Confronted by Class
The problem with being classist is that you run the risk of missing out on most of humanity.
To say it another way, you know you are a classist if you only hang out with people just like you.
On a recent trip to Sri Lanka I was once again confronted with the unavoidable phenomenon of class in the world.
My family stayed in a villa just north of Galle. It was a luxurious villa by most people's standards.
The villa was slap bang in the middle of a poor area where the horrors of the 2004 tsunami still lived large.
Labour was seemingly cheap and the villa was packed with six staff members. They waited on us hand and foot — and always with a smile.
Dinner, lunch and breakfast, we had waiters and cooks and orderlies hovering to attend to our every need. They were happy to treat us like colonial overlords — so long as we gave them a generous tip.
If a quid pro quo exists, it's easy to get the classes to touch.
However, somebody broke the social contract.
One of the workers was a thief. I happened to walk in on the man rifling through my wife's wallet. He was busy extracting about one month's salary worth of US dollars when I walked in.
It's the way people have been bridging the class gap since time immemorial.
It probably cost him his job. The neat class arrangement of the villa was shattered. How would the classes react?
"I see Sri Lanka beat England at cricket yesterday," I remarked the next morning in the kitchen.
Worker number one's eyes lit up. I was talking his language.
"Yes, sir! Very, very happy!" He beamed.
"Eranga [name of the Sri Lanka cricket hero] won the match in the dying seconds," I continued.
He was surprised I knew so much about his team.
"So good, so good," he gushed, exhausting his glossary of English adjectives — but his face wore a thousand superlatives.
"You like cricket?" the man stammered.
"An incorrigible addict," I said with a smile.
"We have ball and bat." It was half tentative, half hopeful.
"Summon the staff, we play at 4pm!" I responded.
And so it began.
At first there were just the four of us: my brother-in-law and I versus two Sri Lankans.
Cricket is an obsession in Sri Lanka. To indulge in the national passion — while on the job — is the ultimate guilty pleasure.
Then the security guard began a patrol in earnest around the field (which was the garden) eager to be part of the action. Then the cook joined. Then another waiter. Soon all six of the staff members were on the field — batting, bowling, catching, laughing.
The lunch waiter served up a juicy full toss. I smashed the ball over the wall. He smarted. Honour was now at stake. This meant war. He got a look in his eye that said it was better to lose your tip than lose at cricket.
At last we had perforated the superficial.
He bowled again. He got me out. He beamed. His pride soared. Honour was restored. All's fair in love, war and cricket.
It was about at this point that it dawned on everybody that we were all having the experience called collective fun.
We cheered when the one took a dive catch. We guffawed when the other tripped and fell on his backside. We applauded when another smacked the ball on to the roof. We roared when my brother-in-law took a one-handed catch while speaking on his mobile phone. We chuckled as the other nearly over-balanced into the pool trying to retrieve the ball.
Everyone loved it. We could barely converse in English; yet we were fluently speaking a common language. For an hour and a half the rules of class were suspended and the sordid theft became a forgotten footnote of history.
The world categorises people into neatly packaged classes, but opportunities abound to enjoy all of humanity. Common ground is never far away — you just have to look for it.
The human heart craves the depth and breadth of humanity. Shared humanity is the best sort, for we can only be human together.
That night I fell asleep smiling, yet firmly reminded that all men are created equal — an inalienable truth that I can either fight or enjoy.