17 March 2016

Be a traffic cop now and then -- it’s a lot of fun!

The majority of Traffic Policemen eventually succumb to lung-infections. They breathe the poison that is belched out by vehicles that carry us to work, to school, to parties, to friends, family and lovers. We are imperfect but we will not suffer one sign of imperfection from a Traffic Policeman, do we?  This article was first published in the Daily News exactly 6 years ago (March 17, 2010)

A couple of weeks ago I had the privilege of taking my children to a concert put together by the students and instructors of the Ranwala Foundation. For those who may be unfamiliar with the name, the Foundation functions as the main institute that celebrates and promotes the thinking of the late Lionel Ranwala, a man who dedicated his life and work to searching out music-root and rhythm-root elements of our heritage.

Two and a half hours. About a 100 children, between six and 20 years of age and a few young adults. The Elphinstone Theatre was packed. Sahan Ranwala and his team of instructors had done a splendid job. The children in the audience were highly entertained. Indeed, us adults were turned into children. For a while. What more need one say by way of salutation?

There is a lot more actually. One could write a lot about the Ranwala Foundation, the apekama that was the lifelong quest of Lionel Ranwala (that elusive thing which like love is recognized but never owned or amenable to commercial transaction), the fact that it is not dead as some would wish it were, but indeed alive and thriving and recognized to be thus by significant sections of our population, and of course the immense reservoir of talent that Sahan’s team works with or, to put it another way, the latent talent in the child that they coax out and make bloom. That’s another article, though.

There were many little sub plots strung together around the story of an uncle-nephew team on a mission to capture a yaka, all informative, topical, and crafted with melody, rhythm and dance that celebrated tradition and embraced modernity and did both this without guilt or shame but in fact with a tasteful dash of cynicism that makes for great entertainment. One episode was dedicated to the matter of road safety, what should be done and what should not, and of course the possible consequences of error and carelessness.

It reminded me of a jingle that was played quite frequently in the late seventies. The pay off line was ‘Your thought for the day from the City Police’. It was in Sinhala and English and perhaps Tamil too. The English version went like this: ‘When you step on the accelerator, set out on the road, keep in mind road safety signs, follow the Highway Code...’ I forget what followed, but remember how the Sinhala version took off from this point: ‘riyadurange noselakillen bihisunu anathuru ve..’

We hear about accidents all the time, don’t we? We even see a lot of accidents on the roads; serious ones where lives are lost, minor accidents that don’t yield even a scratch and all kinds of accidents in between. They horrify us at times. In my case whenever I hear of child-victims, I am thoroughly shaken because I immediately think of my children. I think about the parents too. It is not difficult to empathize, but the exercise is pretty traumatic.

On Sunday, for instance, an 11 year old schoolboy was knocked down by a speeding private bus while crossing a road. The boy, Thilina Saranga, had got down from the school bus and was crossing the road when a private bus bound for Thunukkai overtaking the school bus had knocked him down. He died on the spot.

I don’t know if this happened at a pedestrian crossing. I don’t know who is at fault. All that counts now is that Thilina Saranga is dead and that nothing can console his parents.

A lot can be written about responsibility in these matters. We can play find-the-guilty. We can burn a bus or thrash a driver (as is often done by way of street-justice). We can point fingers. We can blame the child. We can blame the child’s parents and/or guardians. We can blame the child’s teachers. We can blame the driver of the vehicle that knocked the child down.

We can blame the relevant local government authority for not putting up necessary signs at the proper places, for not anticipating and not putting in measures to prevent such things from happening again and again.

We are all to blame in the end.

We have all screamed at children, at adults, teachers, drivers and others, or at least done so in our minds.

We’ve screamed at Police officers too, haven’t we? Well, not always to their faces but haven’t we all cursed them under our breath? Isn’t it true that Police officers earn our wrath far more than do careless children, negligent parents or bad drivers?

The skit at the Elphinstone Theatre brought to mind many street-tragedies I’ve heard of over the years. It’s been on my mind for a week. I’ve been watching the road. I saw many ‘near-misses’.

It got to a point where I would get tense the moment I see a school uniform.

Interestingly this exercise revealed to me a creature that I had for reasons good and bad tended to treat dismissively; the Policeman. Specifically, the Traffic Policeman.

I’ve never had sweet thoughts about traffic policemen. The wisdom in the street is that traffic cops make things worse.

That’s not a scientific conclusion of course because we seldom get to compare the performance of a Traffic Policeman against a situation where the law of the jungle prevails given similar volumes of traffic at the same time of day.

But think about the guy out there on that intersection you pass everyday. We can empathize with the parent of a child who is knocked down by a bus. Do we or can we empathize with a Traffic Policeman? It isn’t difficult. Put yourself in his position.

Think of it this way. Think ‘Bambalapitiya Junction’. The time is 12.30 pm. There’s traffic going towards Kollupitiya, some wanting to take the left lane and some the right.

There’s traffic coming up Bauddhaloka Mawatha, some on the right lane turning to the right and some on the left also turning left, but to the left lane of the Galle Road (which is one-way from that point).

Then there are people coming up Bauddhaloka Mawatha wanting to turn left towards Wellawatte. There are also some crazies who have come up the right lane of Bauddhaloka Mawatha and wanting to get to the left lane of Galle Road. And a bunch of pedestrians who don’t have the eyes to see or the inclination to look for pedestrian crossings. Imagine that you are standing right in the middle of things. For a couple of hours. Imagine the heat. The dust. The noise. The smoke. The insults darting silently from 20 percent of the drivers and 10 percent of the passengers.

Imagine there’s an accident. Whose fault? We really can’t tell but isn’t it in our nature to blame the policeman?

I was told that the majority of Traffic Policemen eventually succumb to lung-infections.
They breathe the poison that is belched out by vehicles that carry us to work, to school, to parties, to friends, family and lovers. We are imperfect but we will not suffer one sign of imperfection from a Traffic Policeman do we?

I was thinking: maybe it’s all a drama that we are playing. Maybe we are in some kind of post-modern enactment in a larger Elphinstone and that the guy who scripted it had some score to settle with some Traffic Policemen.

I am going to spend the next two weeks ‘being’ the Traffic Policeman, as I have the last two weeks. Try it. It is a lot of fun (for others). It’s crazy out there though for me.

Forget the smoke, the noise, the dust and the curses brother; I am terrified that some nutcase will knock me down. Let me tell you this also: others go to work, I go to die. I am born again when I am done with my shift.



දේශක යා said...

Good one Malinda.. Ppl. very rarely see the difficulties of the cops. I always had my sympathy over them.

h. said...

Always feel sad when I see traffic cops standing on the road in the scorching sun. Know of at least two deaths of cops who were knocked down by irresponsible drivers. One was a huge container carrier and the cop a very young boy we used to see regularly at our junction. He had been just standing there and doing his duty.