When my editor asked me to write about one of the great cities of the world, I decided to look closer home and closer to our reality — not at something that looked right out of a fairy tale with primroses and cobbled streets. Colombo, one of the least talked about cities of South Asia, may seem an unusual choice. While some centres of civilisations never go out of fashion like Rome, Florence, Istanbul, Prague, Paris and the amusingly sinful Amsterdam, Colombo is the city that is the chicken soup, or rather, sushi for my soul.
The tropical sun beats down on this clean-shaven, sultry and slightly chaotic megalopolis, warming its heart. With its boulevards shaded with ancient trees, well-laid but tuk-tuk infested roads, the Indian Ocean elbowing its entire length, a public healthcare and educational system that works and friendly, arrack-loving people, Colombo is probably the best metropolitan city of South Asia.
Most of our family and friends who have visited us in the last 14 years, since we first dropped anchor in Colombo, make similar remarks — “This city is so clean, na? Lagta hai, the Lankans don’t litter.” Our bar of expectation from our Indian cities is so low that even cleanliness, the lowest denominator of a good living space, is unexpected, especially from a country with much lesser GDP — that quintessential indicator of our well-being.
A natural harbour, Colombo drew traders to its shores starting with the early Arab, Chinese and Indian merchants 2,000 years ago, and later, the imperialists — the Dutch, Portuguese and British. The civilisation that has evolved today is a thrilling mix of contradictions — Western attires and Buddhist philosophy, spicy food and Christmas cakes for every wedding, edgiest pop groups and tranquil viharas, mixed Dutch or Portuguese and Singhalese descendants who are fondly termed “burghers”.
There is a scattering of graceful and stunning Buddhist viharas, mosques and colourful bouquets of Tamil temples across the city, along with a rich array of red-tiled colonial architecture, spiffy hotels, tasteful galleries, boutique eateries, dapper pubs and stylish cafes, many patronised by European expats. The posh Colombo-7 locality that houses several diplomats was once a sprawling cinnamon estate. Several grand buildings from the colonial era are still in use like the Fort, National Museum, town hall, the old Parliament by the sea — now the Secretariat — and Galle Face Hotel. Others, like the Dutch Hospital and a mental asylum, have been restored as chic shopping arcades and hangout places. The city is packed with imperial history and the modern Singhalese take on it.
What defines the architecture is not only the marriage of the colonial and the modern, but also its love affair with nature. Old trees bent with accumulated wisdom line the lanes and numerous water canals vein through the city. There are a number of playgrounds for rugby, cricket and football, a golf course and a racecourse and parks for children and families, like the lavishly green and expansive Vihara Mahadevi Park. The simple yet elegant designs of most villas and bungalows are inspired from the modern-day local deity of architecture, Geoffrey Bawa, who believed in making nature enter your home. Frequent visitors to our home in Colombo, located by a lake, are palm civets, porcupines, land and water-monitor lizards, fireflies, bats, frogs, snakes, terrapins and no less than 55 species of birds. How many big cities in South Asia can boast of such neighbourhoods?
Another salient feature of Colombo is the presence of colourful umbrellas dotting the elegant Galle Face Green promenade by the sea or the many nooks and crannies of the public parks or even the Borella cemetery, that grand old burial ground with august, stately trees. All that the dead, and the couples under the umbrellas want, is peace and a wide berth. The city’s people and cops graciously give them both.
When it comes to an evening drink, the Lankans do not suffer any moral grey areas. The island has one of the highest per capita consumption of alcohol in the world and its financial capital is packed with charming old clubs that can be the buzziest places in town, reminiscent of the colonial lifestyle.
Indian tourists are surprised about two more things in Colombo — many families have a single girl child and most people don’t know Ravana. Most Indians land in this mainly Buddhist country expecting incense sticks burning in Ravana shrines. “What, you don’t know Ravana?” one of our visitors once asked our Lankan friend, flabbergasted. “You mean your monkey god?” the Lankan replied, as I struggled to suppress a LOL.
The heaving metropolis has its share of bad angels, too. While the dopey politics has been a constant, the traffic that clogs the city’s main arteries during the peak hours is a postwar phenomenon. And so is the building boom that is mutating the city’s skyline and threatening to destroy its romance with nature.
Despite the tossing tempests, the city has always held its sails upright. It is a city which has cinnamon in the air and sand in its soul. The city which is throbbing during the day and is a sepia-tinted photograph by night. A stalwart of South Asia, Colombo remains witty and wondrous, weird and laidback like its people who don’t take life too seriously, a happy mix of cultural, colonial and modern — the city that has decided not to decide.
This article originally appeared in the print edition with the headline: Of Cinnamon and Sand