“What do you want?”
Not hello, how are you? or even can I help you? Rather this cut to the chase ‘greeting’ on the part of the proprietor of the net cafe on Galle Road. Still, I was getting somewhere. He had till this moment ignored my arrival on the premises and blithely gone on with what he was doing until he was good and ready to attend to yours truly. Though tempted to apologise for interrupting the smooth flow of his afternoon, I explained what it was I ‘wanted’ and down to business we got.
Days later I ambled into a food retailer on the road passing the western flank of the Colombo University Playground. Deja vu. “What do you want?” inquired the broom wielding young man behind the counter. The complete lack of preamble might have surprised but for the fact of the not forgotten recent encounter. In any event my interlocutor was in the process of shutting up shop for the day. Nor, for that matter, did he have what I wanted.
I thought the aforementioned university playground might serve ideally as my running venue while in the city and started marking early morning laps on the unwieldy surface. One morning I was proceeding merrily on my way when a local man near the toilet block and change rooms clapped his hands in my direction. At first I believed him to be genially applauding my sterling solo display. A second glance led me to realise otherwise.
The one clapping his hands at me, as if I were a performing animal at a circus, was the groundsman. Despite the language barrier I soon understood that for the incalculable pleasure of sensing the playground grass beneath the soles of my runners, to say nothing of risking a twisted ankle on the surface’s ruts, I (obviously a foreigner) needed a pass.
Well and good. The question of where I might obtain the said pass was resolved through the interpreter skills of a third party, a young woman. I would have to drop into the Department of Physical Education, located in the glut of buildings on the other side of Reid Avenue, and enquire there. Off I went one day, toward the close of a long afternoon’s walk in the heat and humidity.
The middle-aged woman before whom I sat in the rectangular-shaped department office did not ask what I wanted. She did not need to. The way she looked me up and down led me to feel I was already on borrowed time. On this occasion I sensed I ought to apologise on two counts: the presumption of my interruption, in the first instance, and the fact that I had the gall to sweat in the city’s humid, cloying weather in the second.
A letter begging leave of the department director – then seated in one corner of the triangle recounting the different requirements in, to me, unintelligible Sinhala – and the payment of a fee would net me the pass. A fee? To run on grass? And on that unmanicured, potentially ankle destroying plot? What way was that to treat a nine-time marathoner? The only occasions I ever paid to run were when I participated in designated community fun runs, half-marathons and marathons. Nonetheless, I took the tidings with surface stoicism and went on my way, already cogitating less costly alternatives to this bureaucratic bunk.
As was clearly the case in neighbouring India, the natives in Sri Lanka’s modern day capital had learnt well from the colonising Brits – in some respects. I often smiled to think that the very much stand on ceremony British would have had their work cut out overseeing a people who paid so little regard to formal graces. Hellos often went unremarked. Introductions, both of oneself and through the agency of a third person known to the two ‘unfamiliars’, lagged, if they occurred at all.
A Sri Lankan I introduced myself to (no one having bothered to introduce us) and chatted with one evening hardly vouchsafed a glance when he sat within a couple of feet of me while calling on a mutual acquaintance days later. Nor did we in Australia exactly stand on ceremony. But one could as a rule count on a g’day as a bare minimum. Not here in the (slightly misshapen) pear-shaped isle. Then again perhaps this was more a reflection on jaded, put-upon big city dwellers than an accurate overall picture. In my travels outside the city on two prior trips I gained another impression.
There was one thing practised in my homeland also practised in this nation: the sensible idea of rounding off, whether up or down a couple of rupiah or cents, the bills one received in supermarkets and from other retailers. In this manner we had at home long ago effectively done away with pesky one and two-cent coins. Generally the habitual rounding off balanced out. You were neither categorically short-changed nor categorically the beneficiary.
However, I took mental note the day a cashier in the Jawatta Road Food City rounded off in such a way that I walked away bout 50 SLR in the red. In another ‘let it be’ display I let it be. Not one to bear grudges, I gave her my ritual smile and hello the next time I dropped in. Just to make it clear I remained a happy patron. And she responded in kind. Perhaps, in time, I would win a smile from all the city slickers if I stuck to my guns. One could hope.