I don’t travel abroad, as much as I used to in the midsummer of my life. But now, as the fall burst of appetite for knowledge and adventure deepens, I do. And inevitably – after the trip – when the wings dip, and the new shoes touch old home soil, and the eye beholds the [...]

The Sundaytimes Sri Lanka

To win the rat race and ‘reverse culture shock’


I don’t travel abroad, as much as I used to in the midsummer of my life. But now, as the fall burst of appetite for knowledge and adventure deepens, I do. And inevitably – after the trip – when the wings dip, and the new shoes touch old home soil, and the eye beholds the bleakness of terrain and the barrenness of spirit and the brokenness of posture in the old country, I yearn for a glory that has passed. Or never was part of our culture at all, except in youth’s heated inexperience and self-delusion.

Do you feel it too, dears? The loss of balance and goodwill as the plane banks on thin air and flops down, flaps down, at a near-abandoned airport. That coolness of not guilty but sweaty palms and fevered brow as the buzzards gather around bureaucratic counters, and farther in and farther out the vultures wait with vans and wan inquisitive looks. (As if you stole the loot from duty-free or desecrated a holy shrine or sacred tomb to pillage some long-lost national treasure.) Those sickening feelings in the gut of the soul as buses blare you off-road… Or nausea in the pit of one’s personality as cars nip/tuck you in. Or the drop in the bowel of being and nothingness when cyclists of all persuasions try to commit suicide against your unforgiving fender in protest at the merciless convoy shrieking into the distance.

You think I overstate the case. You think I undervalue our national assets and country-bumpkin attributes. You feel it is wrong to be so negative and cynical. You feel it is morally unconscionable to let the side down so badly, so meanly. You would be right for the wrong reason – not knowing what it is to grieve for our golden grove’s un-leaving, and what it is to yearn for the sea-green incorruptibility of our full potential at the same times.

This is after the briefest of sojourns overseas. This is after the wine-dark wonderment of some strange sense of independence in a nation-state that is not so much democratic as a conservative but benevolent desert-monarchy in modern cosmopolitan dress. This is because personal space is respected there; inquisitive stares are as rare as curious glares; people can see a queue form at a thousand paces and strive to stay in their place down to the last man, woman, and child. This is because drivers are good, both public and private vehicles are better, highways and freeways and expressways are great, and there is the rarest of horning and honking at even the highest speeds.

There is a rat race on. Our roads today demonstrate it; our lives in virtually every other sphere encompass it. We are (most of us, anyway) in an almighty hurry – we rush to get there, wherever it is, simply to do nothing much or something suboptimal in ways that don’t maximise our resources. This is nothing new: management gurus, corporate wizards, and organizational pundits had it pinned down many productivity cycles ago. It has become so commonplace, though, that it has become the collective standard, the national norm, some unholy grail from which we drink and are converted into inferior incarnations of our best or ideal selves.

Is enough enough? Is the rat race stoppable so that some of us at least can get off? Is the reverse culture shock reversible such that we need not fear repulsion when we return to our shores from long or short stints beyond the pale? Can we reverse the rotten tide of invasiveness in personal matters and aggression in public spaces? Dare we (we few, I feel) draw a line in the sand… in the corner shop… at the plush mall… at one’s place of work… in the time of rest… in the arenas of play… in the petrol-station line… at the queue to pay for and collect our meal… south of the border where the lawless gangs and singular thugs roam… Could it be that a few folks like you and me (I and Thou are world enough, while God bless our bold and brave fact-finding MPs) identifying a firm place to steady our feet and standing our ground – bloodied, but unbowed – will yield the hopes of the real civilization we all often dream of? Would that stem, if not staunch, these immortal longings for foreign fields and greener pastures? Should that not cure our villains of the dastardly desire to tarnish our international reputation further – even as they tar and feather their political opponents?

No more would I long for Melbourne’s Southbank, where no one bumps into you as they pass you by or stare rudely at your laissez faire dress code no matter how lacy or how fair. No more would Abu Dhabi or Dubai seem like Formula One-class pit stops on the superhighway to heaven or jannah. No more would the casual visitor mistake the clinical order or stone-cold civic sense of Singapore for the way life – the abundant life – should be lived in the tropical Third World. No more would I flip the page or click the rat-race mouse and read of toy guns and mad monks and crafty puppet-masters pulling a peace-drugged population’s strings. Oh, I dream of the day.

So, why am I – and you – so unwilling to take that stand? Is it because we’re all keen on running the rat race to get and stay ahead? Don’t forget: who wins, he or she is simply number-one rat! Looks like the plug-uglies got the head start on it!

Share This Post


Advertising Rates

Please contact the advertising office on 011 - 2479521 for the advertising rates.