09 December 2022

The allegory of the slow road

Pic by Tharindu Amunugama
Contour makes the bends
bends make for pause
feet stop and go
and heart to footprint returns

Roads are either slow or fast depending on road conditions, weather, traffic, the condition of the particular vehicle and the urgency or lack thereof of the person at the wheel. The same road can be fast for some and slow for others. It can make for a slow grind at a certain hour and an easy pass at another.

One does plan to get from A to B, from Colombo to Kudumbigala, from Arumgam Bay to Buduruwagala, from Ampitiya to Meemure and from there to the foot of the tallest peak in the Knuckles Range, Gombaniya, from Matale to Kurunegala through Yatawatte, from Moratuwa to Bambalapitiya or Kottawa to Thimbirigasyaya. People travel for a purpose: to work, to school, to meet someone, to deliver something, to buy something or attend an event. Time is a factor — you have appointments to keep, a deadline to meet — and that can make one wish the road was faster or not really mind if the road is slow.  

Slow roads are not necessarily about the time taken to go from A to B. They are, rather, about how one understands time, companionship, conversation, the road itself and the landscapes on either side. Speed (along roads) are mind-made, perception-made and one could argue is about philosophical preferences. Sometimes urgency governs all, but sometimes urgency is a product of not knowing of the thrills, lessons and healing worth of axing time from the life equation.

One could get from Colombo to Hatton in less than four hours, depending on the time you choose to leave. It could also take you longer, say five or six hours. You could be happy about spending less time on the road because you wanted to spend more time in and around Hatton. There’s something to be gained by getting there early. There’s also something that’s lost in getting there too fast.

Way back in the early seventies, a bus would take at least three hours to get from Pitakotuwa to Kurunegala. It was just 56 miles, if I remember right. The trip was so long that it was customary for buses to break journey in Nittambuwa, just 25 miles (40 km) from Colombo. There was less traffic then, but the road was narrower and wasn’t as good as it is now. Maybe people, drivers included, were in less of a hurry too.

It took the bus almost three hours, but it took my father at least 4 and not because he was a cautious driver. He too stopped for tea. A few miles this side of Nittambuwa, opposite the Bandaranaike Samadhiya there was a small arts and crafts shop which served a really good cup of tea. That’s what he said. There were things to look at and on occasion my mother would purchase beautifully embroidered serviettes or pillow cases. My brother would check out the bamboo flutes. I don’t know if my sister remembers any of it but I can’t remember either of us being overawed or agitated.

If there was a pola somewhere along the way, he would stop. Sometimes he was stopped at railway gates. He had stories to tell. We were a literally captive audience. We weren’t in a hurry. The roads were slow. I can’t remember the specifics, but somehow I feel that the potentials of road-sloth would have taken up permanent residence in my consciousness.  

There are countless stop-points on any road, none of which are marked by stop-signs. It could be a wayside kiosk offering plain tea and roti, a vegetable or fruit stall, a bend in the road offering a breathtaking view, a hamuduruwo holding an umbrella against the rain, wind and other vicissitudes, an abandoned vehicle submitting to the elements of corrosion, a tree which like a sentinel stands watch over passing time or a strange configuration of clouds. You could stop at any of these, a few or none and no one can say if you would be wiser for the decision, whatever it may be.  

Speaking strictly for myself, I will not pass judgment on wisdom acquired or lost, but I can say with utmost conviction that I’ve had no reason to regret having made roads slow down on account of whim and fancy. Simply, these ‘stops’ are made of and for fascinating conversations, with travel companions and strangers and, if you are absolutely alone, with the world around you and with yourself.

Make no mistake, it is not only the long roads, good or bad but running through spaces vast enough for the wide-angled capture or panoramic gaze, that make for slowness or slowing down and stopping. There are even ‘stops’ between two bus stops and you can stop-capture without getting off the vehicle. There are stops at railway stations and between them too. There is a stop when a vendor cries out what’s being offered, there’s a stop in the silence between words, peals of laughter, one tear and the next, and between drops of rain.  

A stop is a two-way mirror, one face to re-examine self and the other opening to a world ready for re-definition. Slow roads have many mirrors, this I have learned.

['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.]