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Delightfully imperfect?

Comments / {{hitsCtrl.values.hits}} Views / Saturday, 18 February 2017 00:00


A foreign national passing through the Colombo Private Bus Terminal on the day of a private bus strike 

– Pic by Shehan Gunasekara



  • “Forty-year-old Mrs. Doreen Kulandivelu was returning home to Pandiruppu from school where she was a principal when her trailing saree became entangled in the rear wheel of her motorcycle. She fell from the motorcycle and was injured. Passers-by dispatched her in a three wheeler to hospital at nearby Kalmunai. Halfway there however the three wheeler engine failed and she was transferred to another three wheeler. The engine of that one also stalled a few miles from the hospital. 
  • “As her condition worsened she was put in a passing car and admitted to the hospital. But the doctors there decided to transfer her by ambulance to a larger hospital at the main town of Batticaloa. The ambulance, which was said to be travelling at high speed with its sirens on, collided head on with a van coming in the opposite direction. Five persons, including the ambulance driver and two medical staff were seriously injured and all, including Mrs. Kulandivelu, were transferred to another vehicle. Upon arrival at the Batticaloa Hospital Mrs. Kulandivelu was found to be dead.” 
  • – ‘Delightfully Imperfect,’ Paul Harris


Paul Harris is a British journalist who was ordered out of Sri Lanka in 2001-02. The reasons for his forced departure are clouded in controversy. Strangely, according to Harris, his strong anti-LTTE line was one of the reasons for the sudden withdrawal of the welcome. 

In the short period he was here Harris was productive, writing several books, reports and newspaper articles on the country. In Colombo, Harris was based mainly at the Galle Face Hotel –the inspiration for the title of his book – ‘Delightfully Imperfect’. 

In this book, Harris, in addition to the main theme – the Galle Face Hotel – also describes his experiences in the country, including news items taken from the local newspapers; the tragic story of the School Principal Mrs. Kulandivelu, being one. He has taken the above narration from the Sunday Observer. ft-23-s-2016-12-27

Although adopting a factual, unsentimental style, Harris nevertheless scores his points with effect, drawing our attention to a national reality; a repeating theme of predicament and ineffectual response-the challenge and the incompetence of the challenged, the vast gap between the rhetoric and delivery. 

What we are inured to, foreign eyes see differently, see us from without; a collective existence bordering on the tragicomic, the whole of which we are irretrievably constituent parts. 

Did Mrs. Kulandivelu have to die in that way? Where does the blame for the tragedy lie?

The chaos and the lack of civility evident on our roads; blaring of horns, the belching of heavy vehicles, the mayhem of the tuk-tuks, the indiscipline of the pedestrians; this is the road culture we live with, and the only one we know.

Deplorable situation on our roads

I recently met an expatriate who has lived here for some years. In the course of our conversation we came to the deplorable situation on our roads. He had worked in several Asian countries before, in urban monstrosities such as Jakarta, Manila and Dacca. By their sheer size, population and traffic these humongous cities reduce us to insignificance and consequently make most of our urban problems seem smaller and arguably easier to manage.

But we have failed to do that.

“In these huge cities, a few kilometres can take several hours; the roads simply cannot take the volume of vehicles. Colombo, on the other hand, has a small city atmosphere but yet it is a big mess. People here give the impression that roads with vehicles on them are a novelty. The way they behave behind a wheel, they could well be taking a stroll on a village green, in any way they fancy. No allowance is made for other road users. It seems their minds cannot process the complexities that arise when there are other vehicles nor acquire the discipline that is essential in the situation.

“The driver only has his vehicle and his destination in mind, anything else on the road is immaterial, he simply does not care. I rarely see a driver allowing another to get into a lane or giving way to another here. They just keep nudging forward, even inch by inch, in an ugly attempt to get ahead. And this is a nation which in everything else is so slow and laid back! Where are they rushing to? Rush or no rush, they always come late!” 

Who are the worst drivers?

Although it was embarrassing to hear such an opinion I really could not dispute his assessment of the culture of our roads. Perhaps blame need not fall on all drivers equally, so I inquired: “In your opinion, who are the worse drivers?”

He replied promptly: “No doubt the prize for the worse should go to the bus drivers. They act as if the roads have been created for them to make money. Nothing else matters. Actually the bus drivers diminish the quality of the country; to think that these chaps who are said to be providing a public utility can behave in this manner on the road is disgusting.

“The second on the list are the tuk-tuk drivers and the motorcyclists. I agree it is difficult to assume a personal dignity when hunched down inside a tuk-tuk. That pose probably distorts the way they view the world, scavenging has becomes an acceptable occupation. They drive in the most juvenile manner. Fairness in not something they are familiar with. Overtaking from every side, jumping the line, cutting across your path is routine, part of the monkey-game.

“Whenever I come across a bus or a tuk-tuk driver I take a good look. There is a certain commonality about them, a suggestion of unreliability – children in adult bodies? With your familiarity with all this you may see them differently, without differentiation, but to my foreign eyes there is a dubious quality.”

“Who are the other obvious culprits?” I asked

He paused: “I would say that those who drive the big cars, limousines and four-wheel drive vehicles of these Third World elites, are also generally rude; horning, flashing their lights impatiently, cutting across and not keeping to a lane and so on. Maybe they feel important; assess themselves high in the local hierarchy, either financially or socially; and this is their announcement of that assessment. Funny thing is, often the vehicle is driven by the driver, the ‘Sir’ or ‘Madam’ is seated behind.

“When you count all the bus, lorry, van, taxi, three wheel, State sector, forces, private sector and those who drive for individual employers, it seems to me that driving must be the occupation of at least half a million Sri Lankans. Their job, particularly those who drive individuals, is to transport other ‘bodies’ to their destination, something the passengers can do themselves. It is not a very productive or creative occupation. In Sri Lanka, a chauffeur-driven car is seen as an easily-acquired status symbol. There must be something wrong with your education system that this is the only skill these drivers have learnt or find in such a dulling occupation a good way to earn a livelihood. I think it is a mark of a poor society, poor not only in terms of money; going nowhere.

“The last in the categories of bad drivers, perhaps the least offensive, are those who drive small cars. I assume these are people who have recently acquired a car and really do not understand the road. It is funny to watch them tackling road situations, clueless, yet selfish, is how I would describe their driving. The blame here should go to the licensing authorities. But then this is Sri Lanka!”

As much as I wished to challenge this rather dim description of our roads, reality denied me an effective response. What the expatriate expressed is demonstrated every day, on every road. To a foreigner, our roads may be a subject of ‘delightful’ humour, but to us who have to undergo the experience daily, imperfect in the extreme.

Long road ahead!

I would conclude with another story from ‘Delightfully Imperfect,’ Paul Harris’s book on his life in Sri Lanka. His source for this story is The Island newspaper.

“A man from the Matara area was arrested by the Police on the complaint of a 23-year-old woman. Apparently, she had married a local fisherman and after seven days of marriage her spouse went off to sea on a fishing trip. As the newspaper put it ‘for some reason or other he did not return for several months’.

“She came to know a 45-year-old man who was said to be a kapumahattaya in a devale. After hearing her sad story, the kapuwa said he could bring back her husband in seven days. For that purpose she should come to his devale. When she arrived he gave her a white cloth and told her to have a bath and come to him dressed in the white cloth. She obliged and when she appeared before him she was told to lie down at a certain place in the devale. Thereafter he had raped her.

“After a few days her husband had returned home. Then she had told her husband everything about the rituals she had conducted. The fisherman who realised what had taken place went to the Matara Police along with the wife and lodged a complaint…”

Obviously, the road before us is very long and there are so many bends, turns and twists…


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