01 November 2014

The unbearable lightlessness of brieflessness

A friend of mine (let’s call her Brenda) lives, breathes, consumes and is consumed by advertising.  I remember, years ago, she returned after the official launching of the scandal-tainted ‘Water’s Edge’.  ‘It’s a nice location for a shoot’ was how she described the place.  I owe a lot to Brenda because she taught me a lot about advertising.  That comment on Water’s Edge, for example, taught me that the world is not made of places, but ‘locations’, the former being of old-world usage while the latter had market-value factored in. 

She taught me other things.  One afternoon she said she was tired of being inside the office and wanted me to take a walk with her. We walked up the street.  She noticed a side lane (she notices a lot of things). I noticed a sign indicating a book store (I see only books). She noticed an art class in progress and suggested that we take a look. 

There were a dozen or so children, around 5-10 years of age.  Among them was a little boy totally engrossed in his work, with the paint he was using totally engrossed in his face, so to speak. He was full of colour. Literally.  Cute to the max, one might say.  Brenda said ‘Look at him!’ and followed this with the inevitable, ‘would look lovely in an ad’.  She was like that. Made of location, model and prop.  To my mind, way too professional for her own good.  I even asked her once, ‘Brenda, when are you going to get out of this world of locations, props and models and start considering your life brief?’  She just smiled in a way that implied, ‘dude, I do have a life brief, I live, on my own time in ways you might not understand’. 

I shared the location-prop-model story with others in the creative department of the advertising agency and how I asked Brenda when she’s going to live her life brief.  I told them that Brenda was made of briefs (no, not those briefs!).  Ruwan, clearly the quietest art director in the business, waited until everyone else had finished laughing and said, ‘kotinma, maalinda, brenda kiyanne brief case ekak!’ (In short, Malinda, Brenda is a brief case!). 

It was all light hearted stuff.  We laughed. I duly reported to Brenda that it was concluded that she was a ‘brief case’. She duly smiled that same smile. 

Today (August 31, 2010), I heard another ‘briefcase’ story.  My batchmate from Peradeniya, Werawellalage Gedara Premasiri was the narrator.  Premasiri is one of thousands of our citizens who spend around 7 hours a day on average in trains and railway stations 5 days a week.  He has train stories.  This is one.

‘During those terrible days when there was a constant threat of bombs exploding, we were very concerned about parcels, suitcases and such.  People were required to carry their baggage. There was a big problem in trains carrying people to and from work. Briefcases.  There were just too many.  Everyone had one of those James Bond type contraptions.’

Briefcases had nothing to do with convenience.  It was a mind-thing, Premasiri said: ‘the average briefcase had a torch, umbrella and a lunch packet’.  People had to get up early and walk some distance to the railway station. Hence the torch. The umbrella was a just-in-case precaution.  And lunch had to be had. 

‘It made people feel important. By the time you reach the office, the peon is waiting for you and your briefcase.  It’s the peon who takes it up to the relevant desk.’ 

Yes, it is all in the mind.  All about appearances. Status. 

Not all briefcases are of the James Bond type.  Briefcases take different form.  If you wear a set of glasses that filters out the necessary and shows all the frills people carry to look good and big and better and important, you will be astounded by the clutter.  You don’t have to go too far. Take a look in the mirror.  It’s a lot of baggage we are talking about. 

Brenda had a job to do and the mental notes she was making hardly filled any space.  It certainly didn’t trip anyone and didn’t cause worry in any over-cautious mind, fretting about bomb explosions.  She didn’t seem to be overburdened either and even if she was, that was her business. 

We have problems, Premasiri said. The transportation system needs to be revamped, for example.  There are little things, he said, that can be sorted out, not by the state but the people themselves. 

Briefcases are bulky things.  A briefcase is a harmless thing.  Imagine however a trainload of briefcases.  That’s heaviness we can do without, burdened as we are with a million worries. 

Premasiri said that he had talked about briefcases on many occasions.  ‘Not a single person dumped his briefcase,’ he said with a laugh. 

Some briefs are hard to drop, especially those unnecessary things we pile upon ourselves with a neat guilt-reliever called ‘necessary’.

*First published on September 1, 2010, 'The Daily News' 

Malinda Seneviratne is the Editor-in-Chief of 'The Nation' and can be reached at msenevira@gmail.com