07 January 2020

Maps as wrapping paper, roads as ribbons

I’ve heard the frog-in-the-well often. We all have, at one time or another, in one sense or another. Bad analogy, I’ve always thought. If the frog was out of the well, it simply means it is out of its element. It loses whatever comparative advantage it previously enjoyed. It might fall prey to some predator or simply get squashed by a vehicle.  

Human being are a bit different of course. As a species, we have ventured out of familiar surroundings. We have explored. We have found different wells to inhabit. Maybe it’s because we are seldom happy with our situation, whatever that may be. The grass in the neighbor’s garden is greener, the fruit in the neighbor’s orchard is sweeter and the voodoo magic in the next island is more potent, or so we believe. 

We think we’ve expanded horizons, but have we, really? A larger well is still a well, after all. And maybe we find, sooner or later, that in this well which we believe has more splendid dimensions, we are really resident in a smaller well. Well, someone might argue that all this is just an apology for being a stick-in-the-mud, but maybe it is good to get real now and then, recognizing that all we do is stick ourselves in different kinds of mud, rejoicing that we escaped one mud hole and convincing ourselves that we are not sticks.  

It’s a philosophical question, come to think of it, so let’s leave it for the philosophers. Somehow the visual of being inside a well, although good enough for a frog obviously, feels claustrophobic. Restricted spaces do that sometimes. We don’t like cages. Even frogs might not enjoy imprisonment. Speaking of wells, though, well if there’s access and choice it wouldn’t give a cage-feel, I feel. 

There’s more than one way to read the world around us. If you use Google Maps or have downloaded apps for cab services, you might wonder if your life is framed by maps, distances and lines which indicate roads.  Empowering in a way just to know stuff, limiting in that it tends to eliminate the unplanned joys that getting lost can at times yield.  

But roads, they are ribbons. Look out of the window of a tall building (and it doesn’t have to be a skyscraper even) and the city can reveal itself as a landscape that has been ribbon-wrapped. And if it has rained, then the roads are a criss-cross of black velvet ribbons. 

Maps are not cast in stone. They change. City landscapes change. Congestion is resolved by imposing one-way rules and immediately routines, routes and landscapes become different. If we played back memory in fast-mode or could go back and forth from earliest memory to ‘right now’ we might suddenly feel we’ve lived in multiple cities or townships or even villages even though we’ve hardly strayed from our ‘well’.  

It’s all a cage but it’s less iron bars than ribbons or so it seems. Maybe that’s why we don’t feel caged. We don’t feel that the social, economic and political environment imposes limits on what we can do and what we can say. It seems ‘free’.  And there’s enough opportunities to move around and keep moving around until we find a comfort(ing) zone, a well if you will. Even if it’s just for a short period of time.

However, if bars can be seen as ribbons, we can do wonderful things with them. They are, after all, more pliant than iron. They are made for wrapping. They are made for decoration. They can be woven. And if we see that the things that bind, that imprison or restrict are more metaphorical than real, then imprisonment is more of a choice than we would imagine. 

We can re-order urban landscapes. We can remove Galle Road altogether. We can build an intricate network of overhead bridges that retire traffic congestion forever. And we may even realize that the most pernicious of bars and other fetters are resident in our minds. Well, the ones that bind the heart and subdue heartbeat, one might argue, are worse. 

Anyway, there are maps in the mind and ribbons in the heart. What we do with them is our business. Let’s make gifts. Let’s wrap them with maps and tie them up with roads. And let’s gift them to those who most need our presence and rare moments of recognition.  

First published in the Daily News, December 2019

Other articles in the series titled 'In Passing...' 
The Eldest: a story written on face and in eyes