I am not overly fond of politicians. If I were to be brutally honest, I’d say I am not fond of them at all. Needless to say, in my life so far, I have never, of my free will, seen the insides of a polling station. Nor do I plan to. Be that as it may, quite a few of the present crop of leading politicians of all colours and agendas are my friends. Some of those are stimulating company when removed from their political ecosystem and placed in a less um…unnatural habitat. Preferably one where the keystone species is beer.
One evening about a year ago, as I stepped out of the Strategic Enterprise Management Agency (SEMA) where I work to get a tuk to take me home, I ran into one such buddy of mine. In fact, he almost ran me over in his luxury four-wheel driven jeep. Since it had been a good two decades since we last met, we exchanged a few glad ‘haloos’ before our organic next move to one of the exclusive watering holes that dot the Colombo Fort area for a bit of “what do you think will happen with that?”, a lot of “whatever happened to him?”, a bit of “who did what to whom, how many times, where and why, last Saturday night?” and of course, the ever present “what are you doing these days?”.
The only difference I see between you and me is the difference of a seat, and bro that difference is so negligible to me that I would be crazy to sell my soul, country and people to acquire it
As I casually started to outline my work in policy, corporate strategy, sustainability, film, music, environment, industrial research, adult education, agriculture, child development, geospatial mapping, journalism, anthropology, consumer affairs, knowledge management and spiritualism, sharing some stuff off of my laptop while I was about it, his jaw started to slack and his eyes began to pop. At the end of that ten minute exposé of my particular brand of insanity, he burst out, “Yeow! you must be getting paid millions for all of this”.
I closed my laptop and took a sip of my drink to give me time to consider that statement. Then, I carefully set my glass down and equally carefully queried, “Is that your measure of its worth?”. His eyes flared up for just a moment before his rather sharp retort“Is there any other measure that is worth considering?”.
I shook my head. How to explain? How to tell him that I was waiting for a tuk and not a limo when I met him? How to tell him I was going back to my small rented apartment and not to a mansion at an upper tier address after my drink with him?
There was no way open to me so I merely said, “no machan, most of that is done for almost no financial reward but I am quite happy doing what I am doing for it helps a lot of people even though they do not even know it”. I leaned over and whispered my monthly take-home to him and the poor fellow was aghast. “Let me get this straight” he said. “You, work for SEMA, at the President’s Office, and that’s all you get?”. I mildly said that I don’t work for any particular organization but rather, that I work for the people through many organizations but such was his irritation that the distinction flew right by him. He was pissed off on my behalf and I let him vent. After ranting for a few, almost belligerently, he asked “What do you have to show for years of effort?”. I shrugged and replied softly, “I am happy”. “Yeah? But you cannot eat happiness, nor pay bills with it”. “Sure, I need a minimal amount of cash and most of the time, I make it” I conceded. “Most of the time eh? MOST of the time?”. I shrug. “There are times when it is a real battle to clear the housekeeping but I am not going to be unfair by those who unfairly do not pay me”.
With the ever-increasing decibel levels he started slamming me with the vocal product of his unbelieving, apoplectic outrage. My responses became inversely softer. For a moment there, I got the distinct feeling that he thought I was fibbing about what I do in life. He asked me if I knew the demand-supply equation and I brushed that aside saying that I was a money market analyst who ran the English version of the financial analysis for a while. He asked me whether I was aware of the concept of stability and risk and I shunted that into the dustbin saying that I have executed actuarial work and was an M and E expert. He asked me if I knew about macroeconomics and profit optimization and I dissolved that by stating that I was an enterprise strategist. Finally, he ran out of both steam and sound. He stopped. Exasperated. Lowering his voice to the level of mine he said “Arjuna, you are a nice bugger, but where the effing hell is the growth?”.
You have a multi-room mansion and I have a two room apartment but neither of us have multiple bodies so we have to put ours in just one room
I had my opening. “Bro…” I said gently. “You have four SUVs and two beamers to take you to the ministry but only one backyard so you can park it only on one seat in one vehicle. You have had to lie or connive or cheat or steal or get into debt to sit in it. I hire my seat for the purpose from either a bus operator or a tuk-tuk driver. The only difference I see between you and me is the difference of a seat, and bro that difference is so negligible to me that I would be crazy to sell my soul, country and people to acquire it. You have a multi-room mansion and I have a two room apartment but neither of us have multiple bodies so we have to put ours in just one room and I am not at all worried about the condition of that room and certainly not going to pay for opulence in either soul-coin or fear-dollars. Your bedroom probably has the plushest of fittings to help you get your eight hours of sleep each day. I sleep four hours a day and for three and a half decades, I have slept on the floor; mostly without even a mat. I do not sleep a lot but I sleep soundly when I lay myself down.
Do you? Despite your industry-sized wardrobe, ultimately only one garment covers you and my few clothes do precisely the same thing and the difference is merely cosmetic. I eat only when hungry, not because it is time to eat and I have been known to eat kroten salads and durian shell curry and see no difference between them and gourmet meals at seven star establishments which are your default sources of sustenance.”
He fish-eye goggled me. My flat-voice continued. “I am not unique in this respect chum. I am fortunate in knowing many who live rooted in the ground. Uncommonly sober in their needs and wants. People who have no trouble using a root for a pillow if they find themselves in a jungle or happily walk when stranded in uncharted lands. People who think nothing of making clothes out of rags or making meals out of scraps and leftovers from a dozen homes. Catapult them into the sky and wherever they land, they will get a song for their ears and a smile for their souls. If they wish it, they will also get a meal for their bellies and a roof over their heads. With all your wealth, power and pelf, can you so claim? You ask about growth. Well, those types of people have grown their ecological niche to massive proportions, whereas yours is narrower than a worm trail. Push comes to shove friend, not you, but they, survive”.
It was his turn to shake his head.“Machan, I really cannot say anything to you”. I felt for him. He was a nice guy and I truly hated what I had just done to him, so I laughed disarmingly.
“So, what will you do? Since you are cauterized in what you do best and rendered speechless, would you care to listen to me instead? You see, what I have to tell you is not for my gain but for the good of us all”.
He sighed and stood up. “Let’s leave that for another day shall we? And with that, we tossed off our drinks and stepped into the night.
I eat only when hungry, not because it is time to eat and I have been known to eat kroten salads and durian shell curry and see no difference between them and gourmet meals at seven star establishments which are your default sources of sustenance
He couldn’t really offer me a ride after that conversation and as we stood in awkward silence on the curb he blurted into the night, almost as if needing self-assurance “we all do what we all do because wealth and power and fame will give us happiness”.
I nodded. “Yes, but wealth never led to happiness bro. Rather, happiness is wealth”.
We shook on that difference and parted. Him in the direction of his fast approaching luxury four-wheel driven jeep and I, towards an equally fast approaching tuk.
(For a more rigorous elaboration of Buddhist Economics which underlies and underscores these points, please visit my blog arjunareflections.blogspot.com)