“You give us those nice colours
You give us the greenest of summers
Makes you think all the world’s a sunny day, oh, yeah!”
Paul Simon – Kodachrome
Considering Sri Lanka, there is a generation break in 1987. Those born before that year and thereabouts and those born after are divided by a pronounced technological line – for the children after 1987 are the ones who would have entered teenhood with a natural internalization of the IT vibe. Car games such as “Need For Speed” (NFS) would have been part of their build up phase, even though such items have since become old and stale. The imagination of this generation cannot be separated from digitalized options, with Playstation-like aspirations and influences being irreducible from a generation which grew up to press buttons and knobs, in a daring bid to cross the dodgy finishing line of a car race on the computer.
In 2012, metropolitan Colombo is fast developing into the kind of landscape and vicinity which one encountered in a computer game. “Improvements” done to the roundabouts at main junctions, water sprouts strategically placed to enhance the eco-drive, trees planted along neatly paved sidewalks are among the state-intervened modifications of recent months. Highways that spin in all directions, passes that connect valley with valley, hoardings that show the latest cars whizzing over a cutting edge bridge with trains – uninterrupted by rail gates or signals – bulleting underneath at a lower elevation are all part of the “dream” that is set before us; which, as the government plans, will be materialized un due course. While the cosmopolitan build is thus sketched out, there is a complementary eco drive with tree-cultivation, landscaping and environment-friendly traffic being focused on. All in all, the imagined picture is of a Galle Face or a Battaramulla with NFS-like visualizations, amply supplemented by digital name boards, skyscrapers, advertising hoardings and satellites a loom.
With Colombo being paved into the promise of a future wonderment, there are ample hoardings which forecast the coming of international grade hotels, to further enhance the commercial value of greater Colombo. This is merely the urban implement of a programme that is sprouting wings wherever there is a beach strip and a line of sea water available. The coastal belt from the South West to the North readily succumbs to this pledge of paradise building with the land in the North not yet being settled for those ravaged and displaced by three decades of war.
The most notable tax concession of the recent budget, it was widely noted, was for racing cars. Even as the budget is being debated – within days of the budget speech – the heart of Colombo is now being hastily prepared for the much hyped about “night races”, which is the grand seasonal object of a privileged few. This is perhaps the first of many races planned out with the tax-free importation programme, satiating the dream and desire of a small group, at the expense of billions that could be otherwise employed. Whether the Colombo Fort area – the central hub which channels all incoming and outgoing traffic – is the ideal spot for “night races” is not even a point to debate, for it most definitely is not. But, in the realization of a “metropolitan fantasy” as drawn from the “computer game” visual, these empirical aspects do not get considered. The desire here is to physically generate and to bring to life what has already been seen and absorbed in the computer screen. The player is in charge of the “reality” on screen, playing according to his/her desire, aptitude and sense of play. It is a game which can be controlled from the “settings” option and which – in spite of conditions simulating “fair play” – is oriented and geared to satisfy the individual player. If your car gets toppled, stuck or if you see that you are set to lose the race you can always press “restart”, or seek the assistance of a “shortcut key”.
The players who lay the ground for the “night races” in Colombo see no inconvenience caused for commuters, its impede on the trade and commerce in the Fort area, its hindrance to free movement of ordinary people or the complications it will inevitably cause the traffic. This is so, because in the computer “car game” there are no “ordinary people”, except for vague, two dimensional figures dodging in the corners. These remote human forms are often run down by speeding cars, if not their tea tables smashed through as they sit for French tea. The logic and the rationale of the car game do not facilitate these peripheral figures. Their being run down, in fact, is additional excitement for the player.
It is guaranteed that there is a branch of commuters for whom the temporary occupation of the Fort-Galle Face area by a race track is of no consequence; and for whom it is perhaps an agreeable arrangement, too. But, what are we to conclude when the most channeled center of the day’s rush hour, alongside the many stakeholders who come in to and go out of it for commercial purposes, is considered as the ad hoc choice for an amusement item: is it a loose circuit with the ground reality of a day’s work? The choice of disregarding mass inconvenience, perhaps? Or, is it simply another reflection of the priorities which feed the politically-bent projects of the country at present?
One should not envy “development” where such sustaining is people-friendly and with the welfare of society at large in mind. The line between social welfare and megalomania is by no means a thin one and the identification of one from the other does not require a Sherlock Holmes. As Dhanuka Bandara, a friend and colleague, sardonically quipped on this year’s budget, it is a budget where the government (quite with a straight face) states that if you can’t have bread, then eat a racing car. Whether some of these aspirations are really conceived in the “play room” is a serious concern. The circumstance where its gravity is felt as inconsequential is when the nation is too readily undermined as a family estate.