Colombo: At quarter past nine in the morning Thursday, a Sri Lankan Tamil woman was struggling with her heavy bags, as she joined the queue of passengers waiting at Chennai International Airport’s departure gate number 16, to board the short flight to Colombo.
She settled into a seat to my left, dialed a number, and gave her relative an update on the range of questions she was asked at immigration. “They asked how long I have lived here. Why am I going to Sri Lanka? I asked if I will be allowed back into India?”
Twenty minutes later, she was engaged in a loud conversation with an Indian couple on the flight, who were curious about her journey. “We came to India 30 years ago and left everything behind. We have a big property back in Sri Lanka, which looks a bit like a large Kerala house,” she explained.
“Everyone keeps telling me how bad the situation is there now, so I am going to go see the property,” she added. Her son owns a petrol pump in London, she said, and her daughter is married and settled in Canada. “This is my first trip back in 30 years!”
Many Indians think of Sri Lanka as a larger version of Goa where one goes to party and eat string hoppers. Yet, in recent months, the country has literally been through hell. It has witnessed a crippling economic crisis, with a severe food shortage, long power cuts, anger, and frustration against members of the Rajapaksa family — holding key government positions — which culminated in violent clashes and charred buses earlier this week.
None of these pressing factors, however, appear to have fazed a group of Indian Tamil men on the flight. They neither cared or discussed the situation in the country where they were headed. Instead one of them openly counted a thick wad of currency notes, and another passed a USD100 bill over the seat to his friend. When I asked what do they all do, they simply grunted: “business.”
‘Don’t see protest on your way into the city’
Later at the Colombo Airport, I met Bhagya. “Most of the conflict is in my mind,” he told me. The 28-year-old sells mobile phone SIM cards sitting inside a circular counter at the airport foyer. “We don’t like conflict, but we can’t stop thinking about it these days,” he said as he cracked a white local SIM card from its case to insert it into my phone.
Over the past month, Bhagya, like many others, participated in the ‘Gota Go Home’ protests — a call for Sri Lankan President Gotabaya Rajapaksa to quit — near Galle Face, in the heart of Colombo. “Before it turned violent,” he quickly said, “I was there many times over the past month with my friends.” Hours later, he forwarded me photos and videos on Whatsapp, shot by a friend of his, of damaged buses from Monday’s violent clashes. “You may find these useful,” he said.
Before it was my turn to get a SIM card, Bhagya had helped a Russian couple acquire new 4G connections for “Rs.1299 only”.
“I have been seeing a lot of Russians coming through on holiday. They really don’t seem to care that there is a crisis going on here,” he laughed. “Then again, you won’t really see the protests on your way into the city.”
I learnt later while talking to a taxi driver that both Russian and Ukrainian tourists have been finding their way to Sri Lanka recently. Some even on long stay visits, “working from home” further down the southern coast. Perhaps the ongoing Russia-Ukraine conflict made the Sri Lanka crisis seem less alarming to them.
Bhagya was right that the physical manifestations of the “crisis” was further away in Colombo. If I retraced my steps from where he sat, past the eager currency exchange men at the airport vying for tourists’ attention, past the baggage claim, I would arrive at a large hallway. It was a slight mind warp given I had arrived in Sri Lanka fully prepared to witness a severe economic crisis unfolding. What I saw instead was something that looked like a brightly lit mall in Singapore, offering duty-free alcohol, electronic products, and shiny gadgets.
The image was entirely in contrast to what I witnessed an hour later in Colombo city, of a kilometre-long queue of working-class men and women patiently lined up to refill their small blue cylinders with cooking gas.
‘Keep saying come back tomorrow’
At 1PM, with an hour to go for Thursday’s curfew to come into force, I met Mohammad Riyaz, and his friends sitting on their cylinders exchanging stories. First, he asked me to jump over their cylinders into the open plot away from the road so I could take a better photo of how long the queue was. Then, he told me this was the third day he had lugged his cylinder over for a refill.
“They keep saying ‘come back tomorrow, come back day after’ or the ‘gas delivery man didn’t show up’. We have been here since 8 AM!” he complained. “Even if they enforce a curfew, I will not leave here today without filling up gas,” he added with determination.
On the drive, my taxi driver had let out a joyful squeal that there were no toll charges because of the curfew. As we wound further into the city, he drove past freshly made lanterns on sale for the upcoming Buddhist festival, Vesak, past police stationed behind heavy barricades, past tuk-tuks (autorickshaws) lined up one behind another for more than a kilometre, waiting to refuel.
We finally turned left onto Galle Face Road — one of Colombo’s most upscale areas, now the nerve centre of the anti-government protests — which greeted us with banners badmouthing the ruling elites. “People are very angry with the Rajapaksas, but some people are looting,” the taxi driver said. “I think the looters are all from his party.”
In the evening, I texted Bhagya to ask if I could write about our conversation. “No worries,” he texted back. “Hope you will experience less power cuts during your stay here.”
(Edited by Poulomi Banerjee)