12 December 2022

Serendipitous amber owns the world

Someone once made a pertinent and funny comment about traffic lights. It may have been the character Mork (played by the inimitable Robin Williams) in the sitcom ‘Mork and Mindy’ where Mork, an alien in human form, sends off dispatches to his planet/people about life on earth.  Again, it might have been someone else, somewhere else, I cannot say for certain.

‘When the light is red, you stop; when it is green, you go: when it is amber you go faster than when it is green.’

A couple of days ago, I was stuck in a long line at a busy intersection where the lights seemed to change extra slow. The quote comes to me often enough, but for the first time I got to thinking about the amber light.  

Those under the tyranny of red await it. Those liberated by green are wary of it because the moment it appears they have to make a quick calculation and decide if it’s safe to rush the light. It’s the colour of the uncomfortable interim, a poorer cousin of red and green, a lower caste almost.

It’s like a must-have medicine. It’s an intangible, unheralded ‘between’ flanked by things better known and therefore easier to get a grip on. It’s dwarfed by a red giant and a green giant. Lilliputian in the larger order of things.

How big or long or intense is amber, I wondered. Driving along the Avenue of Metaphors, I dwelled on birth, decay and death. All of a sudden amber, the neither-here-nor-there pigment of our lives, grew in stature. We do ‘go’ and we must ‘stop’ but we are mostly locked in transit. We are powered by anticipation, often an unreasonable extrapolation of the possible. We are crippled by the knowledge that life, too often, shortchanges us. We are, in fact, stuck in amber, like some fossilised insect, pretty no doubt but trapped nevertheless.  

Sounds dismal, doesn’t it? But then again, there’s always serendipity. Last night I was stopped at amber for an inordinately lengthy period of time and it had nothing to do with climate-change, traffic, faulty lights or a harassed police officer risking death every second at an intersection. It had to do with a literary event and a chance encounter.

The event, ‘Ars Poetica,’ held at The Atelier, featured a dozen poets reading from published volumes or sharing work-in-progress. Sandhuni Warnasuriya didn’t read. She listened. She told me she wrote and posted on Facebook. Turned out that we were Facebook friends. I checked out of curiosity and was stopped, literally at an amber light.  I was struck by the coincidence, the image and also a short poem that captured most of what the colour amber had birthed in my mind.

It was a photograph taken from somewhere near Waters Edge. ‘the colours of the sky too was intriguing at that point,’ she said. Coincidentally, it was quite similar to a photograph I had taken several months ago from Battaramulla, not too far from Waters Edge, but around the same time of day. Evening.
Drop the search
Meet the world at
Sweet spot amber

That’s the first time I had heard anything positive being said about amber. Come to think of it, neither have I heard anything negative about that colour. It’s just a fly-in-the-wall kind of pigment, a mostly unnoticed imperfection. And yet, as the poem so eloquently insists, it’s an all-containing site. ‘The world,’ after all is hardly Lilliputian.

Sweet stop? Sweet spot! Exactly, I thought. So sweet and so in one’s face that it is hardly noticed. And we are all the poorer for it.

Extrapolation, thereafter, is easy. Amber climbs down from a system of coloured lights suspended above an intersection, takes a walk along the routes of routine, winks at an irritable driver fixated by red and green,  picks a pigeon in distress, caresses the grass as it glides in angelic ethereality and notes a world that has its eyes wide shut.

Somewhere, someone noticed amber. Met the world. And transcribed the encounter. The red light dimmed as did the green. Happily clothed in sweet, sweet amber, I stopped a search that I was not even aware I had been engaged in. The world looked different. So different. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is the first of a new series.]

 Other articles in this series:

The allegory of the slow road

Continents of the heart