There are two inevitabilities in a state stricken with a long standing internal civil war – the explosion of gun barrels and bombs and the exploitation of the marginalized on both sides of the divisive line, be it ethnic, religious, factional or purely haves and have-nots. This was the grueling story of the pearl of the Indian Ocean that transformed itself from picture-perfect Eden to a porous nation, where the aerobic soil hid the body counts, the walls manifested the bullet rounds, casualties were pricked with the needle mounds and the pinned psyche lived with the nightmares of massacres abound. The civil war that engulfed Sri Lanka lasted 26 extended years but finally saw the end of day due to astute planning by the Sri Lankan military, fortified by a global climate that phagocytosed localized remnants of terror cells. The transformation of Colombo, the capital of this tiny Indian Ocean nation, from its hay day of gunpowder residue to a buzzing metropolis, has captivated not only the Sri Lankan diaspora but also many tourists that have ventured to the shores of this ‘teardrop’ – the serendipitous kind – nation. This is the story of Colombo’s metamorphosis from the ‘bomb to Da’bomb’, a unique dazzler to the eye of the international beholder.
Rewind back 16 years, explosions of the shrapnel kind, were tales to share and mental scars to bear. I remember vividly the chaos that ensued following the Slave Island bombing where numerous lives were lost and the whole nation took time to reflect on the loss of innocent human lives. I was a fledgling adult, on the verge of entering the university system, when the tragic events near Galle Face unfolded. I was sitting in a vocation training institute, when the sounds of the explosion rocked our ear drums and the news of the tragic event entered our psyche. One of my fellow class mates, who herself would endure the twilight zones of Sri Lanka at a later phase in life – as the life of her father, an army general, was also truncated due to the actions of a kamikaze pseudo-liberator – requested me to join her at the scene of the tragedy. Although mildly volunteering to be a supportive shoulder to her bravado, I chose to keep away as I resorted to avoid the unfolding chaos – I knew very well the extent to which chaos infiltrated scenes of suicide bombings. Although never experiencing first-hand the tragedy of suicide bombings, I would get to know later on in life that fate would entail me in its own unique story where the etiology of kamikaze personalities would infect my life and leave an impeccable but historical mark – Information burgeons our minds and opens unforeseen doors and my confidante’s quest to unravel the historical aspects of suicide missions will undoubtedly advance contemporary thinking on this quite gruesome topic. Of course, it is no longer ‘live and die in Colombo’ but live and prosper, as the city has spun its wheels of destiny to a vibrant unparalleled serendipolis.
The Colombo landscape has blossomed in two phases, first following the initial peace agreement for the cessation of war activities, where gradual development was undertaken chiefly on the trade and commerce front and subsequently, the city transformed itself in to a cultural haven, in the aftermath of the eternal sayonara to kamikaze activities, as the war concluded with the fall of the last-remaining terrorist elements that had ravaged the country for nearly a quarter of a century. The first stage of development saw a plethora of commercial establishment mushroom at most corners of the city, as fashion delicately stepped in to the many flavors of bollywoodian saree parades and the lofty standards of haute-couture, as the information superhighway invaded the traffic and cacophony of staggering vehicle hoots, as mobile phones made the transition from the luxury to the essential and as commercial ghettos bloomed, from local fleece markets to high-end antique dealerships. Colombo was no longer dealing in kasippu and arrack, as the champagne out flowed in to the living rooms of Colombo dwellers, collectors basking in the glory of the fluidity of wealth – the plasticity of plastic had finally raised its synthetic head for better or for worse.
The second wave of development although centered on the establishment of a cultural identity to the city – admittedly Buddhist in philosophy and a unique pearl of many hues in lifestyle – as colossal complexes with both an artistic and artisan flavor were constructed, international centers of culture were conceived with regional backing, many major roads and highways were redesignated with cultural and ethnic identities, major festivals were celebrated with an explosion of light and creativity and the media employed a compelling pro-culture policy, as nation-wide propaganda channels became household pastimes. This was a sentimental nationalistic movement that was propelled by the contagious feel good factor that infected most parts of the island following the demise of the outstretched civil war and shrewdly fine-tuned by the ghostly spin doctors that dwell in the hallways of government institutions. The ravaged culture was salvaged from the clutches of destruction and the renaissance was now in motion. This would be the unfolding of a new chapter in the checkerboard history of our captivating nation – cultural ovulation in tune for fertilization with a vivacious cosmopolitan nucleus.
In the contemporary, the unique melody of our island nation plays on, as the many ‘international’ facets of this ‘Cosa-Nostra’ capital enjoys an energetic revival. No longer is Colombo in the shades of regional metropolises, as the multifaceted rebirth of commerce and trade, culture, hospitality, entertainment, community and cuisine, has ensured a consistent international following. The addictive flavor of serendipolis had touched the senses of the marching globetrotter and it was inevitably amour at first sight – kites flying over cascading ocean fronts, scrumptious curry yielding mouthwatering aromatic flavors, ivory-coated stupas patronized by gregarious monks in flaming orange- saffron yellow hues, hustle and bustle of vendors and the extravaganza of color of local franchises, diverse nightlife with a combination of restaurants, bars, pubs and lounges in tune with the assorted gears of entertainment, all pleasing stimuli to the open-hearted.
I have lived in this breathtaking city a majority of my life and the contemporary identity that it harbors – a melting pot of cultures and lifestyles in a buoyant tangent of progress – is truly a journey among the clouds. Heaven on earth is a jewel to any beholder. This is the captivating story of my gemstone, Colombo, from shrapnels to riches, from the bomb to da’bomb.