A couple of days ago I spotted a curious question on a YAMU review:  “Has the economy improved here so much that 1500-2500 per person is considered middle-class?”

I’m not here to diss YAMU or its writers or their definitions of middle-class. I’m here to try and answer this question.

Let’s set some context. I.

I work in Colombo. I speak decent English and Sinhala.  I can’t afford a car. I rent a house in Ragama (because it’s cheap). I carry a 20,000-rupee Android phone. I travel on the train and then take the bus to work from Colombo Fort. My daily travel expense is perhaps Rs 70 back and forth, no different from the vast majority of people who work in this city. My phone is a lot less expensive than what most people have.  I cannot afford to live in Colombo.

And I’m not an oddity or an edge case. I have many, many friends who are similar, and we are very much alike in this. As far as class divisions go, there are people who are above us in both spending and assets – people who drive cars, drop tidy sums on Friday nights and live in comfortable homes – and people so far ahead of us that comparison is practically impossible.  And there are people below us – people who work for lesser pay and whose prospects, as far as salaries go, seemed capped below ours.

We are a middle class. We make money – enough to pig out every so often, not enough to be rich all the time. We’re not poor, either. But unless we speak in the English that betrays an expensive education, or tell you where we work, it’s impossible to identify us as any different from everybody else walking on the street.

For us, 1500-2000 for dinner at a decent place in Colombo is an acceptable sum.

Let me analyze that statement. 2000 rupees is a lot of money, for fuck’s sake. But what are we comparing against? Rs 400/= for a cheese kottu. Rs 300/= for a decent biriyani at your nearest hole-in-the-wall? Rs 400 again for a meal at MacDonald’s that doesn’t make you feel like you overpaid for air?

Food and drink in Colombo is expensive. Nowhere was this contrast more apparent to me than a recent visit to Negombo and then, a month later, Ratnapura.

Ratnapura was simple: when we went out to order food, Rs 600/= a plate seemed cheap to me. Everyone else at the table thought I was stupid.

Negombo was a series of incidents. One day,  my friends stopped at a restaurant called Sameeha’s, which promised a cheese kottu for 600 rupees. Needless to say, knowing the portion Pilawoos sells you for 400, we were expecting something a morsel and a half larger. What we got what a monster designed for four people (and I eat a lot). The cost of actually going to Negombo and eating kottu turned out to be less than eating kottu from a joint on Galle Road.

Later, a few drunk trips corroborated this trend. A bottle of Rockland’s Red Rum is Rs 2,000 at the supermarket. In Negombo they’ll sell it to you, at the bar, for around Rs 3,000. Here, in Colombo, we’ve been quoted anywhere between Rs 4,000 and Rs 14,000 for a bottle – and that last figure is from Steuart and Co, behind Dutch hospital, the same place that sells you Mendis Rum for over 12,000 rupees a bottle.

Talk about highway robbery! 

Now, the average middle-class family has about Rs 50K a month to throw around, according to the HIES survey (now outdated). And (bear with me here) Rockland Red is cheap local liquor. Yet when it comes to consuming it, Colombo sees fit to upscale it exponentially more than what it’s worth.

And the exact same happens to food. Rs 600 rupees worth of chicken cheese kottu is valued at Rs 1600; a coffee becomes Rs 700.

Steuart  is not the sole offender. Half the fancily-named places that are actually available when you don’t want the noise of kottu shattering your eardrums turn out to be fairly small places with poor service and expensive food. Sizzle, a small space with a confusingly named menu, costs over thousand rupees for mains. Bars, a small place with shitty service and shittier milkshakes, cost between 600 and 1000 for most items. Coffee Bean’s coffees make you want to burn down the whole store.  Even Machang will leave you wondering why you didn’t just take the beers and run.

 Why is this?

  1. Rent in Colombo is expensive. Because land in Colombo is expensive. This we know.
  2. Electricity is expensive. Aha. This is where those A/Cs really hit.
  3. Fuel is expensive. Which makes transport expensive. And since none of these places are built next to a paddy field or a convenient farm, that means transport is a necessary component.
  4. If you’re using imported ingredients, you’re fucked. Taxes.
  5. There are tourists and rich people in greater concentration here. Which means if you jack up the prices, there are plenty of people who will go, hmm, well, I can afford that. That’s basically the only excuse any sensible capitalist needs to jack up the prices. By doing so you set off a cascade effect where the other bloke (who also wants to make money) tries to grab a piece of that green.
  6. Inflation.

This hasn’t been helped by the fact that the decent places in Colombo have traditionally served a floating mix of expats, rich folks and foreigners. Prices were usually meant to keep the rabble out, not to generate volume. Therefore, we don’t really get epic, cheap pubs here; we get cheap pubs and epic pubs apart. Likewise, unless you really want to sweat while you eat, Rs 600-Rs 1000 really is a decent price for a person. Heck, even Kaema Sutra’s 200-rupee egg hoppers don’t seem that stupid anymore.

The economy hasn’t improved – food’s just stupidly expensive here.