01 February 2012

In celebration of un-walling

I grew up in Colombo. We lived in a lane that went nowhere and as such provided an excellent cricket pitch with wickets placed at the far end.  Sixers and fours were possible only through straight drives.  One couldn’t take runs if the ball was struck into a neighbour’s gardens.  The players were frequently required to scramble on to sun-shades and roofs to retrieve balls injudiciously or perhaps unintentionally hit. 

There were two other striking features about that dead-end road.  First, it was as multi-ethnic, multi-religious as it could get.  There were Sinhalese, Tamils (Sri Lankan and Indian), Burghers and Muslims; Buddhists, Christians, Catholics, Hindus and Muslims.  Everyone was bilingual and some were trilingual.  The composition survived ‘July 1983’, although people left, as people often do.    Common sense and common humanity prevailed over the occasional disagreement or dispute.  No one was abandoned at time-of-need. 

The second interesting thing about that nameless lane that was home, village and playground was that it was lined with hedges.  All the houses on the right side as you walked up the lane were identical, while those on the left were designed as pairs, facing each other as mirror images.  They all belonged to Francis Gomes but in the seventies they were taken as ‘excess houses’ by the state and ‘Gompa’, a lovable and genial man, retained just the house at the top of the lane from where he watched the cricket and when his wife, Aunty Carmen, was not around offer refreshments and guavas from his garden.  Each house was distinct courtesy hedge-type.  Some preferred multi-coloured hedges, others were more staid and single-minded.  We had an ‘Andara Weta’.

It all changed after July 1983.  A lot of things changed and not just down that lane.  One by one each household chose to put up walls.  All illegal of course since the street-line regulation was violated. Two families, ours and our mirror-image neighbours, remained ‘hedged’ although the mirror was fractured by architectural innovation and a wall that came up in place of where the mirror-line was upon my father’s insistence. 

July 1983 sparked a walling that was of national proportion.  There was passionate wall-building all over the country, especially in urban areas.  There were walls made of brick and mortar and walls made of suspicion, anger, revenge-intent and fear.  In the rush we quite unintentionally participated in caging ourselves and shrinking our respective worlds. 

Almost 27 years later, the walls are coming down. Literally.  Today we can see the Kurunduwatte Police Station and for this reason the Police somehow seems more accessible than before, when it appeared that it was an entity that stood in opposition to the general public and one that gave the impression of being terrified of encountering citizen.  There were, no doubt, legitimate reasons for walling.  In a words, the LTTE.  That’s all gone now and it is wonderful to see the quaint colonial building that was turned into a police station years ago. 

The un-walling has made both city and citizen breathe, I feel.  I knew there was a cricket ground at the corner where the Bauddhaloka Mawatha was made to turn towards Colombo University for security reasons, but I had never seen it.  It is nice to see open spaces.  Colombo University has a fence around the grounds but still, it is ‘open space’ enough that pleases eye and subdues a turbulent mind.  Royal College used to have a parapet wall but it was raised.  In the seventies, someone in a bus traveling on Reid Avenue could see the score if there was a match being played at the time. Or at least watch a delivery and perhaps an elegant stroke or butchery that produced six or four.  There is no reason not to revert to ‘parapet’. 

I know that the Defense Ministry has taken over the Urban Development Authority and while I believe that this is a bad precedent and even if this were not the case that it should be considered a temporary (very temporary) move, it is clear that the views of people who know about city planning and landscape architecture are being solicited.  It means also that the government is taking the lead in demonstrating that anxiety should be slowly but surely retired or put into semi-retirement.  The citizens, hopefully, will follow suit. 

Walls stop the breeze. They separate people from people, institutions from the public and in the process fracture both individual as well as organization.  Walls made sense at a particularly violent and fear-filled period in our history.  It seems to be that recovering normalcy requires a gradually un-walling, literally and metaphorically. The latter takes time. It will require mechanisms and processes that facilitate eye-contact, trade, recognition of commonality and so on.  The physical un-walling is quicker and can help. 

If ‘hedging’ is seen to be less secure and securing than a wall, you can sent a barbed wire fence through it or rather have it grow through such a fence.  Hedges are hard to maintain, I agree.  You have to trim hedges regularly whereas walls stay put with hardly any attention required except for a new coat of paint every few years.  Still! 

We were never a walling nation.  Our lives, bodies, homes and minds rebelled against all kinds of walling, all kinds of restrictions.  We are a people who are heirs to a civilization that promoted free thinking and free inquiry.  That’s among the greatest gifts that Buddhism gave our ancestors; a gift that is indelible in our cultural ethos and civlizational make-up, regardless of professed faith. 

I like this un-walling that is happened around the city of Colombo.  Makes one think.  Frees one’s mind to think, rather.         


sandika said...

Un - walling is a beautiful thing. but walling sometimes is for safety reasons. walls break hearts of friends and neighbors but 'andaraweta' is a beautiful concept don't necessarily break hearts of friends and lovers but still respect the 'urumaya' or ownership of others or of the neighbors etc. we are lucky now to go and see the 'thalweta' of our friends in Northern part of our country. your article reminds me of some of the lyrics and some other similar words... ' indiweta' indi kadulla' ... are some of the words that our lyricists love to use i believe.... the saddest thing about walling is we build walls sometimes against our own blood...the walls break the unity of 'kinship' ...

beautiful sunshine said...
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