“Everything is abnormal in our society… nobody knows how to act-not only in the most difficult situations, but even in the simplest” – Fyodor Dostoevsky (1821-81)
in conversation with Aleksey Suvorin
(publisher and journalist)
Peter, middle-aged Canadian, is a friend and regular visitor to Sri Lanka. He finds the country fascinating, even quaint, and willingly endures the long- haul flight at least once a year for an experience like no other.
It was in Toronto, where he met several new immigrants from Sri Lanka, that Peter first engaged with the distant culture. “At a glance they look Sub-Continent Indian, but with closer association I realized they were different. In the Indians I met in Canada there was a sense of impenetrability, they were an end product; there was nothing more to do or become. Their thoughts, beliefs and actions were generally predictable. From their encounter with the new country, there was nothing to learn, it offered only an opportunity to earn more dollars, a better life, something they did not have in their country. They continue with all the old ways in the adopted country. On the other hand, in the Sri Lankans I saw a freshness, an adaptability which held out a potential.”
It is not only the fascination for a different culture that repeatedly draws him to the tropical island in the far away Indian Ocean. On his first visit to Sri Lanka, Peter realised that he could holiday during the winter months in a warm climate, at a cost less than half of what he would spend at home. He has made friends and found places where a comfortable stay is assured. Spending his time leisurely; moving from city to the beach, city again and then to a more rural setting, Peter has gained a sharp insight in to the country and its beat of life.
“By and large the Sri Lankans are welcoming and hospitable. This is true, anywhere in the country, rich or poor. I find that a very attractive quality,” he said sipping his coffee.
“But one thing that I find difficult to handle is their general disregard for your space. You are in a queue and the guy behind will be uncomfortably close, almost rubbing against you. ‘Coming to the body like’ as your famous Tarzie Vittachi would have it! Get in a bus and one of the passengers will have his personal radio going full blast. He does not think I have a right to my peace and quiet.
“In our part of the world my personal space is not to be violated. As to queues, there seems to be an idea in this culture that waiting in line to be served diminishes your standing in society. The higher the guy rises in a hierarchy, less his inclination to stand in a queue!
“Not to be critical, but Sri Lankans can ask any question, ‘Are you married? How much do you earn? Which school did you attend? Is she your girlfriend?’ In our part of the world, such matters will be considered personal and sensitive.”
“What other objectionable but common habits have you noticed?” I probed.
“There is this confusion between technology and etiquette. Use of advanced technology does not mean disregarding common courtesies. In my culture it will be rude to let a third party interrupt a conversation or a meeting, uninvited. But in Sri Lanka, a personal discussion, a meal or even a meeting may be interrupted by a mobile call; nobody thinks it rude to let that happen. To receive a mobile call while engaged in a conversation may even be considered an indication of how busy or important the person is. He is using advanced technology! Yet, the mobile call reduces his counterpart to a secondary status; the man has more pressing matters with another. If Prince Harry had his wedding in Colombo, most of the guests would be looking at their mobile phones while the ceremony was happening!
“The way you guys name your roads can be very frustrating. They have such long and sometimes overlapping names like FR Senanayake and DS Senanayake near or even crossing the other, which is so confusing. Robert Gunawardena Mawatha seems a very popular road name in this country. I thought the purpose was easy identification and passage for the users. Your impossibly-long road names certainly do not make it more convenient or efficient, they only compound the endless chaos on it. Imagine reporting a fire on a street with a name with 10 syllables! The message here seems to be, don’t send me any letters and don’t ever try to find me!”
I am not certain whether the people these roads are named after had anything to do with their construction. Naming of roads after eminent persons may be an effort to preserve their names, lest we forget. It is another matter whether naming a road after a person, where such mayhem reigns all day, is necessarily an honour done to him!
“After struggling with the incredibly long road names you finally arrive at your destination, which could be an apartment complex, hotel, restaurant or even the office of a private company. Now the opposite; these invariably have English or European sounding names with a heavy bias towards British Royalty or empire connections. Mind you, this country was not an empire builder, but only a colony! There is also no modesty when it comes to naming; references to superlatives like icon, elite, paradise, pinnacle, abound. It is as if by asserting the title, you become that. In reality, these are concepts far removed from the Sri Lankan performance and even experience!
“It will be a mistake to think that those living down Bagatelle or Shrubbery Gardens are very English or even worldly. Often, only after an effort do I make myself understood to the residents due to the language barrier. The name of the road only lends to an illusion of an English connection.”
A company may occasionally import sub-standard lentils from India. It may call itself ‘Universal’ Imports and Exports. A restaurant may advertise their fare as ‘Western’ food, but only serve a greasy fried rice and an uninviting vegetable stock, described as a soup. A new set of ‘elite’ (prabuwaru) is brought forth with every regime change; half-done men; sleazy, unscrupulous rising to high positions only because their society is in the grip of an unrelenting malaise. Titles without meaning – ‘elite’, ‘icons’, ‘paradise’, ‘respectable’; misnomers that only mock.
Presumably, the Sri Lankan immigrants Peter met in Canada qualified for Canadian citizenship through a difficult elimination process. Unlike those who gain entry through Visa lotteries or family reunion basis, others need to prove they would be adding value to that country. The immigrant Sri Lankans left a good impression on him. But it is different when he visits Sri Lanka, their country of origin.
Our chat was primarily on common etiquette or even racial peculiarities, at a conversational and light-hearted level. But Peter cannot be unmindful of the underdevelopment, the corruption and the visible decay all around. He sees a country only distinguished by its mediocrity, veering from one predicament to another. The leadership in nearly every field of activity in this country, while declaring themselves ‘distinguished’, ‘iconic’ and ‘ elite’, is not only incompetent, but also patently diminished and of uncertain moral calibre.
The paradox Peter observes, a people performing creditably outside of their country while their own is in an abysmal state, is not limited to the Sri Lankans immigrating to Canada. In the preceding decades, many Sri Lankans have moved to Developed countries with the hope of finding a better life. By and large, they have not only done well, but have also contributed to the adopted country, assimilating with the host culture. In changed circumstances, in a different culture, they have performed well, working with the best and often in the most advanced systems.
However, in their own country, it is very different; a poor performance, only getting worse with time. A people capable of doing much better, accepting a falsity as their standard. Herein perhaps lies the dilemma of our time.
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