A Web developer and a journalist walk into a juice bar. The book that they just published paints the city I grew up in, in stunning light.
If you’ve lived here, you’d know when to duck a ball flying in your direction from a raucous cricket match. (The clue is often a pair of Bata slippers making do for a wicket.) Or where to find isso vadas, or chinese rolls; where that bicycle-tube repair guy on Galle Road sits under a piece of plastic; or what time the knife sharpener and choon pan tuktuk might arrive. These ‘experts’ and entrepreneurs however, are easy to miss because they just blend into the cacophony that is Colombo. Sadly many of them are hidden in plain sight like faded wall posters. But no worries – Nazly Ahmed has them in his viewfinder. He pulls up on his motorbike and takes in the details with his trusty camera. Lucky us!
Colours of Colombo is a glimpse into that other side of Colombo, the lives lived in the shadow of the luxury apartment towers, and by unkempt beaches. It may be too small-scale a book to qualify for a coffee-table piece (which is my only beef with the collection. Visual storytelling like this ought to be seen in large format.) But the colours that pour out of it let us pay attention to those slices of life that are left out of tourist brochures. Who else would focus on a road sweeper in Mattakkuliya surrounded by grit, casting an ominous shadow? Or the tuktuk driver taking a nap like a cartoon strip framed against a giant piece of graffiti? Or the saravita seller’s serene, weatherbeaten face? These lead characters are part of the daily docudrama played out across the 15 zip codes of a city I once called home. Sadly, many of them are in transit, or worse, anonymous. Their names don’t roll in with the credits. Nazly (the photo-hobbyist and web developer) and Kris Thomas (the writer) have taken pains to put many names to faces, giving voice to the voiceless, a secondary, magnanimous accomplishment.
Reading this book made me wistfully attempt to recall those who’ve remained nameless in my childhood. (Your list is probably as big as mine.) The vedamahathaya down Havelock Road who once reset my dislocated elbow; the smiling lady outside St. Peter’s College who sold us ambarella achcharu through the iron gates. The tuktuk driver who religiously showed up on Sunday mornings to take my mother to church. The rickshaw man who transported my cousin and I to school and back. The kiri-karaya from Sagara Road. Their legacy is not found in my photo album. But they were itinerant actors who were part of a city drama never forgotten.
Nazly and Kris don’t just take us back in time. They freeze the frame. I was glad to see that they all but ignored the parts of Colombo that privileged folk –and Instagrammers – go after. The bars, the buffet tables, the coffee shops. Yes there are some waterfronts in shimmering light, but some beaches (like one in Bambalapitiya) are murky. Shanties stand out against a backdrop of affluence. The other waterfront (a once hyped floating market), they note, is abandoned.
By an unhappy coincidence the book comes out in a time when Sri Lanka is facing its biggest crisis. Colombo, where all the machinations of the political economy are worked out, is experiencing power cuts. A lighting effect –and irony –any photographer would not miss. We could be optimistic and see Colors of Colombo as a glimmer amid the virus of poor governance.