in line with the Akkosa Sutra 

The loves of our lives 

The right time, the right person 

The silent equivalent of a thousand words 

Crazy cousins are besties for life 

Unities, free and endearing 

Free verse and the return key

"Sorry, Earth!" 

The lost lyrics of Premakeerthi de Alwis 

The revolution is the song 

Consolation prizes in competitions no one ever wins 

The day I won a Pulitzer 


Ella Deloria's silences 

Blackness, whiteness and black-whiteness 

Inscriptions: stubborn and erasable  


Deveni: a priceless one-word koan 

Enlightening geometries 

Let's meet at 'The Commons' 

It all begins with a dot 

Recovering run-on lines and lost punctuation 

'Wetness' is not the preserve of the Dry Zone 

On sweeping close to one's feet 

Kumkum Fernando installs Sri Lanka in Coachella, California

To be an island like the Roberts... 

Debts that can never be repaid in full

An island which no flood can overwhelm 

Who really wrote 'Mother'? 

A melody faint and yet not beyond hearing 

Heart dances that cannot be choreographed 

Remembering to forget and forgetting to remember 

On loving, always 

Authors are assassinated, readers are immortal 

When you turn 80... 

It is good to be conscious of nudities  

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
The allegory of the slow road