A bridge too far

Maps are fascinating. They are at the same time both mysterious and illuminating. Keys, legends and symbols sometimes make them hard to read…

But crack the code and you’re two shakes of a swan’s tail away from a fun time… If you’re game for the kind of entertainment that maps provide at no extra charge. My personal favourites are a cosmography of the universe (online at, which makes one nauseatingly aware of how small humankind is on the cosmic scale of things – And a geography of Sri Lanka which, strangely enough, suffices to make some people (I’m not telling) feel bigger than they really are.

You might call it the comic scale; and even if you do, I won’t report you to the thought police.Be that as it may, we were talking about maps this morning. Fascinating pieces of work, I was saying – and you were nodding politely, gentle reader, perhaps missing the point. They are microcosms of a larger reality out there, a clever representation of a world that is populated by princes and paupers, pundits and poseurs, pollsters and politicians (in descending order of life form). Their features span bridges, flyovers, dams, ports, sports stadiums, tunnels, airports, hydroelectric and coal-fired power plants; and bridges, air bridges and more bridges – in case you weren’t paying attention.

Now maps would be a good thing in principle if there wasn’t a breed of infinitesimal cosmic (or do we mean comic) creature for whom they are simply not sufficiently potent. Maps, for these mechanicals, are too much about potential and not enough about promise. In their development-oriented minds, cartography is weighted too heavily in the realm of romance and the reality of infrastructure is treated too lightly. And recently, this handful or budding busybody bureaucrats, mindless mandarins and soulless sycophants struck back… with a vengeance – such that the maps of my youth were cruelly replaced, virtually overnight, with campaign posters.

Such a sudden transformation of mere signs and symbols on a 1:15,000 black-and-white map to the more concrete depictions in full-colour propaganda images are only possible in a day and age where government is a taxing business and there is some slight confusion between what is mine and thine, by the way.Into the bargain of this cunning plan (Let’s not bring Machiavelli into this, shall we? That’s too princely a compliment!) was an accelerated development scheme, so to say. Where infrastructure had existed in the abstract before, now it was expediently offered up in a more concrete form to snatch hunger away from the jaws of the salivating masses – who swallowed it hook, line and sinker.

Upper Kotmale Hydropower Station, Arugam Bay Bridge, Beruwala Fisheries Harbour, Dehiwela Flyover (aka ‘air bridge’ in the vernacular), Homagama International Stadium, Hambantota International Harbour, Kelaniya ‘air bridge’, Nugegoda ‘air bridge’, Southern Expressway… All these marvels of native engineering came up while the elephant was daydreaming and the fox crept from chicken run to hen coop at night – And when the powers that be in our animal kingdom proposed to jet, whiz and drive around at top speed in a flurry of activity shortly before D-Day to declare open these unmapped and summarily uncorked items of national (and don’t forget, “international”) infrastructure, why that’s when you and I were at our wit’s end!

Now don’t get us wrong, dear kingly bridge-builders and dukes of hazardous air bridges! We are not grudging you how the masses were, er, persuaded by this coup de main… Nor are we grousing about how the ever-so-subtle coup de grace for those who traverse especially those air bridges is the distinct sensation that one has flown over the cuckoo’s nest… No, no, we are not grumbling at all – We dare not do so, for reasons best not essayed at this point. We merely wish to point out that had you so desired to stage a genuine coup d’etat as far as map-loving, propaganda-ignorant and truly development-oriented persons were concerned, all you had to do was draw up a different road map of sorts.

In fact, your beloved leaders had hinted broadly at such an arrangement in the near future. Namely, to stop the rot that has led this country down the garden path and up the broad road to destruction for far too long now. Imagine, then, our unmitigated joy when we heard a sovereign monarch in a far-away, fairy-tale land utter those magic words: “I will try to begin to end corruption in this country.”

Alas, if only the route to this demi-paradise, this other Eden, was clearer! Alack, if only air bridges could be built to lift us out of these nepotistic and despotic doldrums! To judge the incumbents at face value (and there are ‘maps’ on people’s faces that can be read as easily as ‘polls propaganda’ can be seen through), such a hope may be a bridge too far? More so when their personal bridge across forever ends at a newly constructed rainbow, courtesy the taxpayer, with a pot of gold…

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