Are we living in a false golden age?

Just this week, in a fit of middle-aged resoluteness, I began exercising again. By the way, I’m not really middle aged, but that’s where the turkey is beginning to show. Now, as anyone over 40 who has taken up cycling in a burst of misplaced enthusiasm knows, exercise is hard work. Especially if you have been leading a sedentary life for a baker’s dozen of months leading up to the silly season. The head bleeds perspiration after the first ten minutes. Thigh muscles ache dully at every added revolution uphill. The heart thumps like a mortar pounding thick tomato juice out of a pestle. Sinews scream. It’s a vicious cycle.

The one thing that got me going again – and keeps me in the saddle – is the memory of how pleasant a thing cycling used to be. In the first state of enlightenment, a bike was every boy’s dream machine. Every time I took it out for a spin, I was surprised by joy and impatient as the wind. But disillusionment soon set in – with punctures, spills and scrapes; bruised egos and broken body parts (the bike’s, thankfully, not mine). No doubt, now that I have rediscovered the therapeutic effects of riding along a railway cutting in nearby Nugegoda, the age of rejuvenated enthusiasm is literally round the corner. Equally certain is the bump, crash, and thud that will come the next time I have to push this deceptively hard-to-manoeuvre monster down to the local “winkel” (as it is called – being Dutch for ‘shop’) for a minor repair or two.

So what does all this have to do with the price of vegetables? Why, everything – and nothing. If you are the prosaic sort of person to whom the cost of living is a balloon that goes up, up, and away… alas, the art of cycling will be a lost cause. You are a tough-minded cynic who knows only too well that no matter how much you carp and cavil, the cost of cabbage and cauliflower will only appreciate. But breathes there the soul with a fire so deep that a bicycle is every much the stuff of poetry as the bill of fare which covers the board from beef through beer through to big onions – ah, give me such a tender-minded philosopher in whose breast hope springs eternal.

To such as those of the latter temperament, the present pretty pass to which virtually all strata of society have come is but a rough interlude in a greater and grander story. They hark back to a past in which eggs were priced in cents and coconuts grew on trees (still do, snipe the sceptics). They envision a future in which the fertile island in which we live will be self-sufficient in rice and shall swim in tuna-thronged seas. They survive in the grim present because they have an uncanny knack of grinning and bearing other people’s misery. Yes, in the short space of a paragraph, I’ve changed my mind… Give me the realists any day, who know that the light at the end of the tunnel is the down train.

Point is, too many of us live in a cocoon these days. Propaganda about the well-being of the consumer society of which we are all in some small way card-carrying members is beginning to interfere with the welfare of our common sense. Politicians in every sphere – from parliament to the local pola – have persuaded us that there are good enough reasons why things are the way they are (in other words, why bread is Rs. 50 and a 365-day pass to the circus is free). People have started to feel that short of a miracle, things will only go from bad to worse. Pundits who prognosticate that matters will become a great deal worse before they become better are no longer stoned as prophets of doom, but hailed as daring visionaries. Perhaps we could all do with a reality check: tyres, handle-bars, chain, and all – and above all, brakes.

There is no better time than now to stop and ask a few tough questions. Is inflation being managed the best it can be? Are the planners and economists wrong about their projections and equations? What is blocking the blessings pipe… once euphemistically known as the post-war dividend? Who’s benefitting from our import-export policy? Is there a mafia in the marketplace which is making a killing off the poverty of the subsistence farmers? Why are the rich getting richer, the poor poorer, and the middle class shrinking? What is the price we will pay for living in a false golden age – when peace without justice in the farms, factories, and other fields of human endeavour has made us fat, unfit, and discomfited at the very mention of taking the government at its word? Time to ditch the new-fangled vision (don’t translate that) that doesn’t deliver; time to take the old bike that is rusting in the garage out for a ride; time to trash the spin…

Otherwise, in less than a generation, another war may be fought – not on ideological, but socio-economic, grounds. Again. You can’t preach abstinence, and austerity, and autonomy to folks with bodily hunger on their minds. Talk about vicious cycles. So praise the powers that be – but pass the butter around pronto!

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