By Upali Gunawardena –
‘I am sorry’, ‘We are sorry’. These are the words I heard very frequently, while traveling in public transport during my short stay in London with my daughter’s family. These words came out from youngsters who were occupying seats reserved for disabled people or the people with special needs, traveling in buses. Those are called “priority seats”. These youngsters exclaimed these words through some sort of guilty conscience when I entered the bus with my walking stick in hand.
While uttering these words they promptly moved to other seats allowing me to sit on any seat, according to my wish. They were very happy when I replied them ‘Thank You’ with a smile. With these words I remember the smiling faces of British people moving freely in the society with a high sense of discipline and no haste or stress. They worry for the least inconvenience done by them and they say thank you for the minor help given by the other party. These are the signs of a cultured society, though they do not possess a History of 2500 years, inspired by Buddhism.
In London, the bus service is very efficient. Drivers are very courteous. They come in time and leave in time. If there is a delay, that is only for a few minutes. Usually buses are not crowded in London. Drivers do not want to overtake another vehicle unless the vehicle in front is stopped. There is no horn tooting except in an emergency. In Sri Lanka, some drivers can’t drive without tooting the horn every five seconds and it is used to show their authority to other road users. There are no competitions among bus drivers to overtake another unlike in Sri Lanka. I really wondered to see buses plying with fewer passengers and buses on the road in every five minutes without sufficient income. But when I inquired from my daughter about this, she replied that the bus service is maintained not to make profits but to provide a good service to the people in the city.
Bus has only the driver and no conductor and there is no cash transaction too. The commuter has to touch his pre-paid ticket (oyster card) or bank card on the card reader near the driver while boarding the bus. The same card is valid for London trains too. The driver could monitor the two decks through C.C.T.V cameras and mirrors from the driver’s seat.
Public transport and road facilities have been improved and maintained by devoted employees. When speaking of road facilities, I have to mention that all roads in London are designed for the convenience of the disabled people who are using wheelchairs or with any other walking aid. Special designs are built for them in Pedestrian crossings. They are called Guide Strips. Guide Strips should be constructed to indicate the position of pedestrian crossings for the benefit of sightless pedestrians. A Guide Strip should lead to pedestrian light poles with push buttons for the benefit of the visually disabled. Buses specially designed to accommodate wheelchair users and wheelchairs can be pushed into the bus directly from the bus halt.
When the bus driver sees that a wheelchair user is there to board the bus, he stops the bus and opens the rear end big door just in front of the wheelchair and extends its iron plate to touch the floor which allows the wheelchair to enter into the bus with ease. In the meantime, ladies, children and elders are given the first chance to enter the bus.
But here in Sri Lanka, it is quite the opposite in every mode of public transport. I have seen several times that people in good health occupying seats while pregnant ladies and old people are standing near them. Some of them were pretending to be in deep slumber. That is the courtesy of our people who boast of a rich culture and values. Boarding a bus in Sri Lanka is also a struggle and there we can see not the human law but the law of the jungle -‘Survival of the fittest’
Being a septuagenerian using a walking stick, I too have daunting experiences with public transport in Sri Lanka. I was intimidated several times by young bus conductors asking me either to get in or to get out from the bus quicker, which was impossible at my age. Because of that, I am unable to travel without someone to accompany me and as a result I am very much confined to home. I know this is the story of many senior citizens in Sri Lanka. On the contrary in the UK, bus and train fare is free for over 60 year old people and their disabilities are accepted with respect. As far as I know in every town, there are places for elders to entertain themselves and spend their leisure meaningfully at no cost. Elders visit these places to read, chat and play indoor and outdoor games.
City dwellers belong to various ethnic groups in the world and they live in harmony minding their own business. I have met people from Brazil, France, Germany, India, Sri Lanka and almost from every part of the world.
Cultural Activities and Education
During my stay I was fortunate to visit world famous theatres like Royal Albert Hall and Royal Opera House. We first visited Royal Festival Hall in South Bank and saw how the free classes were being conducted on Music, Dance and Ballet. We got the chance of viewing one ballet lesson for all ages and observed youngsters participating enthusiastically. My wife who is a dance teacher got the chance of participating in one of the dance classes with other students from various countries and from all ages. There were a few young mothers participating in the class along with their children.
In the Music section I saw how teenagers were participating enthusiastically in an Orchestral Music item which included all major instruments like Violins, Cellos, Guitars, Double Bass and Drums to the signals of the conductor. The composer was present during the rehearsal. The participants of this item were boys and girls in their late teens. When I questioned one of the girls, she replied that they were in A/L classes some are following Math stream along with Music as a subject in their formal Education. Even my grandson studying in a university in London offers Arts with Mathematics. The system of Education that deprives Science and Maths students from Arts subjects is not there. Students can select subjects according to their discretion. No parent or teacher insists them to select subjects other than the student himself.
Here in Sri Lanka we find it quite contrary to the British system of Education. Our parents always insist their children to follow the Science Stream to become doctors or engineers.
With the higher wages and other perks given to doctors they have become the most privileged lot in our country. And now they have become so powerful to challenge against the existing government too. Even the common public is of the view that their children must follow Science stream for their children to get lucrative jobs in future. In Britain competency surpasses educational qualifications. There are nurses drawing bigger salaries than doctors.
When in England I saw no advertisements, billboards by the road sides of private tuition classes or tuition masters. There I saw that children have no competition in anything other than sports. Every school has a playground. Even though there are private tuition classes, children in U.K. engage themselves in sport and games and go for films and theatre freely and actively while studying for major exams like A/L or O/L. But in Sri Lanka, children attend private tuition classes from dawn to dusk. Because of this reason there is no advancement in various other fields including Performing Arts which need life time devotion. Even the T.V. channels in Sri Lanka promote only singers in various programmes but not the composers and lyric writers in the country. On the other hand U.K. is interested to bring out the best personalities such as Shakespeare, Charles Dickens and Robert Frost.
There is a place called the ‘Shakespeare Globe’ and near that there is Shakespeare’s Old Theatre where he presented Othello, Macbeth and Merchant of Venice, has been preserved up to date.
Even today the performances of Shakespeare Dramas go on boards at the same venue. We were able to see a rehearsal of one of the dramas in the morning, when we visited the ‘Globe. At the Shakespeare Museum we could see the same old Music instruments and costumes and to my amazement the sound of the Musical instruments one by one. All these were on display and millions of Pounds spent annually, only to boost one man who brought the entire nation up to the pinnacle of world history, the doyen of English Drama – Shakespeare.
This pathetic situation in the field of Education in Sri Lanka has resulted in the deterioration of the entire field of Arts and in human values. Concluding this article, I would firmly say that the three words I have mentioned above “Thank you”, “I’m sorry” and “Excuse me” have contributed much in moulding the lives of a disciplined nation with empathy.
*Kalabooshna Upali Rupasinghe Gunawardena – Founder and Director, Nandapalee Institute of Fine Arts