Enamoured with tuk wisdom | Daily News

Enamoured with tuk wisdom

Much has been made of the Gazette notification issued in early January that aims to impose new and, some say, unduly onerous restrictions and regulations on trishaw drivers.

The notification establishes limits on speed and the number of passengers who may ride in a three-wheeler at one time. It also makes it compulsory for the vehicles to have meters and spare tires. While the notice outlines many requirements, it notably does not call for the creation of a tuk regulatory authority.

Countless trishaw operators have protested in the intervening period, and some driver unions threatened legal action before withdrawing their lawsuits in favor of trying to compromise with government officials.

But the dispute has not yet been resolved and the tuk tuk driver community continues to be upset over certain of the gazette’s stipulations, especially the provision making mandatory the inclusion of meters and the issuing of receipts.

“There are many meters that are not standardised, and the black market dominates the meter trade. There are no government institutions that standardise the meters or provide assistance to passengers who have been charged unfairly,” said Sudil Jayuruk, President of the All Ceylon Three Wheel Drivers Association.

Jayuruk was also adamantly opposed to the notification’s establishment of a speed limit of 40 kilometers per hour, as he complained that such a velocity was too slow for today’s tuks which have 205 cc engines. He did, however, call for a government body to deal with issues related to trishaws.

“The bottom line is that we need a regulatory authority to deal with tuks,” he said.

Though the issues surrounding the speed limit, meters and lack of an overarching regulatory body have dominated the headlines, another of the notification’s key provisions has been overlooked: the banning of letters, figures, or digits that do not contain descriptive information on the front or back of tuks.

But what does the Ministry of Transport have against tuk wisdom?

The Death of Tuk Wisdom?

The writing, stickers and drawings on tuks, affectionately referred to as tuk wisdom, are staples of not only Colombo’s, but also Sri Lanka’s roads.

Whether it is pictures of Bob Marley, Che Guevera, Jack Sparrow of the Pirates of the Caribbean franchise, or simple sayings, both famous and made-up, that sometimes contain an error or two, there is something for everyone in tuk wisdom.

“I am not cute and I know it.”

“Innocent Boy’s We Don’t Like Makeup Girls.”

“Love is like a Chinese phone: no guarantee.”

“Tuk wisdom is quintessentially Sri Lankan. My day improves every time I see a funny saying or an especially poignant tribute to a family member on a trishaw. It’s an important piece of self-expression that falls outside of traditional cultural outlets. Plus it can be really funny,” said Dilrukshi Fernando, who works in advertising.

Despite that, almost everyone who spoke to the Daily News on tuk wisdom lauded it but the Ministry of Transport seems to consider the decorations a safety risk.

“This is a polarizing issue, but it is our position that stickers on windows create poor vision for tuk drivers and that the writings are distracting for other motorists. Other drivers, especially those following behind three-wheelers, can get distracted and have accidents.”

“All of the regulations we release are meant to improve road safety and limit accidents This is a measure that will improve public safety and protect people,” said Secretary to the Ministry of Transport Nihal Somaweera.

It seems odd to claim that writing on tuks is especially distracting, since the roads are littered with billboard advertisements. Also, regular automobiles can be decorated with bumper stickers and various other designs. According to Somaweera, however, the Ministry of Transport may draft further legislation limiting writing on all vehicles in the near future. But drivers are concerned with distractions on the road that have nothing to do with trishaws.

“The new LED billboards that are popping up all over Colombo are a lot more distracting than any tuk wisdom I’ve seen. Those are absolutely blinding,” said C. Jayasinghe, who works in the hotel industry.

“I think they’re using the pretense of improving safety to clean up the roads and make Colombo look like a classier city,” he continued.

While the jury is out on the safety risk tuk wisdom poses to Colombo’s commuters, several lawyers said that banning it could constitute a Fundamental Rights violation.Three lawyers who spoke to the Daily News on condition of anonymity argued that limiting tuk drivers’ ability to decorate their rides is an infringement on their rights to expression.

“This is not a proportionate measure, as the ban covers tuks but not cars, buses or trucks. Drivers should have the right to express their views on the vehicles that they own as long as they are not offensive.”

“I think there are grounds for a tuk driver to sue the government over this measure if he or she thinks their rights are being infringed upon,” said one lawyer.

Tuk Drivers’ Response

H.A.K. Sujeewa stands in front of his Pirates of the Caribbean-themed red tuk. An image of Jack Sparrow features prominently on the back of the vehicle, but Sujeewa’s dreadlocks are tied together and held above his head, in contrast to Sparrow’s loose, hanging dreads.

“I keep my hair and my look like this to match my tuk. I’m just expressing myself. Tourists take pictures of me with the tuk and then take rides. They think it’s great,” he said, while adding that he loves the Pirates of the Caribbean movies and spent a good deal of money to style his tuk this way.

“I take pride in the way my ride looks,” he said.

For Sujeewa, the gazette notification is misguided, but he maintained that he is neither in favor nor opposed to most of its stipulations. He is, however, very much opposed to the banning of tuk wisdom.

“My tuk is not a safety risk. If people focus on the road there would be fewer accidents,” he said.

K.A. Chanaka, the owner of an America-themed tuk complete with two subwoofers, complained that the police had already threatened to take him to court over his gaudy decorations.

“My tuk used to have many more stickers and sayings, but the police asked me to take them down. It was very sad for me because I saved a lot of money and wanted to add even more writings and stickers.”

“I feel like I always have to change the tuk, so I take some stuff off and put other stuff on so that the police don’t stop me,” he said.

While Sujeewa and Chanaka are dedicated practitioners of tuk decoration, some other drivers were not as enamored of the custom.

“I don’t think tuks with a lot of stickers and writing look good. The new trend is to have a minimalist look. Also, sometimes stickers cause the paint to rust,” said H.A. Sampath, who also added that stickers and intricate designs are getting increasingly expensive.

“Some people pay 2-3 lakhs to decorate their trishaws. It’s not worth it because passengers prefer pretty vehicles,” he said.

Despite his own particular aesthetic tastes, Sampath did say that any tuk owner should be able to decorate the vehicle in any way he or she wants. Furthermore, he said that the argument that tuk wisdom is distracting and dangerous is simply false.

“That’s a lie. Why are people looking at the writing on other people’s vehicles? This is a useless law the government wants to institute. I would prefer they didn’t do it,” he said.

The Importance of Wisdom

But what role does tuk wisdom play in Sri Lankan society? Should it be treated as a nationally important art form? Or is it just simply a method of self-expression? Or is it something else entirely, perhaps a form of philosophy?

“The tuk wisdom subculture is very amusing. It’s a good way for people to display their views and life experiences.”

“I like tuk wisdom as long as it isn’t racist or offensive, and I think it can be considered a form of art, since people make their own designs, create their own sayings, and paint their tuks all different colors.” said Sunil Gunawardena, a videographer.

“The sayings are absurd, but that’s not an issue with which I’m concerned. It’s certainly a form of personal expression, but I wouldn’t necessarily call it an art form,” said art critic Ruwan Jayakody.

Others, however, claim to have learned important life lessons from the expressions on tuks.

“There are some expressions that, as a younger person, I thought were somewhat inspirational, like ‘He who flies not high falls now low.’ It sounds silly now, but that sort of inspired me to pursue my dreams,” said Radhika da Silva, an accountant.

One of Merriam-Webster Dictionary’s definitions of philosophy is as follows: “The most basic beliefs, concepts, and attitudes of an individual or group.” It seems perfectly reasonable to view tuk wisdom as a reflection of drivers’ realities and a portrayal of their beliefs.

“The tuk driver fraternity is very tight-knit, and the trishaw decorations seem to reflect not only the drivers’ artistic tastes, but also their particular values and principles. It would be a shame to let tuk wisdom go,” said da Silva.


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