The lines snaked their way past and around the calm Buddha, who in Chinese before Tamil, greeted one to Sri Lanka. The visa on arrival counter was clearly marked by a throng of very tired looking foreigners, some with families seated on the floor, because there’s no seating in that area. A man, magically and out of nowhere, appeared behind me, placing himself in front of a foreign couple without so much as a glance or apology. I introduced him to the concept of a line and the virtue of patience, asking him to return to wherever he first came from. The foreign couple expressed their thanks, and I apologized on behalf of the country, expressing the hope the rest of their holiday would be as they had expected it.
The airport security I smiled and spoke briefly with guided me in the direction of a line he had observed moved faster than others. I asked him what he thought of the scene that lay before us. At least three hundred people, mostly foreigners, in various stages of fatigue and frustration, lined up like cattle. He shrugged his shoulders, smiled and said in Sinhala that he and I, being small men, had no power to change anything. I wasn’t inclined to disagree.
I eventually encountered an immigration official whose moustache held, as evidence of a large pot belly’s sustenance, a small remnant of dinner or a midnight snack.
He was completely disinterested in everything and everyone. My passport was handed back with a barely covered yawn. Looking around, I couldn’t see a single improvement in the Arrivals Hall since the last time I was in it, a year ago. A leading bank’s poster, inviting the Chinese to bank with it because staff spoke fluent Mandarin, was a reminder of how much Sri Lanka was indebted to footfall from one country. Downstairs, the staccato movement of the luggage carousels, unchanged for over a decade, ejected some lighter pieces of luggage on to the floor. The airport staff didn’t seem bothered.
Outside the airport, complete chaos reigned. Horns, some with short, repetitive tunes and others making up for this lack of musical talent by sheer volume, competed with each other to signal their presence to specific groups of passengers who amidst this cacophony, like drunk or lost bats, tried to navigate to the sound they were most familiar with. Heavy luggage carts kept catching into the ankles of those around and in front. From my vantage, the yelps of pain accompanied by a jump and glare back frequently dotted the throng of people waiting for their vehicle. The transport itself had many logics. The larger vehicles assumed the smaller ones should give way, and were affronted when, often, they did not. The smaller ones, to compensate for this bullying, generally had the louder horns.
Vans disregarded the presence of taxis, and taxis disregarded the presence of all other vehicles. Brand-new Range Rover Sport HSE’s, with their signature grace and disdain, glided above this melee. Their drivers and occupants never looked to the side or out the window, and appeared to be a continent away even in same country. A large billboard featuring a well-known casino’s promise of entertainment and rich winnings welcomed everyone to Sri Lanka. I do not know if the Gautama inside was consulted before its erection. Policemen whistled non-stop and at everything, or nothing in particular. Sometimes the whistle went off to even their surprise when they exhaled their exasperation. At times, the simultaneously flashing headlights of dozens of vehicles – all indicating importance and impatience – gave the shabby outside of the airport the appearance of a post-apocalyptic nightclub.
Colombo’s streets, for every kilometre travelled, now feature more high-end European marques that I’ve ever seen in New York over a comparable distance. The very day I landed, my son and I spotted an Aston Martin wasting – with a low and menacing growl of dissatisfaction – a fraction of its power, inching forward in a gigantic traffic jam. Everyone, all the time, is anxious and angry when driving. Everyone is fighting for a time or positional advantage that doesn’t exist, where a car’s length or just an inch ahead is valiantly fought for by violently revving, braking, horning, shouting and gesticulating. Lane divisions seemingly exist to alert drivers, especially in white or black SUVs, as to how far away from them they can drive.
Pedestrians are both hapless victims as well as active agents in the chaos. Many cross wherever they please, with a signature grin that gets wider the closer they brush against death. Others wearily wait for ages by a pedestrian crossing, often with no hope passing vehicles caught in their own battles will stop for them. The horning starts the second the lights turn yellow. Images of or quotes from Che, Marley, religious deities, sons, daughters as well as soulful paeans to mothers, excerpts from the Dhammapada, and entirely meaningless combinations of English words adorned on three-wheelers scurry and creep everywhere, like the hurried movement of red corpuscles under a microscope. In just a week, I’ve driven past three serious accidents where it is utterly confusing as to how the vehicles and seriously injured occupants ended up the way they did, if common sense and road rules were adhered to.
The ostentatious display of wealth has got worse. Hip new coffee shops and swank restaurants help clean black money. It is unclear who can afford to actually buy anything at Colombo City Centre. The throngs of people the evening I ventured into it were far more interested in selfies than sales. A colleague at work extolled the virtues of the new cinemas, which I know I will venture into before I leave the country again. But the complete lack of any arthouse cinemas or film screenings, easily found even in other South Asian cities, indicates a market tellingly only interested in the mindless, mainstream, mundane or mercantile.
These are select snapshots of a country I’m engaging with in person after being absent for a year. Both regressive change and shocking stasis – starkly rendered because I’ve not been part of an invisible incrementalism that has normalized exceptions over time – were violent. The experiences made me wonder what we celebrate tomorrow.
Recently, politicians publicly fought over the first new railway line laid in the country since Independence. The bone of contention was around who should get the most or sole credit. Lost in, as usual, the pointless tirades was the fact that it took over 70 years to lay just 26km of new railway track. En route to Colombo from a country that reveres nature, I read on Facebook that an access road to Sinharaja was being widened. I just couldn’t fathom why. The jingoism and militarism of Independence Day celebrations mask enduring existential challenges for those in the North, a decade after the end of the war as well as relative poverty in the South. Evident even just in Colombo, wealth brings insulation, lower temperatures, higher elevations, better reception, privileged access, easier negotiation and more opportunities. A new wealth is here, along with its attendant mindset and values. From respecting nature to civil nurture, everything else is dispensable.
Including, evidently, democracy – over 70 years after the Raj receded.