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Wednesday, 19 May 2010






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We are a smiling nation, thankfully

‘Words 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.



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