Zee-lanka

 

© Navin Weeraratne

 

In the old days, ‘overkill’ was a necessary, even a desirable component of a zombie-holocaust story.  There had to be a large and increasing amount of killing.  This would ensure there was a large and increasing number of dead people, who would then come back to life as zombies.  In turn, this would  ensure there was a large and increasing number of zombies posing a large and increasing threat to the small and decreasing number of human beings who were battling to survive.

 

Unfortunately, as far as zombies are concerned, ‘overkill’ has now taken on a different meaning.  These days there’s just too many movies, TV shows, books, graphic novels, comics and computer games featuring the bloody things.

 

They’re everywhere.  In the movie world alone, they’re in mega-budgeted Hollywood blockbusters, like 2013’s World War Z, and in low-budget rubbish, like last year’s ultra-opportunistic Corona Zombies.  They’re in Scottish movies, like 2008’s The Dead Outside.  They’re in high-school movies, like 2012’s Detention of the Dead.  They’re in musicals, like 2018’s Z-O-M-B-I-E-S.  They’re in Christmas movies, like 2012‘s Christmas with the Dead.  Why, they’re even in Scottish / high-school / musical / Christmas movies like 2017’s Anna and the Apocalypse.

 

Today, in other words, zombies are ubiquitous.  And they’re predictable.  And dare I say it, they’re boring.

 

But having got all that off my chest, I have to admit I enjoyed Navin Weeraratne’s 2018 novel Zeelam, which is about modern-day Sri Lanka suffering its own zombie apocalypse.  The expected story-elements are all present and correct – bites, infections, ‘conjunctivitis-red eyes’, mayhem and lots of blood, gore and grue – but the book is helped by having a strong dose of social commentary too.

 

And social commentary is something I believe all good zombie stories should have.  For example, the first three zombie movies made by George A. Romero, the visionary filmmaker who created the template for zombie holocausts, commented on the civil rights movement and Vietnam War (in 1968’s Night of the Living Dead), mindless consumerism (in 1978’s Dawn of the Dead) and the stupidity of the military (in 1986’s Day of the Dead).  Danny Boyle’s 28 Days Later (2002) reflected a modern Britain where anger was an increasingly common social phenomenon and terms like ‘road rage’ and ‘air rage’ had entered the popular vocabulary, while its sequel, Juan Carlos Fresnadillo’s 28 Weeks Later (2007), was an allegory about the post-war occupation of Iraq.  And Edgar Wright’s Shaun of the Dead (2004) satirised a twenty-something slacker generation who couldn’t tell if someone was a zombie or just pissed, hungover or stoned.  Carrying on the tradition, Zeelam takes multiple swipes at the institutional and societal shortcomings of modern Sri Lanka.  But more about that in a minute.

 

Zeelam has two main characters.  One is Ruven Daniels, a member of a military response team whom we first see being sent to deal with an incident at Colombo’s posh Hilton Hotel. There, zombies – ‘zees’ as they’ve become known in Sri Lankan parlance – have suddenly appeared during a children’s birthday party attended by rich ‘Colombo 7’ housewives and their pampered offspring.  The ensuing carnage takes place under a PA system blasting out Bryan Adams’ The Summer of 69.  (“I love this song!” enthuses one of Ruven’s comrades.)  The other is Dinuka Fernando, a woman working for an NGO trying to prevent the zombie infections, which are caused by a virus being spread by mosquitoes.  Dinuka is a kick-ass character who goes about her duties armed with a Japanese katana.  Unsurprisingly, that katana is deployed with increasing frequency as the novel approaches its climax.

 

The zombies in Zeelam aren’t the dead-come-back-to-life ones portrayed in Romero’s films.  They’re more in the style of 28 Days and 28 Weeks Later, people infected by a virus that sends them into a terrifying, murderous, red-eyed frenzy.  Weeraratne has his characters hypothesise that the virus was present in Sri Lanka for decades already in a less aggressive form.  Originally, it manifested itself in the country’s high levels of domestic violence, which didn’t receive much coverage because attentions were focused on the Sri Lankan Civil War from 1983 to 2009 – which itself became an outlet for the violence caused by the virus.  But now it’s mutated into something more devastating and its effects can no longer be concealed behind the walls of peoples’ homes or camouflaged by the mayhem of the battlefield.

 

Thus, though Weeraratne’s zombie scenario is imaginary, the context that gave rise to it isn’t.  Indeed, the text is peppered with superscript numbers that refer the reader to a lengthy appendix of endnotes.  Here, Weeraratne provides links to real-life studies, reports and news items about Sri Lanka and its relationship with violence, showing that he’s grounded his ideas in depressing reality.

 

Zeelam is also interesting because the virus is shown to create different types of infections.  These range from fully fledged, ‘berserker’ zombies to asymptomatic people who merely carry the virus around in them.  Most intriguingly, there’s a category called ‘sleepers’, who only show their zombie tendencies at night and are perfectly human-like during the day.  Indeed, among the book’s supporting cast is a character, a government inspector called Siripala Fonesaka, who spends his days desperately trying to cover up the monstrous things he’s done at night.

 

This diversity makes the threat posed by the zombies more hydra-like and difficult to deal with.  Also, it helps Zeelam to dodge the criticism I made at the start of this entry, that zombie stories have become too dull and predictable.  However, I have to say the pedant in me wished Weeraratne had explained these variations in the virus’s effects with the same scientific rigour with which he described the virus’s origins.  How, for example, does sunlight temporarily neutralise the virus in the sleepers?

 

As I’ve said, just as George A. Romero’s zombie movies highlighted the shortcomings of American society, and just as Danny Boyle painted an unflattering portrait of modern-day Britain in 28 Days Later, so Weeraratne spends much of Zeelam taking potshots at the frustrations and annoyances of 21st century Sri Lanka.  These include venal and corrupt politicians – the outbreak at the Hilton Hotel in the novel’s opening pages is the consequence of a seedy MP booking in there with a prostitute – and bungling, incalcitrant bureaucrats, and elements of the armed forces who in their minds have never stopped fighting the Civil War and pose as a big a threat to the public as the zombies do.

 

Then there’s the country’s class system.  Weeraratne doesn’t show the people at the top of the pile in a particularly sympathetic light.  When Ruven’s men cordon off a neighbourhood where an outbreak is in progress, one privileged young asshole rolls up in a fancy car and demands to be allowed to drive through because his father is ‘a judge’.  In a corresponding endnote, Weeraratne describes how he once heard someone say the exact same thing when people objected to him parking on a double-yellow line in Havelock Town.

 

Later, an alumnus of one of Colombo’s prestigious private schools, and thus an entitled member of the city’s ‘old-school-tie’ network, meets a humiliating end at the blade of Dinuka’s katana.  Described by Weeraratne with obvious relish, his death involves, shall we say, the relaxation of sphincter muscles.  This amused me because in the real world the school in question is at the top of my street.

 

114 pages long, Zeelam is a slim volume, and its impact is slightly lessened by a number of typos.  You sometimes wonder what was distracting the proof-reader from their duties — were they struggling against an encroaching zombie infection at the time?  But as an enjoyably gory piece of entertainment that doesn’t pull its satirical punches, it’s still pretty tasty.

 

From facebook.com

From sci-fi to Sri-fi

 

© yudhanjaya.com 

 

During the half-dozen years I’ve lived in Sri Lanka, I’ve read a  fair number of novels and short story collections by local writers, including works by Martin Wickramasinghe, Romesh Gunesekera, Shyam Selvadurai, Carl Muller, Ashok Ferrey, Ameena Hussein and Michael Ondaatje.  The latter is probably the best known internationally, though ironically for a novel that doesn’t have much to do with Sri Lanka.  Their output is what snobby literary critics would describe as ‘mainstream’ literature.  I’ve seen none of them associated with ‘genre’ fiction, although Muller’s work contains a lot of humour and labelling it ‘comedy’ certainly wouldn’t be amiss.

 

On the other hand, I didn’t expect to encounter anything in the past six years that could be classified as ‘Sri Lankan science fiction.’  But, to my surprise, I have.  Romesh Gunesekera’s 2002 novel Heaven’s Edge is set in a surreal future Sri Lanka where the Civil War hasn’t ended but gone on and on, with the country becoming increasingly authoritarian and its environment increasingly despoiled.  An uneasy mixture of dystopian fiction, allegory and magical realism, with flashes of J.G. Ballard and William Gibson, I have to say I find Heaven’s Edge the least impressive of Gunesekera’s books that I’ve read.

 

Better is the 1979 novel The Fountains of Paradise by Arthur C. Clarke.  Although Clark was in many ways a very English Englishman, Fountains is for me a very Sri Lankan book.  Clarke had lived in Sri Lanka for decades by the time it was published and the fictional island the story takes place on, Taprobane, is simply Sri Lanka with a few tweaks, for example, with Sigiriya Rock and Adam’s Peak being near neighbours when in the real Sri Lanka they’re 175 kilometres apart.  Set mostly in the 22nd century, though with some bold flashbacks to 2000 years earlier in Taprobane / Sri Lanka’s history, Fountains is about the construction of a giant ‘space elevator’ linking the earth’s surface with a space station in geosynchronous orbit.  Geographical factors necessitate the elevator being built from a mountaintop in Taprobane / Sri Lanka, which coincidentally happens to be the island’s most sacred location.  The book meditates on the conflict between preserving heritage and culture and pushing on with scientific and technological progress, with Clarke treating both causes sympathetically even if it’s obvious which one will ultimately prevail.

 

Now, I’ve discovered the 28-year-old Sri Lankan author Yudhanjaya Wijeratne and recently read two of his novels, Numbercaste (2017) and The Inhuman Race (2019).  While neither book is entirely to my pernickety tastes, I’d say they make a good case for Wijeratne being hailed as the potential future of Sri Lankan science fiction.

 

On his website Wijeratne identifies himself as a member of a ‘Data, Algorithms and Policy’ team working for a thinktank called LIRNEasia.  This background obviously helped shape Numbercaste.  Its narrator, Patrick Udo, is recruited by a tech company called NumberCorp in the 2030s and gets involved in a project with revolutionary consequences for humanity.  Its purpose is to collate every human being’s data – salary, bank balance, credit card rating, police record, social media profile and a thousand things more – and distil it into a single score, an all-important ‘number’ that determines the social and professional options open to him or her.  As Udo says near the book’s end, “Every morning I’d check Number News on my phone.  Tap, tap.  There, just above the news and the social gossip and the who-checked-in-wheres, was my score.  My score was critical.  It got me the best tables at restaurants I went to, all simple but pricy affairs.  It got me into the VIP section of any club where I wanted to party.  It got me first class tickets on the airplanes.”

 

A person’s number isn’t immutable.  It can rise or fall.  As Julius Common, NumberCorp’s visionary founder and leader, argues, this makes it a positive force because it rewards good behaviour and punishes bad.  For example, police officers who blot their records with corruption or brutality will see their numbers drop below the threshold required for them to remain employed.  Thus, they’ll be replaced by less crooked cops with better numbers.  That, of course, is Common’s spin on the system and the question throughout the book is if it’ll actually become a tool of oppression, locking everyone into their own social and professional cells on different tiers of society and keeping everyone in line with the threat of demotion to lower tiers if they don’t obey orders.  Will Common and NumberCorp lead the world to utopia or dystopia?  In the book’s afterword, Wijeratne notes that China has tried doing something like this in real life with its social credit project.

 

Much of Numbercaste details Udo’s Boswell / Dr Johnson-like relationship with Common.  This relationship sees Udo play the role of humble employee, then trusted lieutenant and finally fallen-from-favour outcast.  Although it’s largely set in California, a culture where the names Zuckerberg, Musk, Gates and Bezos are intoned as if they’re ancient but all-powerful deities, Sri Lanka makes an appearance along the way as an early test lab for Common and his scoring system: “We need a sort of guinea pig to test this stuff.  A small population that we can monitor and test and retest the bulk of our SEA algorithms on… This place is perfect…  Highly connected, almost everyone’s online, and the government will let us do whatever the hell we want as long as their ministers are happy.”

 

© Harper Collins

 

As I’m a relative luddite with information technology, and an avoider of most social media, Numbercaste isn’t a book that automatically appeals to me.  Also, I suspect more could have been done to humanise Common whilst chronicling his inexorable rise.  Perhaps he could have been given some Citizen Kane-style foibles that taint his success with bitter unhappiness.  Nonetheless, a lot of Numbercaste impressed me and Wijeratne’s prose style is spot on.  It provides just enough detail to give a firm sense of time and place, but never overdoes it and doesn’t get in the way of the fast-moving narrative.

 

Obviously, the Covid-19 pandemic and its impact on the world have made a lot of science fiction published before 2020 but set a short time after it seem dated.  In the real future, people in 2025, 2030 or 2035 will presumably talk about the 2020 pandemic in the way that we still talk about 9/11 or the 2008 financial crisis now.  In the near-futures of pre-2020 science fiction, the characters aren’t talking about it because the writers had no idea it was going to happen.  The 2017-published Numbercaste gets around this credibility problem by accident rather than design.  It alludes to something called ‘the TRS-8I superbug’, which ‘hit Asia hardest’ and ‘had done in millions of people’.  Among its victims were ten million Sri Lankans, who presumably perished from it sometime in the 2020s.  So that’s why nobody mentions Covid-19 in Numbercaste.  The TRS-8I pandemic was so traumatic that it erased the earlier virus from the collective memory.

 

The Inhuman Race, meanwhile, takes place in an alternative universe, in a version of Sri Lanka in 2033 where, to quote the book’s back-cover blurb, “The British Empire never fell.  Communism never happened.  The flag of the Commonwealth still flies over its colonies, which lie stripped bare in the name of British interests, powerless to resist.”  The story begins with gangs of feral children scrabbling for survival amid the ruins of the Colombo seafront.  This is a legacy of the Chinese Emperor deciding to give the British a bloody nose: “having won the might of a united China,” he “brooded over his navy from his darkened throne-room.  The white devils that flew the Union Jack ruled too much of the ocean for his liking.  Dimly, he remembered Fa-Xian’s accounts of Ceylon, the Buddha’s blessed island…  And thus the British Empire’s first direct contact with China in two hundred years was when the Chinese warships pulled into Colombo port and began their assault.”  In the ensuing carnage, Colombo’s ‘Galle Face Green became Galle Face Brown.’

 

While the novel’s first part offers some good post-apocalyptic fun, with the different gangs using as their headquarters the shells of the different luxury hotels that used to do business along Galle Face, such as the Shangri La, the Taj and the Cinnamon Grand, and with a gigantic mountain range of garbage separating the city’s devasted seaboard from its more habitable parts inland, I enjoyed the later chapters more.  Here, the action switches to the island’s still-intact administrative centre, the mountain city of Kandy.  At the same time, the book’s main theme emerges, which is about how much robots built to emulate living beings should be regarded as living beings themselves.  This is hardly a ground-breaking theme in science fiction – though you might think it is if your name is Ian McEwan.  But Wijeratne explores it well, through the eyes of a sympathetic character called Dr Kushlani de Alemeida.  She’s an employee of a company manufacturing and using robots for dubious entertainment purposes.  Though these products look ‘a lot like what God would have made the humans to look like had he been limited to metal and cheap plastic’, Alemeida uncovers evidence that they’re more sentient than anyone had imagined.

 

What I really like about the book’s Kandy sequences are the glimpses it gives of Sri Lankan society in this weird, alternative-universe scenario where the British Empire is still a thing.  Order is maintained by ‘British’ soldiers, actually Indians and Gurkas, and by a fearsome outfit called the Inquisition that consist of ‘hooded monk-like figures’, from whom ‘a pale face with ruby lenses for eyes’ occasionally appears.  The economy has been portioned off to the control of several rich houses, the Ratwatte, Madugalle, Rambukpotha and Bandaras.  The judiciary is staffed by Buddhist monks, which leads to some interesting debate when Alemeida tries to convince a court that the robots should be treated like living creatures.  The British themselves, apart from a mention of a Governor, are invisible – though evidently creaming off the country’s wealth at the top.

 

In this way, The Inhuman Race reminds me of certain works of Sri Lankan literature set when the country was under British rule, like Martin Wickramasinghe’s Ape Game (1940) and Madol Doova (1947) or Leonard Woolf’s The Village in the Jungle (1913).  (Okay, Village wasn’t penned by a Sri Lankan but by an Englishman, Virginia Woolf’s husband no less, while he worked for the Ceylon Civil Service.  But it was written from a native’s point of view, not from a colonialist’s.)  In those books too, the British are barely around.  The administrative machinery they’ve set up is run by the locals, which gives a semblance of Sri Lankan autonomy.  But again, up above, the Brits are discretely pocketing the profits.

 

One small but nice touch in The Inhuman Race’s is when a character refers to the words of ‘the great Pratchett’: “There is no justice… there is just us.”  So not only has Terry Pratchett churned out Discworld novels in this alternative universe too, but he’s even more revered than he is in our one.

 

I was slightly frustrated that The Inhuman Race didn’t show more of its future-imperialist / Buddhist society or, indeed, of the secretive Chinese Empire that pulverised Colombo at the novel’s start.  But The Inhuman Race is supposedly the first part of a trilogy, so hopefully Yudhanjaya Wijeratne will supply more details in the instalments to come.

 

© Harper Collins

Sri Lankan horror – ‘Water in my Grave’

 

© Chandrika Gadiewasam and Nadeesha Paulis

 

It’s Halloween tomorrow, so here’s one last re-posting of something I once wrote on this blog about scary fiction.  This item is from 2014 and concerns a collection of creepy tales from the country I’m currently living in, Sri Lanka.

 

A while ago, I picked up a copy of Water in my Grave and other Horror Stories from Sri Lanka in a bookstore in Colombo.  Now that I’ve read it, I’m not quite sure how I’d describe its contents.  The foreword claims that it’s a collection of “stories of the paranormal based on tales gleaned from persons relating their actual experiences”, but the stories feel more assorted than that.  Some appear to be fictional ones, dreamed up and put on paper by the authors.  Other read like creepy folkloric stories that’ve been passed down from generation to generation.  Others again have the ring of being anecdotes told by individuals who believe they’ve experienced the supernatural in real life.  And there’s a few that are reminiscent of those gruesome urban myths so beloved of school playgrounds and Internet forums.

 

Not that it matters, because on the whole I found Water in my Grave, written by the Colombo-based mother-and-daughter team of Chandrika Gadiewasam and Nadeesha Paulis, an enjoyable and informative read.  The assorted tones of the stories make the book pleasingly varied and they allow you to view the Sri Lankan culture that forms their backdrop from an interesting range of angles.

 

For instance, Tovil for Soma, Let the Dead Live and the fabulously titled The Baby Twisting Nightmare of Modera involve possessions and hauntings.  These aren’t by demons or anonymous evil spirits, but by the souls of deceased family members who have axes to grind with the still-living, which suggests that family fallouts and conflict are as common in Sri Lanka as they are everywhere else.  Called in to deal with the supernatural goings-on in these stories are such Sri Lankan professionals as ‘light readers’ or fortune tellers (anjamankaraya) and ‘demon-priests’, the energetic and expensive local exorcists (kattadiya) who come dressed “usually in a white sarong and red coat type costume… sacrificing chickens, dancing around the fire, breathing fire, talking in local filth to intimidate the entity from leaving the human host.”

 

Meanwhile, Legend of the Devil Dog is a Sri Lankan version of the Black Shuck legends that are found in East Anglia, involving a demon called Mahosona, who “is so fearsome and powerful that his mere presence causes people to faint and then become violently sick immediately.”  On the other hand, Night of the Black Buffalo is impressively inexplicable and weird.  It’s like a script David Lynch would write if he was interested in south-Asian livestock.

 

Other stories show a less folkloric and more modern and cynical Sri Lanka.  How I Bought a Haunted House is narrated by a figure who’s become a scourge of contemporary societies, Western and Eastern – an estate agent.  “(T)he best thing is that in the real-estate sector,” he notes, “properties appreciate with time, whether they are haunted or not.”  Restless Cadaver, set on a campus and dealing with the mistreatment of dead bodies, suggests that medical students in Sri Lanka can be as obnoxious as they can be in the West.  And the major event of recent Sri Lankan history, the Civil War, overshadows both Quiet Soul and A Different Kind of Phantom.  The former is a sedate but sad ghost story, the latter a tale about a lost limb that also draws on Buddhist beliefs about reincarnation for its raison d’être.

 

Elsewhere, Zombie Bus to Purgatory does exactly what it says on the tin.  It’s a gleefully schlocky story that calls to mind the American EC Comics, like Tales from the Crypt and Vault of Horror, of the 1950s.  The Feud employs a neat little back-story, involving two rival shaman and a demonic assassin, to explain why a particular, desolate plot of land seems to be haunted by “what looked like a decaying body of a small child scuttling about.”  And Hospital Hell manages to be both a gruesome ghost story and an indictment of healthcare in a society where corruption is common, where “the ward sister sells the pharmaceuticals and painkillers she pinches” and “the rations have been cut in half so that the kitchen staff can smuggle out the salmon tins.”

 

The book is a little rough-edged in its English.  In places it could do with tighter punctuation and some of the idiomatic and clichéd phrases could have been pruned out.  The story A Night at River Green is a particular offender with such gems as ‘thank my lucky stars’, ‘what have you’, ‘the girl of my dreams’, ‘Hell hath no fury’ and ‘batten down the hatches’.  Mind you, this roughness could be said to work in the book’s favour because it gives the stories an added feel of authenticity.  By making them less slick, the prose’s occasional awkwardness makes the stories seem more real.

 

At the book’s end, a handy glossary by co-author Nadeesha Paulis fills the foreign reader in on some demonic creatures from Sri Lankan myth and legend.  These include Kalu Kumaraya (an incubus preying on young village girls); Mala Mohini (a female phantom seen eating a baby “with blood drooling down her sari and intestines drooping down her chin”); and Kinduri, an apparition who wears the guise of a pregnant women and goes around knocking on doors of houses.  “If you’re a woman,” Paulis notes regarding Kinduri, “you’re safe.  But if you’re a man opening the door to her knock, I’m sorry but she’ll probably kill you…  She just doesn’t like men.”

 

When you’re in a new culture, a good way to get insight into that culture is to read a selection of traditional ghost and horror stories from the place.  Finding out what makes people scared and finding out how they like to scare others give you some appreciation of their psychology.  Water in my Grave performs that task admirably with Sri Lanka.

The Vespa vanishes

 

 

I’m saddened to report that last orders have been called at one of my favourite watering holes in Colombo, the Vespa Sports Club, which had been a fixture of Sea Avenue in the Kollupitiya district since the 1960s.

 

During the half-dozen years that I’ve been in Colombo, the Vespa, an old-style, slightly ramshackle bungalow with tables and chairs along its veranda and ample additional seating space in the compound around it, had been a regular haunt of mine.  Well, it couldn’t have not been a regular haunt of mine, considering its attractions: cheap beer, cheap and wonderfully spicy food, no-nonsense serving staff, plenty of conversation, occasional live (but unobtrusive) traditional Sri Lankan music, a nice dog who was devoted to his duty of chasing feral cats off the veranda, and feral cats who were equally devoted to their duty of constantly creeping onto the veranda and keeping the dog on his toes (or paws).

 

The one concession to modernity was that during the day the surrounding compound doubled as a car park for people working in the businesses of nearby Galle Road.  Thus, if you sat on its veranda during its lunchtime hours of 11.00 am to 2.00 pm, you found yourself contemplating a grid of stationary cars.  Even so, it was a salubrious place for a midday refreshment.  If I ordered a beer a few minutes before the two o’clock closing time, the staff were happy enough to lock up and go off and leave me there to finish my beer on my own.  Though one time, one of them stayed behind to keep me company and we had a long, unexpected but lovely conversation about English-language poetry.  He’d got his interest in poetry from his daughter, who worked as an English teacher.

 

Though it was ostensibly a man’s pub, women, both local and foreign, appeared there from time to time and nobody batted an eyelid while they sat, drank and chatted.

 

A few evenings ago, I dropped by the Vespa for a drink and was greeted, ominously, by the sight of a rope strung across its compound entrance, forbidding entry.  When I juked under the rope and went to the bungalow, all the chairs and tables had been removed and a stranger there, a young guy, informed me that the place had just been shut by the ‘government’.  I assume by that he meant ‘the local authorities’.  I then retreated to a nearby bar, the Tavern on Galle Road, where a staff-member speculated that the Vespa had met its demise because of a drop-off in business.

 

From that, I imagine the Vespa management were unable to make ends meet and were evicted by whoever owns the property.  Did the months of the curfew that the Sri Lankan government imposed in response to the Covid-19 pandemic, and the attendant ban on the sale of alcohol, doom the Vespa to financial failure?  Or were they forced out to make way for some lucrative new development on the site?  Or was it a combination of both?

 

 

It’s a cruel development, as I’d been in the place a few times after the curfew was lifted and its atmosphere seemed no different from before.  Well, apart from the new English-language signs urging social distancing on its timeworn yellow walls, next to the old signs in Sinhala.  So I was starting to hope they’d got through the curfew without incurring significant financial damage.

 

I suppose it’s a miracle that somewhere as resolutely old-fashioned as the Vespa managed to survive for as long as it did in an area of Colombo, between the major thoroughfares of Galle Road and Marine Drive and almost on the seafront, that was so redevelopment-crazy.  But its closure was inevitable sooner or later.

 

 

I’m also peeved to find, after searching through my computer hard drive, that I have hardly any photographs of the Vespa when it was on the go.  After dark it wasn’t brightly illuminated, which added to its atmosphere but didn’t facilitate the taking of good pictures.  I do have murky ones of the dog, though, and of the lopsided but endearing Christmas tree they used to erect on the veranda during the festive season.

 

And that’s that.  We live in a world whose cities all seem determined to mutate into Dubai – to become soulless glass-and-concrete clones, consisting of nothing but square miles of corporate towers, sprawling retailing complexes and high-end apartment blocks.  The Vespa’s fate should encourage us to embrace the surviving, but alas, dwindling, number of places that retain some individuality and personality.  Places where you can experience all the things that make life properly worthwhile: conversation, laughter, cheap beer and spicy snacks, live music, dogs and cats.

 

Social distancing at the Greenlands Hotel

 

 

During the last half-dozen years, one of my favourite places in Colombo to retire to after a busy day’s work and relax with a couple of beers has been the liquor bar at the Greenlands Hotel, which stands just off a street with the quaint name of Shrubbery Garden.  No, the hotel doesn’t have any connection with Greenland (although the interior walls of its liquor bar have been painted a pale, minty-looking shade of green) and there isn’t much sign of a garden, with shrubbery in it, in the immediate neighbourhood.

 

The bar adjoins a venerable restaurant that sells South Indian vegetarian dishes like dosai and rice and meat-free curry.  I’ve heard this restaurant described as a Colombo institution, although I suspect its glory days are behind it and it’s regarded now as something of a museum piece.  The Sri Lankan review website YAMU says that it ‘still holds a place in people’s heart for sheer nostalgia’ but adds a little cruelly that ‘the staff of Greenlands seem as old as the establishment itself, sporting hair as white as their crisp white dhoti and shirt’.  When the restaurant staff don’t have anything to do inside, which seems often, you’ll see these elderly geezers sitting on its front steps, watching the world pass by – at least, the tiny sliver of the world that passes the hotel gates on Shrubbery Garden.

 

 

The main fellow tasked with the running of the liquor bar seems a veritable youngster in comparison with his colleagues in the restaurant, but the clientele are hardly what you’d call spring chickens.  (Not that I’m a spring chicken myself, of course.)  They appear mainly to be professional and reasonably well-off blokes in their middle age who find pleasure in snatching a quick bottle of Lion beer and / or a quick glass of arrack during that little oasis of evening-time when they don’t have to worry about the responsibilities of their workplaces or the responsibilities of their households.  The bar counter and shelves are contained in a narrow room at one end, from which the barman provides a waiter service.  The clientele sit in a series of small square rooms extending one after another along the rest of the premises.  The rooms are spartan, with their bare minty-green walls and hard burgundy-coloured floors, but look extremely clean despite their basicness.

 

One pleasant touch was that whenever I appeared there and sat down, the barman would put an English-language Sri Lankan newspaper in front of me before fetching my first drink.  As a foreigner living in Sri Lanka it’s easy to get cocooned in your own affairs and not pay attention to the society around you, so those visits to the Greenlands Hotel helped keep me informed with what was happening locally.  That was my main reason for going there, obviously.

 

 

Early in 2020, I was alarmed when I went into the Greenlands Hotel one evening and was told by a restaurant waiter (while he sat on the steps, of course) that the liquor bar was ‘closed for repairs’.  I know from bitter experience that when one of Colombo’s surviving, old-style, spit-and-sawdust pubs gets closed down, it tends to stay closed down – often because the premises are to be demolished to make way for some soulless new development.  Then, when Covid-19 forced the government to impose a curfew starting on March 20th, and the pubs went into hibernation for God knows how long, I seriously wondered if I’d ever see the inside of the Greenlands Hotel liquor bar again.

 

 

However, come May and the easing of the curfew, I made a point one evening of strolling down Shrubbery Garden and looking into the Greenlands Hotel to see what the situation was.  I was delighted to find that both the restaurant and the liquor bar were functioning again – although as usual, most of the restaurant staff were warming the steps with their behinds.  In the bar, changes had been made to safeguard the clientele against the new virus.  Long tables, surely meeting the recommended 1.5-metre standard for social distancing, had been arranged with a chair at either end.  There were two tables in each room, meaning each room accommodated just four drinkers.  To be honest, I don’t think the reduction in seating capacity had done anything to damage the bar’s ambience, as even at the busiest of times it seemed a very peaceful little place.

 

One other safety precaution, to reduce the possible spread of infection by minimising the number of objects that folk touch on the premises, had resulted in a sad loss.  On the evening that I returned there, the barman told me apologetically, “I’m sorry.  I can’t give you a newspaper anymore.”

 

No worries.  I was just happy to see this unabashedly old-fashioned drinking establishment on the go again.

 

Locked-down Colombo

 

 

A few weeks have now passed since Colombo, the city where I live, emerged from Covid-19 lockdown.

 

Even now, walking about the city has a slightly eerie feeling of unreality.  The traffic isn’t quite as heavy as it was, though it’s gradually returning to the standards of the congested bad old days.  But some business premises remain closed, fewer pedestrians are using the pavements and nearly everyone is wearing a mask.

 

Not that I’m complaining about the masks, of course.  When it comes to the wearing of these, I’m in agreement with Arnold Schwarzenegger, who memorably tweeted the other day, “The science is unanimous – if we all wear masks, we slow down the spread and can open safely.  It’s not a political issue.  Anyone making it a political issue is an absolute moron…”  That sounds even better if you read it aloud in the Terminator’s accent.

 

I say ‘lockdown’, but in fact what we had for nearly two months in Colombo was a curfew, where you stayed indoors and supposedly weren’t even allowed to nip outside for a spot of exercise.  Hence, whenever I went down to the front door of our apartment building to pick up a delivery, I’d be greeted by the sight of our neighbour from upstairs burning off calories by riding her bicycle around and around the building’s small concourse.  Sri Lankan people seemed generally to accept and put up with the inconvenience of this.  I suppose it’s partly due to unhappy past experiences.  Events like the 30-year civil war, the 2004 tsunami and the Easter Sunday bombings last year have made them appreciate the importance and necessity of emergency security measures.

 

The curfew was imposed on Friday, March 20th.  There was an experimental half-day lifting of the curfew four days later, which gave folk a chance to get to the shops and stock up on supplies.  (By this point, Colombo’s food retailers hadn’t yet set up a coherent online system whereby people could order things from their homes and have them delivered.)

 

On March 24th, curfew-lifting day, I got up and headed out at about 7.00 AM, my goal being do some shopping at the nearest supermarket, Food City on Marine Drive.  When I arrived at Food City, I discovered that a queue had formed outside, which was slowly being threaded into the premises by a group of shopworkers and policemen.  I walked alongside that queue for the whole of the next block, counting the people as I went.  The queue actually turned 90 degrees at the far corner of that block and continued up a side street, and by the time I reached the end of the queue I’d counted 173 people.  Everyone was trying to ‘socially distance’ themselves from one another by keeping a metre of space between them, so it was a long queue of 173.

 

 

The queue inched along and more than two hours passed before I got into the supermarket.  The shopworkers and police at the entrance were making sure that only a couple of dozen people were inside the shop at any one time, to enable social distancing.  But I’d expected a long wait and brought a book along and I spent those hours in the queue reading.  In fact, a long, grindingly slow queue was probably the best context in which to read this book, for it was Anne Rice’s 1975 gothic opus Interview with a Vampire.  Yes, when you’re queuing for food in the middle of a pandemic, even Ms Rice’s florid and overwrought prose seems pretty bearable.

 

 

The people I saw outside and inside Food City behaved responsibly, but March 24th’s curfew-lifting didn’t seem to be a success.  Later that day, I saw reports in the media about crowded shops, markets and vehicles across the city and the country where the infectious and opportunistic Covid-19 virus would have enjoyed a field day.  Afterwards, when the authorities re-imposed the curfew, they kept it in place for a long, long time.

 

In fact, the only time I ventured beyond the edges of our premises during the next seven weeks was one day when I realised that I needed to get cash.  By now Colombo’s retailers had managed to set up a working delivery system, but not everything could be paid for online and / or with cards.  Sometimes you needed to pay the deliverers with physical money when they arrived at your door.  So off I trudged to the nearest ATM, not knowing what to expect.

 

This experience did make me feel like I was journeying through a city in the grip of a pandemic – a pandemic portrayed in an apocalyptic sci-fi / horror movie.  Traffic on Marine Drive was no more than a trickle.  The only people I saw who weren’t in vehicles or uniform were the staff at the Lanka Filling Station – a few vehicles were nosing onto their concourse to get petrol – and a couple of guys on the far side of the road, next to the sea, loading white Styrofoam boxes of fish onto the back of a delivery truck.  All the businesses along the road looked like they’d been shut for an eternity.  Oddest of all was the sight of our local branch of the KFC, which I’ve rarely seen not busy.  There was something utterly grim about the sight of all its chairs upturned and set on top of its tables, their jutting chair-legs forming a prickly metallic forest in the shadowy, unlit eating area.

 

Despite its close proximity to our building, the ATM I was heading for was actually in a different district of Colombo, across the Kirillapone Canal that forms the boundary between Wellawatta and Bambalapitiya.  And a security checkpoint staffed by three armed soldiers and ten police officers and consisting of a tent, desk and wheeled metal barriers had been set up by the canal bridge.  I noticed how this had also become the gathering point for the local population of crows, who usually assemble hungrily and hopefully where human beings assemble too.  So I had to traverse this checkpoint, show them my passport and explain where I was coming from, where I was going to and why.  I was allowed to continue to the ATM on the strict proviso that I returned home immediately afterwards.

 

During April and into May rumours about when the curfew would be lifted were plentiful, but it wasn’t until the week beginning May 11th that a modicum of normalcy returned in Colombo.  Not only were businesses allowed to have some ‘essential’ employees back at their workplaces (as opposed to ‘working from home’), but the general public were permitted outside on one weekday according to the final digit of their ID card number.  If that last digit on your ID card (or, if you were a foreign resident, your passport) was a 1 or 2, you were allowed out on Monday; if it was a 3 or 4, you were allowed out on Tuesday; and so on.  For me, this meant I could finally escape house arrest on Thursday, May 14th.

 

I was actually working from home for most of that day, so I didn’t get to venture out until late in the afternoon, which in the pre-Covid-19 era would have coincided with Colombo’s homeward-heading rush-hour.  This time the experience felt nowhere near as desolate as when I’d trudged to the ATM the previous month.  Most of the city remained closed, however, and considering what time of day it was, the lack of traffic on Marine Drive was astounding.  I was also shocked when a train rolled past along the nearby coastal railway tracks.  In the normal world, the train would have been stuffed with end-of-the-day commuters.  The more adventurous ones would be hanging out of the doorways while Colombo whooshed past below them.  But some carriages in this train barely contained a soul.

 

 

I felt melancholy walking around Colombo that day because I passed a few businesses to which I’d given my custom in the past – okay, pubs – and they looked practically derelict.  I wondered if they’d ever reopen.  One example was the Western Hotel, which’d optimistically put potted palm trees out along its façade shortly before the virus and curfew arrived.  Another was that mainstay of Sea Avenue, the Vespa Sports Club, its colonial-era bungalow standing silently in the middle of its empty courtyard.

 

 

More encouragingly, I happened to pass my favourite Chinese restaurant, the Min Han on Deanstone Place, just as one of its owners, Mo, materialised at its doorway.  So I was able to enjoy a socially distanced blether with him.  He told me that the restaurant was taking orders and providing takeaways and money was thankfully starting to trickle in again.

 

 

Now, a month later, the Min Han seems to be fully back in business and I’d advise all Colombo-based lovers of authentic Chinese food to head there immediately.  It’s highly recommended.

 

One other feature of traversing this strange, semi-deserted version of Colombo was how, in places I’d walked through practically every day of the past six years, I noticed things in the quietude that I’d never noticed before.  For example, there was a flowery Christian shrine near the Seylan Bank on Duplication Road.  Or a depiction of Mariah Carey, lurking sinisterly in the undergrowth near the entrance of the disused Indra Regent building, a little further south along the same street.

 

 

So those are my memories of locked-down Colombo between March and May 2020.  It was an economically brutal experience for the city and for the country as a whole.  But I think it was a necessary experience because three months after Covid-19 appeared here, the total number of cases have been kept below 2000 and there’ve been only 11 deaths.  Compare that with the shambles of a response to the crisis that went on in the UK, mis-orchestrated by bumbler-in-chief Boris Johnson.  Or worse, what happened in the USA with Donald ‘Drink Bleach’ Trump at the helm.  Let’s just hope that, after all the sacrifices made, and with life making a hopeful return to normal, Sri Lanka doesn’t have to deal with a resurgence of that bloody microbe in the near future.

Hello, yellow brick road

 

 

I suspect that the editors and publishers of Colombo’s Write magazine, which features poetry, short fiction and literary articles by Sri Lankan and Sri Lankan-based writers, must have felt cursed recently.

 

Production problems meant that their latest edition, Volume 2 Issue 2, was delayed for over a year.  Then, in March 2020, just as the new edition was about to go on sale, the Covid-19 virus made its unwelcome but inevitable appearance in Sri Lanka.  As a result, the authorities declared a curfew and the outlets that would have sold the magazine were temporarily closed down.  Not that potential customers would have been able to venture out to buy it, anyway.

 

This was a wee bit frustrating for me, as my short story The Yellow Brick Road was due to appear in that issue of Write.  (Well, I am a Sri Lankan-based writer…)

 

Happily, I can now report that the curfew has been eased somewhat and many Sri Lankan workplaces, businesses and retailers have reopened.  This includes the Barefoot Shop at 704 Galle Road, Colombo, which is the best-known outlet where you can pick up a copy of Write.   I popped in there the other day and saw the magazine’s newest issue, containing The Yellow Brick Road, stocked on its shelves.

 

In addition to some 40 general poems and stories, the issue features a section with poignant tributes to the victims of last year’s Easter Sunday bombings in Colombo, Negombo and Batticaloa.  It also has articles remembering three major figures in the contemporary Sri Lankan literary and arts worlds who sadly passed away in 2019: the poet and writer Jean Arasanayagam, the theatre director and producer Vinodh Senadeera, and the writer, poet and journalist Carl Muller.  (I was particularly a fan of Muller, whose work, besides being very amusing, served as an invaluable record of the minutiae of traditional life in Sri Lanka’s Burgher community.)

 

The Yellow Brick Road isn’t attributed to my usual nom de plume Jim Mountfield, as it doesn’t contain any of the grim, macabre stuff that Mountfield specialises in – for example, children with worm-like and super-intelligent conjoined twins growing out of their shoulders, or elderly farmers’ wives with Alzheimer’s who are haunted by the ghosts of the husbands they murdered and fed to their pigs 30 years ago, or Tunisian medinas in alternative universes that are inhabited by vampires who inhale blood-fumes out of shishas.  Instead, it’s published under my real, ordinary and boring name, Ian Smith.

 

While it isn’t a horror story, The Yellow Brick Road was slightly inspired by those dark gambling stories that Roald Dahl liked to write, such as Taste (1945), Man from the South (1948) or Dip in the Pool (1952), wherein someone gets involved in a highly unusual wager, with potentially ruinous consequences.  However, unlike Dahl’s protagonists who, if they lose, face marrying off their daughter to a complete creep, or having a finger chopped off, or parting with their entire life savings, the main character here is an unhappy and superstitious man who simply makes a bet with himself – one night when he’s alone on Colombo’s Duplication Road and a little bit the worse for drink.

 

Handsomely printed, and containing some gorgeous colour illustrations, Volume 2 Issue 2 of Write is a bargain at 500 Sri Lankan rupees.  The magazine’s Facebook page can be accessed here.