Saturday, March 31, 2007

Respice finem (5)

We perceive the things we covet in life as ‘wealth’ and for the better part of my life away from home, my wealth was ‘time’ and ’sleep’. Living away from home and having to manage my own affairs demands more than just the strength of will and good fortune. Having meals to cook, exams to pass and laundry to do and friends and family to keep in touch across the oceans, left room for only one variable in life – sleep.

Working as a waiter in inner-city Melbourne is now only a memory that I look back with nostalgia as one of the more wonderful experiences in my life. As anyone in the business of ‘customer service’ would find out on his or her first day on the job, the customer is always right and by implication, you are always wrong. Being a waiter was being at the bottom of the food chain. But even while I was wiping tables, filling buffets and carrying a dozen plates in one hand and their left-over food in the other, I could still appreciate the opportunities it presented me with to get to see and meet real people. Very few people, if any, would bother to put on a smile or consciously try to be polite to a waiter. So if someone treated me well, I knew that it was because they are actually nice people, and if they treat me rudely, I was always interested to know why.

I cannot over-emphasize the fact that it is often unfair to generalize observations about a nation or even an individual. However, I have to admit that at first, Australia struck me as a country that had a severe drought - not only in terms of the lack of rain which is still a matter of great concern in the eastern states, but also the lack of smiles on the faces of its people. Having grown up in a country where it was never hard to find a sincere smile on the face of a stranger - even among the poorest and down-trodden, I was disappointed at how many people here would be too cold and hesitant to return a smile. A significant proportion of smiles I saw on a regular day were found on the faces of tired shop assistants and I guessed that they were often cosmetic – it was either part of their elaborate sales and customer service strategy or they smiled because they thought I was paying them to do so. Working as a waiter though, I had the chance to meet the real people behind those cosmetic smiles, when they came for dinner at the end of their day. I would often talk to them about their work and about their lives and I could share with them experiences and thoughts from mine.

I soon came to appreciate the fact that “earning a living” was quite different from “making a living”. I had to do my own shopping and cooking. I had to manage my time, my own budget and savings, do my own laundry and maintain the state of the house at least in a way that made it a habitable environment for its occupants and a hospitable one for guests. It didn’t mater how long I had been working, what time I came home or what time I had to go back out. There were chores that had to be done, bills that had to be paid and meals that had to be cooked to avoid death by starvation. I was badly missing the feasts of good food and the people I was missing back home. This always made it particularly difficult whenever I had to spend Christmas alone on a hot summer day in the southern hemisphere watching TV.

Yet I had ridden on many hopes and dreams on my journey. I knew I did not have to fight the reasons that had laid many expectations on my shoulders, but chose instead to let them inspire and lift me to the heights I wanted to reach. My perception of learning and knowledge had indeed changed, but I was not naïve enough to dismiss the importance of doing well in exams and if nothing else, the commercial value of having a testimonial of my knowledge printed out on a piece of paper at the end.

Working part-time while coping with the pressure of studies and managing life on my own, I still had to be dependant on my parents all through my student life. However, I had always wanted to be independent much earlier in my life than I actually could and it bothered me. As soon as I found work, I decided to be independent at least in managing my personal expenses, but it did not take me long to find out how difficult it was going to be. I may never forget the day when I walked into the supermarket with my friend and found out that our combined ‘net worth’ was not enough to buy a loaf of bread, but I did not throw away my independence to use my father’s credit card. Looking back, I am proud of that day because I did not trade in my resolve for a loaf of bread. It also made me take my first step towards mastering the art of cooking a decent ‘Spaghetti Bolognese’, which we had for dinner that night instead of bread – with a touch of empathy for Marie Antoinette.

Monday, March 26, 2007

Respice finem (4)

I had left home three years ago, in search of a new experience and a new adventure. I sought new challenges that I had never faced before because I felt there was a lot left for me to prove about myself – to myself. Leaving the shores of home to enter university abroad was an old dream that I was finally actually walking into and I was pinching myself in disbelief.
When I left home, some of my friends had already commenced their university studies at home and I had heard their detailed accounts of the politics that they had to negotiate as part of their daily experience of university life. Therefore, I found the warm and festive welcome to university life that I experienced in Australia quite reviving. I cherished the chance I had to share my university experience together with students from many nationalities and backgrounds. I also felt lucky to be in a position from which I could appreciate the opportunities that lay before me and the will to use those opportunities meaningfully.
The celebrations however, did not last more than a week and the grinding routines broke in. It took me a while to realize the problems that were threatening the higher education system in Australia and to understand that the idealist in me has been forced to accept the fact that the world I have stepped into was never going to be perfect. With government funding for higher education being reduced every year, Australian universities are competing in the open market in order to be able to function and carry on with their research programs. Fee paying students are priced commodities in this highly competitive marketplace and universities place their highest bids especially on International Students who pay well over twice the amount of fees as local students. In a desperate bid to attract fee-paying students, some higher education institutions have willingly sacrificed their high entry requirements and academic standards and begun to trade in the intellectual wealth of a nation for more tangible monetary gains, just to remain functional – if not profitable.
If I was ever stretched to the limits of my ability or intellectual capacity during my tertiary education, that was more often due to my own carelessness or procrastination than as a result of a rigorous academic program. Yet I had access to all the resources I needed in order to broaden the horizons of my knowledge and understanding of the world. The Libraries overflowed with tools that I could use to tinker with my mind and the environment was conducive for the intellectual discourse of a broad range of topics that covered almost the entire spectrum of my imagination.
Living away from home alone as a student was probably the toughest and most educational experience I have had so far. There, I saw the world from a whole new perspective, the things that once mattered to me didn’t mater so much anymore. My priorities changed together with the things I valued and my expectations of life itself. One of the first lessons I had to learn in this new role as my own guardian was about knowing the difference between what I truly believed in and what I was made to believe, to distinguish good advice from bad advice and go back to my basic understanding of what was right and what was wrong. Each day would present moments that questioned who I was, and what I wanted to be, challenge me to live up to higher expectations while the very roots of my confidence were being shaken. I knew that these were challenges I have come in search of, but they also made me aware of the importance of faith and trust. Until then, God was a useful but mostly intellectual concept in my mind, but with greater awareness of my inadequacies and weaknesses in the face of adversities and challenges I had never had to face alone, I had to learn to rely on a higher power and to trust that everything will work out ok. Looking back, this was perhaps the most useful of all the lessons I have learnt.
When I left home, I was at the peak of my confidence; sure of my abilities and employability. But after three months of searching for part time jobs and being rejected no sooner than I had applied, my bank balance was running out faster than I thought. I almost broke down. I had lost all faith in myself and could see no reason to continue what I was doing. It felt so much like the time I was stuck in the thicket of thorn bushes halfway up on Hunnasgiriya with nothing else but two friends, unable to inch forward or turn back. I told myself that giving up was not an option and fought on, until finally, I got a job as a waiter at a restaurant.
Working as a waiter was definitely not the best job in the world, but it was one of the most insightful for many reasons. The culture and social hierarchy at the workplace was not what I had anticipated. I had to adjust myself to an environment where the hierarchy was not based solely on a person’s designation or the amount of authority he or she had over others. Each person was respected and valued for the contribution they made to the organization. I found the differences of this new social environment helpful because people weren’t judged by the title of their occupation, because there was no pre-assigned level of dignity or wealth associated with each occupation.
Almost all my co-workers who waited tables were tertiary students and I made more friends at my workplace than I did at University. My workplace was a hotel right next to the legendary Melbourne Cricket Ground and other major indoor sports facilities at the Melbourne Olympic park. I made it a habit to talk to my guests as I served them and was amazed to find a few famous names among them. My job gave me the opportunity to get glimpses into the lives of a wide spectrum of people ranging from sports personalities to circus clowns and farmers to chief executives during the time I worked there.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Priced words

"Money can't buy happiness but it can buy you the kind of misery with which you can live comfortably"

Friday, March 23, 2007

Respice finem (3)

Perhaps this journey actually started much earlier, on a quite walk to school around the misty Kandy Lake or in the silent chapel. Maybe I was completely transformed on the day that I found out what the word “introspection” meant. Even though I cannot recall the exact moment of its discovery, finding out that I could have an exciting, probing, painful and honest conversation with myself was, I think, a pivotal moment in my life. It happened while I was in school; at a time when one’s ability to dunk a lunch wrapper into a waste bin at the distant end of the classroom or being able to make a paper plane that would return to its point of origin was always considered a noteworthy accomplishment worthy of fame.

I was never prepared for my last day in school. We took silly bets on who would cry and who won’t. Hardly anyone won their bets that day. I wowed I won’t cry and I didn’t – until everyone started singing the school song inside the ‘cop room’ before we had to leave, knowing that we’ll never come back in our white uniforms. I am not particularly proud to admit this, but I don’t think I ever really left school. The friends, the stories, the tomfoolery and the fun still linger on in my days. I left school, armed with enough naivety and confidence, not merely to face the world but to change it.

It amazes me as to how things can change in such a short time, that within a few years, my outlook of life could change so much. That is why I feel this would be a good time to look back at the years of my life I have spent in preparation for life itself… to capture the magic of childhood in a time capsule and carry it along with me so that I may never forget that I was also a child once.

I loved writing and I wanted my writing to matter, so I came to the big city to write a long letter to a nation. I walked the streets of Petah on my first assignment and compiled a story on the Dutch Museum that never saw ink on paper, but things caught on. I had full days to hang around with some of the most insightful, creative and interesting people I have ever met. I had all the time I needed to write what I wanted… whatever I wanted. I spent a few months walking the streets of Colombo, grooving myself to the rhythm of the city and writing about whatever inspired me. I covered the occasional press conference and those became my first glimpses of the real world that I had just stepped into. Those few months still remains as one of the most creative periods in my life. The magic of writing never lost its power to lift me into an elevated sense of understanding and could magically move my heart to dwell in the thoughts and feelings of another. I continue to write with passion and enthusiasm and I always want what I write, to matter.

My first step into tertiary education was a combination of coincidence and a battle with time. For reason’s I can’t logically explain, I made an early decision while I was only half way through school that I wanted to go abroad for my university education. I was never sure as to why I made that choice or how difficult it was going to be. I didn’t even know whether my parents would ever be able to afford it. I commenced my degree in Colombo without a great deal of conviction that it is what I really wanted. The way it worked out was even more mysterious, but owing to countless sacrifices and hard work that my parents invested in my dreams, I got the opportunity to reach out to the world for a new experience and a new definition of knowledge.

My destination was Australia, the smallest and the driest continent on Earth. Astonishingly, I was yet again in the company of some of my close friends. I remember how I was picked up from the airport by my friends – jet lagged, yet excited - and taken on a brief tour of Melbourne before being taken home to a pepperoni pizza and a poignant and alarming letter welcoming me to the ‘life of the international student’. But my imagination that day could not capture – let alone understand – the true extent of its contents. The three years that has followed since, have broken and mended me, taken me through poverty and abundance and some of the highest as well as the lowest moments in my life.

As I stepped with adulthood into a Darwinian world were only the fittest and the most adaptable survive, I wished I would never forget the innocence, humility and foolishness that made me expect so much more from the world than it could ever give me. I wanted to know what made me believe so much more then, than reason, better judgement and experience would allow me to believe now. It often makes me wonder whether I have lost faith in this world or rather in my own ability to change it for the better.

Thursday, March 22, 2007


A friend asked me why I named the recent series of articles "Respice Finem".
I grew up in a school which had chosen "Respice Finem" as its motto, but it was only after I left school that I learnt its true meaning. "Respice Finem" means "Look back to the end" and many scholars have argued about what that could possibly mean.
The "end" it refers to is "death" and the motto – even though it may be too heavy for a schoolboy mind – is a reminder of our mortality and the last and absolute end of all our life's journeys and pursuits. It's a necessary reminder to most of us who are occupied with the various battles of our lives that we will surely die one day.
It may sound grim to the uninitiated, but I have not found a better, more concise piece of advice for life.

Wednesday, March 21, 2007

Respice finem (2)

Among those strange faces I saw on that first day at school, would be individuals who would become my closest friends. They have enriched my life and taught me much. I don’t know whether to feel sorry for myself at the thought, but the most unforgettable day in my life was the day I climbed ‘Hunnasgiriya’ with two friends. We did not take the beaten path, but decided to cut through the grass and jungle because we found the prospects more exciting. But the climb was tough and it did not take long for us to realise how dangerous it was. We assessed the risks as best we could and decided to carry on. It wore down our spirits at times, but we always encouraged each other and never gave up even though there were times when it seemed practically impossible to carry on any longer. We cut through impassable jungle with limited tools and crawled through pathways in the jungle that wild boars had carved through the thicket. Covered in dirt and mud, bruised and battered by the terrain, we pushed on. Nothing prepared us for the thrill of reaching the top and no words could describe the view. For me, the whole adventure remains, perhaps the most meaningful model of life itself. That climb has since inspired me at the most difficult of times in my life.

The mountains we climbed on our spare weekends and the forest trails we trekked, elevated and inspired us and shaped our view of the world more than we realised at the time. Whether it was fighting the leaches through Sinharaja, camping out in Hantana to get a glimpse of an elusive leopard, or looking for a rare endemic lizard species in Maussakanda, the friends who trekked with me and the shadows of those majestic trees have taught me much. Those steep slopes and waterways have left their cool imprint in my heart. I no longer look at a mountain or the sea as things waiting to be conquered, because I respect them now. They overwhelm and inspire me.

I still revisit the years I spent in school to bask in the warmth of some of the best years in my life so far. The friends I made there are scattered across many time zones now, yet they remain as loyal and faithful as on the day we parted. Classrooms were strange places where boredom and laughter mixed evenly, where friendships were consolidated, ideas exchanged, fights fought; punishments were given and endured and experiments succeeded and failed unpredictably. Time in the playing fields sometimes had to be endured but almost always sought after. The corridors between the classrooms and playing fields are still brimming with tales of mischief and lasting memories. The great halls bore many legends about those who belonged to the years gone by and the traditions and the legacy they passed on. They belonged to a history that we in turn had to make our own.

There still stands a majestic chapel which lies on granite pillars on top of a silent hill, with its neat lawn and calm pond lying beside it. It was our refuge, a place of solitude and beauty; the most perfect link between the earthly and the divine I can still think of. It was this landscape as much as the people in it that shaped my early life.

School is also the place where I had my first encounters with ‘competition’ in its many forms, even though I have to admit; I never really learnt how to compete. Perhaps I bowed out of competition because I couldn’t handle its stresses and perhaps I gave up without a fight at times. Perhaps I didn’t see the point in competing – or missed the point completely. Maybe I didn’t like the person I had to become to compete. There may have even been times when I failed even to realise that I had to fight and win to get what I wanted. Now I am about to head out into a world which is competing with itself. Around me are people competing for the best jobs, the best real-estate and even the freshest bunch of bananas in the supermarket and the best seats in the theatre. I was always made to work reasonably hard in whatever I did, but never had to compete for most of what I have got in life so far, so I am yet to find out the real cost of my inability to compete, or how long it will take for me to learn how to deal with competition.

When I was young, I perceived the role of education as a process of learning facts – the knowledge of which I thought would make me employable and thus secure a decent and comfortable life. Perhaps this was a fair assessment at the time because it kept me reasonably motivated to do my best. I count myself fortunate to have had teachers and friends who also taught by the very example of their lives and the way they conducted themselves. I was lucky to have been led into the wonderful world of books, the magic of music, the glory of a mountain top and the beauty and timelessness of starlight. I am thankful to those who taught me that knowledge is not found in books alone, but also in timeless traditions, in men and women with grey hair and wrinkled skin. I was taught how to peel away the layers of my own understanding and thoughts to uncover the knowledge hidden within. I no longer search for knowledge as a means of securing a job and a comfortable life. I now see knowledge, not as an entity that can be conquered or possessed, but just an awareness of the deficiencies, desires and voids within myself. Now I seek an education that will help me rectify those deficiencies, grow beyond my desires and understand emptiness as well as fulfilment. I feel that the most I can ever hope for in life is a simple and lasting source of happiness and contentment. There are things that matter more than what I accomplish or how the world perceives me.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007


I cannot hide the smile in my eyes, because I know you are with her again. We mourned her together – you and I. I will forever remember the tears I saw in your swollen eyes even on bright and sunny days – especially on those days, but now those tears are mine. I weep silently in my room, but I weep for myself and my own loss, even as I smile for you. I remember the fireflies we caught in glass jars, so many years ago. Once you knew that the wonder and magic of the world was imprinted in my heart, you let them fly back into the night with their soft green lights. I miss your soft light in my life and the love with which you taught me many hymns and choruses. I miss you more than I can grieve and my grief is deeper than my well of tears. Today, I am shattered and disgusted with myself for the first time in my life. Even as you have always taught and inspired me, I feel I have betrayed the very essence of all those lessons. Have I become a symbol of the decadence of all those values you stood for? I curse my own helplessness that has isolated me and taken me away from my loved ones. I wish you were here because you always knew how to simplify life – the very act of living. I cannot resurrect you, but help me honour you by resurrecting the thoughts and the spirit you embodied – that I have buried. Come back to me even in the words of a hymn we sang together or in the smell of a tea leaf, to remind me of the depth of love and the love for life… dear wise man with grey hair.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Pursuit of happiness

It’s almost too simple to call this a discovery, but I think what every one of us seek in life ultimately, is a simple and sustainable source of happiness. Some may call it “contentment”, others “fulfilment” or even “enlightenment”. Whatever it is called, it has to be simple because happiness by definition is simple - complexity leads to confusion which in turn makes us unhappy. The happiness we feel when we indulge our desires or in power or possessions is difficult to sustain because it is often not the object of our desires that makes us happy but the process of accumulating it. Power and processions have a definite shelf life and their value depreciates over time. They also involve complex economic and political factors that are impossible to manage - let alone be sustained. I say "sustainable" because happiness is not everlasting. Life obviously has its ups and downs and sadness is a necessary contrast that accentuates happiness. A sustainable source of happiness is one that you can rely on - count on - fall back on and depend on.
According to my outlook on life, I feel that the simplest and most sustainable source of happiness is found in people – in the faithfulness and love of family and friends… money and a good career are important as long as they are necessary to support them. But in pursuit of one, it is so easy to loose track of the other, and often I have found that self-sacrifice and service are integral components in the foundation of happiness. It is ironic, but often we find happiness in sacrificing our own happiness for another. I believe that the heart alone can lead us to happiness and for that, we have to be sensitive enough to hear its subtle and silent voice. To betray the heart is to betray all meaning and significance of our very lives. Yet it often takes more courage to heed the silent guiding voice of the heart – without drowning it in desire and clouding it with the opinions and aspirations of others.
I think I will face the test eventually, of balancing my heart’s desires with a sense of duty and responsibility to others whose lives are intimately intertwined with mine. At least I now have the confidence in knowing that I have a rough idea. The highest wish I have for myself and everyone else is that our lives may be filled with moments that make us feel “truly alive” – whether by a sincere smile, a whole-hearted laugh, a tear, a hug, by the sweetness of a kiss or the deep and overwhelming yearning that makes us reach ever further out into this beautiful world and its wonderful inhabitants.