The power of generosity
Social experimenter Shanaka Fernando on life, lentils and how to achieve better health.
Shanaka Fernando grew up amidst major political unrest in Sri Lanka and was deeply affected by the social disparities that existed in his home city of Colombo. Living in his family’s compound where a wall separated them from the biggest slum in the city, he recognised the stark contrasts in the living conditions around him and developed an early passion for social justice. Founder of the ‘Lentil as Anything’ restaurants in Melbourne, where diners pay what they feel the food is worth, Fernando champions the belief that money should unite not divide. Here, Shanaka Fernando offers his insights on achieving better health, both individually and globally, and defining moments in his life.
For those people who haven’t been to one of your Lentil as Anything restaurants, can you describe what the experience is like?
Lentil as Anything is a restaurant with no set prices. You enter a restaurant and invest in a community. You are fed and cared for with the most generosity we can afford. This creates a culture of reciprocal generosity.
What is your definition of health?
Health is the ability to feel content and fulfilled. Health is also the passion for the adventure of life, away from the lures of convenience.
What can people do to help others achieve better health?
We should do what we can to make the people around us happy. Be encouraging. Be generous. Include your neighbour in your life. Laugh. Dance at the drop of a hat. Unlock your doors, turn off your television and go bee spotting in wet suits with someone you find irritating.
What do you think would make the world healthier?
The world would be healthier when everyone is given an opportunity to contribute their uniqueness to society. If the foundation of democracy is freedom and equality, then every door in society should allow people to feel this. Everyone deserves to be included.
How does sharing a meal contribute to better health?
In western society, food is a commodity. In villages and tribal societies, food involves the breaking of bread and is a gesture of our kinship. When we eat together, our differences enrich the occasion.
Has becoming a father changes your views on health?
Becoming a father has made me focus even more on my values. Good health sits on the top of that list. I wake up at 3.15 in the morning three times a week and jump on my bike for a 100 km ride. I finish it off with a swim on the bay. I am fitter now than I was at 18 years. Physical exertion and expanding the boundaries of endurance is an adventure I find addictive.
In your recent book you describe some of your travels - what have been defining moments that have evolved your views?
Encountering the Badui people in Java and noting their incredible resolve to be self-sufficient. They were free of the trappings of modern society and appeared to benefit from this. The Tau’t Bato people in the Philippines too were remarkable for their trust and generosity. They killed the fattest chicken they had to welcome me into their lives. Landing in Havana, meeting a man on the street and then three hours later finding myself in an attic bed with this man, his girlfriend and his girlfriend’s mother was a powerful gesture of trust.
If you could choose anyone to dine with you at Lentil who would they be and what would you serve?
Roger Federer- and I would serve at 200 km an hour… Just kidding. Probably, Julian Assange and I'd serve him something with leeks in it.
What would you be doing if you weren’t running Lentil?
I'd be walking it. Or throwing a bucket of ice upon society to wake it from its slumber.