A usually calm and cool young (well, not so much anymore) columnist I know recently saw red – twice – when law and disorder broke out in two of the most unlikely places. At the first, a social gathering where the hoi polloi hobnobbed with the crème de la crème of café society, all was [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

Excuse me, but you can’t jump the queue, you corrupt ones!


A usually calm and cool young (well, not so much anymore) columnist I know recently saw red – twice – when law and disorder broke out in two of the most unlikely places.

At the first, a social gathering where the hoi polloi hobnobbed with the crème de la crème of café society, all was well until a riot broke out at the “action stations”. (That evening, I discovered why the hopper and koththu stalls which have become par for such supposedly convivial occasions are so-called.) It was a charity event at which the pre-prandial speaker had waffled on for far longer than is polite (our charity towards her was severely tested!), and everyone was as hungry as a polar bear on an ice cap being melted by global warming.

Everyone patiently queued up for an egg-hopper or three – until some ruffians from the café society camp pushed and shoved their way to the head of the queue. When push comes to shove, the hoi polloi proved that they are no slackers in the fisticuffs department. Only the timely intervention of the event organisers pre-empted a food riot… in the shape, form, and smell of eggs being thrown. But it was not the crème de la crème who were the first to throw in the egg – er, I mean, towel. The proof of the pudding is in the eating of humble pie, dears. Noblesse oblige, and all that… except for the lamentable reality that the ostensible ‘nobles’ in this blessed island are usually the last and least willing to oblige.

The second conflagration was at a garden wedding where three long queues flowed willy-nilly and encircled the befuddled bridal couple. With the processions moving slowly – a threefold cord is not quickly broken – goodwill and forbearance was at a low ebb; because, beyond the wishing- and kissing-dais, a sumptuous buffet beckoned. Imagine then the pique of patient queuers when a gang of well-connected goons (um, gentlemen) tried to muscle their way in to the top of the line.

They quoted ancient friendships, the modern inconvenience of time’s wingéd chariot hurrying near, and the eternal note of sadness that is human fallenness – but I wasn’t budging, and neither was my own bride of twelve summers, two months, and a week. No sir – there is a serpent in every Garden of Eden… and it was our intention to demonstrate that snakes such as queue-jumpers have not a leg to stand on in our Good Book.

These minor fiascos and middling imbroglios are hardly corruption, you say? I know you are muttering some such misapprehension into your morning cup that cheers (whatever the brew may be)! Allow me to explain…
Corruption dons many disguises, as a champion of transparency in business and governance recently reminded a captive audience.

There’s predictable corruption, unpredictable corruption, corruption with theft, and corruption without theft – look them up, do, for a categorical snapshot of an anonymous island-nation among other rotten banana republics around the world today. Sometimes, a little knowledge can be a dangerous thing – so drink deep, or do not taste the mercurial waters of this poisoned spring. In the meantime, one of the speaker’s interlocutors at the seminar stood up to suggest another perspective. His chronological timeline traced the phenomenon from its beginnings as a circumstantial happening, through a transactional occurrence, to a systemic condition.

In the first instance, in the dim mists of time at the dawn of independence, corruption dared to raise its ugly head very rarely indeed: it was a circumstance that, when it happened, was a scandal. As the nation grew in its enjoyment of freedom from colonial rule (greedy, all right, but sans graft – if you will grant that concession), corruption became hot news… whenever any native son was caught giving a bribe to facilitate or fast-track a transaction, the occurrence was still sensational – though hardly a scandal.

Now every man, woman, and child (and corporate house and chamber of commerce) in the island has to live with the endemic reality that bribes rule the business and political roosts, sweeteners streamline the average citizen’s progress through their daily grind, and carrots corrupt even the sea-green incorruptibles who say the right things but do not walk the talk…
Back to reality, where down-to-earth denizens do not walk the talk, but jump the queue. What is that but predictable corruption? You just know that someone, somewhere, will cut ahead of you – citing their friends, family, or fame. Is it also unpredictable corruption? Yes, because you never know where queue-jumpers will spring up next. It is corruption without theft, too: no one loses anything but their dignity, or their temper.

It is corruption with theft, as well: we lose time, space, and energy. Queue-jumping is no longer circumstantial, transactional, systemic. It has become a way of life for far too many of us. At checkout counters, traffic lights, social events. We may not be able to stamp out graft and grand larceny in our grasshopper-like lifetimes. But we can stand shoulder to shoulder to block corruption in our citizenry’s queues. Stand firm, then, friends and foes… the battle lines have been drawn – and it’s your place in the frontlines that the wicked are gunning for.

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