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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.

Cows…

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)

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.

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.

 

This Duran Duran video was shot in Pettah. I like the song and call me a noob but i just saw the video thanks to Raisa. If the eighties rock. Pettah in the eighties rocks more. And Pettah in a Duran Duran video is probably the only thing that rocks even more.

The tea shop has a snake charmer sitting on a table and a gypsy with a monkey walking around entertaining guests. This is possibly apocryphal. I won’t know for sure until i ask one of my uncles. The cops wear tight khakis and the roads are full of nuns, heck even the tea shops. Where’d they all go?

The video was ostensibly shot in the jungles of Sri Lanka but the jungle bits are mostly mangrove swamps and a beautifully dubious bit in what must be Anuradhapura. But Pettah is jungle enough if you ask me. This was after the Temple of Doom was shot here obviously before the war. Sri Lanka really had something going there. This post is dedicated to Jerry, who likes Duran Duran and Pettah and finally managed to turn twenty.

The tea shop in the video is a favorite of backpackers, i’m told. worth checking out.

A Beijing subway map

Traffic in Colombo is not pleasant. Leaving home at the wrong time can ruin your whole day. Do this for a while, and soon cursing behind the wheel everyday will likely give you grey hairs and a prematurely weak heart.

Blame The Cars

Tax reform, low interest rates and possibly increasing middle class incomes have multiplied vehicle imports faster than road networks can expand. The UDA has been trying to keep up, they’ve extended Marine Drive to Colpetty, opened up Bullers Road and have generally tried to fix things like perennially bad maintenance. Traffic lights and police presence has been increased, but still cars pile up faster than hungry people at a dansala.

I drive down Galle Rd often and it used to be that i’d invariably try to take Marine Drive to avoid evening traffic, but now i steer clear because of the massive wait at the turn off back into Galle rd. Similar situations are playing out along all of the major exit-entryways to the city. Baseline Road, Negombo Road and Kandy Road are veritable nightmares in rush hour. Let’s not even go near Rajagiriya, literally, you want to stay away from there when other people exit their offices. There are just too many. freakin. cars bob.

Don’t Blame The Cars

But blaming the vehicles is moot. There are good reasons why people feel they need cars. People are worried about getting to work on time, they also need to get there smelling good. So will drive if they can afford it, or paradoxically take a tuk tuk if they cant. As traffic increases, drivers get more and more frustrated and will wish for alternative ways to travel. But aside from moving closer to the city (an unthinkably expensive option for most) they have no other alternatives. This is absurd, but that’s just the way things stand now.

Public transport is unreliable, too congested, and completely ruins the attire of your average executive, discouraging most of them from opting for it. The lack of a cheap taxi network is also a problem. Tuk tuks, even metre tuks, are overpriced.

Building Our Way Out

The Defense Ministry/UDA (whats up with that? no one even talks about it anymore) has followed a strategy to expand capacity and increase efficiency by improving roads, building flyovers and increasing police presence. But it has only worked so well. In fact, capacity is so limited that everyone breaks road rules when the cops aren’t looking to get ahead. Our roads are ganglands, whatever you can get way with is legal, Gehan has a good post on driving and its malcontents.

The situation poses some interesting problems for urban policymakers. Things have come to a point where even the bureaucracy must realise that there is no building our way out of this, at least not in the conventional add-em-as-you-go fashion.

Trains have worked remarkably well in other cities. But Colombo’s existing train lines only circle the city and do not venture inside, making them just feed lines to hubs just outside the city centre and that too only from the North and along the coast.

The bus networks are mass market. And probably already transport double the amount of people travelling in cars. The recently launched Executive Bus service has failed to spark much interest. Again due to unreliability, irregularity, coverage gaps arising from the fact that they only traverse a single main route, and did I mention unreliability, the bus service can only do so much too. The much touted ferry service is also floating about aimlessly if you’ll excuse the bad pun.

Innovative work policies can help. Firms can rethink employment policy and offer the option of working from home. Or offer flexible hours to enable employees to beat traffic to and from work, like my new workplace. Individuals can also avoid traffic if they decide to leave early because not everyone will do it especially here where being fashionably late starts half an hour after an appointment.

Bring The Commonwealth Games to Colombo

A subway system would be ideal, as indi says, a good subway system can completely eliminate the need for cars. The Delhi Subway system cost somewhere around 700 million USD. Peanuts in comparison to how much we are borrowing for other projects of dubious worth. Maybe the Chinese can help us out with a loan and even expertise, the Beijing subway lines are superb; and are an excellent way of getting around in an otherwise smoky, congested city.

Both the Delhi and Beijing lines were conceptualised and hurried up because of the 2010 Commonwealth games and the Olympic Games respectively. The need to show off and provide seamless transport to attendees forced these cities to consider building what is probably the most efficient urban transport mechanism invented by man.

Colombo is the centre of the country still, the heart that pumps out all the country’s logistics. The main arteries of it are now getting clogged. If hosting big international games can bring a city a subway then Hambantota might end up getting one. But Hambantota doesn’t need a subway system, Colombo does. So bring the Commonwealth Games to Colombo, and build something useful to the economy in the process.

This is a policymaker standing on a minefield

But the relationship between expanding capacity and reduced traffic is not always direct. This study done by USCB shows that when capacity expands and some traffic is diverted through other channels, latent demand clogs up the free space. Meaning when more drivers take buses, people who took buses because the traffic was too much will start driving.

Colombo being a very decentralized city doesn’t help. Public transport is simply not capable of reaching all the crannies where people need to go, most of the inroads can’t accommodate buses anyway. I work on Thimbirigasyaya Road and it’s barely wide enough for two cars. There is an expansion program going on but it had been in the works for over two years now, no results.

There is also mispriced congestion. Drivers don’t pay for the time loss they cause to others, and so will make inefficient decisions on when and how to travel. These ‘negative externalities’ are the social cost of congestion, and can result in little or no reduction in traffic.

Expansion in trains might divert commuters away from the bus service, because the latter is crap, while not affecting the amount of cars on the road. Deteriorating the bus service even further while causing no improvement to traffic.

So wuttudoo? Maybe an expansion in overall capacity, trains, roads and buses, thereby taking levels of capacity beyond ‘latent demand’. Together with innovative alternatives like carpools, office vans and flexi hours and urban planning focusing on centralized corporate space, these policies might help. What is really needed before anything else is a comprehensive study of the city by specialists (its much more complicated than it looks) followed by bottom up policy making to prevent us from arbitrarily building roads that lead to nowhere worth going slowly.

But all this takes intelligent policy making followed by quick implementation. And so far the Defense Ministry/UDA has only been implementing like mad, where the intelligent planning?

Milinda Moragoda has set out a manifesto here, in it he gives some vague outlines of a transport policy that are a bit vague. Aside form promising clean pavements it promises circular bus routes but fails to describe how they will be different from existing bus routes, which cover the city’s main highways pretty well.

Today i mucked about manning market. I got a rubber slipper full of dead vegetable mixed with mud for it. An official from the traders association objected to my taking pictures but what the hell right, its not like their secretly using the market as a base to pilfer uranium while they sell vegetables for a cover right?

Most of the traders are friendly when you’re not standing still. Stand still here for a second and five people yell, hiss and poke at you to move. Even when they think you’re buying stuff. They get friendly or hostile when they find you’re from a newspaper, depending on what you want from them.

The naatami’s carry sacks of vegetables for a living. They pretty much make up the logistics network here. They get around 15 rupees per sack, and the stronger ones make about Rs 1000 a day.

They have a hard time walking about the mucky earth. The traders don’t exactly make it easy for them by throwing rotting vegetables in their paths to trip them over.

Its a cacophony of noise, movement, smells and colors. It all dies down at about 9 a.mm. i’m told. Probably one of the most happening places in Colombo when it’s open though.

More pics here

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