The Colombo People

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.

Photo: "Sooriya" by Brett Davies. Licensed under Creative Commons.
Photo: “Sooriya” by Brett Davies. Licensed under Creative Commons.

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.

Photo: “The Roadman of Colombo” by Brett Davies. Licensed under Creative Commons.

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.

This story was originally published on Icaruswept.

25 thoughts on “The Colombo People

  1. Yudhanjaya,
    This is a nice piece. I wish there was a very huge ‘like’ button.
    I wish I could have written this before you, which means the same feelings are resonated in my mind.
    Well done. This is like reading my own mind, each day, as I drive around 60 km through the thick jungle that is colombo.
    I am not a kolombian, I am not a Gallian either.
    Wish I had more space to be human.

    keep writing. keep digging.


  2. I tried to hate you man, but sometimes you make it impossible with wordgasm like this.

    Love the way you have captured the true essence of Colombo. Thank you for not trying to poshfy everything about my home town like certain other website do.

    I’m inspired to write something as well.

  3. LOVE IT and echo your thoughts!

    It’s increasingly difficult to even eat in the city with our cost of living vs earnings. Born and bred in Colombo, but I am really like that person you saw at Bayleaf, trying to get by!

  4. This is quite a piece of literature.You’ve got an excellent writing style.Kind of reminded me about the Village by the Sea.
    Looking forward for more posts from you 🙂 Good Luck

  5. Nicely written brother! This is what everybody in Colombo witnesses everyday.

    And I’m the guy at that Bay Leaf. ;]

    කොළඹ හරිම නපුරුයි කොල්ලො..

  6. What a lovely piece of writing. But as you’ll probably know most of the shops in Colombo ( especially the new ones that are opening ) are trying to cater towards that small niche crowd.

  7. This is so great!

    I went through the same thought process as I witnessed deserted posh kades in ‘Arcade’ shopping precinct the week before the Avurudu, meanwhile Maharagama is so crowded and bustling with ‘real’ people going from one shop to the other looking for the cheapest price.

    This divide is becoming so huge with the next generation of posh Kolombians, those who know only English, trying hard to be American/British, never visited SL outside Colombo (or Galle, thanks to the highway), and devoid of any interaction with the real people who collectively design and colour the city of Colombo.

    How and what can make Colombo relevant to the common man again?

  8. Thank you for a well-written piece that hits the spot! Yes, it is sad to see the New Breed of Colombians who seem to wallow in their excesses. Colombians who, just a few years ago, never knew they were going to ride in air-conditioned limos, wear designer clothes they can hardly pronounce the names of, eat food that is totally alien to them, speak in International School accents that their parents can’t comprehend. Unfortunately, that is the reality. Perhaps its a good thing for these people, but I wish they would be more low-key!

  9. Yet another beautiful insight to the life of Colombo. It is the people that make up a country, therefore everyone is important from rich to poor.

  10. how about Colombo’s wildlife, more to it than the Kolamba Kakka (crow). I don’t see the people is see the trees, the wildlife, the green canals albeit through “green tinted” glasses. We are a Wild City, very few recognize it as on.

  11. Brilliant, excellent and the juiciest way I have read about Colombo. I love your style of writing, it captures the attention, holds you prisoner and just won’t let you go until one has reached the climax. You are so right – Colombo is a mix of delicious achcharu that can at times taste sour, extremely bitter and then again on occasion-sweet.
    Your words paint pictures, play movies in the mind and add a cacophony of sounds as one reads the colourful descriptions that simply pour forth with effortless ease from your skilled mind.
    Thank You!
    This made me grin all through it and that my friend is exactly what i needed at 2.45 am.

  12. Ditto ditto ditto.

    Not in Colombo right now. But your words sent me down good ol’ Kolombian lanes and roads…when I was either riding in some sorta “posh/g.”cars, busing it, tuk-ing it, eating elolu roties and chinese rolls…in the real Colombo you described so brilliantly!

    Cannot wait to come back and be a Kolombian… at least only for while.

    Thanks for that trip down memory lane, Icarus.

  13. Great writeup. To me just the mention of ‘Colombo’ never conjures the pictures of ‘posh’ people sipping cappuccinos (Maybe because I’m closer to the ‘other part’ of Colombo, being a guy who takes the train to work and commutes around in the bus – it always reminds me of the dusty little motor cycle garages in Panchikawatte, the small road side stalls that sell accharu with a dash of cholera in armor street and the ‘pani dodam’ juice shops in Fort, the archaic Maradana railway station with the smell of diesel and pigeons. One place where you see the contrast is Dematagoda where a massive Office complex comprising mostly of IT companies are surrounded by dingy little shops, claustrophobic saloons and roadside ‘kadala’ sellers.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.