There is a pounding on the sand, a sound of thudding footsteps. A young woman in yellow shorts flashes past. Behind her puff several older women in tracksuits, behind them a woman strides out in a black chador.
Colombo was once a shabby third world capital like any other, its buildings and its people hiding behind high walls and piles of sandbags. Since the end of the Eelam War the walls have been knocked down and the city has become a place of sweeping open spaces, elegant colonial buildings, parks, walkways, ponds and lakes.
The end of the war has ushered in a revolution. Walking was once the preserve of the upper middle class: now everybody flocks to these public spaces. Previously you would only hear English, the voice of Sri Lanka’s colonial past, but now it is mostly Sinhala and/or Tamil.
As a ritual, the morning walk is an important part of urban life. In the west, people tend to walk on their own, Sri Lankans however, prefer to walk in groups. Parks are usually places where everyone meets. In Colombo, they are places where everyone walks and talks, to each other and to their mobile phones.
Every morning, a group of seven or eight men would get together to walk. I gathered that most of them were civil servants. They are all fluent in English yet they preferred to speak in Sinhala, the mother tongue of the island’s majority. Whilst walking they would talk and debate animatedly, their voices carrying through the air. Politics and cricket dominate almost every conversation in Sri Lanka. Most mornings it is politics.
“Two years of Good Governance” scoffed one, “we can’t even keep the city clean.” He motioned at the rubbish, kicking out at a plastic bag. It stuck to his foot. “Such an easy thing to do. It was never like this before.” He shook his leg violently.
The speaker was referring to the political revolution which had swept Mahinda Rajapaksa out of power in 2015. Hailed by the USA, the UK, the European Union, India and the western media, Sri Lanka was now widely fêted for its new found commitment to western interests and values. Promising a radical change from the Rajapaksa years, the government had vowed to deliver a new culture of transparency, accountability, human rights and democratic freedom.
“The problem is we have no money. They thought the West would pour in millions to help us if we did what they wanted. Well we’ve done everything they wanted was to do but there is still no money coming to Sri Lanka. The only ones giving us money are the Chinese.”
“Then why does the PM want us to merge with India,” a younger man spoke up.
“Well that’s what India wants.”
“We should be merging with China,” he said.”They’re further away and besides, they have more money.”
“Can’t do any merging now. For the last two years we have been scolding the Chinese, telling them how corrupt they have made us and that we don’t need their money. Now we have realized that we do need their money but they want it back and we don’t have it. So we are trying to give them parts of the country.”
“ Debt for Equity Swap,” someone said authoritatively.
“That’s what PM is always saying. What does it mean?”
“It means we are going to give hand over parts of the country to pay back their money. For the next 99 years!’
“They say it’s all MR’s fault. He got us into this mess.”
“MR may have taken all those loans but he never insulted the Chinese to their face. To make the Americans and the Indians happy, these guys went out of their way.”
“Remember last month, the Daily Mirror. That Indian professor from that Indian think tank said that Sri Lanka should neutralize MR, because he doesn’t want free trade with India.” He pronounced the word in Sinhala slowly and deliberately, “Neutralize kerranne.” There was a roar of laughter.
“Neutralize MR. “They can’t even make the bus drivers obey the road rules like everyone else. What did they do when the private buses went on strike? They gave up and backed down. The previous lot forced the three wheeler drivers to use meters. Now no one is frightened to go in three wheelers. Now look.”
The speaker motioned towards the roaring traffic. In the distance a bus hurtled past two lanes of oncoming cars, bearing down on a terrified policeman. Everyone looked away.
“It doesn’t cost money to keep the place clean, they just can’t do anything.”
“They are doing something,” a voice disagreed. “ We are ‘ reconciliating.’ The whole world is our friend now. Remember, we sponsored that resolution in Geneva against ourselves.”
“Does that mean that they will judge our soldiers?”
“That is what everybody is saying.”
“See the British! See their PM! No Geneva for them, no? No one is judging their soldiers.”
In October 2016, Theresa May had declared that British troops would be exempted from European Human Rights Courts.
“Not like our ones, no?” someone snorted.
“Anyway where has it got us? Are they ‘reconciliating’ in the North?”
He waved his arms, “last July, those Sinhala students were attacked at the university. Then those policemen were attacked with swords. Now they are celebrating Prabhakaran’s birthday, cutting cakes and planting trees.” The speaker was indignant. “Government prohibited but still they went ahead. In America would they let people celebrate Bin Laden’s birthday in their universities? Now look, they won’t even let Muslims into the country.” He snorted and stalked on ahead.
The others watched him go. “In the north no one will say anything. Here everyday, they are interrogating. But they are not locking anyone up.
“Yes they are, another argued back. The other day the CID arrested another naval officer. All the time they are harassing the war heroes.”There was an uncomfortable silence.
“What about Namal, they are always locking him up too.” Everyone laughed and the tension eases.
“Good discipline for the fellow,” someone chimed in.
“If MR had done that earlier, they wouldn’t have lost.” Everyone nodded their heads.
“What about Basil? Arresting him too... no?” Heads nodded approvingly.
“No men... Not keeping. Always locking but not keeping.”
“Not true. What about that policeman who was locked up?” In November 2016, a former Commandant of Sri Lanka’s elite police unit, the Special Task Force (STF), had been arrested and remanded.
“What was the charge?”
“Misusing a police vehicle, remember. Causing a loss to the State. Rs.146, 690!”
“Witch hunting and scapegoating,” the walkers chortled, lapsing into Sri Lankan English.
Another member of the group peeled away.”Must Go, Must Go” he muttered and sprinted towards his car. The walkers called after him.
“Careful when you go to office. You could be Witch hunted or Scapegoated. And don’t forget to return the office car!”
A lone voice dissented. “But now they are taking action, no? There’s more transparency. Less corruption, more accountability.” Dumbfounded, the walkers stopped and rounded on the speaker.
“What about the Central Bank Bond fraud? It has cost us billions... When they came to power all they talked about was how much MR’s projects cost us - the highways, Mattala airport Hambantota port... For all the money lost they could have built both Mattala and Hambantota.” It was a common refrain. “We might even have been able to pay back the Chinese.”
Another walker chimed in. “What about the threat to stability. Everywhere there is talk of conspiracies and sabotage. It’s all because of MR. They say everything is his fault. They see him everywhere.”
“You know he has promised to topple the government this year.” Everyone giggled.
“Hope he hurries up, men. They say that PM has made Arjuna Mahendran an advisor to the Finance Ministry,
Hope there will be money to pay my salary.” There were peals of laughter.
Sri Lankan humour is sharp and vicious and mockery forms a vital part of political discourse. Hinting at underlying realities and concerns, it suggests a profound disillusionment with the status quo, reflecting even deeper uncertainties and insecurities about the future.
Although resident in Colombo, the walkers were from towns all across the country; some from Kandy, others from the south, from Matara and Galle. Groups like this represented the professional and middle class constituencies across the country who had abandoned MR in the Presidential and Parliamentary elections of 2015. Splitting the majority Sinhala vote which had been MR’s foundation, they had played an important part in his downfall.
The senior most walker raised his voice. “I remember before the last election you were all scolding MR and his family, saying how they were out of control. Now look at all of you!” Everyone looked sheepish.
A pale woman with white blonde hair walked by in a tight black leotard. On a leash beside her strutted a Sri Lankan mongrel. Everybody tries not to look.
“I thought we’re not allowed to bring our dogs here.”
“I don’t bring my dog.”
“That’s not a dog, men! That’s a Galle Face pony. You can’t even walk it round the garden.”
“That was before Yahapalanaya. Now we are free to do anything. Besides she is a foreigner. Now they can do what they like.”
“Anyway don’t say anything. Not nice, no? It will spoil her walk.”
They all watched intently as the leotard receded into the morning light. As it reached the next signpost, the dog lifted up its leg.