Saturday, April 7, 2007

Sri Lankan Dads

Not tonight Dear, I'm on my cycle!

You know, that line makes me laugh. My brother, when he reads this will laugh for the same reason.

My Dad.

He has an infectious sense of humour. Usually it's because he finds things so funny that, when he relates them to others, he's laughing so much that the audience can't help but get caught up in his laughter.

Watching him with my daughters is heartwarming and interesting. They swap jokes, they mess around and he makes his famous "animal out of a handkerchief" that fascinates people of all ages. No one is sure exactly what animal it is, looking a bit like a mouse or a gerbil, but it's rather classy. It's usually hard to tell the adult from the kid when you listen to them hard at play.

But he's also quite mad at times, infuriatingly so. It's my observation that Sri Lankan men have a few common characteristics in the way they, or we, age. There's that sleeping after meals thing to start with. I really haven't noticed many western men doing it but I've seen just about every Sri Lankan man I know do it, including me, although I haven't seen it as such, just heard afterwards.

The whole pretending to be awake thing, as the eyelids start to feel heavy, the alcohol kicks in and the weight of the rice and curry begins to make you drift off. Invariably the subject is sitting on a chair, legs stretched out in front and feet crossed and shaking. (the feet, not the subject). There'll be a hint of snoring and then, as someone speaks to the person there's the standard response. A response passed down through generations of Sri Lankan men, it has hidden meaning and can take years' of training to express perfectly.

Literally translated from Singlish into English it actually means

" I wasn't asleep, I heard you perfectly, but would you mind just repeating it as I just didn't quite catch that last word?"

It sounds like this


Deceptive, but actually quite hard to master. To the onlooker things can get confusing. They start off by seeing a man who they think is fast asleep. But, in the short time it takes for that man to say the "aaahh" he goes from a state of sleep to fully awake, with nothing in between. There's no stretching, no eyelids opening, no perceptible movement, just an instant state of full awareness. It must be genetic, that's the only explanation.

Another ageing sign is the driving thing. This worries me greatly. As a man who would class driving as one of my hobbies I really don't want to get to a stage when I begin to drive like my Dad does now. A friend was telling me recently about his Dad in Sri Lanka, how he drives as if there is no one else on the road. That's exactly what mine does too. In Sri Lanka it's bad enough but here in the UK there are rules to cover everything, even driving. I realise that may be hard to believe for many Sri Lankans but it's true, I assure you!

So, don't pay the expense of going to Thorpe Park or Disneyland. Give me a call and I'll happily arrange for my Dad to give you a lift somewhere. The feel of danger and excitement, the permanent feeling that you could get beaten up at any moment by a stranger, the pure joy when you reach your destination, they're all much, much better than you can get from any theme park.

It's an amazing sensation to go round a roundabout and be aware of traffic all around, even in other lanes and then realise that you are the only person in the vehicle who has this incredible ability, almost a superpower. I have considered the idea that, at a certain age, mirrors become invisible, or perhaps it's just other vehicles that do.

I heard a story today of a friend who was being driven by her Dad in Colombo to the Cricket Cafe. Said friend was telling me how her Dad struggled with the darkness, the new one way system and the general act of pointing the car in the direction of its required destination at all times.

Now I have to say that Colombo's new one way system is a unique thing. No one quite understands it. I know there are maps, websites, blogs and all types of instructions but they don't make things much easier. Different times of the day mean different directions and the whole thing is a masterpiece of Sri Lankan planning. The extra money spent on the massive cabinet has clearly been well spent if their collective brain power can come up with something like this.

It's not just a Sri Lankan thing though. Stick my Dad in a car and ask him to get to Heathrow Airport, or any place within about ten miles from his house and he'll get confused. Most people I know will get to learn a route by practicing it, not the old man. And it's definitely not because he's busy concentrating on other road users either. When I was a kid I recollect going on holiday to Denmark with my parents. We used to do this regularly as my Mum's sister lived there and it always used to be by car and ferry, a huge big adventure. Every year we'd travel efforlessly halfway across Europe and get lost when we were within about half a mile of my Aunt's house.

One time my Dad stopped the car and went to ask an ice cream man for directions. After some time he returned. With a strawberry ice cream and no directions!

Above all, like those dogs, you can guarantee that a certain phrase uttered in the direction of my Dad will trigger one of his few jokes. Not that dogs tell jokes of course. Or give guarantees. As my best man said in his speech:

"Uncle J, now there's a man with a joke for every occasion, and I've enjoyed hearing it again tonight"

So if you are within earshot of the old man, just mention "Not tonight dear I'm on my cycle" and you just know the old joke that will follow.

I still laugh when he tells it too.

Mad as a badger, I wouldn't swap him for the world though!

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