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Notes on things seen and heard


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Untitled-1However insignificant, everything around us tells a story; the temper of our times, the nature of the people, their abilities, attitudes, tastes and many other things. A speeding vehicle knocks down a pedestrian, a politician enters a public place, a man goes to a foreign embassy to apply for a visa, a citizen reports to court that there is a squatter on his land; in all these and other such situations there is a predictability, the likely scenario; unique, very culture specific. 

These are not to be dismissed as mere human reactions or foibles common to all, for the response to the stimuli vary from one society to another, from one era to another, from one climate to another. In a given society, the reaction to the provocation seems inevitable; that is the only way, and there is no other way. Our karmic inheritance has set the stage, firm and unyielding. We go from experience to experience, like the changing scenes of a moving picture, pre-set, pre-determined, yet for the movie goer each moment, new and exciting. 

Railway pass

There is an elderly, god-fearing man known to me, late sixties perhaps, on retirement now working as a store keeper for a small company. He travels to work from Nittambuwa, where he resides, which means a day starting very early, maybe 4 a.m. Every morning his wife prepares a packet of rice and curry which he carries to work. I believe that his children are independently settled and the parents determined not to be a burden.

One day he approached me with a request to have his signature on an application form for a monthly “season ticket” attested. The form was detailed and had his photograph attached to it. I was astounded that in this day and age a man wanting to get a month pass to travel on a very basic transport system had to go through so much trouble. 

In most countries these passes are obtained over the counter. Even where some authentication is required, the process is simple. Any business will be happy to receive payment in advance, for a service to be provided only later. In fact such passes are actively promoted and there is no compelling reason for the commuter to go through an abject authentication process such as this.

On probing further I soon learnt that what appears as simple bureaucratic buffoonery is perhaps the outcome of vastly complex and illusive subliminal codes, hammered deep into our national psyche by the collective experiences of life in a peripheral country; poverty, hopelessness and a culture inclined to undermine individuality, self-worth. 

The standard day train fare from Nittambuwa to Colombo and back is approximately Rs. 70. This is extremely low-priced, considering that for a three wheeler the starting fare even for a short distance is Rs. 50. On the other hand, the monthly train season my friend wanted to obtain is only about Rs. 800, i.e. the cost of 10 days return fare from Nittambuwa to Colombo. By the standards of other countries, the season ticket is irresistibly economical. For a person who has to make the trip anything more than 10 times a month, it makes good economic sense to get it. 

But why the impossibly long-winded procedure of form filling, photographs and attestation for a mere season ticket, which after all is only Rs. 800? There is no denying that the system designed by the Railway service is extremely oppressive for the commuter, and cumbersome even for the service provider to administer. That a system can disparage their customers in this manner while at the same time putting itself at considerable administrative difficulty, is inconceivable in today’s world. 

Our Railway service has been identified as one of the largest consumers of public funds, making huge losses annually. By a simple adjustment like increasing the price of a season ticket to match say the cost of 15(+) days travel and making them freely available over the counter, the Railway can increase their income and same time do away with the demeaning procedures they have in place now. For hundreds of employees of the Railway, the only function they have to perform maybe to scrutinise application forms for season tickets and then to file them away in some dusty storeroom.

If the season ticket is subsidised for a certain category like senior citizens, surely his identity card is sufficient to confirm the age. There may be a fear (most systems in the public sector are designed to catch the few wrong doers, but ends up harassing the law abiding majority) that the ticket could be misused, including for multiple journeys. This is why most countries now use swipe cards making it impossible to use it more than once a day. Instead of using available technology to ease their burdens, our public transport services continues with oppressive systems which make lives only harder.

But it is likely that neither party in this sorry drama sees it that way: so accepting of their fate are the commuters that they may not see all this as belittling of their human dignity, while the service provider, the Railway, perhaps takes it as the only way a government ‘authority” ought conduct itself, and see nothing wrong in treating the commuter, their customer, as a potential cheat or a thief. Their cleverly designed form will catch the thief! 

The reality underlying this situation is even grimmer. State-run institutions like the Railway simply cannot attract the best and the brightest today, while those who use our derelict railway services regularly, are the economically disadvantaged, only getting on a train due to unyielding economic circumstances. 

There is a postscript to this story. Apparently, the man’s humble application for a monthly season ticket from Nittambuwa to Colombo was turned down because the photograph he attached to the form did not fit the exacting specifications given!

Colombo Grade dhal

Recently at a friend’s wedding I met a young entrepreneur. Confident, talkative – the conversation flowed easily. 

The business was started by his father who was of South Indian origin. He had contacts in India and began importing lentils, dhal, sugar, condiments through them. It had been difficult at the start; several times his imported stocks were condemned as unfit for human consumption. Gradually the old man mastered the intricacies of the Sri Lankan import business, he changed his agents in India, travelled to Mumbai to examine stocks himself, learnt the art of handling Custom officers. 

Eventually the business flourished; he bought a big house in Bambalapitiya, became an indiscriminate sponsor of various politicians and officials. In politics he was neutral, behind his desk hung large photographs with powerful politicians, which changed with every election. In the community he was known as a man of influence, a supporter of good causes. 

When the son finished school he was sent to Melbourne, Australia, for further studies. On his return, the father who was now in poor health (severe diabetes and the gout; too much rich food, the son emphasised) handed over the business to the son.

I asked him whether it was only from India that he imported these food stuffs. The Australian educated son was worldlier; he went to other markets, Mexico for instance.

Is there a difference between the quality of produce between India and Mexico?

He said that the Mexican products were superior, perhaps farmed under better conditions, maybe soil less worked on, but in pricing, the Mexican produce were notably higher.

But he then made a point.

“Even in India there are different grades in pulses. The highest grades are good. These are what the Indian millionaires and film stars eat. We get down low grade stuff to Sri Lanka. That is the market here. People always look for the cheapest. Per capita we are richer than the other countries in the Sub-Continent. But it seems our consumer looks only at economy. Do you know what they call the lowest grade of lentils in Mumbai? They call it Colombo Grade!”

Polishing the car

I was quite pleased when a car detailing centre opened near my house, a convenience brought nearer. They opened with much fanfare; a band playing all day, the place decorated heavily, large banners and buntings, colourfully-dressed girls distributing little leaflets in the neighbourhood. 

After a few weeks I dropped by to arrange a polishing of the car. The guys, all young and energetic, were eager: “Yes sir, when will you bring in the car? You can have it back in five hours; we can even bring the car home to you.”

This was different, a modern service.

I booked it for a Wednesday, 8 a.m.

But as happens sometimes, on Tuesday something urgent turned up which would prevent me from handing in the car the next day.

So I decided to cancel my booking. Late evening Tuesday, I walked in to the centre. It was a new guy at the counter now. When I mentioned my booking he looked surprised.

“Didn’t you know that the person who was doing the polishing left the company a few days back?”

“Nobody informed me although the centre has my number. I was hoping to bring the car in tomorrow. That would have been a disappointment,” I responded.

His face assumed a certain profundity; in the midst of the commonplace, we had encountered a great truth.

“Well, it’s ok then”

I think what he meant was, “So now there will be no disappointment for you tomorrow, you have found out the truth today.”

The Greatest

One of the, or perhaps the only pleasure one can claim when driving on our nightmarish roads is the opportunity to listen to the various chit-chat programs on the car radio. I am not sure what the particular channel is, but since my radio is tuned to it, that is all I listen to.

There is this program, mainly in the afternoons, in the form of a bantering chat between two young presenters with music and occasional ads thrown in. Of the two, the giggly female is far superior in her presentation, both in her English as well as quality of comments, while the male counterpart is just comic, in the violence done to the language as well as the sheer incompetence of his observations, senseless guffaws thrown in with every sentence.

But that is only a comparison between the two individuals. We are now several light years away from the days of the old Radio Ceylon; then considered the best English language channel in Asia by many.

From the various things said, between the giggles and guffaws, I gather that the female is a former student of Ladies College while the guy probably is an old Wesleyite. These schools are often referred to, approvingly, although how many of the listeners relate to the two schools is unknown. 

That such inanities are put together to form a daily program is in itself revealing.

The other day the female presenter, in a voice heavy with emotion, announced

“Today is a very sad day for Sri Lanka, because Muhammad Ali, the greatest, is going on his final journey.”

The guy chuckles, “Yes that is true, it is happening right now in Louisville, Kentucky”

She: “He is the greatest, because he said he was the greatest!”


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