The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Your word is valuable: Mean it, give it, keep it


The other evening, I met a professor from my college days. One who was kind enough to visit me in hospital when I broke my leg in three places in a motorcycle accident and was compelled to worship the ceiling gods for six months. On that visit, he kindly brought along a book to keep me company during my enforced hiatus.

That I repaid his kindness by failing to return the article in question he had entirely forgotten. Of course, I am hardly as gracious or forgiving when the boot is on the other foot, or the book in the other hand. Those who have begged, borrowed, or cadged precious tomes from me and failed in the matter of courtesy to return them know well that hell hath no fury like a book lender scorned. Mercy does not come into it. Mea culpa, mea maxima culpa.

Now I don’t mean to drag you into the sorrows of young Werther, dears, but there is something about us Sri Lankans that sets us apart – if only in our own minds. And failure to judge other people by our own standard is just one aspect of this queerness. Some of you will argue that this is very much in the nature of the beast Homo sapiens. And I’d be inclined to agree that humanity’s fallenness contributes in no small measure to such double standards. But cant and hypocrisy don’t quite cut the slice of the cheese I’m sniffing after today. It’s a wedge with a whiff of duplicity, to be sure. But also a sliver set on edge by pretence, false piety, and a peculiar moral failure. Observe what goes into the mix.

Ingredient No. 1: Deceptiveness – a girl asks her boy, “How do I look?” and the answer is always, “Fine.” Or a man asks his wife, “How long will you take?” and the answer is inevitably, “Soon.” Or a foreigner asks a local, “How is it?” and the answer is invariably. “Good.” With an indecipherable oscillation of the head that could mean “bad” or even “ugly”. We don’t mean to offend or outrage: we’re simply being polite and not paying too much attention to details.

Ingredient No. 2: Deviousness – a motorist stopped by a traffic policeman for speeding is always in a hurry to reach a patient in hospital, an emergency at home, or the funeral of her favourite family member. Even if the miscreant is young, free, single, with no work or familiar encumbrances, and is merely rushing to get ahead of the vehicle in front because that’s the way we drive.

Ingredient No. 3: Disingenuousness – a friend or a colleague or an acquaintance is told, “I will come” or “You can count on me” or “Take my word for it”; when we have no intention of going, being there, or honouring our commitment in any way.

I call this dish ‘discevious-ingenuity’ (from the three Ds above), a particularly Sri Lankan relish that is more consuming than consumed. For it compromises our national honour, integrity, dignity; making our island-race a people with a problem when it comes to punctuality, precision with details, and keeping our promises. One wishes that this weren’t so. But it is as it is as it is. The only Good News is that there is hope. For a change. For the better. That certain repentance, a metanoia, the radical transformation of the inner person responding to echoes of grace from an unseen world.

A Great Storyteller put it like this. “A man had two sons. He went to the first and said, ‘My son, go, work in the vineyard today.’ He answered, ‘No.’ But later he changed his mind and went. Then the man went to the other and said the same thing. ‘Yes, I will, sir,” he said, but did not go. Which of the two sons did his father’s will?” When I read and re-read this little gem, the wonder of being able to alter one’s life, course, and destiny enthral me. And in moments like that, I make well-meaning resolutions that I am sometimes hard-pressed to keep later. But this time, I think I mean it. I know so.

For starters, there’s that book in my apathetically overprotective custody for four dozen seasons. Dr WJ, I will return it to you on that promised visit, which is also long overdue. I give you my word. And I mean to keep it.

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