By Uditha Devapriya –
There are days when I run out of ideas and topics to write on. Those are days I suffer from creative blocks, on account perhaps of drowsiness or the languor that a full stomach tends to invite. All it takes to get out that block is a quick perusal of my bookshelves, a random flip-through of a book I’ve just finished reading, but sometimes even that method never works out. That’s when I stray from the usual topics I like to write about and instead read what other writers and bloggers from here have come up with.
The other day I fell into such a block, and after hours of reading and thinking and still not coming up with anything to ponder on, I decided to browse the web. Browsing through several sites brought me to Malinda Seneviratne’s blog and an article he wrote recently, “Elders of the world relax, the kids are fine.” Rather tellingly titled, I felt.
The article was basically about how young people prefer to look beyond ethnic and communal rifts when celebrating or protesting a particular course of action taken by authorities, in this case the deforestation underway at Wilpattu. There are those who feel that more important issues are ailing our polity in far more insidious ways and I would be inclined to agree (no one, for instance, talks about the deliberate robberies and thefts from the electorate perpetuated by the leaders that make possible something like Wilpattu), but for the time being let’s forget that. Let’s instead focus on the crux of Malinda’s argument: that the young who converged about a month or so back, at the Viharamadevi Park, to campaign against the destruction around the Forest, were far more perceptive about the communal-less-ness (I have invented a term there, I know) of the issue than their elders, who on the one hand were accusing the Other of encroaching on their property and on the other reacted defensively to this allegation with the claim that Wilpattu has housed their kind for years. It’s an argument that merits scrutiny for more reasons than one.
The old call the shots. For that reason, what they say of the young in whatever sphere the latter operate in – politics, literature, music, drama, indeed the arts in general – are generally disseminated, promoted, and affirmed by the majority through the press and mass media. The idealism of the committed, who almost always happen to be young, tend to drives me a little crazy for this reason, since I have been conditioned by the old to accept the weariness and the disillusionment that goes with the passing of time: sooner or later, according to these elders, that youthful idealism congeals into its own opposite. This is as true for our young musicians as it is for our young politicians, who creep in with the promise and hope of doing something new, anything new, and to trump the conventional wisdom. They want to rebel by being pop revolutionists. How do they become pop revolutionists? By letting go of any desire to be committed to anything. These are the rebels that the sixties and the seventies bred, the flower power youth. We are seeing a resurgence of that flower power youth, here, right now, everywhere.
Should we be worried? Yes and no. I have reason for hope and reason for lament. Before getting to the latter, though, let me come out with my rationale for hope.
I am sincerely emboldened by the new Youth Spring that’s taking the country’s polity by storm, be it the Viharamahadevi Park protest against the destruction in Wilpattu or the countless and frequent protest campaigns conducted against otherwise politically tainted issues like constitutional amendments and the bond issue. These are remarkably less politically motivated than, say, the demonstrations against unfair pay hikes, discrepancies between the private and the public sector when it comes to medicine and education, and laws and regulations curtailing trade union action. And why? Because the latter, regardless of the idealisms of their provocateurs and agents, always turn out to be exercises in protests that are aimed at procuring monopolies and benefits for those provocateurs. The Youth Spring is considerably different, therefore more welcoming.
What of my reasons for worry? Call me conservative, call me outdated, but I simply can’t see this “Spring” as anything to seriously reckon with in the long term. I know some of the people who attended the Viharamahadevi protest and that less than half of the participants come from the Kolombian subset which is satisfied with candle vigils that go nowhere. These youngsters are hence committed, and not to political groups or ideals.
Regardless of my reservations about what transpired after the January 2015 election, I am encouraged by the fact that the mainstream political parties (well, the UNP more than the UPFA, but let’s forget that for the time being here) consciously engaged with the young in a way that left the young in a state of disillusionment after those First 100 Days. It’s that sense of disillusionment which helped them become a class of their own, or to be more specific, become committed pop revolutionaries free of old political affiliations. And yet, even with this tide of youthful idealism, I am worried by the fact that it may well be a temporary phenomenon. It’s roughly the same story in other countries.
And it’s also roughly the same story in the arts. If we have never progressed beyond the old masters – in the cinema, in music, in dance and drama – it’s because there’s always a disjuncture between the young rebel’s desire to defy what those masters did and the material needed to validate that act of defiance. When a particularly ambitious young singer lampoons the personal life of an established musician, he gets crucified, not by the old, but by the young (the reactions and comments that such works of art glean from his fan base indicate this only too well), and when another ambitious young singer sidelines another master with the remark that there are better singers from his age, he gets crucified again by the young. You see the point I am making here: pop revolutionaries, no matter how zealous they may be, don’t seem to have what it takes to transform defiance into cohesive action plans. That’s the contradiction at the heart of our youth today.
Are our youngsters “disconnected” from their surroundings? The old seem to think so. The last few years, however, have taught me otherwise. They may appear to be indifferent and informal (they have progressed in the way they address elders, because to them everyone is an aiya, an uncle, an auntie) but that is because they believe they know everything, so much so that they are willing to look beyond problems and realities to make way for their own solutions. To them, hence, the problems of destruction and deforestation at Wilpattu are a sign of political apathy, and not racial discord. To me those problems are remarkably and unfortunately different, because racial discord has become a living, material reality: no one can escape it, and no one can ignore it. But the allegation that this indifference to such discord makes the young uprooted from their reality is, at best, misconceived and a result of what we, the elders, think to be the correct attitude to such problems. The young are not disconnected, they are not indifferent.
I rarely write about the young to this paper because I too, because of my conservative streak, believe that there’s nothing serious to write about when it comes to them. But that doesn’t mean I haven’t written on them at all: the various events that school clubs and societies organise, the music concerts, the photographic exhibitions, the book stalls and quiz competitions, I have gone through in this newspaper. These are all handled by a demographic that has, thanks to social media, and to the multiplicity of voices (never constant, always on the move) that YouTube and the blogosphere has brought about, is becoming more powerful in the country. These youngsters, from that demographic, are supremely confident of what they believe in. They may be erroneous, fundamentally wrong in their assumptions, but I feel that their beliefs are to be welcomed.
I’ve had the pleasure of meeting schoolchildren who dabble in poetry in ways that trump and stimulate my imagination. I’ve had the pleasure of meeting schoolchildren who listen silently and reverently to elders who chastise them and then succinctly point out where they are wrong, often to their faces, if not to me. They have become emboldened by a false consciousness of their own strength. A false consciousness, because it’s buttressed by what they read, often do, but all too often engage in online. The internet and social media has democratised opinion, so when youngsters come across those opinions, they tend to be suave and smug, thinking they know everything they need to know. This attitude of being overconfident can in the long term be its own descent, but I see, particularly in those who can be referred to as street-smart and book-smart (i.e. those who think and do at the same time), a new hope for the future. They are friendly, ever eager to accommodate, but they can also get testy and sceptical when they are questioned unfairly.
So yes, perhaps Malinda was right. Perhaps the elders should be relaxing. Perhaps they already are. Either way, we get the point: however smug and smart they (think they) are, the young can carve a different part, one free of political and communal parameters.