02 February 2012

On flooring the detractor with a thumbs-up sign

Everyone has road stories.  Some are really funny and some are embarrassing.  Some are tragic and the papers are usually full of such stories. My friend and one time student, Jayendra De Silva, along with 3 other friends, all students and chess players, had an embarrassing but funny road-encounter, the story of which I’ve passed around now and then.

They had turned into Galle Road from one of the side lanes (this was before it was turned into one-way sections) without looking and had almost knocked down a trishaw taxi.  No apologies.  They knew they were wrong and counted on superior horse power to put enough distance between car and trishaw to be spared what was believed to be the inevitable earful. 
Circumstances can be cruel.  Not too far down the road they were halted by the unforgiving red of traffic lights.  A quick glance backwards showed a speeding trishaw.  A quick decision was taken. They would not suffer any invective and figured that 4 voices could drown out one. They were ready.  They expected, naturally, an earful and that’s exactly what they got. 
The trishaw driver pulled up right beside the car. He was close enough to be heard loud and clear.  The man turned slowly.  He smiled.   He said softly, ‘Nice driving’ and gave a thumbs-up sign.  Dead silence from the four friends.  They said, later, that they had never felt so embarrassed.  I doubt if any of them ever turned into a main road without looking out for oncoming vehicles thereafter.
There’s a lot that softness can achieve in this world and especially on the roads when there is traffic congestion.  There is the inevitable person in a mighty hurry, tweaking road etiquette or even boldly violating the law.  It’s all about gaining every inch possible and saving every possible second.  And then there are those who are neither in a hurry nor in the mood to break laws but nevertheless err.   Such people can cause accidents and those who are put off balance and have to make an extra effort to avoid a tragedy are naturally angered. 
Typically, they ‘tell off’.  Even if they don’t, they mutter their annoyance loud enough for their travel companions to hear or in the very least think the thoughts they are not ready to voice.  There are countless times when the aggrieved glare at the cause of irritation.  Few would smile.  Fewer still would give a ‘thumbs-up’ sign. 
And what if you were the offender?  What do you do?  If you know that you have erred, you can apologise, but you can also look the other way (or get ready for a shouting match, like Jayendra and his friends) just because you really don’t want to be yelled at in filth or receive kill-you looks.  It is easier, I have found, to nod head or raise hand or offer some apologizing signal.  It might not stop the flow of invective and might not replace scowl with smile, but it could probably chip away some of the emotion.  When that happens the particular driver would be less prone to committing error and more likely to drop the issue and move on, literally and metaphorically. 
Humility works.  Both ways.  It’s a soft skill thing.  It can do what more impressive tools cannot in the matter of bringing down walls.  There’s only one condition.  It must come from heart and not mind.  This requires a little delving into the conditions of life, the eternal verities, acknowledgment of impermanence and the powerful and twin-bladed instruments that cut through all negatives: wisdom and compassion.
I think the trishaw driver had it all figured.  I think Jayendra and others picked up an ace that they could keep.  I did too, listening to that story, laughing about it and then thinking about it.  I see that trishaw driver on all our roads and in all my encounters.  He does give the thumbs-up sign all the time, but I know he has it.  I do too.