RISKING EMBARRASSMENT

By Thilak S. Fernando

Recently I had a unique opportunity of meeting an old school master of mine, who taught me Sinhalese a few years ago, when he was in London on holiday. This time when we saw each other we behaved more or less like friends, for I had matured and become a father and on his part, although he maintained his magical youth externally, he had seemingly grown some twenty odd years senior in his age.

It was a great moment for both of us, and naturally, we were reminiscing and discussing Sri Lanka in general. Mr. X suddenly came out with a fascinating story, a true-to-life experience inside a CTB bus once. It had taken place during peak traffic and Mr. X had noticed the demonstration of fairness on the ' first-come first served' given the thumbs down and, as a result, the bus was getting over-crowded. At every bus stop passengers were getting naturally sandwiched in the uncomfortable heat inside the bus as a result.

My teacher's eye had suddenly caught an attractive lady's 'standing' out figure while she was trying to get her balance inside the bus while the driver was thinking he was on a grand-prix track. The lady apparently showed signs of discomfort as she tried to come out of a 'squeeze' situation, according to my teacher. She was sweating, getting flushed in her face and was about to collapse thought my Sinhala teacher. When my teacher was about to get up and offer her a seat the lady had, like a lightning, turned back suddenly towards the decently looking gentleman in an immaculate, creaseless white National dress, who was literally propping her with his whole body to stop her falling over and, to everyone's amazement looked sharp into the gent's eyes, opened her mouth wide, taken a deep breath and yelled:

"Me Thamuse Monawade Oyi Karanne…?" (Hey what the hell are you doing?). There was a dead silence inside the crowded bus says my teacher. However, the gent had snapped back at her saying, " Ah Mama dan Piliyandala Iskole Ugannanawane!" (Oh yes! I am now teaching at Piliyandala Central School). My teacher explained to me how the man's presence of mind worked to save his skin at that split second.

Riding into work or home during morning or evening rush hour traffic on the London Underground tube train reminds that the British are supposed to display their traditional sangfroid. This is the great National characteristic that the British were always being made the envy of other races who were burdened with more excitable temperaments. And indeed, as passengers piled grumpily into carriages and those within are squeezed tighter and tighter together it's true that scarcely a word of complaint or protest is heard. But slowly the suspicion begin to dawn that this has less to do with sangfroid than with an utter horror everyone seemed to have of drawing any attention to themselves.

Knees in the groin, elbows in the face, upper thorax in the case of ladies and fists in the ribs are as nothing compared to the shame of becoming the centre of attraction. Those unfortunate few who squealed in agony, as yet another beefy commuter lands on their feet, are subjected to glances of withering scorn from those around them as if they are doing something both selfish and unseemly. Under the circumstances this is not so much laudable as thoroughly unnatural. The British must be the only nation on earth who will happily endure almost any torment rather than the risk of embarrassment.

My old teacher seems to think that there is only one remedy for anybody misbehaving on a public transport. He draws a parallel with stringent and extremely painful punishments imposed in countries like Saudi Arabia. For example, if anyone is found guilty of stealing in Saudi Arabia the often will lose either a finger or hand. Barbaric it might sound in the twentieth century, but it appears to be a fact. My teacher, therefore is of the opinion that introduction of such painful punishments ( taking Saudi Arabia as a direct example) would be the only answer to a painless travel in a public transport - at least in Sri Lanka.