The Lesser Colombo

By Vihanga

The mother of revolution and crime is poverty” – Aristotle

The highest point in Colombo is the apex of the Bloomendhal dump. This dump, where the trash and the garbage of the municipality has been conveniently offloaded since Shit, is just a twenty yard walk from Thotalanga Junction towards Modera. Ranking juice, emanating a stench which only gets worse as the day becomes noon, the dump has, with time, become a “nobody’s matter” – not even when it slips.

The dump has a neighbourhood surrounding it. Within a five hundred metre radius of the dump are some of the most dense cluster communities of Colombo’s northern suburb. The Thotalanga-Modara passage runs through heads such as Madampitiya and Bogaha Junctions. Bound within the same radius, and on either extreme, are the thickly inhabited Aluthmawatha Road (the 155 route) and Thotalanga junction. The Thotalanga-Modara stretch is also the trunk from which a host of little by lanes shoot off, giving tiny and suffocating footholds to a teeming population of largely “settled” (or “mis-settled”) families. All in all, here we have a locality where “people come and go”, where a massive head count of underprivileged folks with meager life chances and the lowest income brackets survive for the daily bread – and their greatest tourist attraction has been/is the evergreen municipal rubbish dump.

Needless to say, the dump, once in a while, comes under the scrutiny of several prominent types – health inspectors come there when plague and epidemics threaten to upset their healthy reputation. Journalists, too, come along when the dump slips or catches fire. Police crack teams make raids in search of illicit traffic. Politicians and politician wannabes also grace the stretch – but, that’s mostly during election time. Promises and recommendations have been made and spoken of. But, no author has been able to repair the hazardous environment in which the inhabitants of these areas have been forced to live in. The “inability” of the authorities of higher wisdom to address these issues, in a sense, does not lie in their jurisdiction. The lack, most basically, resides in the “settlers” themselves and their lacking the “purchasing power” to “buy” a worthy service off the state. The fault lies in their being poor, of their largely being “unorganized settlers” and of them being survivors for their daily bread. As a result, a generation and a half after, an otherwise devastating and notorious health concern has become a harmonized part of the landscape.

Since the parliamentary election is, now, just around the corner, familiar faces have since begun to look smart out of the Thotalanga walls. Notably, wannabe councilor Duminda Silva and the UNP’s Ravi Karunanayake are both making their shouts to glory from the Colombo North electorate.

As much as kids flower and play in the Crescents and Boulevards of Sri Lanka, here, too, children come out to play. Dreams and hopes for a future – mostly, innocent and simple dreams of simple joys – are born, too, in these claustrophobic realities. The agents of power are quick enough to raid these lanes in search of drugs, guns and the like. But, where infrastructural development is concerned these people have got mere beads, pieces and election promises. Passing through Thotalanga, to see young boys playing Cricket along the road (in the vicinity of the dump) is a fairly common sight on sunny evenings. When the ball goes into the dump area the kids eagerly trot after it with a shout and, barefooted, they rummage the disease-bowl for the ball. True – there are blacker sins in the world; but, it is the future we are creating in the dis/allowances we make these kids.

One has to acknowledge the problems the municipality faces in sufficiently removing and recycling the refuse of the city. But, the responsibility of authority is not to arbitrate matters based on the fact that one drives a trishaw or works as a porter: how more classist and mean could our town policy get? Sadly, this has been the matter for the past two decades or so; and none have taken progressive a step to sustain the lives of the neighbourhoood in question. Since “progressive step” is a relative term one has to be careful how you apply it. In that respect, I refer solely to the organization and the lack of a “civic sense” the state has failed to generate in the lives of this “sidelined multitude”.

The cardinal evil of the region is the lack of organization and structure – in its housing, sanitation and health. The finger of blame where these issues are concerned can only be leveled at the higher authorities. But, for the poverty and the under-privileged orientations of the settlers in question, the now “baffled” authorities, one can be sure, would have found measures to keep things polished and prim.

These socially “discarded” clusters are the icons of fear and mistrust to the ivory towers of the upper middle-upper class living rooms: the “ghettos” of the Lankan style. The dump at Thotalanga involuntarily reminds me of a 1965 Lakdas Wikkramasinha poem titled “Discarded Tins”. In this piece the writer-narrator locates a slum area by which there is heap of discarded tins – the refuse of the social elite, dumped out of convenience near the slum dwellings. Lakdas’ poem urges the underprivileged to take these tins, to make bombs out of them, and to throw them back at the hypocritical social superiors. In 2009, is there a less gentle direction that we may give the benefactors of the stench of the Bloomendhal dump?

When everything is said and done, this article would not save a soul or move a mole hill. In a life on the fast track as ours, our priorities and our selfishnesses have gone beyond the definition of any Christian love – of which a news article is just a formality; of which the welfare of these people are not even the genuine consideration of a bill. But, these nether fringes of our “social landscape” boast of being among the rare oases where humility and compassion is still preserved. A habitual traveler in the public buses that run through the area in question would agree that simple but rare gestures – such as being quick on the feet at the sight of the feeble, aged and the pregnant – are most forthcoming among these people. The buses are also regular with open friendly chat and good manners – in spite of the “beware, he bites” sign through popular assignment.

[The “public” version of this article was carried by the Nation on Sunday several months back under the title “Thotalanga Thota Langa Dha?”. The version given here is an ounce less formal; and a paragraph has been inserted altogether, as a way of an update].

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2 thoughts on “The Lesser Colombo

  1. Hey, Do you get any comments 4 your blogs? R we so ‘fast living’ that we have forgotten to engage in ‘complexities’? I wonder whether the internet is, in a sense, ‘dulling’ our ‘senses’. Its the epitome of ‘fast living’ isn’t it? Anyway, as a former inhabitant of Modara with almost all ‘fond’ memories, I hope that my fellow inhabitants will get organised – as u suggest – and either ask or better ‘grab’ some justice. As for your comment about ‘humility and compassion’ I feel the same way. Is it due to a ‘misguided’ nostalgia or is it real? Sometimes I feel ‘stragtjacketed’ by the upper middle class values which I have to uphold bx lets face it I have ‘arrived’ where I was supposed to get to. In doing so have I lost myself or am I doing an ‘Ashok Ferry’? These r more to do with me but I hope that others will join the ‘dialogue’.

  2. Well, not many hits on this blog, Dre. I’m just posting stuff more in order to satisfy my ego; than with hope that people will read them up. The piece on the Kunu Kandha was written some time back actually.

    I also share the same feeling as you do. My connection with Mattakkuliya was very remote while i was growing up. I became more exposed to it only after moving to colombo. But, then, I feel the same what you feel regarding the lives and opportunities of these people. So,. it cannot be simply reduced to your nostalgia i guess.

    I guess the Thotalanga-Orugodawatta-Modera-Stace Road communities are the worst exploited. They are easy targets and vulnerable pawns to politicians, goons and other oppressive elements. But, this has been the case for ever so long hasnt it?

    Thanks for your reading this!

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