We live in a time where “Change is Good” is a kind of mantra. But is it so ? Fashion can change and surely it does but if this change is imported into other spheres, will the result be always good ? I doubt and here I provide three examples, one from an Empire and one from a family story and another from the city of Calcutta.
Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire
Since the founding of Rome, it was the policy, later a convention, then a tradition that no land within Italy will be provided to anyone other than Roman citizens to settle. In her glory days, Roman ruling class were acutely aware of the strategic importance of the distance between assimilated citizens and the fresh barbarians (whom we call immigrants today). The policy continued for seven hundred years. Even Christian piety could not change this policy. However, in 7th century AD, when Valens was the Roman Emperor and Rome was proving the aphorism – Sic Transit Gloria Mundi, a barbarian tribe was allowed to settle in Italian mainland for the first time. It was a policy shift, it was change, it was radical shift as today’s newspaper would have called it. Three years from this policy shift, Valens was assassinated by the same barbarian tribe and Rome fell – a fall, in the word of her greatest historian, Gibbon – “..still remembered by the nations of the earth.”
Helping a relative in distress
Some twenty years back, A family known to me suddenly lost the father and there were three young children and the eldest being somewhat ten year old. Their mother was non working and the family dependent on monthly pension and some cash in the form of gratuity and CPF. They were in difficulty but could manage. A richer relative had a house – locked and it was decided to offer this house to them to stay at a very nominal rent. I was consulted by the rich man (who was distant uncle of mine) and I told him the story above. Then I recommended : instead of allowing them to stay in your home, you sponsor their stay in a rental home and ask them to try to generate supplementary income so that in near future, your support is no longer needed, otherwise this generosity will be considered an entitlement.
The cash outflow would be higher for the time being but you would avoid many future troubles and bitterness.
Like Valens, he did not listen to. He was too much moved by the distressed family and the tears of the widow and the children. He was a kind man and allowed them to stay in his home – a small cottage in a small town with a nice front yard and back-yard.
Today, after twenty years, the family now is much stronger – financially, socially through marriage ties and also being resident of the locality (whereas the kind yet foolish uncle was an absentee owner) and they would not move. The only option left for the uncle is to sell at the price they offer or knock the door of the courts which is exactly wanted by the settlers. One of the daughters told me, once – “this fellow (owner) is too greedy… he is asking too much money…. we had offered him a reasonable price but see, he still wants more. What can we say – people are like that nowadays.” They knew it and my uncle and his heirs, for all practical purposes had lost this particular asset.
Human nature does not change and hence there is some deep survival and existential truth in respecting conventions.
In a family, one can always ask the pioneer who is demanding a radical shift, generally between a father and son : “My dear fellow, I have passed my life in this traditional framework. I am not qualified to dismiss your proposal because its outcome is yet not fully known. You cannot also claim to know this fully for the same reason. Hence only question, that is left to you is this : do you want to be the first person to sign this document / do this act which no one did / did not for at least four hundred years of recorded history in our family ?”
The young radical now does not see an “abstract” problem but he in within the darkness of the problem.
The story is almost twenty years old when it happened. I happened to know a Bengali lady in Calcutta who owned at least four flats in the Eastern suburb of the city. She was a widow and had two boys who were graduate level students. I speculated both of them are classic “Bengali Mama’s khoka and babu” as she was only running here and there while managing her properties. In order to sponsor higher education of one of his sons abroad, she decided to sell one of the flats (with a tenant in) and I came to be one of the prospective buyers. My term at the negotiation was simple : I shall start negotiation with the flat being empty. She assured me that her tenant was very good man and he would surely oblige. I had told her that I did not think that this will be easy. She was little offended.
I visited the Housing Co-operative incognito and tested my hypotheses on three counts, based purely on human nature and my special and extra-ordinary knowledge about Bengali people :
- The tenant, a Bengali himself detected that the lady was virtually alone and his sons were either not-interested or incapable. Either way, they were not qualified to be owners and managers of the vast assets they were going to inherit. The mother, for reasons unknown had pampered them and in her motherly love, committed the cardinal sin of making one beneficiary without accountability. Nature does not respect this gross violation of her inner laws. The tenant did not move.
- The elders of this Housing Committee were not interacting daily with the owner but with the tenant. Moreover, in such committees, there were always jealousy of someone getting rental income. Thus their sympathy is bound to lie with the tenant and with some other interchanges between the parties, there was no one to impress upon the owner’s interest. The owner was alone, vulnerable and ready to be placed in a situation where she would be forced to make her choice rather than making a free choice.
- Subsistence is so easy in a fertile place like Bengal that if someone has secured a place to stay, one can have much less worries about life. Our landlady was holding such an asset and hence it was, relatively speaking and in Bengal context, extremely valuable, not as a trade-able asset but a resource to have a bandobost or settlement of life, which has a term too, aram se.
Our landlady, in her motherly love did not respect the convention : if you are heir to something, you have to work for it. You have to show by your deeds and words that you deserve to be a heir. Otherwise, it will be taken away from you – through subtle or brutal means.