Tuesday, 30th September 2014

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The parameters of contentment

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It is hard to find someone who is happy. Happy-around-the-clock, that is. Such happiness would be called ‘bliss’ and that’s pretty rare. The richest men and women in this world have in a single moment become paupers. Kings have lost their crowns and their heads. The poor struggle daily to adjust consumption patterns to declining real incomes. The disempowered struggle to lessen the burdens of subjugation. Those who love have lost and those who have not yearn for embrace.
Quite apart from the risks inherent in contemporary life that weigh on mind, human beings by dint of a pernicious tendency to compare and contrast find happiness elusive. Contentment is a word that rolls off the tongue easily, but it is dearly obtained. We tend instead to count our blessings, by way of consolation.

I was persuaded to contemplate on contentment by a line on the back of a three-wheeler. Now three-wheelers often have tag-lines. Lots of them. Some are striking lines from songs. Some are lines from scriptures. Some are idioms. Some are lame, some dumb. Some are incomprehensive. This was one thought-provoking.
‘Linda mage nam, mama linde nam, kaatavath ai vedanaa?’
[If the well is mine and if I am in the well, why should it bother anyone else?]

The allusion is to the well-known admonishment, ‘don’t be a frog in the well’, the recommendation being ‘get out, see the world, learn and expand your horizons’. Logical, especially if we use well and frog as metaphors related to acquiring useful knowledge. On the other hand, this frog-in-well business, as articulated in the three-wheeler assertion, can be taken as a reference to a different dimension of contentment.
Take ‘development’ for example. We were given the to-be model: the West. We were given a strategy: growth-led. We were given a paradigm: capitalism. And it was supposed to be informed or framed too: science. Western Science, that is. We were not told and we didn’t stop to inquire how the West became ‘developed’ and ‘rich’. White people in the USA, for example, were essentially fleeing plague and prosecution in Europe. They robbed land from the native peoples and used slave labor to create wealth. Today, those ‘gains’ are being sustained by wars (the weapons industry brings in bucks, the USA has hardly ever been at ‘peace’), slave labor (the US has the highest percentage of incarceration; prison labor is dirt cheap), and massive extraction of resources and securing of markets through various multilateral and bilateral agreements obtained through threat, bribe and other forms of arm-twisting.  We rushed in without thinking. We abandoned sustainable agriculture, organic fertilizer and pest-control methodologies, traditional rice varieties and a deliberately diverse crop-mix; we embraced chemical inputs, high-value crops, hybrid seed varieties and so on. We became dependent on multinational companies that provide seeds, fertilizers, pesticides and tractors (the FAO said Sri Lanka will be successful only when the last buffalo ends up in the Dehiwala Zoo!) and therefore fuel. We were made credit-dependent. The individual was the focus, so communities and solidarities came under attack.
And now, with agriculture and indeed capitalism in crisis, we are asked to focus on things like traditional knowledge and technology, sustainable agriculture, organic inputs, social capital, etc. only, these are terms, ‘knowledge-systems’ and methodologies that have long since been appropriated by the very same forces that destroyed our agriculture and related social organizations.

We stepped out of a ‘well’, saw the world, exposed ourselves to all manner of exploitation and humiliation, and are now being asked to get back into the well. Only, the water is now poisoned!
If the frog actually stepped out and took the high road to enlightenment, it would be flattened within seconds under the uncaring wheels of civilization.

Our well was not dry, the water needed no purification. It satisfied our thirst and we knew for the most part that there’s only so much water one can drink. We knew of monsoon and rainless, clear-sky months, and so we learned the art of conservation.
They say that a man travels to the ends of the earth in search of truth and returns home to find it. The frog, it seems, is more intelligent. Stays in the well. Contained, yes. Contented too. Maybe that’s something to think about.

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