Colombo is being redeveloped at a frenzied rate these days. Multi-storey hotels and apartment blocks seem to shoot up out of the ground with the suddenness and speed of mushrooms. So many cranes loom over the downtown area that the horizon there resembles a pincushion. And a grand, if not grandiose, reclamation project is forcing the sea back from the Fort district, banishing it behind giant dunes of sand and boulders.
With all this happening, it’s a surprise when you see the under-developed state of the city’s railway system, the antiquated and fusty railway stations in particular.
A typical example is Bambalapitiya Station, not far from where I live. It’s one of three stations standing on Marine Drive, the city’s main coastal road. A pair of railway lines run along a strip between the road and the sea’s edge, one carrying southbound trains heading in the direction of Galle, a few hours away down the coast, and the other carrying northbound trains for central Colombo. Bambalapitya Station is roughly at the midpoint of Marine Drive. There, the railway lines bulge apart and create between them a narrow, faintly elliptical space which the station building and platforms straggle along. Past where the platforms stop, the two tapering ends of the space are covered in sand, rocks, rubble, litter, grass and weeds.
At peak travelling hours, Marine Drive is teeming with vehicles and to get people safely across the road to the station there’s a pedestrian bridge covered with corrugated-iron roofing of various unappealing shades of grey and brown. The stairs at the end of the bridge descend into the station building itself, long and low and with walls that are a faded amber colour. Corrugated-iron ‘awnings’ stick out on either side, over the middle parts of the platforms. Their ends, though, are exposed to all weathers.
Plenty of people enter the station without using the bridge. Its main part is separated from Marine Drive by a low wall and fence, but many folk stream off the road, around the wall and fence and onto the ends of the waste ground. From there they clamber up onto the platforms; or more hazardously, they clamber up into the end-carriages of the trains, which when they’ve stopped usually protrude past the platforms. The latter course-of-action can be even more of a struggle at peak hours when the carriage doors are already garlanded with the bodies of clinging, hanging-out passengers.
There’s a second, bigger wall standing behind the outer railway track, presumably to shield the tracks, trains, platforms, buildings and travellers from the spray and occasionally the waves of the sea just a few yards further away. The wall is a mishmash of sections, rising to different heights and featuring different textures of brickwork and plasterwork. It’s also become a canvas for Colombo graffiti-artists who’ve daubed it with hip-hoppy scrawls.
The most striking, and saddest, feature of Bambalapitiya Station is found behind that sea-wall. Against its rear side, along the narrow rocky strip between it and where the ground drops to the sea, some poor Sri Lankan people have erected a line of huts and shacks. Their walls have been patched together with wooden panels and planks and their roofs consist of tarpaulin and corrugated iron weighted down with rocks and discarded railway sleepers. The boulders outside their doors are strewn with things that’ve no doubt been salvaged and scavenged: plastic chairs, plastic water containers, a bathtub, lengths of piping, shapeless chunks of scrap metal. The hut at the northern end appears to function as a rudimentary shop / tearoom for there’s a hatchway in its sidewall with a makeshift table and stools arranged in front of it.
In 2011, the Sri Lankan Sunday Times newspaper published a feature about this ramshackle settlement. It makes depressing and upsetting reading. Its description of how the huts regularly get flooded with seawater correspond to what I’ve seen, from a distance, on stormy days when the waves climb the rocks and strike the huts with a violence that makes you fear they’ll be swept away. At the time, local politicians stood accused of ignoring the plight of Bambalapitya Station’s backdoor residents; and from the look of things, they’ve done little or nothing to help them since then.
Well, there’s one thing that’s apparently changed since that newspaper feature six years ago. At least some of the huts seem to have power now. The evidence for this is the couple of poles sticking up above the sea-wall with TV aerials fastened to their tops.
Just after the final hut at the wall’s southern end, a blue-painted Christian shrine has been set up. A glass-fronted box on its summit contains figures of Jesus and the Virgin Mary. It makes an atmospheric sight after six o’clock in the evening, while the silvery-gold sun dips towards the sea and a few long skinny clouds along the sky glow so redly that they look like bloody scratch-marks.
I should say that I’ve never ventured behind the railway’s station’s back wall and stuck my camera in anyone’s face. I only wish other visitors to Colombo would be respectful too of the privacy of the people there. On one occasion, I saw a big tour bus parked on Marine Drive beside the station and, on the far side of the railway tracks, some Chinese tourists crowded at the end of the shanty town and snapping pictures of it – treating it as a ‘poverty porn’ stop on their travel itinerary.
As for the roadside wall at the front of Bambilapitiya Station – or half-a-wall because part of it has disappeared and, as I’ve said, been replaced by a fence – somebody tried at some time to brighten it by painting a series of murals along it. However, these last for only a few yards. Their images – Buddha, stupas, rivers, forests, lotus flowers, demons, deer, elephants, fish, turtles, elephants, birds and butterflies – are pleasingly colourful, simple and child-like.
A mixture of rickety charm and some truly grim poverty, Bambalapitiya Station feels increasingly out of place in its neighbourhood. It stands opposite the junction of Marine Drive and Station Road – a minute’s walk up the latter street is the trendy and popular Majestic City shopping centre. And the opposite side of Marine Drive itself is currently in the throes of redevelopment. One building, for instance, has been gutted and is being transformed into a new, high-falutin’ Indian restaurant with the amusing name of Planet Bollywood.
I suspect that before much longer some big, possibly Chinese-led consortium will flatten the old station and others like it and then raise new versions of them, fashioned in concrete, glass and steel. Perhaps someone is on the case already.
Since writing this post I’ve noticed that the station’s front wall and the bottom half of its back wall have recently been given a lick of dark-red paint – the murals at the front have been spared, thankfully. So clearly somebody in the Sri Lankan railway authorities is of the opinion that the place needs ‘doing up’.