Monday, August 24, 2009

The Grand & the Not-So-Grand

Sri Lanka boasts much of its own rich indigenous history, as well as a history of colonization and development. As per the Tourist Bureau standard issue brochure, first it was the Portuguese, then the Dutch, then the British. The Tourist Bureau will naturally point to the beautiful remains of these periods of colonization, and for some reason they keep mentioning the wooden furniture, which is quite gorgeous, but would also lead one to wonder what was being designed in terms of furniture prior to this move…

In any case, remnants of these glory days can be found in various aspects of Colombo city. Though it often feels that the city, and its people, have learned to live ‘on top’ of these remnants rather than with them. Modestly-sized old houses brandishing a faded flourish here or there belie what used to be underneath the intrusively placed wooden (or neon) sign naming the place of business that now occupies that ground floor. Others seem to have aged and deteriorated along with the status of its occupying family, becoming a sad, rusted shell. These scenes repeat themselves in random order – there is no string of stores or houses of one ‘type’ or the other; a modern-type shop can be found adjacent to a worn down store (and not always of the same line of business, which makes one think of the non-marketing reasons leading to such a decision), and you can constantly find a ‘Big man’ living next to a ‘Poor man’, as one of our drivers put it. But one thing’s for sure – there is clearly room for everyone, and they will make that home quite colourful (if not structurally safe) with brightly painted walls, window frames and doors.

Then there are the relatively larger structures. One such example is the Galle Face, a beautiful stretch of shore by the ocean where giggling families can be seen crowding every available space to fly their multi-coloured kites. You are reminded in every piece of writing about the Galle Face that it was maintained by the Dutch to serve as a strategic space of clear aim for their cannons onto any approaching ships. The neighbouring Galle Face Hotel no doubt also has a story behind it, which I have not yet dug up, mainly because I think it may disturb me. The hotel is majestically positioned right on the shore, and you can sit on a rather long porch sipping one drink or the other as you look out onto a rough endless ocean. It is all sufficiently fantastical until you start looking around at the architecture, at the furniture and the set up, and you realize that it all wreaks of colonial airs, at least those that we have learned about from the British Empire. The waiters are perfectly bow-tied, vested, and white-gloved, and it barely lightens the blow that there are some Sri Lankan patrons as well. Here was the Sri Lankan staff still serving some ‘white’ person from here or there. Granted I hardly hail from a colonizing power of any sort, but the whole scene just left such a bad taste in my mouth that I could not wait to finish my drink and leave.

I am told by others that a few such hotels exist, where the management means to propagate the image of colonialism. As a business, I am sure they would not have maintained this if it did not turn out to be successfully profitable, and I am sure a business-minded friend would argue that at least the Sri Lankans have managed to turn their colonized history into a profit, so that can’t be all bad. Somehow, I just wish it wasn’t still the Sri Lankans who were serving.

A differently positive shift has happened in other places where the final form of the structure reflects an empowered, freer Sri Lanka(ns); such as the university, the grand park, and the National Gallery (which is a haven to established and budding artists). I am sure if I had spent more time in the ‘real’ parts of Colombo, the type you stumble upon on your 3rd or 4th week in a city, I may have found a few more of these, and they would have balanced out my distaste for colonial tradition. For now, I’ll just linger with pleasure at the fact that the ‘Big man’ and the ‘Poor man’ live on the same street…

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