18 October 2015

Smile, the beautiful nation

Pic Courtesy Sunday Times
The LTTE was militarily vanquished more than a year ago. We are a war-less nation now at least in the sense that clash of arms, blood soaked bandages and soils, wondering if Podi Putha will come home in a box, treating every parcel, box, bag etc with suspicion are things of the past.

One notices that check points are being removed one by one, ‘slowly, slowly’ as our English Our Way pundits would want our children to say even though they would not. Keppetipola Mawatha, closed for years due to security reasons, was reopened recently, for example and for those living or working or having to get about quickly among locations in the area it is as though a magic doorway has opened. Time saved. Frustrations alleviated. Smiles on faces. These are the intangibles of the peace dividend.

I took a walk the other day down Keppetipola Mawatha. As I turned the corner towards Jawatta Road, I almost bumped into an elderly gentleman walking in the opposite direction.

I would put his age somewhere close to 55. He was carrying a briefcase; not the James Bond type, 
but one of those old leather bags common in the 70s and early 80s. Neatly dressed. We both smiled. Moved on.

Two seconds later, I looked back to find that he too had half-turned. There was a quizzical look in his face which I believe mirrored the question mark that I felt had materialized on mine. We both stopped.

I went up to him and said that he looks familiar.

‘I work at the Identity Office,’ he said, referring of course to the Registration of Persons Department.
I laughed and said that I hadn’t been in that office in over 15 years. I reiterated that I am sure we had met somewhere.

‘Do you live in Pitakotuwa?’ I heard him ask. Thinking back, I am sure I heard him wrong. Not many ‘live’ in Pitakotuwa even if they spend most of their lives there. He must have said ‘Pitakotte’.
He smiled. I did too. Went out separate ways.

As I walked towards Jawatte Road, I remembered something that a senior officer in the Army had told me years before.
Malinda, do you know that some countries have special modules to train their soldiers to smile?’
He told me that one of the biggest challenges for military personnel operating in foreign soils it to build rapport with native communities. ‘We are a nation that doesn’t have to be taught to smile,’ he observed.  True.

I remember a story related frequently by Jayatillaka Bandara of Sadhu Jana Raava fame. He was a member of a group who advocated a full stop to military operations, probably in the naive belief that the LTTE understood the word ‘negotiation’. The intent, however, was pure. The group was clearly a pawn of LTTE-loving NGO operators, but that’s a different matter.

Jayatillaka Bandara related a story of the Army clearing up after some operation. A lot of LTTE cadres had died. Their bodies were being tossed into a tractor. Among them was that of a very young girl. A soldier had commented, aney pau (untranslatable but roughly an expression of sympathy with undertones indicating ‘should not have been this way’).

I haven’t heard any such stories from the other side of the war-line, but from what I know of the Tamil community I am sure that there would have been instances when commonalities pertaining to the human condition were recognized in the lives, bodies and corpses of ‘sworn enemies’.

We can smile. We can cry. Effortlessly. This is perhaps why our poverties don’t keep us down. We laugh through tragedy and don’t go overboard with joy over those rare moments of triumph.

The other day as I was driving, I almost hit a three-wheeler. I was taking a left turn. He was turning into the road I was on. I was slow. He was fast. I was hugging my left, he was hugging his right. Braked. He swerved. Eye met eye. I must have been thinking happy thoughts, for I smiled. Had I screamed or even glared, he would have had to stomach it and go his way. I smiled and was greeted by the widest grin ever.

Reminded me of another smile-story. This happened more than a decade ago. Four young men in a car. Swung into Galle Road without looking. Almost crashed into a three-wheeler. They had not waited for comments but had sped away. A red light had stopped them. The rear-view mirror showed the three-wheeler racing towards them. Expecting an earful, they had determined to scream back, counting on superior numbers to secure silence. The three-wheeler had pulled up and stopped parallel to their car. The driver had looked at them, given a thumbs-up sign and said (in English): ‘Nice driving!’ They got their silence. And perspective.

These things happen all the time. To all of us. The day is 24 hours long. I am sure there are many smile-moments that present themselves to all of us, every day. I am sure we all smile enough and perhaps more than people in those nations that need to teach smiling. There’s always one more reason to smile. Even through the most transparent of tears.

*This was first published in the Daily News (October 18, 2010).