by Michael Patrick O'Leary
This was written by my alter ego Thaddeus O’Grouch for Adoh magazine back in 2007.
There was a hoary old joke that used to be told against the Irish. It was probably concocted by the Irish themselves to get them out of doing any work. It goes something like this:
There was an international conference of philologists. During a tea break a Spanish philologist engaged an Irish philologist in conversation and asked, “Is there, in the Irish language, any word equivalent to the Spanish concept of manyana?”
The Irishman thought for a while and responded: “Well there are a number of Irish words that are vaguely synonymous with manyana, but none with the same sense of urgency.”
That story long ago ceased to convey an accurate impression of the real Ireland of today. Today a more accurate cliché is the remark that there is no phenomenon in the known universe quite as alarming as an Irishman on the make.
Ireland has discovered urgency in a big way and a lot of people have put some serious energy into becoming obscenely rich and unpleasant.
The joke might be adapted to fit more aptly the Sri Lankan national character. As I go about my daily doings I am constantly faced with the manyana syndrome.
Some examples: in my foolish desire to put something substantial between my golden locks and the incessant rain, I made enquiries about roofing materials. A well-known company of tile manufacturers agreed to send a representative to weigh up my requirements. At the appointed time of our appointment there was no sign of himself. I rang his mobile and spoke to him. He was in Ratnapura – about four hours drive away from my roofless abode.
Being the sort of fellow who likes to plan ahead I decided that once I did have a roof it would make economic and ecological sense to have solar panels fitted to it. A chap from a solar panel company agreed, somewhat reluctantly I thought, to come and have a look at the place where my roof should be. Fair play to him, he did turn up somewhere in the approximate vicinity of the agreed time and told an inspiring tale of the early hour at which he had risen from his slumbers in order to get to me. We had a pleasant chat over a couple of beers. Some months later, he sent a plumber who offered to bring me some prawns from Negombo. He made a few leaks that had not been there before and disappeared never to be seen again. Two years later, I still have no solar panels.
Incidentally, I do have a new roof. I was always adamant that I would not have an asbestos roof on the sensible premise that I felt I was too young to die. The tile roofing people let me down. Various metal roofing suppliers failed to call back. One, after threats of violence, did turn up at my gate with an estimate but it was many times the GNP of some emerging nations. I now have a new (asbestos) roof but it leaks more than the old one.
Thwarted in my ambition to generate my own electricity through the power of the sun, I decided to ask the CEB to get me a more powerful supply for those little lacunae of contentment and illumination when my life-support system is operational between the power cuts.
CEB have notices in their office in three languages saying ‘The customer is king’. I tried to feel regal as I filled in the form handed to me by a sullen girl behind an ancient typewriter. My crown got a bit sweaty as I trudged a couple of miles to a bank to pay the required fee and then back to the CEB with the receipt. I waited several unroyal months for the work to be done. Innumerable phone calls elicited innumerable imaginative promises and excuses. No-one ever turned up on an allotted day. They often turned up when I was not at home.
I seem to spend a lot of my declining and rapidly diminishing years waiting in futile anticipation. Sometimes I feel I have lost the will to live. My complaints and pink-faced rantings are charmingly accepted with a shrug and a smile and the inevitable: ‘This is Sri Lanka, no?’
A European acquaintance long resident in Sri Lanka advised me that it would be detrimental to my general health and equanimity to try to learn Sinhala. I was told that I could never hope to be fluent enough to avoid being an object of merriment among the natives. Even if I were to become fluent, people would pretend to be unable to understand me in order to avoid difficult situations. Otherwise they would try to engage me in conversation which would not do at all.
In spite of myself, I have learnt a few phrases which have some limited use. Some of these phrases are too disgusting to commit to the pages of such a chaste publication.
One phrase, poddak inne, has proved useful in daily commerce. I am used to being on the receiving end, waiting patiently for nothing to happen as I slouch a little nearer to the lip of the grave. If someone agrees to meet me on Tuesday – poddak inne- I must stoically accept that they may turn up, unannounced, the following Sunday. Why worry? Watch that blood pressure!
But an extremely laid-back approach to delivering service is combined with severely limited impulse control when seeking services. The simple task of buying a stamp from a Sri Lankan post office is an acute test of my cardio-vascular system because everyone else is so impatient. One goes to the counter marked ‘stamps’. One asks for a stamp and is greeted by an expression of derision and redirected to the counter marked ‘postal orders’. One makes a lonely attempt to form an orderly queue but is buffeted on all sides by people with anxious expressions who try to climb over one and thrust their fenugreeky armpits into one’s face.
In Cargills, as I patiently wait at the checkout to pay handsomely for the cornucopia of bounty in my brimming trolley, there is always someone with one item like an ice cream or a single toffee or a mobile update who thinks that they can interrupt the inexorable totting up of my gargantuan bill and be on their way speedily. Poddak inne, my good fellow! This remonstrance can be combined with a faux clumsy backward step in my hobnailed boots crushing the fragile Bata- slippered toes of the interloper.
There is always a danger that I might run out of petrol because I have a phobia about petrol sheds. Filling up one’s tank is such a stressful operation because of the reluctance of the petrol-purchasing masses patiently to succumb to an orderly process. I am just about to be served when another motor-cyclist nips in front of me. If I ever manage to fill up I cannot get back on the road because I am surrounded by three-wheelers or the exit is blocked by mating buses.
The inability to wait is also manifested on the highway itself. Elsewhere in the motoring world there is a recognised code of conduct for letting people through, rules of precedence and right of way. When these rules are followed in a civilised fashion the traffic flows smoothly. In Sri Lanka the rule seems to be ‘aggressively lay claim to every inch of road and don’t give way to anyone’. This short-sighted impatience leads to lengthy blockages. When I try some of my foul Sinhala phrases in such situations the result is usually a friendly smile and “you are from which country?’ In England if you transgress the code or look at another motorist in the wrong way you will probably get shot in the head.
Often I am driving along in my usual impeccable fashion when a pedestrian looking the other way flings himself in front of my vehicle even though the road behind me is totally devoid of traffic and he could have crossed safely had he waited one pico-second.
Advancing white vans on the wrong side of the road will horn at me ordering me to vacate the highway so that they can get past me immediately. As soon as they succeed they pull up and park. What was the urgency?
This toxic combination of lethargic unreliability and psychotic futile urgency is enough to test the patience of even such a saint as myself.