The Penny Dropped: THAT’S What It’s About!
For someone who has inhabited this world for a period in excess of the proverbial ‘three score and ten years,’ I feel particularly stupid for not having realized the real import of a series of incidents that I and my friends of similar appearance have been subjected to recently in the Miracle of Asia.
For instance, I had taken the regular harassment on the roads of this country by those designated as traffic policemen by virtue of their being issued white helmets and, sometimes, white Sam Browne belts, as without any malice insofar as one’s personal appearance and, perhaps, community -derivation (‘race’ as that abominable term is applied in this country) is concerned.
However, I must admit that, recently, despite my diminishing critical faculties, the penny has finally dropped!
In a previous column I related some relatively incomprehensible conduct on the part of our ‘White Helmets (WH).’ I did not then (and do not now) think that those incidents, as incomprehensible as they were at the time, had a communal bias attached to them.
However, a few recent brushes with the WHs have, as that tired old expression has it, ‘given me pause.’
The first was, a short while ago, while driving up the Galagedera Pass in the direction of Kandy, we were stopped by a member of the WHs. Now, everyone who traverses this particular piece of public highway knows exactly where the ‘white line WHs set up their ‘traps,’ so, everyone except the village idiots of Tumpane, ensure that they do not cross any unbroken white lines, single or double, on these stretches of road. Also, thanks to whoever is responsible for the roads (Road DEVELOPMENT Authority?) seeking to cover up past sins in the matter of shoddy highway building, by installing yet another ‘carpet,’ there aren’t white lines of any description to ‘cut’ after the last ‘carpet’ was applied recently. So, we could accurately be described, as that other hoary old expression has it, as ‘bemused’ by the event I am about to describe.
The better half (‘BH’ from here on in) of our domestic partnership fishes out the documentation in the glove compartment for the WH who is at her window. He checks out the documents in a leisurely manner, cranes his neck into a quite extensive visual examination of the interior of our ‘Half Loaf’ (Paan baagay) van and then says that while I, the operator of the vehicle, have committed no offence, the ‘BH’ is guilty of not wearing her seat belt (which she’d divested herself of in the effort to extract the insurance and other documents from the glove compartment in response to his request).
We then have this conversation about the inconvenience that will ensue if he is to give us a ticket or whatever. At the end of this little side-bar, I let drop the fact that I have a very cordial relationship with the OIC and the rest of the ‘khaki-clads’ at the police station which is, literally, within sight of where this conversation is taking place. Our friend retreats to a confabulation with his partner out of our hearing and then returns my driver’s licence with the admonition that I should make sure that passengers in any vehicle I’m operating wear their seat belts at all times, presumably even if the vehicle is stopped with the engine turned off!
Not wanting to waste any more of our day, we thank the WH and continue on our journey to Kandy.
The next WH we cross swords with in Kandy, provides an example of obnoxious abusiveness, the likes of which I have not experienced since my return to the land of my birth six years ago, check points all over the island included.
I am in the process of driving past the Kandy Police Station in the direction of Peradeniya when, as I slow down for the pedestrian crossing immediately adjacent to the ‘cop shop’ I hand my mobile phone, still in its closed case, to the BH so that she could make a call. We had by then, come to a virtual halt right in front of one of the examples of what must surely have been a typically politically-biased recruitment to what was once a relatively respectable Police Force. Going purely on this guy’s appearance, he had no business in anything resembling ‘law enforcement,’ as loosely as that term has been applied recently in Sri Lanka. He storms up to me, addressing me in the rudest terms possible, short of using the second person Sinhala, ‘tho’ and proceeds to accuse me of having the effrontery of using my cellphone, literally in his face, while driving.
I tell him, with all the calm I can muster, that as he should be able to see, my cellphone is in its case and it was impossible for me to have used it in the manner he accuses me of doing.
To no avail. He orders me to drive a little further down the road and pull over on the side of a very busy piece of Old Peradeniya Road, which I do.
One of his buddies, one of several that are permanently on duty at that busy intersection, it seems, doing very little most of the time, ambles over to me and I proceed to tell him what I’d already told his colleague.
Sensing that this was not going to be the easiest of ‘kills’ he admonishes me that I should accept my ‘fault’ and not do it again. ‘I tell him, as politely as I can, that I have not been guilty of what his colleague and now he are accusing me of. He repeats that I should accept my guilt and to leave because I am obstructing traffic. In order to avoid this kafkaesque scenario escalating into something more serious, we decide to drive away.
A while later, having completed what business we had down the farther reaches of Old Peradeniya Road, we return by the same route, being particularly mindful not to have anything that our traffic cops at the same intersection could construe as a mobile phone, or an assault weapon for that matter, in sight! We proceed up the road towards the police grounds and, as we begin the initial climb, one of two policemen on the side of road signals me to stop. I am about to do so when he signals me to proceed. Bizarre, to say the least and likely to make one wonder whether one was coming down with a case of paranoid schizophrenia of the same variety as the Sri Lankan government!
Anyway, over the last week or so, we haven’t had any similar weird and wonderful experiences featuring our constabulary, white helmeted or otherwise, primarily because we haven’t been out on the road!
Then, a few days ago, a (widowed) female friend whose spoken Sinhala is not the greatest, calls from Colombo and relates a tale of unprovoked intimidation and harassment by a policeman who pulls her over for allegedly driving dangerously at a pedestrian crossing, the one person who might have been likely to occupy that convenience not even having stepped off the sidewalk on to it.
The details are too tedious to recount in a piece of this length. Suffice it to say that I can certainly vouch for the careful manner in which this lady drives. In fact her driving style could be described as “ultra slow-coach” and anything but “Jenson Button!”
Being in the company of another widow – no males in the vehicle – the experience had been an altogether disquieting one with the khaki-clad intimidator displaying all the class of a Mexico City cop in the pay of some drug cartel. ‘Polish and politeness’ could hardly have been descriptive of his behaviour.
To cut a long story short, the other widowed friend accompanying her intervenes. This lady I featured in a previous column when her home was invaded by one of the thugs on what is (was?) considered Duminda Silva’s turf, and her visiting (French-Canadian) son-in-law threatened with the same fate as the British Palestinian butchered down south, at that time. She tells off the cop, asking him why he was acting like the neighbourhood bully. The compromise resolution of the problem was that the driver accepted the ‘fine sheet,’ spent a significant amount of time going through the rigmarole involved in those circumstances and, finally, retrieved her driver’s licence and drove away, thoroughly shaken by an unnerving experience.
While I have not been one to gild any faux-lilies relating to the professionalism and good manners of Sri Lanka’s constabulary, now or during the past 70+ years, what our friends and I experienced recently smacked of something more than just ill-mannered buffoonery.
A little more discussion with friends and acquaintances suggested that these outbursts were driven by a combination of two rather nasty factors – the impunity with which those who wield power under the current regime operate and a new racism/communalism/discrimination driven by the xenophobic propaganda that is in the process of swamping this country. The Dambulla mosque invasion, the decapitation of non-Sinhala Buddhist statues in the East and North etc. etc., are all symptomatic of the pattern of an ‘open season’ that has been declared on minorities that are being targeted as a source of distraction by an increasingly politically and economically bankrupt government.
Those of us who’ve had these recent experiences belong to that community described as being of ‘mixed blood’ – Burghers, Eurasians, whatever – and have skins of fairer hue than the ‘average’ Sinhalese.
A continuous barrage of propaganda demonizing those of light complexion provides the platform for those who have, for a considerable time now, believed themselves, to be above the law. They, accordingly, harass and intimidate those of us whom the powers-that-be have defined as not part of the Master Race and therefore, inferior. That’s the penny of recognition that has now dropped in this old mind.
All that remains to be said – and I have said this before – is that one is well-advised to take those precautions that are necessary to protect one, not just from marauding street criminals but from those parading as guardians of the law!