|Grins and groans in a city market-place
Common sources of grins in the market-place are claims, costume,
pseudo-culture, while those of groans include air pollution beggary, crude service,
deceit, selfishness and horrid
by O. D. Sooriyapala
The daily visit to the market-place makes us grin here and groan there. It is far from being balanced by pieces of refined and even beautiful behaviour that one rarely meets with.
Crossing the street from one side of Galle Road to the other at the Bambalapitiya market junction, one undergoes the stress of breathing smoke-loaded air from the stream of vehicles on the road.
The red post-box which stood at the top of Station Road has been destroyed by vandals. The more solid green pillar post-box remains. At a pavement lottery stall opposite the post-box it was sad one day to see the old stall keeper being abused and threatened by a young man who was angry that he had been given an inadequately bound set of papers containing the recent lottery winning numbers.
Along the pavements there are beggars pleading for money. Some are old men and old women who do their act solo, others are women with one or more children. Some of the young beggar mothers openly breast-feed their children; it is as if they say "Breast milk is best milk (anyway the cheapest for us)". These shows are not meant to be alluring. One of the old male beggars shakes one hand, or sometimes both, to simulate Parkinsonism and he mutters a pleading formula.
Big names. The market-place has taken unto itself such high-sounding terms as "City" and "Plaza". The City proper is Colombo but the trivialising versions of it are seen in places like the shopping mall called "Majestic City" in Bambalapitiya. Within "Majestic City" there is a "Food City" which is merely a shop for groceries, meat, fish, and medicines; and up on the third floor is a cell called "Book City". A Plaza is a square or an open paved area in a city or town but the trivialised versions of it are seen in such buildings as the "Liberty Plaza" in Kollupitiya and Unity Plaza" in Bambalapitiya.
Claims. In "Majestic City", going past a cut-out of a stout Yankee who claims to be a "Chicken Genius" one enters the "Food City" and meets w-ith packages on the shelves which claim to be the "Finest Blend of Tea", "Delicious Seeni Sambol", etc. A "3 in 1" mixture of coffee, milk and sugar calls itself an "ideal blend". It is a world of the marketing mans shameless superlatives within a "super" market.
Music. There is the sound of music forced upon us in these "Cities" and "Plazas" . It is western pop music which is at the lower end of the scale of culture, with noisy, artless screaming and caterwauling of voices and instruments. The same thing is met with in buses too, the music there being Sinhala pop, which are either from cassettes, or from radio accompanied by the ceaseless inane chatter of the announcers.
Dress. Women alluringly walk along in trousers and short shirts which exaggerate the bodily prominences and hollows. There is nothing like the saree, you say to yourself, and thats what the Indians gave us. The saree is a case of restraint with refinement. Trousers are fine for convenience, and if they are accompanied by long loose shirts and trousers, as the Chinese do or as with salwar and kameez, they would be fine. But when they are accompanied by painted toe nails and other exaggerations, they are distracting. The Buddha statues depict the Blessed One as a man who walked with his eyes looking down, as if to accentuate the "LTDE" formula of the Lords Prayer "Lead Us Not into Temptation but Deliver Us from Evil".
Mobile phones. The frequency with which mobile phones ring, or seem to ring, in the hands of those who carry them in the market- place, indicates a kind of show-off and snobbery. It all seems unnecessarily distracting. Hand-holding in couples is an expression of affection but it seems to be often overdone for show.
Pseudo-culture. During the Sinhalese and Tamil New Year season, "Majestic City" puts on a show. There are stalls where festival foods are made on the spot and sold; a set of old women play a rabana drum in the main lobby. "Food City" dresses up its salesgirls in cloth and jacket and its men including its men-managers in a colourful sarong and tunic. These men-managers wear shirt and tie (!) on every other day except during this Oriental New Year period. "Food City" has an extra stall where festival sweetmeats are sold. All of these shows seem to be artificial devices with no real feeling behind them, like extolling village life while living in the city, and like so many popular Sinhalese songs which rant about bees and flowers without giving the impression to the listener that the lyricist or the singer have any real love of Nature. In "Food City" they might as well add the sound of the koha bird played on a tape. The impression of artificiality is enhanced by really unreal exhibits like the one near the east entrance of the "Majestic City" where there is a large pan with sizzling oil over a pseudo-fire without anything being fried in it, and another at the central lobby showing an urn overflowing with milk - and the milk is an artificial plastic wool. One is thankful that the Seasons Greeting Card has not yet gained admittance into the Oriental New Year, but I guess it is a matter of time before it appears on the commercial scene.
Boutiques. "Food City" is professional in its service of customers. Well, more or less: dont expect them to answer, or at least acknowledge, customers letters as soon as they should. On the way to "Food City" I pass a boutique (a "hole in the wall" as a Canadian friend of mine once said) situated nearer my home where I can buy articles such as bottles of milk and aerated water, but there is so little room in the boutique that it results in uncouth behaviour among the customers who push their way in and selfishly force their hands to the one mudalali-cashier there. There is no queue. And often the mudalali is busy at his phone, keeping the customers waiting.
Distressing sights. I am a vegetarian (with fish sometimes added) but sometimes I have to go to the municipal beef stall for the sake of others at home. The sights there are so crude that I find it utterly distressing. The crudest sight of all is that of seeing the severed heads of cattle lying on the floor of the den. The vocal sounds and the hopeless struggling of the fowls that are being killed in the adjoining chicken dens are very distressing. The "Food City" by contrast is refined; everything is odourless and clean and no heads are seen (except alas! for some heads of large fish), and the chickens have been killed elsewhere and systematically packaged.
Deceit. Wanting to buy a packet of saalaya fish for the cats, I asked an itinerant fishmonger near the market for it. While he was getting ready to weigh the fish I noticed that the fish had only a slight resemblance to saalayas. When I asked him what they really were he said they were big saalayas to which another name is also given. He was simply trying to hoodwink me.
Quality control. The numerous stalls along -the pavement sell a variety of goods including second-hand books, radios and music material. I bought a second-hand audiocassette a few days ago of Vedic Chants but the tape packed up shortly after the start of the music.
Jostling is a vulgarity not only in boutiques but also in other places where there is a rush. Getting into a bus is a case in point. An old teacher of mine told me that once at Bambalapitiya Junction he had put his hand across the steps at the entrance to the bus to prevent a jostler from pushing him away. Inside the bus the man had become abusive and said aloud that hed have hammered him but for his age. (His respect for age seemed to me to be an unexpected saving grace.) Where is there room in the midst of all this vulgarity in crowded boutiques and buses for fairness and self-control and for living up to the maxim "Love, Joy, Peace, and Kindness plus Humour"?
A sense of humour would be useful to deal with the anger that makes one grin with clenched teeth. It should be the rarer kind of humour in which one laughs internally to oneself, directed not at the perpetrators of the stresses, but at oneself for ones lack of immunity against them. Thus in a situation of jostling, I once came across a man who moved aside saying to his jostler "You first, Sir!". I guess it was the product of a sense of humour which protected him from blowing up in anger and frustration. In the non-professional situations of poor service in bout-iques, the person who is not sure about being good-humoured would do well to avoid such boutiques and be prepared to pay a little more for better service at the more professionalised places. The alluring distraction of styles of dress and the irritating distraction met with in public transport need not touch one at all as they do not affect ones person directly. The distracting music that assails ones ears can be looked upon humourously as providing one with a free lesson in the character of pop music.
Another coping strategy is to cultivate those situations which one feels are beautiful and kindly. They compensate for the vulgarities. The managers and servers, both men and women, are pleasant people. I find the salesmen at the carnivores counter and at the spirits stall of "Food City" to be cheerful and ready to smile with their customers. So are many of the salesgirls at the cashier machines, in "Food City" and "Book City".
|NEWS | FEATURES | OPINION | BUSINESS | EDITORIAL | CARTOON | SPORTS|