Barring a few high-end places, Colombo wears its identity proudly and stands out for its simplicity among other Asian capitals
It’s always a pleasure to visit Colombo. It has not yet been overtaken by the ‘Kochi syndrome’. Last week, I was there on a routine professional visit, triggered by the interest of a group, which felt that it was worthwhile to listen to an Indian take on talent and capability development.
For those, who have tuned in late, it may be worth mentioning that both Colombo and Kochi owe their primacy in the Indian Ocean rim on the western side of India to their profile as port cities. Both ports were developed by the British and were a part of the larger global imperial girdle of the UK. The girdle began from South Hampton, the UK, proceeded ultimately in the easterly direction touching Gibraltar, Port Syed, Yemen and Bombay/Kochi, onto Colombo. Thereafter, sometimes, it touched Rangoon but always Singapore. The distance between Singapore and Perth made it impossible in the era of steam ships to continue the journey, which originated in South Hampton, to terminate at Perth. Through the larger part of the 20th century, Perth was a non-descript port city. ‘True’ Australia then meant getting to Adelaide, Melbourne, Sydney and Brisbane. Getting there, however, was a bit stretched for ‘continuous navigation.’ Hence, most ‘continuous voyages’ terminated at Singapore. There were people, who believed that from Yemen they should do Dubai and from Dubai, Colombo. Coming to India either to touch Mumbai or Kochi ‘was not essential’ in an era which did not seek spices or sought seamless connectivity with Southeast Asia. Thus, Colombo had its unique position and today, the Chinese have developed a major interest to invest in reclaiming the land which they plan to develop as a major hub for commercial purposes. In India, the fascination for riding the tiger of communalism or the ‘high’ elephant of casteism continues to be a national hobby. With the many strengths India has, its obsession with these hobby horses prevents a realistic appraisal of how some other neighbourhood countries have other world views. This is not to shed a tear but to point the obvious.
This article began with references to Colombo and after having set the context, one can do a more focussed elaboration of the theme. Colombo, as has been said above, is no Kochi. The streets are at times crowded but nothing like they are in Kochi. The port is not exactly competing with Singapore in its technological ethos but it does a flourishing business. It is much more inviting than the Kochi port where in terms of simple geography, the nature of the draft is such that ships come far closer to the land than it is possible in Kochi. That may be important but it’s another matter altogether.
Colombo is a far greener city than many capitals in Asia and elsewhere. Its streets are remarkably clean and the people are civil to a point where abuse would be quite unimaginable. People in Colombo love sports and enjoy pursuing physical fitness. The city is remarkable for its simplicity and if one were to go to the stadium, where test matches are played, the club over there offers authentic Sri Lankan food with unassuming simplicity and pride in doing so. That sense of pride is only matched by the sense of pride of the clubs attached to the Indian cricket stadium in offering Western cuisine. The attempt to run mirror image facilities in Indian cricket clubs of British stadia is a tell-tale.
However, where the high and mighty of the city go, there are strong traces of a colonial hangover. This writer was offered, as a gesture of grace, an extremely elegantly packed selected orange pekoe tea at a high-end hotel. It was noticed that whereas it claimed to be made from the finest ‘green gold’ of Ceylon, it proclaimed loudly that it was a ‘Victorian blend’. Frankly, this writer was not aware that of the many, many standards that Queen Victoria’s times set, it included the blend of tea. Handicapped with this lack of information, some probing of the imagery followed. It was pointed out that the word ‘Victorian’ was itself an epitome of class. Hence, the ‘Victorian blend’.
The truth of the matter is that Sri Lanka has many other features to recommend its agricultural produce. One of them is paddy. The country has over 200 varieties of rice, including the fragrant Suwandel. Some of the rice selections are found only in Sri Lanka. The folk songs, which are sung while harvesting, magically blend the community together. In keeping with the modern movement of fitness, it might be mentioned that taste and vitamins apart, many varieties of Sri Lankan rice are unparalleled in their richness of fibre. It could almost be a part of Sri Lankan cultural identity. Perhaps a day will come when these produces, too, will define standards globally. And for once, Queen Victoria may be left ‘in peace’.
(The writer is a well-known management consultant)