TRAVEL LESSONS  (Published in ‘Nest’ magazine)

Foreign travel makes me watch television.  I just cannot make the effort to turn on the television at home but in a hotel room it comes quite naturally.  Indeed, effort is often needed to turn it off.

Effortless pastimes are hardly ever entertaining.  But they can be beneficial in other ways, such as demonstrating what influences our worldview.  Television, for example, selects the things to which I should pay attention.  There seems to be some unrecognised agreement among the hundreds of options available at the press of a button, to dish up similar fare in different guises.  I am interested in working out who decides what to keep out of our sight.  But I haven’t so far succeeded in this.

Things available on show on a recent trip were interesting enough.  Selection of a successor to John Paul II competed for attention with a horrific train crash in Japan, American ‘sit-coms’, huge tracts of forest in Australia dying back for lack of rain, several men kicking a ball along interminably from one end of a field to another, cars running over and over at dizzying speeds along a circular track, giants trying to kill each other inside a roped-in stage and women with nearly identical figures sashaying up and down a ramp in clothes that they appeared able to change at incredible speed.

Once the effort is made to click off this bombardment of the senses, sleep doesn’t come easily.  For one thing the time doesn’t correspond to bedtime back home.  And for another, the images leave vivid traces in memory – traces that trigger thoughts.  One set of thoughts centred on the meaning of spirituality, the constant undercurrent of discussion about the Papal election, and the idea of sainthood.

The veneer of piety rubbed off, I felt, on the world leaders lining up to pay their respects to the newly elected Pope.  But I couldn’t spot one among them that I’d expect to meet in the Christian heaven, if ever I got to visit.  I admit though that I did not see all the leaders on show.  Many in the line of dignitaries appeared to me likely to have sided with those who wanted to do away with Jesus – had they met him during life.  But they seemed very comfortable hobnobbing at the Vatican.  The harm from organised religion, of all varieties, is its cosmetic sanctification of the worst faces of evil.

The lesson for me in all this was how the media and other institutions of power could make parody appear the truth.  The second lesson from enforced television viewing was on the making of heroes of individuals picked from the arenas of sports, music, cinema and politics.  In short, the entertainment industry.  This was not quite a new discovery.  But uncovering the subtle strategies used to make superhuman those selected as icons, while still portraying them as all too human, was educational.  I found also that television made the real world dull.  What, in everyday life, could compete with the anxiety of waiting to find out whether the victim in a bout of manic wrestling would come out alive?   Even more than the suspense was the effect of pace.  I wondered whether the normal world ran too slowly to engage the individual in tune with the world of television.

As sleep still eludes, there is time to think about why the fare that fails to rouse interest when dished out through the TV at home can now be so gripping.  Perhaps it is the lack of really interesting things to do in the hotel.  One cannot carry a library of books on travel nor can one effectively work in a hotel room.  Shopping takes little time and is anyway not a midnight pastime.  And if one is too old to party all night or to get about with realistic expectations of generating opportunities for immediate sexual pleasure, but still holds to the view that to pay for sex is a sign of desperation, what else is there but television?

So I learnt that TV is captivating mostly when there is nothing of interest in real life to compete with it.  Travel can indeed be instructive.

    August 2005



You can’t really be sure

that someone had a good life

until she is dead

I knew well before my mother, Gladys, died that her life was good.  Now that her life is over I can confidently conclude that it was indeed first-rate.

All of us are of course magically transformed into wonderful beings the moment we die.  Society ensures that individuals who regularly criticized or blamed us when we were alive change tune the moment they hear we are dead.  My mother’s life I felt was good in ways different from this post-mortem guilt-tinged cliché cleansing.

A good life is a happy life.  Gladys had lessons to teach on how to lead a happy life irrespective of circumstances.  It should be fairly easy to be happy when life is comfortable in every way.  (Yet many people who have an exceedingly comfortable life do manage to make a spectacularly unhappy mess of it.)  Looking back on the life that she lived, I wonder whether having to deal with varied and serious troubles made her life good.  She was never despondent for long, whatever undeserved hurt came her way.  I don’t recall her harbouring animosity to those that I felt had gravely wronged her.  Nobody could, even through seemingly vicious conduct, spoil her generous estimation of them.

She faced deprivation during a good part of her life, which she dealt with by working out stimulating ways to earn and by denying herself.  This she did with no bitterness or a feeling that she was being noble or self-sacrificing.  It was just the natural thing to do.  I cannot think of anything of even moderate value that she ever bought herself – a sari, a handbag or the simplest item of jewellery.  She managed all her life with whatever she got as gifts (other than for one article she bought for a close family wedding).  Despite the relative neglect of herself, or perhaps because of it, she was indisputably happy nearly all the time.

The lesson to learn from her is how to be happy at the core.  The secret may be to be born with the right disposition.  But that conclusion offers little hope for the rest of us, just as does the recognition that her creativity served as a superb antidote to gloom.  Among qualities that should be feasible to foster was her spirit of magnanimity and forgiveness.  I doubt though that I could become anywhere near like my mother on this attribute.

So is there nothing to learn from her astonishing ability to be happy, despite having to deal with much adversity?  A characteristic that we too may find useful to cultivate or work on was her attention to, and resulting fascination with, what was immediately presented to her senses – an unusual colour combination, the texture of a cloth, raindrops falling on vegetation, the taste of a fine chocolate, a novel melody or the croaking of frogs.  Above all was her total involvement with people.  Everybody was important.  She lived the lesson that being connected with and caring for others secures happiness.  I think this disposition accounted also for her resiliency.

She had quite a few visitors in hospital one afternoon, close to the end. Around her bed were a niece and grand nephews, other family and friends – some of whom were quite tearful.  One visitor, an impoverished ‘odd job man’ who often helped in her household, and whose name I will change to ‘Nimal’ to preserve anonymity, stood diffidently in the background.  All attention was on my mother who was propped up and coughing agonizingly from time to time in a futile effort to make breathing easier, speaking hoarsely with great effort and able to concentrate only for short spells.  I leaned over to listen to something she was trying to say.  ‘Talk to Nimal,’ she struggled to say, barely able to gesture at him with her eyes, ‘he is alone’.  Her drifting attention had chosen somehow to focus on this diffident man’s condition, even as her exhausted body struggled to keep her alive a little longer.  I want to remember these as her last lucid words to me.  They almost were.

 12th November 2007

CMJ (2007), vol 52, p 155



Medical doctors enter the private sector world in different ways. We are then said to have started ‘private medical practice’ or PP, for short. I was in PP, part time, for a little less than seven years and there I learnt a few things.

Among the most important of discoveries was what life is like when one does not have to think twice about spending modest amounts of money. A further advantage was that income came daily and not at the end of the month – pockets were never empty. This was good in Sri Lanka’s pre-credit-card days. If something affordable caught my eye, I did not have to pause to consider whether I had enough money on me. PP was liberating.

Sadly, modest purchases gradually lost value as cash became increasingly available. A larger vehicle gradually became a necessity. (My ascent on the motor vehicle ladder was only one tier up.)  A house in a neighbourhood known to be populated by the truly wealthy appeared a challenging next goal. ‘Investments’ and attractive insurance plans (as well as other scams that look reasonable when money is not short) also called. Costly leisure activities – including travel and varied pleasures for the senses – fell within reach. But there was little time to indulge as the increasing practice made more demands on time. And the pricey benefits began to feel less pleasing.

Despite diminishing returns for increasing income, the desire for a larger practice did not disappear. A hefty practice can come to be valued more for the status it is felt to give than the income it brings. It felt good to know that there were lots of clients (or patients) who wanted to see me, even after I no longer had pressing needs to fulfil with extra income. A strange wish may have lurked that others should know how many patients I was seeing, at the same time as not wanting to display the daily take. I suspect this was because, at least in the early days, the size of the practice felt like a measure of professional worth – an incidental indicator or how high I rated in the popularity stakes. I may have been using the demand for my services as a private indicator of where I rated in comparison with others in our field.

Many of the accompaniments of an increasing practice began to feel burdensome quite soon. The feeling that I was not getting good enough return for the time and effort spent was probably the biggest disincentive to continuing in PP. Another was the recognition that I never had the time for anything other than enforced formal obligations. Somewhere in the wings was the feeling that I was changing as a person in fundamental ways.

I’d feel that I was doing some person, agency or cause a service by giving five minutes – other than when there was payment for it. My time was always more valuable than the other person’s (this applied even then I was being paid for it by the patient before me). Relationships with colleagues at the university too had begun to change. All contributions to tasks outside of the essential everyday routine began to feel as if they were some form of imposition. I would be faintly annoyed with those who, say, didn’t cooperate in dealing rapidly with issues at a meeting.  The ‘busy private practitioner life’ required that I use all of the non-private practice time to complete things I’d otherwise have time for, after work. I wonder whether I had somehow begun to devalue the time of those who I felt were ‘less busy’ than me. I may have begun to feel that I was contributing more than others to my university because I rated my time at a premium.

All these realizations contributed to the steady growth of the impulse to try the experiment of quitting PP. How would it turn out? Preceding it was a trial of regulating or limiting my practice. That turned out to be way too complicated and the ‘limits’ proving illusory – undermined by numerous unforeseen counter pressures. Quitting private work began to appear worth a try and, in time, sensible. Being involved in helping smokers insightfully evaluate the pros and cons of quitting tobacco may have contributed to my decision to try a few years off private work.

Starting PP undoubtedly provided a sustained boost to my standard of living and resultant wellbeing. But suspending it some years later increased my wellbeing further.  I have not yet felt the urge to try the experiment of resuming private work – to check whether it will make life even better.



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