“Self-respect is the root of discipline: The sense of dignity grows with the ability to say no to oneself.” ~ Abraham Joshua Heschel
It is indeed a great experience to commute between work and home in Colombo. The traffic jams, the painstaking waiting at traffic lights which are turned off during the worst hours so that a live constable could direct traffic without allowing the undisciplined motorists to beat the red light and thereby cause new jams which are beyond the realm of road-discipline and to unscramble the traffic gridlock is a herculean task, whether the duty officer is an experienced one or not. To move again is a dream come true. Day in and day out, those who use our roads are confronted with this awfully distasteful task of navigating in a stormy ocean of traffic, motor and pedestrian, trying one’s way. A moving nightmare, this spectacle plays out without a break, mirroring a nation whose compass is lost for some time; sometimes, never to find it again in this lifetime.
This pitiful panorama of life at large is being displayed out for all to see and experience, reflecting a people’s impatience, their callous disregard for law and order, failure on the part of those who are charged with maintaining a semblance of order and discipline on road, the Traffic Police. Politicians of the last regime who used to whistle past helpless ‘others’ to their unknown destinations, official or otherwise, may be absent today - yet the absolute indiscipline of the subject people is no less than it was during any time. This unadulterated road-rowdiness is in display wherever one chooses to travel - an incredible agony for the onlooker and an excruciating wait-and-run for the motorist. All those who use our roads suffer a collective suffocation of life, commute and everything else that really matters in day-to-day existence. But the inconceivable human stories that surround all those who use our roads, the traffic and other outfits of travelling, are never told in full mournful detail. So I decided to make an attempt - with my own humble pen.
The mass of commuters waiting at bus stops, hundreds of schoolchildren in their own personal hordes chatting and joking about the various goings-on in their respective classes, a Buddhist monk hurrying back to his temple before dark; some in three-wheelers, some in four-wheelers and yet others treading the good earth, for they are not fortunate, or yet unfortunate, to use mo-bikes, and other commuting gear that populate our narrow streets of urban and suburban Colombo.
Their needs, their wants, their weeping and laughter, their comings and goings, their daily struggle to put food on the table for their families, all these and more make an integral part of the glorious mosaic of life. Its splendour, its lamentation, its begrudging complaints and its magnificent celebrations, its snail-paced drag and its nauseating speed and its waits and insufferable disappointments and its hidden jealousies and hatreds, its wicked motives and cruel executions, all these play an enormous role in a man’s day, whether he travels by bus, three-wheeler, mo-bike or on foot, the core does not change. Deep inside that core resides humanity’s essentials, its values and those values’ validity and vitality. This great human drama is being played around every corner of this globe. Not only in Colombo, not only in other urban cities, not only in the great suburbs. It’s being enacted in the remotest hamlets and villages.
Among those commuters are found boyfriend-girlfriend tales which include, among others, the nagging of the girlfriend for a quick marriage while the boy is looking for some fun and extraction of lust until he decides it’s time to marry or part; in this midst are found parents of an ailing child rushing from one specialist to another in a three-wheeler while putting away the thought of repaying the loan that they received form the neighbor to trek to Colombo in search of a miracle treatment for their child’s cruel illness.
The devoted school teacher whose age is as hidden behind her well-groomed hairstyle and closely-knit jacket as an ageless peacock and attired in an elegant Kandyan sari having secured a transfer from a distant district to her home district by courtesy of the Education Department and couldn’t lose time to tell her disabled-soldier husband, rented a four-wheel taxi to rush home. Her taxi too is stuck in the twilight-traffic-gridlock in the city. Life in all its wonders is in display. How each one is facing hardship and new challenges and overcomes them or gets drowned in treacherous flurry of combined ill-luck is just how one would look at life. The gram seller who occupied most of the daytime on Galle face green has made his day’s collection target and is content with his day’s achievement. He is heading towards the closest liquor seller to warm up for the night. His young and buxom wife is eagerly waiting at the shanty-dwelling located in a not-so-rosy corner of the city to discover that her husband and she could afford to have another child with the increasing sales during last few months.
Life full of expectations and despair, lows and highs, bravery and timidity and love and hate, is playing its unpredictable drama on an unpoetic tone on a rush-hour street in the capital city of Colombo. Those who travel in 5-series Mercedes are travelling home eager to get back home, change and head for a cocktail party at which he is expecting to meet a Minister in charge of a special project and probably close the deal of a government tender. But he will have to wait in traffic too.
Rush-hour jam is a great equalizer and means to favour no one, whether travelling by a Mercedes or a three-wheeler. The young housewife who has recently secured a promotion and by way of that promotion has qualified for company transport in Maruti car is also among this frustrated populace on road. She will definitely be late to get home and her husband who is a young lecturer at the university must be frustrated too, for he is hungry.
In this unfriendly carnival of life, traffic jams play a very decisive part in defining and shaping the clown-character and core of those who are willy nilly taking part in this wild drama. There is no room for poetic justice; there is no space for forgiving souls; there is no easy way out for shortcut-oriented wheeler-dealers. Those who understand how clumsy our traffic-management is on road and the powers that be would be wise enough to wait for a brighter day to dawn which would also usher in an orderly way of driving, walking and general road-discipline which the average Sri Lankan has no clue about. No political party, no Inspector General of Police or DIG in charge of Traffic or for that matter, Commissioner General of Motor Traffic has paid sufficient attention, nor have they diagnosed the real cause of these innumerable traffic jams that cause endless streams of frustration and sighs by the users of our roads. A people whose fundamental faith in self-discipline has broken down beyond any redemption, a people whose characteristically natural disregard for law and order, a people who do not understand that the next door neighbour too has the same right the other has, a people who have been hoodwinked over five to six decades by power-hungry political leaders, a people whose religious leaders are as apathetic to socio-economic changes that sweep the world as a they could ever be, would not come to grips with an endemic situation which, if not curbed and controlled now, would end up choking our capital City to virtual death.
In the total absence of a sophisticated, empathetic and cultured approach to modern-day issues, any efforts at Band-Aid solutions would all fail. And ironically, it would be our children who will have to pay an unbelievable price for a generation or two. Chaos cannot be eliminated by standing still while everything is falling apart. That is precisely what this generation of ours has been doing- mass-impotency in the face of grave challenges and demands.
A generation whose brains have been dulled by an archaic education system, a generation that has been shown an untold number of mirages, a generation that has been rotting away in a ‘comfort zone’ of political promises and economic emptiness may find it extremely hard to reconcile clashing value systems. Social scientists have so far made attempts only at paying ‘pooja’ to powers that be. In Les Misérables, Victor Hugo says thus:“Teach the ignorant as much as you can; society is culpable in not providing a free education for all and it must answer for the night which it produces. If the soul is left in darkness sins will be committed. The guilty one is not he who commits the sin, but he who causes the darkness”. In our case, it is those who are in charge of policy who have committed a bigger sin.
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