• Mohana Prabhakar

The question of potential

Updated: Apr 22, 2019

I almost felt I was British last week. All I did, all week, as you probably did, was talk about the weather: Strange weather we are having, looks like it’s going to rain, do you have rain at your end, I think it’ll clear up soon, I think we’ll have rain till next week, and so on. And I took my umbrella with me faithfully every day but didn’t open it.

The mood undoubtedly over the past week has been rainy. Just rainy, not gloomy. Yet as is always with the rain here, you wish you could enjoy the elements and wish for more without that twinge of guilt. You worry whether Al Nahdha Hospital will be flooded again, you worry whether some foolish people will yet again challenge the much stronger force of flowing water and need to be rescued; and of course whether another building has come up in a zone prone to flooding.

Rain also brings to mind that development can be strange and often confusing. I have lived in the same place for the last nine years and there has been a lot of development in my area. Old villas have been torn down and multiple villas have appeared in their place. Along with that, where we used to have to contend with one place at the bottom of the hill where it flooded, we now have two more where it’s deep enough for a puppy to mistake it for the ocean.

Surrounded as we usually are by an unchanging palette of indeterminately pale skies, it was exciting to see the potential of what could happen up there transform into reality. I must say here, potential is not a favourite word of mine. To me it’s a word that gives you the license of not having to necessarily perform at this time, or for that matter, ever.

The lesson took me decades to learn. It starts with my Grade 6, 7…Grade 12 class teacher, Mrs Sen, who disliked me intensely (for good reason). She also never forgave me for doing rather well in my final school leaving exam, against her rather Victorian-esque predictions of ‘eternal doom and damnation’. I got a certificate and a surprised pat from the Principal, and a book from Mrs Sen (Dostoevsky’s The Idiot) and a sotto voce remark: ‘Potential doesn’t matter, you waste your time.’

She was right. I couldn’t care less about studying, secure in the knowledge that if I needed to, I could do it. In my supreme arrogance, I thought I had shown her up by doing well in the exam ‘that mattered’. What I had done qualified as a flash in the pan, involving more luck than anything else and it was certainly not fulfilment of potential. I continued to waste my time in college and it took me another ten years to begin to understand what she meant.

When is the right time to go from being an entity with potential to an entity that performs? The answer: Now. Potential does not feed your family or country. It opens doors, but if you fail to translate potential into actionable plans, you have no one to blame but yourself. Wealth does not lie in that well of potential but in what you draw from it and use.

Living in a country that totally deserves its ‘Beauty has an address’ tagline, one thing that has always bothered me (and anyone who loves travelling), is that there are still no metered taxis here. A small thing, you say. Yes, as a standalone decision, it doesn’t mean much. But if it did finally happen, what it implies is surely of much bigger significance. Baby steps, that’s all it takes.

I still remember what influenced our decision to make Sri Lanka our next travel destination. Transiting through Colombo airport, we were blown away by our interaction with the airport staff at the ungodly hour of 4am, from the officers to the lowly security guards and shop attendants. The welcome was certainly a result of training, which is, but a tiny cog in the giant Sri Lankan tourism machinery. And yet it is this cog that made us want to explore Sri Lanka, and we have been back twice in the last 14 months.

I am really not trying to give potential a bad name. I believe in all the ‘unleash your potential’, ‘every moment has potential’, ‘you can do anything’ bumper stickers. Holds true for you, me and the world. I just don’t agree with potential being viewed as the endgame.

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