Between Two Worlds: A Personal Note
By Uditha Devapriya
On the other side of the road, from where I lived, rose a temple and two stupas. Some historians conjecture the latter to have been the mausoleum of Parakramabahu VI and his Queen Ranmenika, while others dispute it. In any case, my bedroom window offered a view of these edifices, and of a cashew tree overlooking both. Beyond them lay a long stretch of marshland, which led ponderously to the road to Parliament.
This was Beddagana, Kotte, somewhere in the early 2000s. One of my earliest memories from then has me wake up in the morning and look to the window, beyond the backyard and into that temple. The sight was unforgettable to say the least, especially because of that tree. I dare say it’s one of the few memories I’ll always have.
When did it all start to change? Somewhere in 2001, I woke up to the sound of buzzing jets and chuffing helicopters. It was 4 February, Independence Day.
Something else caught my ears. Not jets and helicopters, but trucks unloading rocks, hammers pounding bricks, spades piercing sand. A melange of cacophony. I looked out.
Seeing the mason baas bark his orders on the other side, I realised what I was in for. I was going to have my view of everything beyond the backyard cut off from me.
A new house was a big deal those days, even in as suburbanised a suburb like ours. It obviously meant new neighbours, and for a modest middle class neighbourhood where the same families lived, talked, even fought over the same petty matters through the decades, new neighbours were an object of curiosity. They came rarely, bringing with them an imprint of where they came from. They always turned out to be an intriguing discovery.
The Silvas came somewhere in 2002. Their arrival coincided with our departure: owing to circumstances beyond our control, we had to pack up and leave home a year or so later. It wasn’t easy, but we had to do it. I remember the last day: sitting at the back of our old car, watching as we moved away from Kotte. We had spent the previous day saying goodbye. It was tough, but the move had to be made.
The road to Piliyandala winded forever for seven miles those days. This was long before the second Mahinda Rajapaksa Government widened the Colombo-Horana 120 route. Anchoring somewhere near Piliyandala town, then moving to Madapatha six months later, we entered a suburb that seemed a world away from where we had lived. A perch fetched up to Rs 20,000 here, a tenth of what it cost back there. There was no running water, only wells.
In Beddagana, walls had been a way of life: they were what demarcated borders, kept away intruders, and reinforced the etiquette of ringing bells and gaining entry. In Madapatha there were no walls, not so much as a barbed wire. Our house remained the only gated residence in the area, for years: an anachronism in an already anachronistic locality.
The first change to come here was the pipelines. Until they arrived, we got our water from the well, through a motor. Perhaps symbolic or not, not too long after we got running water from the tap that motor broke down; it has remained broken and unrepaired ever since.
Most households made the transition to the pipeline for other reasons, above all because with new houses coming up in adjacent lanes, and with them more lavatories and toilets, the fear of water contamination became all too real. The bathrooms themselves underwent a transition: soon every other neighbour spent what he had to tile them. The suburbanisation of Madapatha thus began with its washrooms.
Then the walls climbed up: slowly at first, then rapidly. Yet it’s a sign of the prevailing rural ecology of the area that they never rose so high as to prevent one from seeing the houses they sought to protect. In Colombo, walls serve two functions: to keep off, and to cut off. In places where thieves are on the prowl, they tend to climb up higher and higher, securing the houses on the block, but also distancing them from what lies beyond them.
Where I live, very few walls rose above eye level. One reason for this was the absence of any burglars; in my 10 years here I have never heard of an incident involving so much as a petty thief. Another reason was the sense of familiarity among locals: because houses are closely knit together, one neighbour knows the other as much as he knows himself. A call, a shout, is all it takes to summon everyone.
In that sense urbanisation never really invaded here: it came it patches, but not to the extent of obliterating the rural ecology. Still, it has come, and with it the lure of real estate: the perch that ran up for Rs 20,000 then fetches up to Rs 700,000 today.
As for Beddagana, I was 10 when I left, and they say you forget much of what you did before you hit that age. Having dithered for so long, I finally paid it a visit a year ago.
Bus from Nugegoda
A decade ago a bus ran from Nugegoda to a junction nearby. That bus no longer runs. It’s easy to figure out why: because no one here uses it now as much as they used to. They’ve become car owners, van owners. For them, public transport has become a thing of the past. Who needs Ashok Leyland, after all, when you have a Mercedes?
It’s not hard to find out how such transformations have come about once you realise that the neighbourhood is not what it used to be. Everything has changed, right up from the houses: from grilled gates and barbed fences, they’ve morphed into fortress-like enclosures, cut off from their environment. This is the sort of neighbourhood you see in parts of Rajagiriya and Nawala: homes cordoned off from other homes, residences to which you gain entry after you ring the bell and tell who you are to that voice on the speaker.
Alienating as it may be, that is what happens in localities which are transforming into middle-class suburbs. From the cab I was in, passing the walled, enclosed surroundings, it looked almost Kafkaesque: a concrete jungle, hardly a place I’d once called home. I felt as though I were an intruder. All those CCTV cameras seemed to focus on the cab, and for a moment, I feared someone would call the Police on me.
Back then only one residence bore the imprint of these enclosures: the Silvas. They were still there, but I dared not.
In any case, something else had caught my attention. Next to the Silvas ran the road I was on, and to the left was that temple. I’d seen it every day, and though I rarely visited it, I felt like doing so now. Yet, I couldn’t. Between me and it stood a long barbed fence, preventing me, or anyone, from entering or attempting to enter.
At that moment my childhood turned upside down: concrete walls had made their way to my old hometown, but so had wire fences, sparing nothing, not even the memory of a temple. The disappointment was too much; on my way back, pondering, I realised how inevitable life was, and how fatalistically the past gave way to the future.
Urbanisation continues to haunt those places we used to call home, dislodging communities and grafting new ones on them. The other day an old neighbour called us. She had, she told us, grown tired of the changes she’d seen over the years in Kotte, and had decided to move far away, beyond Madapatha, into Aruggoda: a place which a decade ago would have been a peripheral village, but which now evoked in her something of that neighbourliness, that lost sense of familiarity, she had grown used to over there.
Moving further away
What we’re seeing here is what’s happening everywhere else: as more and more people move away from the centre of the city to adjacent suburbs, the people who made up those suburbs are moving further away, or are being pushed into moving further away, to what geographers call peri-urban zones. Some make that shift earlier, becoming witnesses to a transformation of another kind: semi-rural localities into semi-urban ones.
Having moved to Madapatha a decade ago, I was witness to one such transformation, and in hitching that cab ride after more than a decade, I realised how quickly those transformations are unfolding in suburbs closer to the city. Seeing both through, I couldn’t help but think: how long would it be before suburbanisation swamped suburbs like mine?
The fate of our suburbs brings to mind Paul Valéry: il n’est plus ce qu’il était. It isn’t what it used to be. From grilled gates to fortresses, the country seems to be turning into one walled enclosure. I’m not entirely sure whether I’d like that, much less want it.
NOTE: Names of persons have been changed to protect their identity.
The writer can be reached at [email protected]