Hometown: An ode to Colombo | Daily News

Hometown: An ode to Colombo

More than anything, one is struck by the light. Light everywhere. Brightness everywhere. Everywhere the sun. Just yesterday, an autumnal London was drenched in rain. The airplane drenched in rain. A cold wind, darkness. But here, from the morning's earliest moments, the airport was ablaze with sunlight, all of us in sunlight.(Ryszard Kapuscinski, Under the African Sun)

Ryszard Kapuscinski, the Polish war correspondent and travel writer, describes his first impression of the tropics as he gets off the plane to a sun-drenched welcome. For forty years, this has been my abiding image of landing at Katunayake. In my mind's eye, Heathrow landings are darkened by grey skies, rain-soaked and chilly. But I always anticipate an azure sky, a warm sun and blazing light as Katunayake approaches. Rarely am I disappointed.

In the seventies, when my mother, my brothers and I lived in the UK in alternate years - the time my father had political troubles and could not leave Sri Lanka - I invariably felt a pang of loss when we drove from the city to the airport. And the anticipation of returning "home" when we drove in the opposite direction. After my teens, when we lived in the UK permanently, infrequent visits back did not feel like returning home. But, for the last few years, with frequent visits and rediscovered familiarity, that childhood sense of Colombo as hometown has come back. But I am older by half an average lifetime, and Hometown is a different place - though not changed out of all recognition.

In his "Briefly by Bevis" newspaper columns, Bevis Bawa sketches the post-independence Colombo of the 1950s and '60s. The ruling elite lived in the mansions and tread the grand lawns their capitalist fathers and grandfathers built. Like their fathers and grandfathers, they were "coconut brown": they had a local varnish, but were essentially British in outlook, clothes and habits. The men continued to patter away in a mimicked idiom of "great chap", "good fellow", "old boy" and "what ho".

Bevis Bawa's Colombo was the city in which I was born in the mid sixties. Until the late seventies, Colombo remained verdant, spacious and airy, a capital with a decidedly laid-back, small-town vibe. The Handbook for the Ceylon Traveller, published in 1974, describes Colombo private gardens as a riot of anthuriums, roses, chrysanthemums, caladium, multi-coloured bougainvillea, coleus and croton. But that was before property prices skyrocketed and the wealthy knocked down their mansions, dug up their lawns and built back-to-back apartment blocks.

I spent my early years in Ratmalana and Mount Lavinia, then seemingly distant and quiet appendages of Colombo. I schooled at St. Thomas'; Daddy ran the Mount Lavinia Hotel. That was when it still looked as it did in the hospital scenes in David Lean's Bridge on the River Kwai - before the terrace lawn, the rock garden and the beach pavilion were demolished to make way for an ill-fitting extension.

In those days Colombo had limited venues for upper-class and upper middle-class entertainment. Apart from Mt. Lavinia Hotel, there were the Galle Face and Grand Oriental hotels. And a handful of Colombo clubs. These were sanctuaries for male badinage and bonding, though occasionally with wives and children in tow. Daddy's main club was The Capri in Colpetty. I recall many balmy evenings on the Capri terrace, eating my Spaghetti Bolognese or Chicken-In-The-Basket, listening to Daddy and his buddies joshing each other over scotch and arrack. The bar had its obligatory share of regulars. Like Michael Ondaatje's male relatives before independence, many were drunks, some funny, some sweet with children, some monsters when they got back home late at night, most frittering away inherited wealth.

My Muslim extended family took up much of my pre-teen Colombo life. There were always "functions" to attend, not least relatives' weddings. These were massive affairs: a guest list of five hundred was "moderate"; one thousand upwards was "acceptable" for a rich family. More than anything, I remember Muslim weddings as gigantic feeding fests: men, women and children would devour masses of rich, oily chicken and beef buriyani, followed by wattalapam. The festival days ofRamadan and Hajj were the climax of the extended family's year - also a non-stop feeding frenzy.

Travelling back to my Colombo of the seventies recalls other bittersweet fragments. Sweet memories: Fountain Caf‚, seated on the lawn eating an ice cream sundae. Cream House on the Galle Road, sitting in the parked car drinking a large glass of ice-cold chocolate milk shake. Sunday sea-baths with Daddy and cousins, followed by a slap-up feed at a simple Muslim eating house. Black Morris Oxford taxis. The odd bullock cart and rickshaw before they disappeared from the city forever. Streets full of men in sarongs. The same men with betel-stained teeth and gums, and hair sprouting jungle-like out of their ears. Pavements spattered with expectorated betel juice.

And not-so-sweet memories: Lunches and dinners in appallingly decorated Muslim houses. Men and women sitting separately, not mixing. Parochial talk in bad English, with lots of Tamil thrown in. Female relatives jabbering loudly in the harsh tones of Tamil, as if swearing at their grandmothers. Daddy's political troubles. The monthly visits to Welikada, seeing him in prison uniform of white vest, shorts and slippers. Mummy's endless meetings with Daddy's lawyers. Having to change school almost every year. All in a down-at-heel Colombo, ravaged by Mrs Bandaranaike's government: strikes, rationing, bread queues, the shabby look of everything, general discontent.

The Church of St. Michaels’ and All Angels (Gal Palliya), a landmark in Kollupitiya

The opening of the economy after 1977 brought hustle and bustle to Colombo; it became more crowded and noisier. The population grew. There were new hotels, restaurants, shops, apartment blocks, even the odd shopping mall. Suburbs sprawled. Then came the '83 riots. Manners and mores changed. More Sinhalese, Tamils and Muslims retreated behind communal walls. High parapet walls shut houses off from their streets.

My extended visit in 2009, just before the war ended, revealed a city in long decline. There were security checkpoints everywhere. Paint and plaster peeled off buildings, public spaces were unkempt, rubbish piled up on roadsides. There were fewer beggars than there were in my childhood, but packs of stray dogs continued to roam the streets. Galle Face Green was practically unvisitable. Hotels had only handfuls of tourists, even in the high season. Along Beira Lake, the warehouses of the old trading companies had a vacant look, devoid of goods and human activity. The Fort was deserted behind barbwire; its Victorian and Edwardian buildings were rotting away. But nearby Pettah continued its sweaty bustle regardless.

I recall that night, just two months before the war ended, when an LTTE kamikaze light aircraft crashed into an office building in central Colombo. It was aiming for Army HQ, but it hit Inland Revenue HQ instead on the opposite side of the road. Many locals cheered, hoping their tax files had disappeared in the flames. Symbolically, that brought Colombo's war chapter to a close.

Six years after, Colombo looks transformed. Indeed "beautified".

Driving around Colombo is much easier now, free of security checkpoints and on freshly carpeted roads. The city is now one of the cleanest in South Asia, though still not especially clean by East Asian standards. Colonial buildings look spruce, with fresh coats of white paint and free of their parapet walls, affording an unobstructed view from the road. The restoration of the old Dutch Hospital, racecourse buildings and British-era mental asylum, the new walking track around Independence Square, the tidying up of Viharamahadevi Park - all make Colombo perhaps the most pleasant city in South Asia.

From my balcony at the Hilton Residence, where I sometimes stay, I take in the panorama of Slave Island and Beira Lake, and beyond to Colpetty, the Fort, the harbour and the sea. I see luxury condos and five-star hotels rising in what is still a very low-rise skyline. The Fort has sprung back to life, its late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century buildings getting welcome facelifts. Nearby, cranes are busy building an extension to the harbour. The walkway around a section of Beira Lake is not as bespattered with bird droppings.Slave Island's rabbit warrens of tiny houses, home to Muslims, are gradually being demolished to make way for modern apartment blocks. But, as always, Galle Face Green is the most accurate barometer of the city's vigour. How delightful to see it regain its old life - though the Green is not as green as it was in my childhood.

Colombo is many things to me, but above all it is about people and encounters. In Sri Lanka, there is a "character" around every street corner - a writer's dream; in Colombo, there is one in every house and every office. My Colombo characters are a kaleidoscope of Sinhalese, Tamils and Burghers; Buddhists, Hindus, Christians and Muslims, plus the odd agnostic and atheist for good measure.

I come from a family of non-stop talkers and recounters of ripping yarns - hardly exceptional in Sri Lanka. Some relatives remind me of Michael Ondaatje's description of his mother: "She belonged to a type of Ceylonese family whose women would take the minutest reaction from another and blow it up into a tremendously exciting tale, then later use it as an example of someone's stain of character. If anything kept their generation alive, it was this recording by exaggeration."

Colombo Muslims are a minority with a distinctive subculture. But the city is home to much smaller minorities of Sindhis, Boras, Khojas (Ismailis), Memons and Parsis. Their numbers are tiny - perhaps twenty thousand in all, maybe less. These are minorities who strive, with a strong ethic of family unity, thrift and enterprise passed on from generation to generation. They run Sri Lanka's best-performing businesses. And they keep a low profile: they generally avoid flaunting their wealth and keep out of politics. In a land plagued by lassitude and complacency, Colombo's minority trading castes really do stand out.

What about politicians? Before independence, the dominant Colombo political type was the "brown sahib" - the landowning patrician, Ceylonese on the outside, British on the inside. Such coconut-brown types stood at the top of politics well into the sixties and seventies; J.R. Jayawardene was the last to ascend to the very top.A few epigonal versions survive today - less than a handful -- not in positions of great power, but enjoying its baubles nevertheless. But this type is now a mere appurtenance, addicted to the backside smell of power; real power escaped its clutches long ago.

Even before the Rajapaksas, the rising political type was the home-grown Sinhala thug. He swaggers. He is fat, and gets fatter the longer he is in power. He is bejewelled: a gold watch, gold chains and gold rings, studded with precious stones, adorn his thick wrists and pudgy fingers. His hair is dyed jet-black. He parades his devout Buddhism, taking care to visit temples regularly and be seen in the company of monks. If he is a "big man", he surrounds himself with armed bodyguards and assorted flunkeys, who nod vigorously in assent at his every word and laugh loudly at his attempted witticisms.

Harry Hopkins, a British journalist who visited Ceylon in the early fifties, had this to say about the Burmese character in the early years of independence after British colonial rule:

A taste for melodramatics, the juvenile striking of poses, the individualism that turns to dacoity or political privateering, the oversensitive national pride that becomes first a morbid resentment of all criticism, then xenophobia... It all added up rather disastrously to a tendency to anarchism, to a preference of the florid gesture to the dreary but effective business of getting down to the job.

He could have been speaking of Sri Lankan politicians. There are exceptions, of course. But not enough of them.

Lest I become too depressed about the political class, my thoughts turn to my favourite Colombo characters. Here is a sample:

A Dutch Burgher who speaks correct, clipped English, does not suffer fools gladly, cooks the best lamprais in the world, and whose calling is to take care of suffering animals. The old family driver, a simple, decent Sinhalese, now grey and housebound. And totally deaf after a dreadful police beating in the early seventies. A sparky, articulate journalist, born to speak truth to power, worn down by harassment and self-censorship under the Rajapaksas. A young Colombo middle-class professional, raised in Sinhala-Buddhist heartland, wise beyond her years and still with the ways of a sweet, innocent small-town girl.

Old family friends, devout Buddhists steeped in the traditions of Kandyan nobility, who stood by us during Daddy's Calvary in the seventies. An Indian friend with a rich speaking voice and that cut-glass, mellifluous, wonderfully expressive English of the South Delhi colonies - who bore a cruel degenerative disease with exquisite grace.

A retired corporate captain who became a citizen-activist, a one-man NGO fighting the degeneration of Sri Lanka's institutions, the rottenness of its public life, cronyism in business, human-rights abuses, politically induced ethnic chauvinism, and other things besides. And a Moratuwa Christian couple - he a whirlwind of energy and a born communicator, she a perfectionist and backroom organiser - who do wonderful humanitarian work all over the island.

Hometown is not what it used to be. Some things, though, have not changed. For all Colombo's expansion since the late seventies, it retains a small-town feel.

The novelist Shehan Karunatilleke writes, "We may be a capital city, but our circles of association and our attitudes are very much small-town." Now, as before, when dinner or bar-room conversations turn serious - usually over politics - men constantly interrupt each other and go off on tangents, rarely allowing anyone to complete a sentence or a thought-process. This I still have to get used to: I find this discursiveness - constantly hopping from A to B to Z - extremely annoying.

And Colombo is still a combustible mix. It remains a multi-ethnic city, indeed much more so than the rest of the country. This mix I consider a Colombo attribute; what vigour the city has would be much diminished without it. But the same mix is a potential tinderbox, when Hermann Hesse's "gentle doe-eyed Sinhalese" turn into a feral mob. My surviving aunt lives in a neighbourhood of small, tightly packed houses on one side of Beira Lake, behind Colpetty mosque. Buddhists, Muslims and Tamils live cheek-by-jowl. As I walk to her house, I pass a new dove-white Buddha statue, encased in glass.

As dusk falls, it is lit up by neon lights; a loudspeaker blares out monks' chants from a nearby temple. My cousin tells me this public broadcasting of Buddhist chanting is new in the neighbourhood, intended to compete with the five-times-daily call to prayer from the mosque close by. A small Sinhala shop lies opposite the Buddha statue. Next to it is a Tamil house. And next to it a Muslim house. All seems peaceful as I walk by. But, I wonder, what little spark might, on another day, light a conflagration on this very spot? 

Add new comment