09 March 2023

Colombo, Colombo, Colombo and so forth...

Back when we should have been dating or did date but didn’t know what it was called, all that mattered was to breathe the same air. Where we were at, what we did, what we talked about must have counted for something, but it was all secondary; necessary or inevitable backdrop to shared air. Something like that, more or less.  

Maybe it’s still the same, only more things have names these days. We must have been traumatised, must have had panic attacks and even suffered depression. Someone must have counselled us, only such people didn’t have titles and didn’t charge a fee. Medicines there must have been, only they didn’t come in tablet form. People came through with or without scars as they do now. Some fell to pieces as some still do.

So there are dates now. Planned as they were in ages past, more or less. But let’s leave dates and dating to daters and would-be-daters. Let’s talk about Colombo.

Years ago, one of the clubs in a prominent university decided to dedicate a periodical they put together to cities in countries such as Sri Lanka. They asked an undergraduate from Sri Lanka to write about Colombo. He hadn’t seen all of Colombo. He hadn’t studied the ways in which the city could be divided along lines of class, commercial activity, residences, communities, places of religious faith, political affiliation etc. He chose to write about what he knew of Colombo’s underside, the things, people and places that don’t come out with placards screaming ‘Here I am, I exist, take notice!’  

Interestingly, the class representative was also from Sri Lanka and he had insisted that he gets space for ‘his’ Colombo. The editors were caught in a dilemma. The ‘Underside Sri Lankan’ offered to concede but the editors, probably feeling bad that he had already been asked to write, decided to carry both pieces. Two Colombos. The underside and what could be called ‘the pretty.’

This was more than three decades ago. Those who Colombos, broadly speaking, still exist. Their faces have changed. Indeed, the profiles, if one constructed them, would be very different to what was sketched in 1990.

The pretty Colombo has got prettier. There are times when there’s a pronounced military presence but we are nothing like we were in the 1980s. Bigger. Higher skyline. Better? Depends who you are talking to. The underside has also changed. Less squalor perhaps, but income disparities have, broadly speaking, got worse. Break it all down to occupations and it’s still a city of stark disparities.

And yet, like all cities, Colombo is made of many other cities, and we are not talking about the ways in which the metropolitan area is separated by numbers, 1 to 15. A lot of time has passed and life sometimes compels one to walk new streets, encounter people and places never seen before, take notice of processes unimagined.

So you get the Colombo of the art galleries, Colombo of One Galle Face, Shangri-La, Galle Face Hotel, Colombo of temples, churches, kovils and mosques, Arcade Colombo and Dutch Hospital Colombo, Issa-Vadai Colombo and Ministry of Crab Colombo, Colombo of streets seemingly dedicated to particular trades and wares, Colombo visible and less visible, highly residential and squalid, Canal Colombo, Park Colombo, Colombo of the Beira Lake, Colombo at street-level and Colombo from a high-rise, Colombo of private and public transport, first class Colombo and Colombo of the third class and below, Colombo of the resident and the commuter, office Colombo, formal economy Colombo and informal Colombo, Colombo of the Galle Road, Duplication Road, Havelock Road, Parliament Road, Baseline Road, Diyatha Uyana Colombo, Walkway Colombo, Colombo of ‘prestigious schools’ and ‘lesser schools,’ Privileged and Underprivileged Colombo, Colombo and dawn and dusk, Midday Colombo and Colombo of intervening hours. And that’s a partial list, obviously.

So many, so many cities within the city, so many places, so many different kinds of people, so many different things to see and do, notice or ignore.

We talked of dates and love and lovers. The things to do, things to see and air breathable together. Endless. Like any city, Colombo, theoretically, lends itself not to one coffee table book of startling and elegant capture but innumerable albums.

Colombo. I’ve seen quite a few cities by that name. So many more to visit, inhabit, breathe in and exchange stories with. So little time left.

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

The slowest road to Kumarigama, Ampara

Sweeping the clutter away

Some play music, others listen

Completing unfinished texts

Mind and hearts, loquacious and taciturn

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart