“We are a smiling nation. That’s part of our resilience,” wrote Malinda Seneviratne. While reading it I nodded to myself and smiled. But later I developed second thoughts. Then the other day while I was on my way to visit a friend of mine who lived in Kotugoda I decided to actually test this thesis. It was simple. I smiled with every person I came face to face from Habarakada to Kotugoda irrespective of their age, gender or socio-economic status as projected by their outward appearance. The responses I received should be analyzed by someone who is far more competent than me in order to gauge their full (even true) import. Yet, let me indulge myself in some amateur psychology here.
Out of those whom I smiled with the majority did smile back. Yet most of their smiles were hurried affairs that lacked that essential ingredient called naturalness in them. It was just lip service to a custom or even a fast receding genetic memory. A sizeable number ignored me outright. They just looked through me as if my solid mass did not occupy a three dimensional space at all. A few men had taken my smile as a come on sign and in return gave me their lewd best. Three glared at me!
At my friend’s I was greeted with smiles that were so warm. Throughout my visit with my friend my brain was forced to filter information on autopilot while I had a whale of a time rehashing four years of university and future plans. Nothing was left out as holy.
On my way home I sat on a bus next to a very much connected young person who was oblivious to the entirety of the world around her so that my mind had time to regress to my earlier observances. Despite the ear-splitting songs played for my edification on contemporary music through the overhead speaker set I began to realize that Malinda’s thesis with which I readily agreed was really losing its validity. We are losing our gift of spontaneous smile.
Robert Knox was one among many outsiders who recorded our ability to bestow a smile that lifted the spirit of the receiver. And that was during the much dreaded feudal times. To use a favoured phrase of another friend, that was when we as a nation were hegemonized by feudal patriarchal powers that kept us oblivious to our subaltern status.
Then, what prevents us today in the Democratic Socialist Republic of Sri Lanka from smiling? Democracy (demo-kratiā – demos, people, kratos, strength) came into fashion with the rise of the middleclass in Europe as opposed to monarchy in its various forms. The idea was imported from the Classical Greece and presented as the only civilized option of governance. The middle class generously offered to take on the burden of speaking for the subaltern exploited by their feudal lords. The true nature of democracy (direct or representative) was willfully hidden from the masses by those who championed its introduction. Democracy was presented as a panacea for all social ills – of the people, by the people for the people. The masses like headless sheep fell in with the sophistic arguments of the power-hungry middleclass and hailed in the new form of governance with fanfare. Feudal lords were hastily disposed of.
In Sri Lanka the English did the needful by killing the majority of the island’s feudal overlords and banishing rest to rot on foreign shores. Good riddance to bad garbage! And the vacuum left by the disposed of ruling class was quietly yet quite efficiently fill by the middleclass upon the departure of their colonial overlords. Did anyone mention Animal Farm? No, this is subtler than that.
Today people do not smile as they used to as attested by Knox. Care to tell me why?