Wednesday. 8th March, 2015. I was hungry, so I walked into a restaurant and bought food. It was a salad and it cost me 400 rupees.
It tasted terrible.
“Well, shit,” I thought. 400 bucks for a mass of green and a few shreds of chicken. It was about as tasty as a traffic accident. The accompanying milkshake was another 300 bucks and tasted like someone had kicked a cow multiple times in the unmentionables and mixed the result with some Elephant House ice cream. The only thing nice about the whole affair was the space: air conditioning, a bit of tinkling music, a bloke with an apron and a suspicious smirk waiting to take my order.
I had the hideous thing packed to go (no point in wasting food – I might as well take it home and try feeding it to the cat) , walked a couple of bus halts and came across ye average unnamed kadey, into which I dived. For 250 rupees I ate a rice so filling I could barely walk. The chicken had not just been cooked, but grilled, fried, roasted and possibly genetically modified so as to make hit that perfect balance of street taste. And I sat there, basking in the half-dingy, half-polished, half-seedy, half-open gutter professionalism of it all. Fuck the posh kadey, I decided. I shall stick to this side of the street.
This is Colombo – or at least, Colombo as I see it in my mind, day in and day out. Men in Toyota Allions, Emerald shirts and ties speeding away from traffic lights and a cripple trying to save money for a plastic leg. Cheaply done nightclubs, painted with the glamour of night and dim lights and with about as much action as a dead duck. Bars selling Red Bull for 600 bucks while a few feet away, a saivar kadey sells Kratingdaeng, the real, Thai Red Bull, for a third of the price. Pretty girls in expensive makeup and hairdos neatly sidestepping the woman with a goiter who haunts the lane between Unity Plaza and Majestic City. A train station where men and women surge in and out like an errant pulse of human flesh and breath. Expensive shoes that turns out to be everywhere as soon as you turn into First Cross Street in Pettah.
I write this because I’ve seen the term “Colombo people” and “Kolombians” tossed around all the time, presumably referring to an elite class of Sri Lankans who ride a BMW to the bathroom and return in a chauffeur-driven Chrysler. This class of people exist, but they’re very much the background of Colombo, which is honestly a real place with real people and real problems – a little more dolled up than usual, and consequently a little more uncomfortable than usual. Software engineers wait for the buth packet van to arrive to that they can get their daily rice with fish. An expensively dressed, perfectly poised office lady turns out to be the cashier at Torana. The couple sitting at the Bay Leaf poring over the menu are actually looking for the cheapest way out of the night. Everyone wakes up the next day, groans at the damage their bank accounts have taken, then determines to live on ginger biscuits for the next three days.
Colombo isn’t just the province of BMWs. It’s the land of Che Guevra’s tuk-tuks, Honda Vezels bought on 8-year leases and rude politicians. It’s a place where people wander into pseudomalls, gape at the prices and decide to get their hoppers elsewhere. The real Colombo is the security guard who stands in 12-hour shifts for 750 bucks a shift. Or the woman in a sari waiting for a bus and wondering if she’ll get fired if she’s late again. Or the girl who just realized that the food at the Crescat Food Court is a bigger waste of money than the attack on Iraq. Or the dude on the train getting off at Maradana with his leftover lunch in his bag.
It is very easy to paint over these people, to gloss over everyone with a glamorous brush and call every “Kolombians”. To assume that a person is of a hallowed all-powerful white-skinned upper class simply because they happen to be strolling down Queens Road with a smile on their face. But Colombo / Kolombo is so much more. Colombo is the bus drivers. The waiter who serves your tea. The hawkers in Pettah. The man peering out at the world from behind a shop window, waiting for customers who will never come. The diseased dog looking for a place to die. The beggar with a notebook, hunched over, raving.
If you’re seeing just the rich girl in the coffee-shop window, or the rich guy pulling out of the driveway in a shining silver Merc, you’re missing out. They’re not the scene. They’re just one small part of a much bigger tapestry, a cloak of many colours, ethnicities, eccentricities, classes and conversations. I pity the fool who looks at it with color-blind eyes.