By Ravi Perera –
“Gentlemen are recognized…” goes the introduction to a much repeated radio advertisement promoting a brand of men’s clothing , they ; “ … choose shirts with firm collars , neat cuts, send flowers to their mothers, walk old ladies across the road, are interesting and are not ‘ smelly’… ”. Apparently, apart from admiration of the opposite sex there are many bonuses awaiting the (Sri Lankan variety of )gentleman, including automatic up-grades at check-in counters, presumably at the Bandaranaike International Air Port and now at the newly opened Mattala.
Commercials, although seldom reflective of everyday realities, can nevertheless tell you a lot about the target group; their ambitions, yearnings and even fears. We don’t see on TV ads eateries with the inevitable flies, dead cockroaches, open drains, smelly toilets etc which according to our health inspectors are the general standard here. Instead, what will be generally shown is a plush establishment serving food to a yuppie looking crowd. And according to the commercials most people in this country live in large well turned out houses and spend their time pronouncing wise sounding statements about various commercial products.
It is only natural to want something different, particularly if it appears a better choice than the accustomed fare. Looking at popular Indian commercials today for instance you can be forgiven for thinking that the sub-continent is packed with casual looking youngsters, running to the beach for water sports and a sun tan. The picture is bright clean and open, with hardly any people and no mangy dogs or emaciated cows to distract us from the slithering Indian beauties munching their vegetarian hamburgers. It almost seems like the USA has added a large exotic State to its union.
But that picture does not fit in with our perceptions of that country. The endless crowds, the depressing poverty, the noise and the dirt have left images of a perennial India which is at variance with the world of the advertisers. The typical Indian, if it is possible to stereotype when describing a billion people, is of a certain resigned complacency, heavy ritualism and that confused aggression of a people living on the edge. Slightest deviation or compromise with the exactness of the ritual, even when performing the simplest domestic act, can push one in to a mental abyss. But what has gone on for centuries in that land is not the stuff that can sell the wares of the advertiser. So they create a fairy tale made up of foreign things and settings, so alien in the context that they become slapstick.
For the Sri Lankan men’s wear commercial to be effective, recognition as a gentleman ought to have social value in society. The idea of a gentleman, a superior kind of male defined by a man’s qualities rather than his birth, came with the European colonizers. Like many other ideas that had to cross a huge cultural barrier, the concept of a gentleman too had to undergo a localizing process before comprehension. It needed to be understood through indigenous eyes to make sense in the new setting. Attributes such as Western attire, an aversion to any outdoor activity or physical exertion and the use of the English language have come to the fore in determining a gentleman. A culture, where to be served first or not having to stand in line is considered a symbol of a higher status, redefined the concept of a gentleman in its own image.
In the age of imperialism building far flung empires called for, tough, brave and capable men. The scope of the empires built by small countries like Portugal, Holland and England speak amply for their mettle. (It is noteworthy that even in the much changed world of the 21 Century these countries are very much in the First World category) But in that culture men were also expected to be chivalrous and gentle. These were prerequisites for promotion in the social ladder in the mother country with many advantageous attached to being considered a gentleman. This did not mean that a gentleman was not martial or lacking in manly qualities. But only that these qualities are tempered by a certain code of manners and conduct. Among other things, a gentleman will be up-front , play by the rules, pay his bills promptly, honour his word, hold doors for others and not jump a queue. It is difficult to envisage a gentleman who is not of a serious turn of mind and of a certain level of learning.
Of course one person’s pirate is another’s admiral. A chap who will be peremptorily shown the door at a gentlemen’s club in England may become the toast of the town in Colombo. But realistically, no society can operate happily having as their governing rules the opposite of what is expected of gentlemen. It is inconceivable for any group to function on the principles of unreliability, dishonesty, arbitrariness or social insensitivity.
At the highest levels of society, among our legislators, top public servants, professionals, businessmen and artists who can we confidently say would qualify to be thought of as a gentleman? Only yesterday, while driving I was suddenly confronted by a convoy of fast moving and powerful vehicles. Because of the tinted glasses on them it was impossible to say who the VIP the convoy was transporting. The motor cyclists acting as out-riders performed crazy maneuvers to cut a path for the convoy while the other escorting vehicles blinked their lights and honked endlessly to shoo the road users away from them. In case their message was unclear, they also waived their hands vigorously as if performing an endless exercise of calisthenics, but with a definite air of intimidation. For a person seeing this phenomenon for the first time the whirlwind of the convoy’s rapid movement would have looked like the rapid movement of a supernatural force, a powerful being on a mysterious journey.
But all the rude hurry and disruption was for one man to go somewhere. His trip was more important than whatever else the others were doing on the road at that time. That man sat cozily in one of the limousines, indifferent to the inconvenience his travel was causing thousands of commuters on his way. Perhaps those thousands are themselves unable to assess the true nature and meaning of that one man’s conduct. For both the perpetrator and the victims there was nothing wrong with the picture on that busy Colombo Street, sweltering in the hot sun. In the mindset of the madding crowd it may even be a gentleman on the move.
No wonder they all want to be recognized as such……