The train’s an interesting way of getting around. When you’re stuck in a box with a bunch of other people with no way of getting out, interesting things start to happen.

Okay, not that interesting. Definitely nowhere near the standards of, say, Japanese trains on porn sites (wouldn’t that be fun). Rather, I was standing next to a bloke with an iPhone. Quite a new one, too. Jeans, T-shirt, slippers – very much your average pedestrian, much like yours truly   He, for reasons known only to him, was testing out his camera by surreptitiously trying to snap pictures of the girl next to him. Who, in turn, was busy tapping away on a Samsung Galaxy 4 with a singularly horrible pink case.

Over in the next seat, a bloke in his late forties – in a checkered, stained shirt that had seen better days – was poring over what looked suspiciously like another Galaxy.  In fact, my carriage seemed amazingly full of wealthy commuters. Between Ragama and Maradana I counted 17 Galaxy S4s (very easy to spot), two iPhones, one tab, one Nexus 5.

If they were rich, however, they hid it rather well. Ten of the 17 S4s belonged to young men in pavement-quality T-shirts and rather tasteless pants – the sort of trousers that a 70’s singer would have given his mom as a present. Two of the others belonged to girls who could have used a haircut, or at least clothes that fit them better, or failing that, some deodorant The middle-aged gent with the Note could really have used a washing machine, or at least new shirt.  And yet here they were, touting flagship smartphones that, put together, would’be bought a secondhand car.

Now, I get the desire to own good stuff. It’s a very human want – almost a need, really; very rarely are we actually satisfied with just “getting by”. Nevertheless, it’s strange when you see people like these, because they invariably give the impression that they’ve mortgaged their house or sold their kidney or their sister (or possibly all three) to own that shiny smartphone in their hands. It’s odd when a man or woman would rather spend on an expensive smartphone (with a whole lot of functions that barely 10% of them will even understand, let alone use) rather than a better T-shirt or a less hideous pair of trousers. It’s a huge disconnect, like seeing a Tissot on a guy on the bus or a guy in a tuxedo driving a tuk. The mind immediately questions the practicality of these people.

I don’t really understand it.

It’s one thing to own an 100,000 rupee smartphone and live on a farm on the edge of nowhere. It’s another thing to step out of the house with a 100,000 rupee smartphone and a 300 rupee Tshirt and a pair of shorts that look like something a Pettah merchant would use to wipe his butt with. A phone nowadays is as much a fashion accessory or a status indicator as it is a utility – that’s a given. It’s also a given that everyone has the right to look whatever they want to. Still, why on earth would you pair such an accessory with such an obvious disconnect about the rest of your person? When your shoes are visibly frayed and you’re travelling, not in a comfortable car, but in a smelly, dirty carriage, full of sweaty humans, for 20 bucks a ticket? When your T-shirt says “Why Kolaveri Di” and your pants say “WXMBER SPORT COOL”?

Perhaps it speaks volumes about fashion sense as a whole. Perhaps it’s an indicator of how cheap or commonplace technology is getting.

Still, I’m more inclined to see this as an oddity of society as a whole. We tend to surround ourselves with stuff that we barely need. Often, blinded by our wants, we don’t stop to think about the more important things in life.

We buy S5’s before we consider replacing our battered shoes or torn underwear. We blow our salaries shopping for trinkets and treating the rabble at expensive food joints without pausing to consider whether we’ve paid the electricity bills.  We buy an iPhone 5S and travel on the train looking like a Salvation Army reject when the same money could’ve bought us a secondhand scooter, a cheaper phone and a decent set of clothes. This weird, disconnected consumerism isn’t limited to what we wear or what phones we talk into. You see it everywhere in society. Priorities, anyone?  It’s as if the human genome contains a set of instructions saying “Spend. Screw priorities. Just spend of what you like and everything else will sort itself out.”

And so a random sales bloke in Unity Plaza earning 15,000 rupees a month buys a Nexus 5 and spends the next five months of his life broke and hungry.  Our neighbors spend all their money shopping – mostly for paper-thin Tshirts and buttshorts from ODEL – at the start of the month and spend the next few weeks unable to pay for their daughter’s tuition. Move up a bracket:  we’ve got the average Sri Lankan couple, with an average income or perhaps 40-50 thousand rupees a month, who confidently takes loans to the tune of millions for a grand wedding and then spends the first ten years of their married life trying to pay off the debt.

Perhaps we humans have lost practicality over time. Perhaps there was a time when our shopping sprees were a bit more sensible and more rounded than today. Or perhaps, at the very dawn of humanity, there was a caveman – somewhere – who really became obsessed with the thought of carving himself a nice bracelet from that shiny rock over there. Dinner? Clothes? Oh yeah, that can wait.

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