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Category: Reflections Date: 07 Jul 02


You wouldn’t want to look inside any writer’s head. It’s a heap of fertiliser where seeds spring out of the most ordinary human experience.

 

Some wither, others take root to appear later, still others linger, forever hanging around doing nothing but torturing the brain. Most are blown away with time.

 

Like sperm, out of millions of ideas, only one or two actually survive, swim into consciousness.

 

Some lead nowhere, but have some merit as vignettes.

 

Take this. The sky was steely with dripping bags of clouds. It was humid. I was driving around doing chores. I felt as if I had put on the opposite of rose-coloured glasses - glasses that were too clear.

 

Caught in a jam, my eyes zoomed in on a barefoot, overweight, limping man who was carrying an adorable baby that blithely unaware of her father’s discomfort, bobbed up and down, curls flying cutely, on his arm.

 

I saw a young man fail to flag down taxi after taxi. His clothes were rumpled. He looked with hatred at passing cars.

 

I saw the tall, toothless vagrant woman who could have in her youth, easily walked some ramps, give up.  After being ignored by a man in the passenger seat who stared stonily ahead while she begged, she simply went and sat on the pavement, put a piece cardboard over her head and sat, staring.

 

I saw garbage floating on the streets.

 

On that day I didn’t see the pretty buildings, the posh cars, or professionals in suits. They became invisible.

 

What, I racked my scrambled brains, can I say about a limping, barefoot man carrying a baby? A young man who looked at cars with hatred? A vagrant who is too defeated to beg, and floating garbage?

 

I don’t know, except people like these are increasingly a part of our landscape.

 

No number of cell phones, no forecast of a mini oil boom, no amount of officious shuffling in high-ranking offices can wish them away, or prevent them from multiplying and multiplying until that’s all we see in the future, and everything else disappears.

 

And this seed against people who find it impossible to say ‘sorry’ or ‘I don’t know’ or ‘thank you’ has grown into a strangler vine and needs pruning, before it kills me.

 

I wrote last week of a night spent in the rainforest and a guide who didn’t guide us. I’m writing about him again because I can’t get him out of my mind.

 

The way he could have killed one of us because he couldn’t say, “I’m sorry, I don’t know.” And kept us walking along a steep, wet precipice in pitch dark.

 

The way, even after a night in the forest, he insisted he was right, and blamed our group instead. This, despite the fact that he walked with no map, no compass, and hadn’t done this hike in a year and a half, despite the fact that he took a wrong turn.

 

Now, anyone can take a wrong turn. But ask him to say sorry.  ‘What’s that? No Sir, can’t say ‘sorry’. You’ll have to torture and kill me first. The word (can’t say it) will make me feel small, will injure my pride’.

 

Is this not being able to apologise, even by educated people, a national malaise, a case of taking the words from the film Love Story too literally (‘love means never having to say you’re sorry’)?

 

The niggling thing about this guide was that he was intelligent, very well informed. He had probably been to university.

 

He cared about our fast rate of environmental degradation, lamented the lack of national or protected parks, protested that our beaches and forests are now game for industrialists who will replace them with cement and sewer.

 

But getting a ‘sorry’ and ‘I don’t know’ out of him was like extracting teeth from a dinosaur.

 

I want to tell him, (and everyone who has this disease) that saying things like sorry (and please and thank you) is not about losing your pride but about gaining respect, and showing you care about other people’s feelings. (And in this case, not killing them with your pride).

 

Final seed: Just today, I, like thousands of other parents in this country, registered a 10-year-old child in a secondary school.

 

My initial euphoria over his ‘first choice’ quickly turned to depression. Firstly, it made me feel old. His father was there. His grandfather was there. At this rate I will be sending great grandchildren to school in a day or two.

 

Secondly, the school is huge. Eleven hundred boys. A miniature Real World. My hysteria rises as I look around - drugs, violence, pornography. He’s only 10. I want to go to school with him, to sit outside the toilets to make sure no one molests him, to stand on the street outside with him, keep guard on the playground.

 

On the way into the registration hall, he gently extricates my hysterically clutching fingers from his. He is self-possessed. He looks at me with an expression as if to say (very kindly as one would to a slightly demented person): ‘Get a life’.

 

Oddly, his permission is liberating. There are better things to do in life than keeping watch outside a toilet in a secondary school.

 

Even mothers deserve the space to grow more than vignettes and vines.

 

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All Articles Copyright Ira Mathur