Adams Peak can be a grueling trek but ultimately extremely rewarding. The cultural aspect especially, which makes it stand to reason to attempt it in the pilgrimage season. This was from last year. We trekked up half the distance through a jungle path* that only opens up when the villagers of Udamaliboda begin to use it for their own pilgrimage. The path is otherwise usually covered in thick undergrowth and you are likely to get lost if you attempt it at any other time. Also, even at the best of times, the risk of flash floods is real.

When you reach the steps proper, which in our case consisted of little more than rough cuts made into rock (the Kuruvita route. The more civilized paths lead up from Hatton and Ratnapura, the former is crowded and touristy, while the latter is longer but more peaceable and one with nature), and meet other pilgrims on their way up or down, they will greet you in verse invoking upon you the blessings of the god Saman, the deity of the mountain. You are generally expected to respond in kind, or bear the brunt of the uncomfortable silences that follow with respectful, sheepish smiles.

The mountain’s Sinhala name, Samanala, derives from the name of this god or also possibly the Sinhala word for butterfly, which is the same. The whole area surrounding the mountain, which is sacred and steeped in ancient lore and significance associated with all four major faiths the island hosts but primarily in the belief systems of the Sinhala people, is known as ‘the realm of the mountain god’ or ‘Samanala adaviya’, to those that revere it. It is also known as ‘Shri Pada’ (for the sacred footprint on its peak said to belong to Adam, Shiva or the Buddha based on which belief system you subscribe to) or Adam’s Peak.

There are four main paths that lead to the peak, and attribute it to what you will, but ascending or descending along the lesser populated ones, it is not hard to gather a sense of otherwordly profundity in every leaf that brushes your face, in the clumps of big rock roughly hewn to make way for human progress, in the breathtaking views and sights that greet you as you progress upwards or in every rivulet of icy water that crosses your path; from thin streams to the gushing majesty of the ‘seetha gangula’ or ‘cool river’ in which it is considered especially auspicious to bathe in.

In the case of the path we took, every leech that successfully latched on to our foot in tenacious determination, sucking our blood and giving us the itches for weeks afterwards, also succeeded in conveying something otherworldly, just not so much in a good way. But if you are up for a tough hike, I would strongly recommend the path from Udamaliboda. In an age of ease and convenience, it alone remains one of the only truly ‘authentic’ ways up there. I know, I sound like such a hipster.

Remarkable people come to the peak. I saw old men and women, some supporting themselves with walking sticks resolutely making their way upwards, even passing us, our poor touristy tread unfired by any sense of profound purpose, in an amazing testament to the power of human faith. Whole families, nay, whole villages will come up the mountain together, many will carry toddlers all the way up and all the way back down. They will bring supplies and cook and sleep and live their way up the mountain, often taking days to complete the pilgrimage, taking advantage of the many ‘ambalamas’ or resting places constructed for the purpose.

It is said that Ibn Batuta, the famous Moroccan Islamic jurist who pretty much made an envious lifelong career out of traveling and writing about it, talked the Tamil king of the North at the time into taking him to the peak. He must have gone through thick jungle, forbidding trials, and territory belonging to Sinhalese kings, but he doesn’t appear to have experienced any untoward problems. In Islamic tradition, including the prophet’s (may peace be upon him) hadeeth, there is some evidence that Adam could have alighted upon Sarandib, but there is evidence just as strong that makes the case of him having landed in Jordan. Anyhow, it appears that Muslim traders initially made a big deal of the former, which also resulted in increased access to the hinterlands, and expansion of the trade in gems, both a spiritually and commercially profitable enterprise.

The multiculturalism of Adam’s peak however, I can attest to. When I found myself up there before sunrise, I was anxious to offer my pre-dawn salah. This was at the height of BBS induced anti-Muslim hate in the country, and being the city slicker I am, I naively feared I would be mobbed in mid-prayer. The top of the mountain is a warren of construction; temples and viewing platforms; sprawling resting places, all squeezed into a very small piece of land right on the peak, which incidentally results in terrible foot traffic jams along the more crowded Hatton route, which sort of beats the purpose of taking the shorter, more commercial path to the top.

I apprehensively laid my prayer rug amidst sleeping bodies, in what I thought was a secluded corner. And proceeded to pray. I kept hearing hubbub in the background, hubbub which I expected to rise to a crescendo of outrage at any moment. But nothing happened. I prayed, nodded at a few groggy people just waking up, and left. I felt unnoticed, unremarked upon, and more than anything else that could have happened, that made me feel welcome, a part of the crowd.


Nothing really left to talk about except for the sunrise, which everyone waits for, and which is pretty much the point of the whole exercise for those that aren’t religiously motivated. There is a very long moment of staring into the East, hundreds of people literally looking towards the East, faces open and expectant as if hoping for some sort of divine revelation. And the sun is a total tease. It made us wait and wait, and finally deigned to let loose a single gleam, a ray as sharp as a laser beam piercing through the crowd, before finally rising completely to the occasion.


The sun will soon be too bright to look at, but if you glance off the Western side of the mountain, you will see the massive triangular shadow of the peak stretching to the horizon, the mist still caught in the valleys of lesser peaks look like trapped lakes. It is truly a breathtaking sight.


*information on trails and travel advice to Adam’s Peak can be found on the excellent Lakdasun

This is probably one of the best videos on Sri Lanka tourism i have ever seen. One, because it focuses on Sri Lankan tourists and two, because it is highly entertaining but still gets across a message.

Garbage. Trash. Pollution.

Look at any ‘trip’ that Sri Lankans do and you will see garbage in their wake. Numerous are the occasions that the Sinhalaya Travels crew have gone to some pristine untouched location in a beautiful remote corner of the island and found the effect to be ruined by stray plastic bags, chocolate and toffee wrappers.

And well, its not really just about the effect at the end of the day, we are talking about serious harm to the environment, and that too to locations that are highly prized by all Sri Lankans. On my last visit to Trinco i was especially appalled at the amount of trash local tourists generously scatter about.

The scribbling of walls, carving of trees, pastings of chewing gum, random disposal of garbage into the open environment must stop. And the public needs to be educated. This video is a great first step, and it being taken by a government body is an encouraging sign.

Only the government has the media clout to reach out to educate the people at large. And well, it’ll be great to see them use this for positive propaganda for a change. Hopefully they’ll follow this up with the necessary infrastructure like signboards and trash disposal systems, which there is a serious dearth of.

The song speaks nostalgically of the beauty of the country. The deeply ironic effect it has when coupled with the visuals may be slightly lost if you don’t understand the words.

And as for that poor girl who got spat on with beetle juice. I’ve been there. Happened to me once in Jaffna. Not nice to be on the receiving end of a projectile of a massive red gob of spit.


Do you know what it means?

Most pejoratives have origins in completely acceptable descriptive words. ‘Negro’ comes from the Latin ‘Niger which means black, ‘Paki’ is shortened from ‘Pakistani’. Terms like Chinaman, Coolie are also derived from relatively innocent descriptive origins. They get their pejorative connotations after being repeatedly used in an insulting manner.  Other names originate directly from a desire to put down and insult, but the word ‘Hambaya’ belongs to the former category.

‘Hambaya’ is derived from the Malay ‘Sampan’. The word for a somewhat flat bottomed boat, also used by the Chinese. Pictured above is an Indonesian sampan, coming back from a fishing expedition. Sampans were frequently seen in Sri Lanka’s South Eastern coast when Javanese people stopped en route while migrating to countries like Yemen and MadagascarMany of them stayed back here as well. The term was eventually associated with South Indian traders who were also Muslims like the Javan people, and who adopted the same style of boat. And eventually, as ‘Sampan’ became ‘Samman’ in Tamil and ‘Hamban’ to the Sinhala people, a collective term ‘Hambankaraya’ was used to describe them as a whole.

According to ethnologist Asiff Hussein, author of Sarandib: an Ethnological Study of Muslims in Sri Lanka, the word did not acquire its derogatory connotations until the beginning of the 1915 riots, the first ever incident of tension between Sinhalese and Muslims. According to Asiff, the riots were sparked by ‘coastal moors’ of Indian residence temporarily ensconced in the center of the country (the riots started at Gampola) for trading purposes. They were not as accommodating as Sri Lankan moors (the term used for resident moors in the country) and objected to the procession of the perehara (Buddhist festival) near their mosque (contrarily, resident moors were long known to have facilitated and supported perahara activity).

The ensuing tensions spread the  use of the word ‘Hambaya’, shortened from the rather more respectful ‘Hambankaraya’, as a wide derog to describe all Muslims even the ones that hadn’t migrated on a boat. But then again, everyone in Sri Lanka, except maybe for the aadivasi, migrated on a boat, and a lot of us still continue the proud tradition, but I digress. The word ‘Thambiya‘ probably acquired its seedier usage around about that time as well. Just like in ‘hambaya’ the problem is the suffix ‘ya’ which basically turns an endearing term that refers to a younger brother into a racial slur.

Signs that ‘Hamban’ was once a respectable term are everywhere. Take Hambantota for instance, what will probably soon be Sri Lanka’s on-paper capital. The whole place is named after the Hambankarayas or at least, their boats.. Hambantota basically means ‘Port of Hambans’. Further to the East, ‘Sammanthurai’ means exactly the same thing. ‘Samman’ is the Tamil version of ‘Hamban’ and ‘Thurai’ means port.

Many Malays still live in the Hambantota area. My uncle was married to a Malay there. Almost his whole family (and wife’s extended family as well) and nearly the entire neighborhood were wiped out in the tsunami. Malays have more than a passing influence on Sri Lankan culture, language and history. But this is often overlooked because of the small size of the Malay community in the country today. They are usually cast in the same cultural bucket as Sri Lankan Moors, who are themselves a pretty diverse lot to begin with.

Not all of the Hambankarayas were Muslim. Chandrabhanu was a Javanese king who spent some 30 years of his reign trying to invade Sri Lanka. He probably used many sampan in his invasionary forays. He was a Buddhist.

image from JDS Lanka

image from JDS Lanka

The Pax Rajapakse is almost four years old. In that time I’ve gone from being a relative tortoise in my own country to having a degree of freedom that I never imagined possible. I’ve traveled now to virtually every place formerly torn up by the war. And can travel anywhere else I please should I wish to do so.

But the Pax Rajapakse is just that, peace. It has no moral identity. It has no moral pretensions even though it likes to pretend otherwise. Dreadful things are done to preserve the peace. But in all objectivity some might say that the end justifies the means. Peace is its own reason.

But a once universal peace is now fragmenting into varying degrees of peace; different categories of peace now exist. There is a lesser peace and a greater peace. The greater peace is being able to move around your country with freedom, the lesser peace is demarcated by invisible lines drawn through society with labels saying things like ‘Do Not Cross’, ‘Trespassers Will Be Shot’ and  ‘Sycophants Only’.

The country, as it strains under the forces of development, churns society like the roiling Indian Ocean and casts up new oppressed classes and facilitates the surge of new elite. Apparently there is ‘good’ corruption and ‘bad’ corruption. So say some, justifying the regime’s steamroller approach to progress with a substantial personal cut. But where is the line, I say?

While people leave on boats, and put up with heavy abuse for want of jobs and are kicked out of their homes to make way for high rises in the midst of Colombo; a whole new class of wealthy and powerful Sri Lankan is emerging. Closely connected to the country’s powerbrokers, they wield high influence that cuts through social and legal infrastructure like butter. Any justice is we have here is highly skewed in the favor of these elites.

All this has not gone unnoticed. The people are restless and feeling the brunt of ever increasing cost of livingn. Straight talking journalists are still in danger. And the briefly stable peace is now crumbling at the edges with this latest drive of racism. The people are hungry for something to blame. A few decades ago it was the Tamils, and now it is the Muslims. 

But peace is profitable, war is not. And the last thing the government needs is another conflict. And therein lies the problem. Sri Lanka is a corrupt animal. This corruption is like a cancer, but it can still grow within it. Most forecasts still place our economy with prospects of around 6-7% of GDP growth per annum. On a global scale this is huge. This means we double every ten years or so. And if we’re patient enough and do not over reach, we can still become a rich country in our own time.

There are however, serious glitches that can ruin everything. Since Sri Lanka stopped being a low income country, it has stopped receiving aid which basically allowed us to spend more than we earned without worry. And over the years a strong parasitic class developed that benefited and prospered from this surplus, the result; a bloated state sector, crazy inefficiency and high levels of corruption. And now it is this transition from being aid dependent that is really killing us.

Finding itself forced to cover up its various deficits (budget and current account) by taking loans, Sri Lanka is realizing (I hope) that it is mixing a recipe for disaster. We need solid foreign investments to replace these loans and they will not come in until the political, and by extension business, environment is made investor friendly; until budget gaps are sorted out sustainably;  until capital expenditure is focused on projects with long term benefits like education, infrastructure and health.

Currently the government is trying to cover its behind by putting the burden on the public. It should be cutting dead weight and increasing its efficiency by turning state corporations (like the cash bleeding CPC and CEB) profitable, instead it is reducing much needed public expenditure and increasing prices of essential goods and utilities. This burden on the public, ever increasing with the latest round of fuel price hikes, is what is contributing to unrest. There is a continuing laxity in addressing post war issues, and fiascos like the Expropriation Bill and the impeachment of the Chief Justice are poorly handled and reflect very badly internationally.

The Rajapakse regime still has my support. Most East Asian giants grew up under pseudo democracies; Indonesia, Malaysia and Singapore. And the fact that we lack a better alternative has never been more obvious in the light of the UNP’s recent feeble opportunism in attempting to capitalize on racist propaganda. The Rajapakse’s have huge potential to bring something the country has not had for a long time; political stability and long term growth. But they cannot do this by cultivating a parasitic social sub-strata of sycophants and dependents.

Hidden agenda lurks behind this fresh wave of racism, trying to distract from pressing issues at hand. What we should be doing is figuring out the real problems and then campaign for reform, especially with the limitations of our reality in mind. This is undoubtedly hard to do in the current context; the corruption is the cancer and it is within all of us, if you will permit me a bit of drama. If the Rajapakse regime had a big role to play in creating the pax, average Sri Lankans have an even bigger role to play in keeping it.

I met Nathan on a bus bound for Hatton. Nathan lives in a shop at pettah. A hotel. He’s a career hotel worker. Having worked in Nawalapitiya. He now juggles three jobs in pettah in order to raise his kids of which he has four. He is also a karate master. Owns five cows. And farms a small patch of land of about 90 perches in Bogawantalawa. His pet peeve is hating on Muslim Tamil, he thinks we bastardized it. For example, our word for ‘eat’ is what real Tamil speakers use when feeding dogs. So when a group of Hindu priests from India arrived at his shop in Pettah and the Muslim waiter boy asked them if they want to ‘eat’ they looked at each other’s faces and got up and left.

On young men and the pitfalls of living ‘alone’…

Nathan gets up at 5am and starts work at his uncle’s hotel, making roti for about an hour or two. He gets free lodging there and also a salary of 1000 bucks a day for making rotty. I asked why he doesn’t get a proper room with some privacy. But apparently it costs too much. Like 10k. And also being alone. It’s not good for your head. Apparently you get all sorts of ideas. One young man who lived alone, he says this as if that young man was indulging in some extravagant luxury, started smoking ganja and got caught to the cops.

Lots of young men, fresh from the mountains so to speak, fall into various traps. Like women. One guy from Nuwaraeliya met a girl from Batticaloa and was ‘carrying on’ with her four about for years. Whereupon she left him with about four lakhs of his money. He got ‘mental’ and eventual drank ‘medicine’ which is probably weedicide. He didn’t succeed in killing himself but Nathan and others eventually returned him to his village. Four lakhs is a fortune. Four lakhs is four cows. But before I elaborate on the cows, another young man who met a girl from Anuradhapura while working as a waiter in a shop. She eventually stole a gold chain from him and left. All these girls are sluts, says Nathan. They are no good. They come to shops to eat, flirt with the waiters and ensnare them in their putrid honey traps.

On working in tea plantations…

But Nathan is self assured. He’s been through a lot and wears the experience like a generalissimo. Both his parents were estate workers but he refused follow in their footsteps. His wife works in the estate however and he says it isn’t that bad. You don’t get paid much. Rs 500 a day. But the estate gives you 10kg of flour for just Rs1000. There’s also a one time payment of 15k per child. They also cut a little bit for the Employee’s Provident Fund (EPF). The EPF is the best thing about the whole deal. At the end of a long lifetime if plucking tea, the worker can look forward to about 5 to 10 lakhs to retire with.


I’m guessing some of his parents’ EPFs were used to buy Nathan’s cows. He has five. But minister Thondaman gave them two on an easy payment scheme. These cows aren’t like the ones in Colombo, they’re imported from Australia and can deliver about 20 liters of milk a day. His five cows earn him about 60000 a month. He has to spend about 20000 on punnakku. So 40000 is clean profit. A cow can typically give birth to 13 calves in its lifetime. So having a cow says Nathan is better than having gold. It earns and earns you money. So how can you even think of eating its flesh? A man who eats a cow’s heart and does so for six months will soon find his own heart getting bigger, too big for his chest. He will have trouble breathing and will have to go to a clinic. A cow is sacred. It is like a mother. Eating its flesh will make humans cows by nature. Cows are allowed to die in peace and are then buried. No such care is taken with bulls though. Male calves are allowed to grow upto full size and promptly sold to a butcher.

On surviving…

Nathan juggles his life between Pettah and Bogawantalawa. He has to do a lot of work in his small plantation. He has to cut grass to feed his cows. Which are kept locked up in a shed 24/7 because ‘that’s how you’re supposed to breed them’. Also cattle thieves are everywhere. In addition to this, his job making rotty in pettah Nathan also makes short eats. After his two hours of morning rotti making he grabs a bit of sleep and uses his uncle’s kitchen to make all sorts of short eats which he sells by about 3pm. Then once in every two days he does Nataami work which is hard labor lifting and carrying sacks of produce. Nataami work typically starts at 12 midnight and lasts for about 90 minutes. It’s not easy work, Nathan must be in his mid to late thirties. But you get paid about 1500 rupees. And you have four kids to raise.

He told me a horrible story about something that happened to his wife. Who he refers to as his Samsaram. She went last year to Saudi for work. And returned after one month and seven days. She lived in the third floor of a four story house with a family of three. The son was vey abusive and would touch and fondle her and cut her hair. She eventually escaped from her third story room by tearing her bedsheets into strips and using them as a rope to climb out of the window. Many housemaids return to Sri Lanka as corpses says Nathan. In the house his wife lived in a Sri Lankan girl had been killed previously.

and wrapping up with a conspiracy theory..

It is obvious that Nathan is well liked. Especially among the residents of the Gunasinghapura koreas where he lives. He likes to make fun of their Tamil and they return in kind. When his daughter attained puberty a whole load of them came to Bogawatalawa and he took them to see Siripada.

Nathan shares my ambivalence for bus music. Ok he fair well hates it. The only song he liked was the Hindi dam arey dam.

Oh yeah. Apparently in the US the authorities have imposed a new kind of ID. It is a microchip. They implant it in your arm if you’re a man, forehead if you’re a woman and at the top of your skull if you’re a child. They can track all of your movements and actions. He doesn’t seem quite clear on whether this is already happening or is still at some experimental stage. Anyway it’s somehow connected to the number 666 and 18digits like the barcodes you find in products everywhere. Somehow this long number will become the ‘last number in the world’ just before apocalypse hits. I didn’t get that bit either.

Yesterday i was ‘dragged to court’. Must to the chagrin of my family. ‘Why did you get involved?’ ‘you should have just walked away’, now you’re going to have to waste half your life there and you’re never going to be able to even leave the country, was the general surmise.

It was about this. Some three months ago i was driving down Lorenz Rd and discovered the body of Kanapadipillai Udayakanthan, he didn’t seem to have had a very comfortable death judging by the blood and wounds. I told the cops, and with one casual phone call on Sunday afternoon someone from the Bambalapitiya Police summoned me to court. Told me to come the next day. No letters sent to my house, no paperwork just ‘Hello, is this Abdul Halik? Come to court tomorrow at 9 a.m kthnksbye’.

I’m like erm.. is this some sort of prank call? So i asked my cousin who practices in Hulftsdorp, apparently this is the yoush when it comes to criminal cases. He scared me a little and asked if i needed a lawyer, i filled him in on the details and he said that i could probably make do without one. ‘Probably’? relief mixed with apprehension, what have i got myself into?

Hulftsdorp is amazing. I’d only been there once before. You have all these massive old Dutch buildings. This one was so big that it stretched for almost a kilometer down the road i went in search of a mosque. And the majority of them don’t seem to be under heavy use, and have crumbling facades invaded by weeds and rubble.

I took my phone into court. No one checked. We sat in the back row (my dad insisted on accompanying me). Soon it was so crowded that people were jostling for standing space. It was hot and sweaty, and the lawyers were in black ties and jackets. I’m glad my ten year old self got distracted from the temporary ambition of becoming a lawyer.

Above it all one man ruled. No not the judge. The mudaliyar, to whom all the lawyers were sugary sweet . My dad filled me in. The mudaliyar is the in-between between the judge and the rest of the court. Administrative staff like him and the Registrar (what the mudaliyar becomes when he gets a promotion) are powerful because they can move files up and down and presumably do wondrous things to paperwork that can make or break a case. They net in the cash from corporates, rich/desperate people eager to make something go away.

The justice system wouldn’t be complete without its own unique brand of injustice.

I hear clanking. Like a thousand little bells going off. The prisoners, manacled, are being brought to the little cage in the corner from where they’ll observe proceedings. Wait what am i saying, they’re not prisoners yet, none of them have been proven guilty. But none of them have been proven innocent either. Apparently this is enough to cage and chain them.

There were some interesting cases being heard. One drug addict (going by his sallow cheeks, shadowy skin and sunken eyes) was allowed to represent himself. He was asked to cross examine the men testifying against him and he kept directing his questions to the mudaliyar, who repeatedly barked at him to ‘ask the damn witness, not me’. The phone in question was an ancient nokia 1100. The cost of the whole court case probably cost everyone involved several times its value.

He was put back into his cage and the case was postponed. At recess i saw him with his family throwing a little baby girl up and down in his arms. I smiled, he smiled and nodded as if we were long lost friends.

I felt sorry for the thambili seller up next. He had managed to acquire the services of a lawyer, who pleased on his behalf. Apparently he’s had no income for five days since the police confiscated his cart for trading on the pavement. He was given the cart, and let off with a warning.

The woman accused of prostitution was the best. She looked half like a beggar, and didnt seem to be al there. She loudly protested her innocence for ‘ayale yama’ or ‘indecency’ (Sri Lanka apparently doesnt have direct laws against prostitution). Whereupon said the judge (always via the mudaliyar, who is used as a mouthpiece) that she could get off with a fine of Rs 100 (yes 100 Rupees!) if she pleaded guilty. She wouldn’t hear of it. And was remanded for 9 days pending trial. I was like ‘you go girl’!

My testimony was carried out in the confines of the judge’s office. A stenographer took it down as i spoke on an ancient typewriter. I signed and left. The whole thing took about 5 minutes. But I sat in court for 5 hours.

Going to court is a hassle. I don’t think i’d like to do it several days over and over and over. Probably why a lot of Sri Lankans walk away or tip annonymously and straight out avoid any involvement like the plague. Being caught up in a case might mean a major restriction on your life, the inability to leave the country for extended time periods. And cases can last for years. Even decades. But i hugely enjoyed my visit to court yesterday. Everyone should go once. You can just walk in and sit down and watch. No need of cardboard summons even.

*title changed from Why Everyone Should Go To Court (as opposed to Once)

It’s been nearly a year since I last went to Jaffna. And things have changed. A lot of things are happening all over the North beneath a veneer of stillness. The people progress doggedly, shouldering responsibilities, not waiting for freebees and generally making good for themselves. Military presence is ubiquitous, but toned down. Instead of standing around in uniform and with weapons, soldiers wear shorts and tank tops and tend to corner shops, and are mostly enclosed in their barracks when they’re not.

Railway lines are being built steadily, I hear. Though the pace has been incredibly slow, the track has been only extended up to Omanthai for as long as I can remember. A few months ago there was even a fundraiser and tickets for the inaugural train journey were sold in advance for a thousand rupees. Many people bought these as a symbol of a brighter future and a promise of better times to come. Right now however the most convenient way to commute to Jaffna is via the overnight bus. It is passable, but is prevented from being comfortable by very bad customer service.

Ancient automobiles like these are still a common sight. Having been cut off from the supply of durables during the war, new vehicles are just beginning to arrive in the peninsula.

And when I say bad, I mean bad. There’s loud Tamil music blasting the speakers all night long, without stop. The drivers are belligerent and rude. On my way back the bus was suddenly stopped in the middle of nowhere for an hour, no explanation was given; the driver and conductor simply disappeared. The passengers were locked in the back with no way of getting out, the AC on full blast so that we were all freezing. If you ask me, the overnight bus service to Jaffna is simply itching for some creative destruction.

The roads are being built at a pace, perhaps not as fast as in the South, but since I came there last; an additional 80 kilometers or so of road has been freshly carpeted. Now there’s good road right until you pass Chavakaccheri, whilst previously it ended at Omanthai. Roads in and around Jaffna are also being built. Places like Nainathivu, Kayts, Nallur have vastly improved access.

Our driver Suda escaped abroad during the war in Jaffna to avoid getting drafted by the LTTE. Eleven of his classmates from Mullaitivu weren’t so lucky. They are all presumed dead. In the background: The vehicle graveyard stretching south from Puthukkudiyirippu enroute to Mullaitivu. Casualties of war piled in dead heaps for some unknown purpose.

There aren’t many opportunities for youth in Jaffna still. A lot of them will come to Colombo to look for work, or try to start their own businesses. Transport, agriculture and retail seem popular. The community is tight, but perhaps a little disturbingly there is a strong sense of racial segregation within Jaffna. The Tamils and Muslims generally work separately, that is not to say that they’re mutually hostile, just that they like to keep to their own.

The Muslims still remember horror stories from the early nineties. In Moor Street (actually refers to a whole quarter in the Jaffna town) people talk about how they had to leave everything they owned one fine day in the early nineties and walk to Killinocchi, one woman told me that it took them three days to get there. Many have now returned to their broken down homes and have begun rebuilding their lives. Still many others have preferred to stay in their new homes in Negombo, Puttlam and various other areas in the South.

Muslims are gradually returning to Moor Street and Jaffna. Though a lot of them are also changing their minds and selling their houses. Their long standing status as IDPs have complicated their lives sufficiently enough to render the act of coming back home after twenty years full of difficulties. 

These ‘old IDPs’ mainly consist of Muslims evicted in the exoduses of ‘91 from Jaffna and Mannar. They complain that aid has been slow in coming, if it comes at all. And that they have been largely left to fend for themselves. Livelihood opportunities in Jaffna aren’t easily available, and according to them, discrimination leaves them out of the more lucrative businesses. They don’t blame the Tamils alone; there is also huge dissatisfaction with the Muslim leadership both in the provincial council and above. The former is painted out to be self serving and inefficient, holding back the community.

Elsewhere in the North, war tourism is on the boom. We drove down to Puthukudiyiruppu, on the new Paranthan-Mulaitivu highway. When I say new I mean new, the road has just been cut out of the Vanni jungles, the dirt flat and dusty. Rollers and building crews are just beginning the rudiments of laying tar. All along this area, the devastation of the war is still naked and exposed. Houses are shot through with bullets, bombed out vehicles and rusted metal piled along the roadside for hundreds of meters.

The Puthukudiyirippu War Museum displays LTTE gun boats, ships and submarines. The Torpedoes, RPGs, pistols, rocket launchers and missiles are all home made, apparently reverse engineered. Members of the military function as guides.

Highlights of this wasteland include a new war museum in Puthukudiyirippu, featuring a large amount of LTTE arms, gunboats, submarines and other weaponry. The main attraction in the area is obviously the house of Prabhakaran. His pad is a five story monstrosity, with four of those stories underground. The whole place is left in the condition in which it has been found, more or less. Doors lie blasted open, debris scattered in certain places. A skylight at the bottom-most layer opens into a secret passage with a ladder leading out in case anyone got trapped. Significantly, none of the war tourism sites bothered with Tamil language signs. Signboards are only in English and Sinhala. To me, this oversight speaks ugly volumes.

Soosay’s house is also close by. An inscription above the entrance reads; “our enemies are our best teachers”. A nondescript bedroom inside has a nondescript wardrobe that opens up into a secret escape tunnel dug into the ground. Crowds flock through Soosay’s door reading his inscription and flock back out through his secret escape route. Soosay is dead, and now his enemies are learning from him.

Inside the Jaffna fort. Repairs are underway. But a lot of it is still in ruins. Visitors apparently have the run of the place. Crawl through broken walls and discover dank holes and passages, at your own risk.

Jaffna is just beginning to find its bearings when it comes to tourism. The many war monuments and simple curiosity attract the crowds, but Jaffna has little in the way of developed attractions. Casuarina beach is increasingly frequented by local tourists; Nallur Kovil, the Library and the Rio ice cream parlor are musts for any Jaffna visit. The famous Jaffna fort is being rebuilt. After enduring untold ravages during the war and seeing a lot of blood spilt beneath its walls, the huge gallows once again welcome visitors motivated only by leisurely pursuits.

Jaffna is a very friendly peninsula. Tamils, Muslims and Sinhalese soldiers alike all greet you with smiles. They are always eager for a chat. Some want news, some are nosy and some just want to share their lives. Walking around bumping into people and simply absorbing the atmosphere is a pleasure. The markets are colorful and people happy. Things are moving in Jaffna and they’re moving largely under the peoples’ own steam. People too busy to really worry about the patches of darkness that occasionally threaten to overwhelm their infant peace.

More pictures here

Another crime scene, another time and place

At around nine last Thursday I was sitting on the balcony of my friend’s suite at the Cinnamon Lakeside, the hotel’s floating restaurant was doing the rounds on the Beira lake; it’s basket-like structure lit up with lights, competing with the neon lamps of the new Bally’s casino across the water. Colombo seems on the cusp of a bright future.

At around 1030 that night I was discovering the body of Kanapadipillai Udayakanthan, 38. What i mistook for a drunkard lying in a pool of urine turned out to be a muscular young man lying on his side in a pool of blood, quite still. We told the cops. A dark, mustachioed sergeant stared me in the eye a little too closely and told me he’ll ‘check it out’.

The genesis of a Colombo Crime Scene investigation is interesting to watch. When i came back after dropping my friend, there were two bemused looking traffic policemen, and one grave looking bystander. A closer look reveals multiple stab woulds on the victims’ arm and face, there were probably deeper cuts on his neck and torso but he was lying on his front and side so i couldn’t see. Tinny Sinhala music was playing from somewhere, a phone in the dead man’s pocket.

Fifteen minutes later, there are more bemused cops, and more curious bystanders. Some are taking pictures. Strangely, the cops are letting two of the seedier ones get awfully close to the corpse, not that they were particularly restricting any of the others. These two turn out to be inspectors from the crime squad, as do a few other plainclothesmen in the crowd. Word gets around that I was the one that reported the body, and a few of the cops nod at me in appreciation.

Soon the Inspector is pulling out a wallet from the victim’s shorts, the name, race and address of the victim, as yet unknown, is now confirmed. The realization that he is Tamil creates a barely perceptible change in the atmosphere, slight relief, this is now a routine job.

Meanwhile more cops are digging through the late Mr. Udayakanthan’s backpack. They’re finding some documents, among which are four passports, three are in the victim’s name. None of the cops wear rubber gloves. People are all over the scene, walking on what must be evidence. The cops, mildly annoyed, tell them to keep away, but they keep slinking back and the police just give up. The yellow cordon only goes on some two hours later, when everyone’s basically gotten bored and gone home.

Now the phone is ringing again, muffled Sinhala music (why would a Tamil man listen to Sinhala music?), his front pockets are caked with blood, still wet. The inspector digs in with gusto, rummages for a while, and manages to pull out the phone from the left pocket. It’s a fake iphone. The person on the other end is a woman. Their conversation goes something like this:

“Who are you” says the IP, “why is so and so in Bambalapitiya?” she is obviously very confused at this stranger barking questions at her. “We are the cops..he’s been stabbed (meyawa kapala kotala dalla thiyanawa)” the cop doesn’t believe in easing into things, and i react like i was slapped, she reacts like the cop is barking mad. “No i’m not joking” says the IP, “call the police station if you don’t believe me” she hangs up.

Another call, again a woman. She cant speak Sinhala, and the IP asks the crowd who can speak Tamil, I volunteer, but soon regret it. You ever seen those cop shows where the short straw always goes to the guy who has to tell the dead man’s wife? well it’s not a fun job. My Tamil is broken, and after the cop’s attitude to the previous caller, i feel strangely desensitized and out of sync.

To my credit, or lack of it, i first thought it was the same caller, and that she already got the brunt of the bad news. So when she asked where Udayakanthan was i replied that he was dead. She asked me what the hell i was talking about, and then i asked her who she was, his wife, she said. I tried to sound as sensitive as i could. But my Tamil was just warming up, and the correct words and tone just wouldn’t come. I think i ended up shocking her very badly, she started screaming and bawling. She only managed to tell me that she didn’t know what her late husband was doing in bamba and that she was in London, and worse, that she was without family there.

I subsequently spoke to several of her neighbors, and then her sister called from Batticaloa. i told them to send someone to the Bambalapitiya Police, since the Police seemed a little clueless as to what i should say. None of them knew what Udayakanthan was really upto in Colombo, only that he worked for a ‘studio’ and that he had many Sinhala friends. He had a big red motorbike, but it was nowhere to be seen. Mysteriously, his helmet was nearby and his keys were next to him soaking in a rivulet of his own blood. Police say that tire tracks nearby indicated that he was killed somewhere else, and dumped here.

About two hours pass before they ask me for a statement, but i could have left at any time before that. While giving my statement by the side of the road, I look through the passports, and only one of them has been used. Once on a trip to India in 2006, and then for work to Saudi in 2007. The other two are brand new. The cops are chatty and open about everything, me looking through evidence doesn’t seem to bother them. My phone is dead or there might even have been pictures.

I think the Island picked up the story the next day. But it has more or less gotten buried. Probably got billed as gang violence, petty crime or something else. Murders are commonplace in Colombo and everywhere else, a cop tells me abot a particularly bloody case in Anuradhapura where the killer foolishly returned to the scene of the crime in his car, which was also the murder weapon.

Most people like to pretend dark stuff like this doesn’t happen. Judging by the cars that must have passed by the corpse before i reported it, most Colombians like to pretend stuff like this happens in a different dimension, but also the perception that ‘getting involved’ will be a major personal hassle plays a large and relevant role.

Me though, i was just morbidly curious.

Tokyo Tower: At 332.5 meters (1,091 ft), it is the second tallest artificial structure in Japan. The structure is an Eiffel Tower-inspired lattice tower that is painted white and international orange to comply with air safety regulations. (yes, Wikipedia)

Tokyo left me a little out of breath. It is too vast for a few days of wandering about to fully grasp. But I think like any city, it’s possible to cop a feel of its general personality in that amount of time. After visiting Beijing last year I was sort of expecting Tokyo to be the same (yes i’m all sorts of stereotypical aren’t I?). Full of modern amenities but with a harsh, grimy edge; the people coarse but friendly. That was stupid of me. And I couldn’t have been more wrong.

View of Yokohama from the deck of the Fujimaru

Tokyo is like the refined, polite and reticent aristocratic brother to Beijing’s boozy, belligerent business magnate. It’s a city in which you feel completely safe. So long as you don’t do something criminal.  People mind their own business and hardly look you in the eye. In the midst of thousands, you can feel alone and isolated. This is not generally a good thing for me and a little strange since I like company (In Colombo, at least two people are in your business and your face at any given time. Which is probably the other extreme).

Skating rink along side the Yokohama Red Brick Warehouse Aka “Renga Souko”. A historic port building dating from 1907. Recently renovated and now housing several boutiques and shops

But after while I got used to it. And felt liberated to be able to just wander around the city taking pictures of weird things and not having to explain myself with complacent smiles or forgive-me-please shrugs of the shoulder. Tokyoites are not overly friendly, but they are very courteous and insanely polite. for example, once i was taking pictures of a rare rusty poster board by the side of a street, trying to frame the profiles of passing salarymen against it. And people would literally stop and walk around me on the street, or duck, or run along really fast ostensibly to avoid getting in the way of my picture, defeating my purpose. On no occasion did any of them so much as glance at me with annoyance. Maybe they were being considerate, or maybe they thought i was some foreign, uncouth creep.

Salarymen are not amused. Somewhere near Asakusa

Tokyoites will stop at the don’t walk sign even if there are no vehicles on the six feet of street separating them from the other side. They will always stick to the left side of public escalators and leave the right side free for people in a hurry, sort of a ‘fast lane’ to run through. They will literally wait until everyone gets off the train before proceeding to board in an orderly manner, standing politely in pre-drawn lines on the platform in front of which the train doors always stop with remarkable precision. Their good behavior had me fairly gaping. What, nobody shoves you and accidentally tries to kill you when boarding the train at rush hour? What sorcery is this?

Train discipline is tight

In the trains I used to travel in when going to school there’d be at least one impromptu ‘band’ singing moany Sinhala love songs near the toilet and at least five gangsies of state sector workers struggling to have their gossip heard above the hubbub. But inside the Tokyo metro there is pindrop silence. Here most people will either read, text, play games on their smart phones or sleep; even if they are standing up. They are nearly always immaculately dressed, well groomed and stoic. Always going somewhere, always purposeful, always subtly ignoring me as I not-so-subtly stare at their faces in deep anthropological curiosity.

Old man in a pottery shop near the Yoyogi cemetery. Probably one of the oldest surviving districts in Tokyo, which was largely torn up after the last world war

Getting around is a cinch if you take the subway. It’s a layered and complicated looking multi-tentacled beast, but organized to the nth degree. So with a map and a good sense of direction I easily got around. Most Tokyoites don’t speak English, so I got to practice my sign language a little. Couple of times I accidentally bought the wrong ticket and found myself on the wrong line, but the guards I approached gave me a refund right away and went to great pains to point me in the right direction. Not like Sri Lankan railway workers at all, or any public servant I’ve ever met here actually. Public servants who actually serve the public? A few years ago I would have laughed at your face.

The Imperial Palace. Japan’s emperor and royal family have a largely diminished political role, but the institution of the monarchy still holds an important place in the public conscience, and the tabloid pages.

They say that even Tokyoites get lost in Tokyo at least once. And it happened to me at the worst time possible. The SWY program is very strict about punctuality, as the Japanese famously are. It was a Friday and I had gotten special permission to attend prayers. And dallied a little longer than I should have talking to people and enjoying the architecture of a beautiful pre-WW2 Turkish mosque. By the time I was in the subway, I had no time to spare, and obviously this was a perfect time for me to realize that the station I thought I was supposed to get off at, was in fact not my station. I walked out and after panicking a bit decided to take a cab. I spent the next 20 minutes on the edge of my seat literally asking the driver if I was there yet. His patient smile had turned into a tight grimace by the time he dropped me off.

The mosque: Tokyo cami (meaning mosque in Turkish) and Turkish cultural center started in 1938

There are quite a few places to see, a Lonely Planet will sort you out nicely. It probably knows much more about the city’s attractions than most of its inhabitants. Most of Tokyo is new, rebuilt after the thrashing it received in the Second World War, a real pity. But some ancient relics still remain. The history is still strong in the people though and Japanese are fiercely proud of their culture and heritage. Even if they do wear business suits, work themselves half to death and drink themselves silly when they’re not.

Shibuya crossing by day. A mad scramble. Sadly couldn’t get the elevation needed for a truly expansive picture. Google pics of Shibuya. or watch Lost in Translation, Tokyo Drift or any number of movies set in Tokyo

In the night the city comes alive. I went up to Shibuya and it was literally like a scene from Lost in Translation. In other areas like Rippongi things can get a little dodge, with shady looking characters leaning against street corners. I’m thinking Yakuza, and was wise enough not to look them in the eye. Over in Akihabara, the area famous for Cosplay, the shops are full of anime figures, AKB48 merchandise and electronics. Here the geeks or otaku gather in full force. And the streets are lined with maids trying to entice you with all sorts of merch, all legal, ostensibly.

Shibuya, street by night

Tokyo is not a cheap city. A simple meal with set you back about 600 yen, around 1800 rupees, lodging is way beyond. It’s cosmopolitan, but not in an obvious way. You only notice the gaijin if you look carefully. Tokyo seems to absorb everything that comes its way, and even Asians become a part of the background, slinking along in their own little worlds, self absorbed and purposeful.  That’s not to say it is a lonely city. On the contrary it felt like a place you could be at peace with the whole world at your fingertips. No one bothers you so long as you bother no one else.

Takeshita st (yes, you read that right), Shibuya is one long street of cheap shops frequented by dealhunters, hipsters and otaku (i.e. anime/geeks) By night

But even to me its obvious that the glory days are maturing. Japan’s economic growth hasn’t been that great lately. The cars on the streets aren’t as shiny as you’d expect. Most people drive practical cars, whereas in China the nouveau riche are out in force with their luxury European sedans. Creative destruction and innovation, once its primary drivers, has slowed down in the recent past along with its declining manufacturing industry. But Japan is still a force to be reckoned with, and still the world’s third largest economy.

More pictures of Tokyo can be found here  pics of the SWY program can be found here, here and here not forgetting here. I’ve also got thousands more, i have no idea when i’ll get about processing them. Also some on Flickr.

Tuktuk wisdom this Vesak? No thanks. Pic by Jerry

How many hundreds of millions were spent on the Vesak celebrations this year? I know i sound like a wet blanket. Why can’t I just chillax and enjoy the party? Incidentally, do Sri Lankans party to forget everything else, or do we forget everything else when we party?

That question is purely academic, but the government knows the only important answer. Give us a party and we are ready to forget, and at least temporarily forgive, anything. High fuel prices? Borderline monetary policy mismanagement? Pending international condemnation? Rise in prices of everything from milk powder to cement? How do we solve these pressing economic problems? Simple, throw a party for Vesak. Have the loudspeakers sing the praises of the President. Have various philanthropers give free food to the masses and have them blinded by mesmerizing, colorful fairy lights.

Colombo was decked out to kill. The Beira was lit up by fairy lights consuming electricity in quantities probably enough to power North Korea for a couple of nights. People were out in force, enjoying themselves. Families were traveling from far off places in the backs of lorries and hand tractors to witness the spectacle. Dansals were sporting queues hundreds of meters long. Even Beyond Borders, that is me and my friends, had what we called an ‘inspiration dansal’; we distributed stickers with enlightening quotes promoting peace and tolerance, for what it was worth.

The complete front facade of the Museum was made into a surrealist pandol composed of LCD screens light projections. Very postmodern and very, very expensive. How expensive? Sadly we will probably never know. It was sponsored by the milk board or the National Livestock and Development Board (NLDB) an entity already bleeding cash, suffering from acute mismanagement and misappropriation of funds.

So as Sri Lankans ‘shoo’ and ‘shaa’ at the beautiful bright lights and marvel at how far the country has come there is a greedy elite basking in the success of yet another PR event of massive proportions aimed at pulling the wool over the public’s eyes. Or maybe i don’t have a right to comment since i’m a Muslim, and have no understanding of the need to spend needless millions on a religious festival that is really about contemplation and inner peace.

Maybe my idea that the recent Vesak extravagance only serves to emphasize the cronyism and institutional corruption prevalent in our state is manifesting in my brain because i just don’t know how to have a good time. Maybe i should just get out more instead. And yes, maybe the sus domesticus is aerially mobile.

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