A recent public speech by an old boy of a school by the sea has begun to inspire me. But probably not quite in the way its author intended. This stalwart had the rapt attention of a far more youthful audience in his brief but shining hour. It was the district assembly of a schools [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

An alternative dream of success


A recent public speech by an old boy of a school by the sea has begun to inspire me. But probably not quite in the way its author intended. This stalwart had the rapt attention of a far more youthful audience in his brief but shining hour. It was the district assembly of a schools social service club, and the man of the moment was a relatively young and accomplished head of what is often called “a media empire”. He was junior to me “in college”, but our paths have crossed many times in the market square of corporate Sri Lanka and down the corridors of sundry media houses. He has my admiration for his achievements to date, and now my ears… and his peroration was very much along the lines of “friends, Romans, countrymen” – albeit to student (not socio-political) addressees.

My erstwhile compatriot’s point was timely and appropriate to a demographic that is often described as “the citizens of tomorrow”. Drawing from national history and personal experience, he painted on a poignant canvas the past, present, and future potential of the youth of our nation. History, he said unequivocally, cannot – and must not be allowed to – define us. Hard work, he averred, can – and must. Hope in an emerging Sri Lanka that is being shaped in the classrooms and playing fields, and not in cabinets or parliaments, was the main theme of this virtuoso orator’s delivery. (As you can see, his eloquence has made me descend to a purple-prose plain from the lofty mountain grandeur, from where I – courtesy his thoughts – had espied a beatific vision of an all-new land…)

Now down to earth! I don’t enjoy having to question or to quibble. But I feel I must… just a wee bit! And then a tad more! Because we have been down the bright, shining path of self-driven, self-made success before. And see where it has got us? Some of us are too big for our boots, and far too strong. That makes it true for all of us that we all but worship a personality-based leadership cult of our own making. It is a big, burst-able, combustible bubble. It is a dream that has been stolen from idealistic visionaries like my dynamic friend and sold to charlatans, Colombo schools, corporate Sri Lanka, citizens thinking in English, corrupt politicos milking opportunistic hay (pardon the mixed metaphor), communities overseas which misunderstand our civilization (mind your language), captive audiences who don’t know their right hand from left…

This dream has it that hard work alone will make you healthy, wealthy, and wise. That history and our collective consciousness are malleable goods that can be bent and shaped to meet noble if somewhat utilitarian ends (“the highest good of the highest number”). That pure reason and perfect will trump genes, hostile environments, daunting personal experiences, bad blood between brothers, a host of other obstacles – as easily as saying “remember to set the bar high”. The reality is that some of us – and I dare say a good majority of our model mentor’s intended recipients of such an Olympian ideal – are not going to make it good. Not with the way things are – with the dice being loaded against the average, the common or garden, the mediocre; by the spoiled, supremely wasteful, and self-indulgent super-brat rat-pack of second-class citizens currently ruling their parents’ respective roosts. You know whom and what I mean. Take your pick of any number of miscreant super-political progeny. Some of them still schooling, others just out of it and into café society.

In this context, I sympathise with my tender-minded friend. He is noble, anxious to model and instil in his protégés a still more excellent way. And he can afford to preach it, pounding the pulpit (as he did) on rising to higher and better things on the dead self of ambition and aspiration; for he has blazed his own meteoric trail in this regard. One begs to point out, though, that he is demonstrably an exception; that not more than a handful of the eager hopefuls he addressed stand a chance of making it to the real big time – truly, purely, and fairly – under the present dispensation. Or, realistically, that a bar has been set in stone; or a ceiling in concrete; or so it seems.

A case in point is the challenge issued by our eloquent spokesman with reference to his ‘ethnic identity’. The son of a Jaffna Tamil gentleman and a lady of mixed southern-Sinhalese and Burgher ‘blood’, himself a Christian and his wife a Muslim, he challenged his interlocutors to define what ‘race’ his infant son is, was, will be. The proud and patriotic father insists that it is nothing but “Sri Lankan”. We all cheered: his real and virtual audiences thrilling to the genuinely good, if not great, grandeur of such a vision. Not a true Sri Lankan would not vote readily enough for that young child as president one day (a fond father’s wish) – if he grasps, owns, and applies his pater’s evident passion for a unique, race-less, island unity; if he works as hard as his father has evidently done, and shapes his personal history well in the face of a less-than-salutary national history.

However, with the state of the nation being what it is today for young achievers and aspirants to national-level political leadership, I’d rather have young leaders like him teach honesty, humility, and compassion – over hard work, highly misplaced ideals, and a changeable historic legacy. I’m sure our hero would agree. He’s enough of a realist to know that happy are they (young and free) who call no man, movement, machine, or monument “master” – and are moved to tears by the simplest republican virtues (now lost). Because too many of our followers have been reduced to tears by the “hard work”, steely reason, and cold pragmatic will of a cabal of leaders in collusion with “progress”.

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