We are a smiling nation, thankfully
don’t come easy to me’ is the title of an FR David song. It’s old and
not exactly remembered or hummed often. It is just that I was thinking
of how easy it is to smile and how smiles come so easily to some and not
to others. The connection? Well, I was thinking that there could be a
song that began like this: ‘Words don’t come easy to me, but smiles
always do!’ Yes, tacky, I agree. I am thinking of smiles, pardon me, and
words are not coming easy this morning.
‘We don’t have to teach our soldiers to smile’. File photo
I was told a few years ago that certain nations that send troops to
fight in other countries, either as invaders or ‘peace-keepers’, have to
train them to smile. Smile as in something more than parting lips
slightly and stretching relevant muscles to send lip-edge out and up,
but something that exudes warmth. I am not sure if this can be learnt,
though. I mean, a technical smile, even on camera, would not be
convincing if intent is absent, heart cold or unmoved. It shows in the
eyes, does it not?
Don’t believe me. Just go in front of a mirror and do a technical
smile as described above. Now look at your eyes. Or get someone else to
do this. Chances are you will both burst out laughing. That will correct
the eye-error and you will realize the difference.
The Army officer who mentioned the smile-training story was making a
point: ‘we don’t have to teach our soldiers to smile’. That’s a cultural
statement. We are a smiling people. It’s an effortless thing. A
heart-born exercise. Warm. Take any picture of a smiling Sri Lankan and
cover the mouth. Check out the eyes. You will see a lot of heart there.
This, I believe, is our greatest asset as we emerge from thirty years of
war and attempt a kind of embrace that was not previously possible.
Words can confuse, deceive, downplay, exaggerate, erase and obfuscate.
Eyes are far more transparent. This is why eye-eye contact is far more
healing that political agreement.
Yes, smiles are really something, aren’t they?
A few years ago I was walking past the Colombo Town Hall, on the
Vihara Maha Devi Park side of FR Senanayake Mawatha, the only road
without a house, I was told about 20 years ago. A young girl, smartly
clad, an umbrella keeping her complexion intact (I assumed) was walking
on the other side of the road, in the opposite direction. She was
smiling a smile I had never seen before.
She was either reading a text message or sending one. It’s not the
smile of someone talking to someone over a phone. It was the smile of
someone who was resident in a universe that was reducible to a few
characters on the screen of a mobile phone she could hide in her hand
and a universe which she shared with just one other person. I’ve since
seen this sms-smile quite often. That was the first time. I remember
suggesting to my friend and well-known lyricist Chaaminda Rathnasooriya
that he should write a song about sms-sinaa (sms-smiles). He said that
such a song had already been written.
My friend Anuruddha Pradeep had a different take on it. His mother
had passed away about 10 years before that. He observed the impact of
technology on human ways thus: ‘my mother passed away without ever
having seen an sms-smile’.
We are not a hi-bye culture. We are slow and I like to think that
this is a positive marker, compared to cultures that have to strain at
smiling. A smile is special. It is not purchasable. It cannot be
ordered. This is why I always found something odd in the lyrics of Andy
Gibb’s song ‘It’s only words’, especially the following line: ‘smile an
everlasting smile; a smile can bring you near to me’. Perhaps it can,
but what’s the point of a smile that is requested? Is this why cameramen
don’t say ‘smile!’ but instead ask people posing for a photograph to say
‘cheese!’, which delivers a ‘technical’ smile?
A few years ago, Ogilvy Outreach did a fine piece of below-the-line
advertising for a tooth paste ad organizing a photo collection of smiles
on the campaign theme Sina Bo Wewa (May there be many smiles or,
alternatively, may smiles proliferate). I am not sure how long it took
or the degree of spontaneity looked for in the exercise, but I am pretty
sure that it might have taken much longer in certain cities/countries in
the world, especially those that have to train their troops to smile.
Walk through any village, look people in the eye, and I wager that
nine out of 10 that you will encounter will smile smiles that could be
put in a book of photographs that could heal the world in more ways and
far quicker than the ways than the experts on conflict resolution have
suggested in a library full of textbooks.
We are a smiling nation. That’s part of our resilience. That’s part
of the story of how we emerged scarred but unbowed by two insurrections,
a 30 year war and a debilitating tsunami. It will be a key element of
our liberation and survival even after 500 years of colonial rule.
It’s about eyes. It is a wordless thing. No, I won’t tell you to
smile. But I think you will.