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The City

Newsweek (c) 2012.

A writer's ode to the city he grew up in.

If someone's planning a trip to Sri Lanka, I usually advise that they skip Colombo. Not being harsh, but on the island's buffet table of scenic delights, the city is very much a side dish.

On first glimpse, it's just another Asian metropolis, trying to peddle that east-meets-west thing. Not as berserk as Mumbai, not as sober as Singapore. Most travellers will drive straight through, en route to the beaches down south, to the hilltops out east or to the fallen kingdoms up north.

If you're here to upload pics, there may be some boxes for you to tick. The sun setting over the kites on Galle Face Green. The city ablaze with light and colour during Vesak. Elephants by Beira Lake in full moon fancy dress. Or the Town Hall that looks like the White House next to that mosque that resembles the Kremlin.

But cities aren't just for tourists. Dismount from your refrigerated car into the heat and the dust and you'll find that there's plenty below the surface if you're only willing to scratch.

The Greeks, Romans and Persians used its natural harbour as a trading port. The Portugese built their fort here and commanded the coast. The Dutch seized it in the bloody siege of 1656, before ceding it to the British a century and a half later.

Every coloniser left their pawprints. You see it in the clocktowers, the schools and the grand hotels. In the railway line that snakes between Galle road and the coast and in the cricket games that decorate every street. Colombo's the only city in the world with 4 test match venues. Where the game is practiced as a religion and celebrated as a carnival. Cricket binds this city, as it does a nation not short on divisions.

Colombo may be divided into 15 zones, but it houses many worlds. From the malls of Bambalapitiya to the palaces of Cinnamon Gardens. From the dives of Slave Island to the apartment blocks of Havelock Town. It's a city that straddles the beautiful and the banal, that wavers between the tacky and the transcendent.

Pathways are decorated with lush trees, colourful kovils, rickety billboards and smelly canals. Roads crowded with buses, trishaws and trucks make way for motorcades of Pajeros and Lamborghinis. Gaudy casinos rub shoulders with perfect churches and pavements selling kitch lead to cafes jeweled in high art.

It's a city that doesn't know where it's going, but is determined to get there. A city with many skins and more than one soul.

Today Colombo seeks to reinvent itself. It is dolling itself in make-up and hiking up its skirt. Where once were checkpoints, now are rising structures. The World Trade Centre will soon be dwarfed by 6 taller scrapers of sky. Walls will be knocked down, highways extended and slums replaced with greenery.

In the new Colombo, the old clubs play their jazz and their golf, the kids race cars at night, DJs drop sets on beaches, metallers trade riffs in bars and in plush hotel lobbies, briefcases change hands. The sun shines without pause and the monsoon comes and goes as it pleases. And everyone pretends to forget about the slaughter.

The burnings of '83, the explosions of '87, the abductions of '89. The electorial bloodbaths, the prolonged power failures and the parade of assasinations that punctuated the 90s.

Today, we prefer to remember the victories. The cups won, the guns silenced, the bigotry overcome. We ignore the ghosts of the unsolved, the unconsoled and the unforgiven that haunt our present. We try to celebrate our many communities and remind ourselves that we have no more excuses. No war to hold us back, no scapegoats to blame failures on.

Because the city no longer belongs to the rulers who deface it, the thugs who defile it or to the bureaucrats who slow it down. It belongs to street vendors who serve up glorious kottu. To the trishaws adorned with misspelt slogans. To the bloggers who share secrets and the lovers who hide under umbrellas.

It belongs to the girls with their straightened hair, the workers crammed into wobbly buses and the strays that prowl its streets. To the drunks that mix arrack with baila and to the theatre groups that dish up biting satire and hammy acting. To those who appear in Colombo's gossip mags and those who pretend not to read them.

Colombo is both big city and small town. And, like the nation it belongs to, it is on the cusp of something. Something that could be either wonderful or malign. It is poised on a precipice and only the years will tell if it is to plummet or if it is to soar.

For those who live here, who've seen it morph from city by the sea to garrison town to this shiny emblem of our unseen future, Colombo offers its own buffet table of delights. It may not be a city that you instantly fall in love with, but it is one that you grow to adore.

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