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Ravana To The Rescue!

[Sunday Times.lk, Sunday, 25 April 2010 06:49 No Comment]

19-300x216 A few months back, I had two handymen attending to a leak on my roof. Both were youngish, though obviously experienced in their line of work. As could be expected in a country with a high rate of literacy, they were educated in a general sense. Most days I noticed a daily paper in their possession. Hardly an hour would go by without them receiving a call on one of their mobile phones, upon which the recipient animatedly exchanged mundane personal information with the caller.

The Presidential elections were due soon, and naturally our conversation often drifted towards it and other issues facing the nation. One day we were talking about the huge social as well as economic gap between developed countries and our nation when one of them came out with the statement “Do you know that when white men were on trees like monkeys we were making planes that flew to India?”

The other guy, obviously of a more skeptical nature, asked “Did they need a visa to enter India then?”

“What visa that time?” answered the expert on pre-historic aviators of Lanka, and added with a certain pride that “Ravana was a very powerful King.”

In the mind of this handyman, flying was a relatively simple matter, well within the reach of the technological know -how of the era of Ravana, the mythical king. The engines, aviation fuel, the propellers, navigation, the batteries and the thousand other technologies that make a complex machine defy gravity and get  to a given destination hundreds of miles away at a considerable speed, about the time when other civilizations were barely conversant with the wheel, were routine matters for the amorous King and his supposedly simian court.

At the time of elections, the image of the vibrant society of yore that is the historical reference point of our handyman  is matched by his expectations from the newly-elected in modern day Sri Lanka.  Everything becomes possible and every prospect propitious. No word can be spoken by the victorious that is not representative of distilled wisdom and uncanny vision. If the winner says tourism is the answer to our ills, so it is. But if he suggests that it is agriculture that should be promoted the chorus will be only too happy to echo it. Then if the winner says both must be developed concurrently, surely it is a ray of sheer brilliance.

Of course, all the slogans, exhortations and wishful thinking we indulge in have not taken us far. Statistically, we remain a country below the average standard according to most economic indicators.    Even if such things mean little to that deluded handyman, given half a chance he would gleefully pack his bags to head to places like the Middle East or South Korea. Whatever the ideology one may profess, a sensible person rarely does harm to himself in personal choices.

The belief that Ravana flew in his flying machine to spirit away the unwilling Sita is an article of faith with our handyman. At the same time, he is  also aware that the King’s  descendents of the present day not only do not possess such a conquering spirit, but are also far less endowed in skills. It is a reality that they cannot put together even a bicycle that can be marketed confidently. In almost every sphere of human endeavour, whether it is the amount of rice produced per acre, amount of rubber tapped from a tree or the number of pieces of garments produced per machine in a given time frame, they lag behind their competitors.

Except for tea, there is no internationally marketable brand name that we have developed. The reputation of our famous tea is more a result of climate and soil than the effort of man. Mediocrity stares at us from every corner. Shoddy quality, poor service, appalling work attitudes, indifferent management and low productivity have become the standard here. But it is a particular, almost a self confident mediocrity,   based on an idea of greatness in the misty past. This vicarious pride has nothing to do with the present, which is only distinguished by its deadening poverty of thought and skill.

Nothing   illustrates the hopelessness of a situation in which obvious lightweights are taking on a job for the heavyweights than our world of politics. Taking all those involved in politics, from the village activist to the parliamentarian, we probably have nearly five hundred thousand falling into the definition of a   politician. This translates to a very large percentage of our population. If all their thoughts, words and feverish activity have contributed to what is visible in modern-day Sri Lanka, we are not looking at outstanding material here.

It is clear that the idea of politics, as practiced today, is foreign to us. Voting, representative governments, parliament, an active opposition, written laws, an independent judiciary and a public service answerable to the  law of the land, are all concepts which do not find a historical base or even a fertile soil here. In the countries of their origin, public service is more or less independent, only provided political directions by the government of the day. For instance, nobody will accuse the internationally-respected BBC of being the mouthpiece of the Labour Party of England, although that party presently holds the reins of power in that country.

Undoubtedly, the origin of these concepts in those distant lands owes something to the particular culture of those societies and the temper of their peoples. That such ideas never developed here, and even when adopted are more abused than used, says something about the values we live by. There is a sense that we either are cynical about them or have only understood them imperfectly.

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