This was the city I almost forgot to photograph, the city of friends we’d vowed to visit, the city of whining motorbikes, scrambling tuk-tuks, and rainbows of fresh fruit swarming round busloads of elbows and shoulders hanging out windows barreling through intersections and coughing fog behind.
Colombo: city of such welcoming homes and such rich meals. City that ate my days as much in traffic as in catching up with old friends. This was a city that brought long-awaited smiles to long-departed faces.
I sip tea and laugh with aunts and cousins and get invited to weddings of strangers. I bump and wade through shoulder-to-shoulder shopping, trade creased rupees for a new shirt for that wedding. I hug old buddies and shake the hands of their fathers, their mothers, their sisters, their friends and their brothers. I pet the dogs I never knew they owned.
Green bananas ripen overhead, and curry leaves flit in the yellow wind, and the aroma of another paripu and more steamed rice is boiling from another kitchen.
Now I sit in awkward halts and fickle chats as one family judges another—comes solely for the purpose of judging another—and only to honor three thousand years’ demands of fixing bride-prices and cementing a family’s status by a hundred tiny details of speech, of inflection, of dress, of food, of an unspoken something, or of dust caught in a corner. In a single conversation, wedded fates may be forever fixed.
She stares in silence at the floor. All the aunts clink gossip and career prospects over tea. The suitor is too decorous to do much. He’s reduced to glancing between his possible bride and his aunts. I watch cucumber sandwiches reduced to crumbs on a platter, wishing I were elsewhere. Wishing we all were elsewhere.
Elsewhere perhaps in this city of sun and impossible parking in lanes already too tight. Elsewhere perhaps stringing kites to the too-blue sky with the surf underfoot and the sea at my back and the city ringing all around. Elsewhere perhaps in a crisp downtown café with wi-fi and too-high prices, of water closets with Western fixtures and couches at the table. I lean back and clink a sugar spoon around and around the steaming mug and bask in friends’ smiles I haven’t felt for years.
Colombo streets are jammed with life and sweated wet with strolling sarongs in the evening heat, sharing tea and newspapers on slender stools, shouting at the scooters rumbling too close to shops. Streets trade crinkled bills for fried foods and fresh veggies; patrons sigh in rusted buses and waxed Mercedes all pounded together in the mortar of traffic throbbing through constricted urban veins.
Over the wharf and its crawling thousands rises a tower of imperialism—the Grand Oriental. Here I sip fruit juice and peruse Checkov’s old digs. Refurbished, now, but the Old World remains in all the teak grains and heavy drapes. Perhaps his ghost still haunts this joint, still steps aside from immortal ironies to gaze at Colombo below. This window, this ghost, could chronicle the rise of the tall masts bobbing in the harbor, then their fall as steel arose, as diesel came king and steel upon steel and shipping containers stacked ten high rolled into port. The cries and curses of porters replaced with the groan and whine of pulleys and cables and scraping steel upon steel, stacking steel upon steel. And Checkov’s ghost peers over it all, in Russian stoicism and trademark dark humor, from the Grand Oriental window.
But I’m already off and already dodging bass-thumping tuk-tuks in a flustered street. A wiry troop of boys is shouting through a cricket match and mosquito cloud in a desolate lot nearby. The sun sinks in a fiery blaze over it all.
We’re here, Colombo, and the wedding is tonight: Andy borrows a sari and I don my pin-stiffened shirt and knot my new tie and we’re off to scarf biryani on separate floors of a segregated reception. My friend and I make small talk with strangers over heaping plates of fiery catering. We know no one here but the best man. Andy fares better—the girls’ floor nibbles dainty dishes over chatter of make-up and nails and figures of news-reel divas, or whatever girls fill the air with when men are banished. She tells me the bride’s smile is divine—why does she hide it behind the burka? Handshakes for the newly joined families—all sporting smiles and exhausted eyes, and we’re out the door again into the night.
We’ve dreamed so many nights of our days here in Colombo: the ghosts and the sun and the sweat and the curry, the curry, the spice. We taste it all now—all in the tongue-warping heat and flavor bonanza that makes a head spin and dreams visit strange and surreally in a friendly vow finally fulfilled.
I taste and see so clearly a city so murky in ten thousand secrets I’ll never have the life to digest, to fully bring it into my being, to really understand what life here is.
And as the luggage is loaded and our goodbyes spoken one more time into the midnight, the mother approaches: “So? So? Wasn’t he a good boy? So polite—and such a nice position in the company—”