The City of Colombo in Carl Muller’s Colombo and Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts



Esther Daimari


Dr. Esther Daimari is currently an Assistant Professor in the Department of English, Tezpur University. Her research interests include Landscape and Literature, Contemporary South Asian Fiction in English, Partition and Literature, and English Literature from Northeast India.



This paper analyzes the representation of the city (in other words, the urban landscape) of Colombo in the fiction of two Sri Lankan writers in English – Carl Muller’s Colombo (1995) and Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts (2013). It examines how the texts demystify the city of Colombo by focusing on the non-spectacular landscapes of Colombo and thereby effectively break the romantic and picturesque lens through which Sri Lanka is otherwise seen.  It further explores how the topos of monuments, slums and streets of Colombo are deployed in the novels as potent symbols of degeneration and corruption in an aspiring postcolonial city. The argument of the paper will be based on the theoretical concepts of the “dialectical image” and “phantasmagoria”. The authors, as the article argues, scrutinize the transformation of Colombo after Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 into a degrading cityscape and a place of fluctuating and rapid social and political change and a place of continuous conflict.

Keywords: postcolonial urbanscapes, city, South Asian literature, Sri Lankan English literature, Colombo

Keywords: postcolonial urbanscapes, city, South Asian literature, Sri Lankan English literature, Colombo




This paper analyzes the representation of the city (in other words, the urban landscape) of Colombo in the fiction of two Sri Lankan writers in English – Carl Muller’s Colombo (1995) and Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts (2013). It examines how the texts demystify the city of Colombo by focusing on the non-spectacular landscapes of Colombo and thereby effectively break the romantic and picturesque lens through which Sri Lanka is otherwise seen.  It further explores how the topos of monuments, slums and streets of Colombo are deployed in the novels as potent symbols of degeneration and corruption in an aspiring postcolonial city. The argument of the paper will be based on the theoretical concepts of the “dialectical image” and “phantasmagoria”. The authors, as the article argues, scrutinize the transformation of Colombo after Sri Lanka’s independence in 1948 into a degrading cityscape and a place of fluctuating and rapid social and political change and a place of continuous conflict.



     The notion of the city or the urban space have become immensely important for postcolonial writers in exploring key questions of home, exile, alienation, being, migration, culture and identity. Diasporic writers like Shyam Selvadurai often display a tussle between two or more places/cities; most often it is the author’s or one of the character’s birth city and the city of exile, the place where the character moves to voluntarily or involuntarily.  As the character subconsciously compares the two places, it allows the writer to use city as strategic topoi to comment on the modernizing and “development” programmes of the post-independence nation. It also brings into play notions of utopia and dystopia as well as the binary of the rural and the urban in the post-colonial context.


     In texts such as Muller’s Colombo and Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghost, the city is the space for major temporal and spatial sequences and the center of the dramatic action. The city brings together both colonial and postcolonial discourses in the novel.  Paulo Brusasco, in his analysis of the novel Colombo, says that Colombo itself is the main character in the novel. Other than Colombo and the narrator, there are no recurring characters in the novel. There is also no unifying plot in the novel. There are 27 self-contained chapters which follow no specific pattern and the novel exhibits an elaborate use of bricolage, intertextuality, official chronicles personal memoirs, news items, fictional passages, social criticism, and so on. The narration constantly shifts in time and space and as Brusasco says, in the narrative “space and time interact, the one prompting glimpses of the other” (176). Every time the narrator chronicles the past and present history of an area in Colombo, he supports his claims by including a fictional episode that illustrates the darker side of Colombo. Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghosts take us through various cities, mainly Vancouver, Toronto and Colombo. The novel can be read as Selvadurai’s attempt to chart the landscape of both Canada and Sri Lanka. The bi-racial (half-Sinhala and half-Tamil) protagonist of the novel Shivan Rassiah, moves from Colombo to Toronto in order to escape war as well as the dominance of his grandmother, Aacho. Throughout the novel, the protagonist travels back and forth from Sri Lanka and Canada in an attempt to come to terms with the ghosts of his past and in the process, Selvadurai reveals various aspects of city life in both Canada and Sri Lanka. After Funny Boy and Cinnamon Gardens, both of which are set in Colombo, Selvadurai along with capturing the abundant culture and landscape of Colombo also turns his interest into exploring the bleak working-class Canadian suburb where his family reached after escaping from Sri Lanka in 1983. The novels invite the reader to reexamine the past and the present landscape of the city, thereby shedding light on some of the seen, yet ignored aspects of the city in the narrative of an “advanced” metropolis that highlights what Guy Debord calls the “spectacles”, the grand and decorative images that signify progress in a modern capitalist city.

     One of the primary contentions that evolve from a close reading of texts like Colombo and The Hungry Ghosts is that the city is not ahistorical but a product of a long history of colonialism, postcolonialism, capitalist commodification of landscape and the civil war. Muller in Colombo and other texts like his Burgher trilogy[i] explores the Anglicization of the Sri Lanka landscape by the British as they imported Britain’s own landscape into Ceylon. He comments on the transformative impact of the Empire that planted colonial houses, buildings and railways among other things during the colonial period and shows how in the post-colonial period, landscape/landscaping in turn became a way to project difference, nationalism and identity.  In representing these, the appearance of the city becomes the focal point. It is “the most readable landmark of the city” (Jing Li 3) – the most decipherable and perceptible structures that can speak volumes about the place.  The narrator’s choice of landmarks is symbolic as they help him dissect the city as an “artificial city” (Muller 413) marked by a very strong presence of foreigners – the Arab traders, the Moors, the Portuguese, the Dutch and the British – in the past.

     Muller displays a sense of angst due to the rapid deterioration of the city and moan the loss of a greener and more pristine condition of Colombo of the past. Drawing the reader’s attention to some of the prime areas in Colombo like the Galle Face Green, The Fort, Pettah, etc. in the stories, Muller looks at Colombo as a ruin which is in large part already destroyed as the city became a perfect canvas for the colonialists to come and project their power and fantasies on it.  However, Muller also attributes a sense of volatility to the city as its spaces emerge as hybrid and ambivalent.  After the British left the island, the city became a site for creating a new image of the nation, a site for experimenting with different programs of reform and development. Nihal Perera highlights the grand reorganization of the city after independence mostly by dismantling older structures and replacing them with new indigenous structures.  Tariq Jazeel highlights that the architects of Sri Lanka tried to “fashion an avowedly ‘post-colonial’ architecture of sorts” (Jazeel 6) in order to bring in a new sense of national citizenship and collective consciousness and an alternative modernity that did not rely on the Western tradition of development. There was a generous sprouting of modernist buildings and complexes over pre-existing ones, some were only renovated and some other colonial structures stayed on as reminders of colonialism. The resultant landscape was a “mixed urban landscape” that facilitated an odd and unusual kind of urban experience, which is different, as explored in Shyam Selvadurai’s The Hungry Ghost, from the city experience in the West. In the post-colonial period, Colombo and its limited space, according to Muller and Selvadurai, is constantly negotiated by the rich and the poor, the privileged and the underprivileged, the displaced and the marginalized. The writers look at the city from the point of view of the marginalized (Muller’s characters are mostly poor and the underprivileged and Selvadurai’s protagonist is a homosexual) and highlight how their aspirations and dreams are constantly muffled in a city struggling with its own dream of becoming a world-class city. The novels subvert the cliché of a progressive metropolis by presenting an alternative mode of urban writing by highlighting the ugly and the non-spectacular, the “what-has-been” and the “now” in what Walter Benjamin calls the “‘lightning flash’ of dialectic image(s)” (Pensky 178). As Pensky suggests, the concept of the “dialectical image” is the “methodological heart” of Walter Benjamin’s Arcades Project. Walter Benjamin in his Arcades Project defined “the dialectical image” as “an image that emerges suddenly in a flash. What has been is to be held fast – as an image flashing up in the now of its recognizability” (7). Interpreting the idea, Pensky explains that in Benjamin’s sense, the “ ‘past’ and ‘present’ are constantly locked in a complex interplay in which what is past and what is present are negotiated through material struggles” (180). Walter Benjamin believed in showing history over telling history through graphic and concrete images and he realized that “the images cannot be strung together into a coherent, non-contradictory picture of the whole” (Buck-Morss 55) but that the images can be presented only in fragments and thereby create a montage of a constellation of images. Both Muller and Selvadurai present a montage of images of monuments, slums and streets of Colombo that are “dialectical” in the sense that these images not only represent the “now time” but are also relics and “hieroglyphic clues to a forgotten past” (Buck-Morss 39). The trace of past history seem to survive in fossilized form in the hybrid and ambivalent spaces like the built structures and streets of the city. As examples, we may cite Muller’s depiction of the Central Business District, the colonial Fort area, the President’s House, Old Parliament Building/ Presidential Secretariat, The Town Hall and The Royal College of Colombo, that in Muller’s imagination and perhaps in the collective imagination of other Burghers like him, are remnants of the colonial period that still “remind us (them) of the balmy days that were” (Muller 446). In deep contrast to the past situation, both Muller and Selvadurai suggests that in the present period, these spaces have metamorphosed into dens and hubs of crimes, illegal activities, violence and poverty and all sorts of dirt and squalor surround them.

     Selvadurai further highlights that the British not only left imprints of their architecture and political and financial system in the island but also left residues of western manners for the natives to mimic. In post-colonial Sri Lankan culture, class difference and “western avarice” seemed to have replaced Buddhist tolerance and communalism and ethnic clashes have seeped into the social and political fabric of the nation. In The Hungry Ghosts, Shivan’s grandmother (Aacho) is an embodiment of “avarice”. An owner of a number of properties in various parts of Colombo, it was only money and profit that motivated her.  The colonialist’s drive to conquer and amass new lands and wealth can be equated with the post-colonial subject’s (like Aacho’s) ambition to be richer in the post-colonial era. Anoma Pieris says that the class system is “the most resilient social inheritance from the colonial period in South Asia” (4) that “produced a hierarchy based on economic capital and monetization of the social system around capitalist morality and exercised through colonial laws” (4). This inheritance divided the population into “nobodys” and “somebodys” in the post-colonial period. Aacho, a native dipped in western manners and “western avarice”, ironically shows a good understanding of Buddhist philosophy, revealing the dialectical nature of the character. The Buddhist moral tales narrated by his grandmother shapes a good part of Shivan’s childhood. The most memorable story Shivan heard from Aacho was that of the perethaya: a perethaya looks like a “hungry ghost, with stork-like limbs and an enormous belly that he must prop up with his hands. The yellowed flesh of his face is seared to the skull, his mouth no larger than the eye of a needle, so he can never satisfy his hunger” (Selvadurai 24). According to this myth, “a person is reborn a perethaya, because, during the human life, he desired too much – hence the large stomach that can never be filled through the tiny mouth” (Selvadurai 24).  The moral of the story is that one should refrain from too much greed that ironically, Aacho herself could not overcome. Capitalists like Aacho used criminals like Chandralal to bully and exploit people. On the other hand, Selvadurai also introduces characters like Siriyani Karunaratne, Mili, and Ranjini who are human activists and work for organisations like “Kantha” to represent the interests of the poor and the marginalized. The city, thus, is represented as a dialectical site of conflicting groups and ideologies.


Colombo: Not a Dream Space

     Traditionally, as stark contrast to the rural space that stands for simplicity, antiquity and tradition, the urban space promises a different kind of experience; for many it is a dream space where one can realize personal desires and project communal hopes.  Colombo’s aspiration to be a successful cosmopolitan city, Muller presents, is obvious from the city’s engagement with modernity inherited from its previous conquerors, its rapid urbanization, industrialization, grandiose display of skyscrapers and buildings, and use of technology.  However, both Muller and Selvadurai draw attention to the dystopian underbelly of Colombo apparent from the writer’s examination of what Walter Benjamin and George Simmel suggests as “urban phantasmagoria” through engaging episodes of marginalized characters’ tryst with poverty, crime, fear, discrimination, oppression and exclusion that take place within those spaces. The writers highlight that Colombo, in its various capacities, stand as a metaphor for an urban disaster, as an example of a city where “modernity has gone astray”.[ii]


     The idea of the “phantasmagoria” “goes back three centuries to the use of magic lantern for projecting phantasmatic-hallucinatory images” (Andreotti and Lahiji 15). The term, then, captures the city as a “spectacular incarnation” of the urban space “with all its excesses and excrescencies” (Andreotti and Lahiji X).  Phantasmagoria encapsulates the spectacular dream houses and “prestige objects” of the city created with a sense of vanity, narcissism and arrogance that bears the capacity to render the citizens of the city invisible. In the neoliberal context, the fetishized commodity hijacks the pride of place of the human and there is a growing sense of alienation, displacement and exclusion of the person from the spaces and structures of the city. Alternatively, in Muller’s and Selvadurai’s urban writing, the phantasmagoria promotes the hyper visibility of the host of “outcasts”, the forgotten, the poor and the oppressed who are otherwise not taken into account by the government or the city planners; they make their presence felt through their stark contrast to the spectacular surroundings. In fact, in their writings, the uncanny presence of the multitude of outcasts themselves seems to take on a phantasmagoric shape. This is mostly evident as Muller uses the trope of the slum and the street in describing Colombo. He talks about beggars begging in the streets of Colombo in the chapter “The Exhibitionist”. The surrealistic and phantasmagoric quality of the beggars in the city of Colombo is highlighted as Muller describes the sudden disappearance of these figures at dusk and their magical reappearance on the streets of the city during daytime. He poses a question,


Who brings that unshaven, toothless epileptic to the streets? He cannot walk. He drags shaky legs on the cobbles to retrieve a coin that has rolled out of reach. Yet, by dawn, night workers find him, ready to wail through another day.

And by nightfall, who takes him away? And where does he go? (Muller 47)


Muller puts slums at the center while narrating about Colombo. Scholars of South Asian cities such as Mike Davis look at the city as dumping grounds of “surplus humanity” – “ people cut out of the formal world economy” (Davis 14) and “slum remains the only fully franchised solution to the problem of warehousing the 21st century surplus humanity” (Davis 28).  Both Muller and Selvadurai, through the use of the trope of the slum represent Colombo as a city that thrives on stratification and segregation of the rich from the poor, and of the powerful from the marginalized. As population began to grow in Colombo, the city elite moved out to occupy the more spacious residential area in the suburbs and the central part of Colombo came to be occupied by the “other” – the poor, the minorities, the refugees, the (im) migrants, the outcasts. Cut off from basic amenities and opportunities, the slum dwellers become prone to crimes, illegal activities and poverty. Muller, through his montage of the everyday lives of the people brings forth shocking account of people living in slums. “Under the Umbrella” is an account of two lovers, Anton and Kusum, for whom, the only private space available for making love in the city is provided by Anton’s umbrella. Ironically, in the secret spaces of one of the cheap hotels, a young Malay girl is secretly murdered and another teenager raped with “her vagina ripped apart” (Muller 8).  “The Canalians” reveals the life of city migrants who are forced to live by the banks of the Old Dutch canal. Joronis and his family live a disgusting life in one of the shacks. Joronis plucks coconuts during daytime and steals at night. His children are also involved in various illegal activities - “Romiel, picks pockets in the Pettah. Agnes is a whore and Sandu, yet small, is a squirrel of a boy who will steal anything” (Muller 65). “The Exhibitionists” tells the story of a beggar woman in Colombo who begs to earn a living but her drunkard husband takes away all the money that she earns, for buying alcohol.  Selvadurai also in The Hungry Ghosts highlights how gentrification and class divide characterizes Colombo. Shivan’s grandmother possesses various rental properties at different parts of Colombo. She lets out for rent the big house in the wealthy area of Colombo 7 to an American couple, whereas, her shabby and pitiable house in Pettah is occupied by a poor family. Young Shivan notices that her grandmother is courteous to the rich tenants of her Cinnamon Garden house but harsh and sarcastic to her tenants of the Pettah property, thereby educating her young grandson about the urban society of Sri Lanka that is comprised of the civil society of the rich and the poor, that occupy the dirtier and less desirable spaces of the city. The later are a prototype of a class that Muller calls “the shabby people.” “The shabby people” does a small job somewhere and works hard to make ends meet. He is an embodiment of poverty as the want of money – for buying necessary items, for paying church tithes and fees, etc. – constantly bothers him. They are the vote banks for politicians and the bargain seekers in the world of commodities as they lose themselves in “ a wilderness of display, a wilderness of world’s worst rubbish” (Muller 27). They travel in buses, live in homes with a leaking roof and buy from open pavement stalls with “this insane urge to buy an ugly bauble, even a plastic flower which, they hope, will brighten their shabby homes” (Muller 27).

     Muller further highlights the slums in Colombo as a site of juvenile delinquency and youth crime. Colombo highlights the abundance of sex crime and abuse in the slum areas. Brusasco comments that Muller’s “treatment of sexuality takes a different color in Colombo, where it is portrayed as dark, traumatic and often relying on a net of illicit family or social connivance so as to stress its most despicable and poisonous aspects” (183).  Muller creates vivid images of children turning themselves into prostitutes, thieves, drug addicts, actors in porn, and so on. Muller’s dictum “these slum children have a sharp native intelligence … they know on which side their bread is buttered” (Muller 148) sums up the life and character of the slum children.  Walter Benjamin says the figure of the prostitute is an allegory of the (human) commodity and its status as exchange-value object in the urban phantasmagoria. Sex in the city turns into a fetish and the prostitute/poor child, an object that offer herself/himself as a substitute for financial return. The slum children begin to look at sex as a commodity that can be exchanged for something valuable; as a physical activity (labour) remote from emotion that makes them vulnerable to crimes like prostitution and rape. Andreotti and Lahiji comments that “the dialectic in the general structure of fetishism determines the relation between the thing itself and its substitute in such a way that this substitute behind which the thing itself lies hidden, ultimately disappears in favor of the thing itself” (26). In the world of tourism, where Sri Lanka, Colombo in particular, is projected as the ideal haven for pleasure-seeking tourists, the subjection of the body to exploitation is hardly noticed over the commodity of sex that these (little) bodies provide. Muller dramatizes sexual encounters between tourists and the local people, especially children. Jody Miller in his study on homosexuality in Sri Lanka highlights that the “Europeans were generally fascinated; in both an ethnographic and prurient fashion by sexual practices overseas” (7). They expect that the non-western people are born with “abnormal sexual endowments” (Miller 7) and can provide them with “kinky refinements of sexual pleasure” (Miller 7).  In Muller’s Colombo, in the chapter “Oh, Oh, Colombo”, Siya works as a pimp whose job is to provide a good sexual experience to foreigners. He offers his clients children who, he knows, are easy to procure. Sila offers his own daughter, Nila, to sexually please the “suddas”/ foreigners. Nila, although she does not like the experience with the “suddas”, it is gratifying to the little child to be able to buy a “packet of sugar for her father” and “a small tin of powdered milk” (Muller 305). Such sexual relationships are not difficult to form in the city with an ever-growing appetite for excitement and thrill, with poverty on one side, and money and power on the other. Although prostitution is a taboo and homosexuality a crime in Sri Lanka, such activities go unabated in the city.

     These stories lend a “phantasmagoric” element to Muller’s urban writing as they are meant to create enough stimuli for the readers so as to “shock”[iii] them out of their senses, in the same way as intoxication or drug addiction, as Andreotti and Lahiji suggest, can lead to phantasmagoria. Muller promotes an alternative way of perceiving the city that builds on a strange fascination for the slums that seems to have erupted in post independent Colombo as the city struggled to cope with its new found independence, postcoloniality and modernity. The stories show Colombo’s failure to be a welfare city as developmental policies fail to improve people’s lives and inequality and conflict becomes the core of the economic expansion of Sri Lanka.

     In The Hungry Ghosts, Selvadurai highlights the difference between the poor in Sri Lanka and the poor in Canada. The poor are a common category of people in both the countries. However, while Canada encourages the poor to better their lives, Colombo pushes the economically downtrodden communities further into anonymity.  Shivan and his family, as Tamils (Shivan’s father is Tamil), belonged to the minority in both Sri Lanka and Canada. Shivan saw that his grandmother treated the poor and other Tamils with utter disgust. She justified her actions by saying that the Tamils are better off than the Sinhalese; the Tamils who emigrate to Australia and Canada are much richer than the Sinhalese. Shivan contests this idea by saying, “No, Aacho, that is not so. Tamils are poor in those countries, very poor” (Selvadurai 160), thereby, highlighting the diasporic experience of Tamils in Canada. Shivan himself goes to Canada lured by its promise of cultural hybridity but he finds that racialization is hidden within the folds of multiculturalism in Canada. Family Class Migrants like Shivan and his family, upon their arrival at Canada had to “double up” with their family and friends that triggered the problem of overcrowding and “hidden homelessness” in the host city. It is a struggle for the migrants to find a house for themselves due to acute shortage of houses and they end up becoming soft targets to high rent demands. The Subramaniams extracted much money from Shivan’s mother on the pretext of offering them shelter. The dominant white communities in Canada look down upon the minority communities of color and harbor certain stereotypical beliefs about them. This leads to Asian “cultural ghettoization” in those places. Shivan notices that the Sri Lankan community in Canada frequents certain spaces that bring to fore the idea of racialized space and community construction in Canada. The marginalized communities feel the need to carve out their own space in their struggle for recognition and inclusion within the multicultural landscape of Canadian society and thus, the racialized spaces reflect power relations within society. The inner city slums in Canada are examples of how state structures erect spaces to “ghettoize” and exclude marginalized racial groups from the rest of the society. Selvadurai, however, highlights that despite everything else Canada is still more hospitable than Colombo. Canada is home to a number of Jaffna Tamil boys, who otherwise in Sri Lanka are either killed or forced to join extremist groups. Colombo forces its’ own citizens to find “home” elsewhere, whereas Canada accepts even a refugee as its own citizen and provides them with “home”.

The Streets of Colombo

The Streets of Colombo, in Muller and Selvadurai’s fiction, display contestations over public space, citizenship, power and urban reconfiguration; it is a mix of imaginations – of modernity, globalization, cosmopolitanism and tradition. The shopping malls, grand hotels, luxury apartments, latest fashion and luxury cars stands as testimony to Colombo’s aspirations to be a world-class city. However, Colombo also cannot do without the street hawkers, congestion, dirt, lawlessness, beggars, porters and labourers- those elements which the writers suggest- define the essence of Colombo. The writers represent the dialectical character of the streets as they stand for contradictory things: wealth and poverty, local practices and globally circulating commodities, the sacred and the profane.

     In the novels, the narrator/protagonist, a spectator of the urban landscape, is a prototype of Walter Benjamin and Baudelaire’s flâneur, a gentleman stroller of streets. He is an explorer, a modern urban spectator who inspects the city while remaining a detached spectator. Interestingly, while in Muller’s Colombo, the narrator remains a detached spectator of the street, Selvadurai’s Shivan, to a certain extent, does not remain detached, but a participant – someone of the street who shares the experience of being in the street, both in Colombo and in Canada. He finds himself comparing Colombo with Toronto and Vancouver.

     Shivan takes into account the way streets in Colombo are bifurcated into lanes and bye lanes; the way the streets in the elite areas are clear and smooth but those in the dilapidated areas rough and uneven, and the way streets transformed into sites of communal violence during riots. The Hungry Ghosts throws light into post-independence urban planning in Sri Lanka. “Town planning”, a western concept, as Edward Relph suggests, began as a reaction against industrialization and was treated as a means of “providing grand solutions to all urban problems, either by radical redevelopment for city beautification or by the construction of entirely new garden cities” (63-64). Town planning is accompanied by other western ideas such as “zoning” and “street design”. Another 20th century western concept, “Garden Cities” aimed at making a community surrounded by nature “containing proportionate areas of residences, industry and agriculture” (Waterford 81).  Garden cities demand zoning, i.e., targeting a particular area in the country/city and ordering them as per the plan. As far as Colombo is concerned, the British in the 19th century had a huge project of making Colombo a “Garden City of the East”. Sir Patrick Geddes made the first plan for Colombo in 1921; others followed this such as Sir Leslie Patrick Abercrombie’s plan in 1948 and the first Master Plan of Colombo Metropolitan Region in 1978.  However, not all parts of the city received equal attention and even in the post-colonial period, the condition of the roads became typical of the areas to which they belong. The poorer streets became a metaphor for poverty, marginalization and corruption.

The figure of the prostitute in the streets, as suggested earlier, is a primary trope in Colombo, symbolizing social suffering and degradation. Muller highlights streets in prime areas in Colombo such as the Slave Island, Fort Railway Station, Pettah, Maradana and Borella that transforms from “the regular street used to drive and hawk and beg during the day” (Gandhi 209) into “a place where single women with bright makeup and bold stares and stand at night” (Gandhi 209). The prostitute figure adds an element of eroticism to the street as she makes a “living of the debris of the streets and sells her wares in the market place” (Nord 5). She becomes a means to satisfy the demand for pleasure in the city and epitomizes the fleeting nature of urban relations; in her sexuality, she marks “the ephemeral, the fugitive, the contingent” (Nord 5), those very qualities that Baudelaire associates with modernity. In Colombo, the depiction of the prostitute amidst the dirt and squalor of city streets is metaphorically connected with the unhygienic and contaminated conditions of urban life, with the wastes, poverty, vagrancy and all kinds of vices of the streets.

     The overwhelming presence of the poor and criminals on the streets makes Muller’s flâneur shape the reality of the streets of Colombo as dialectically and paradoxically structured as the space is a constant friction between two kinds of spectacles – the spectacle of the poor and outcasts and the spectacle of the grand.

     According to R. P. Mishra, “Colombo attracts about 1.5 million people from neighboring areas on any working day. The resident population plus the floating population during the daytime add up to more than 2 million. It is estimated that 50 percent of the commuting population arrives in the city for employment, business, and education” (427). Many of these immigrants are incorporated into the urban economy as informal wage earners. In Colombo, Lakshmi’s family exemplifies this.  Lakshmi’s father, “a thin, wiry man” with a hunch, works as a coolie at Pettah market and pulls “heavy trolley, struggling and panting each time it twisted in the potholes of the nightmare street” (Muller 149).  People like them are the street’s underclass; they are the drivers, labourers, cleaners, beggars, street performers, etc. who physically overpower the street but are absent from its consciousness. The phantasmagoric quality of the streets is highlighted in its dreamlike and fluid quality to transform itself into many things – it is a home for the underclass; during daytime, they congregate at the street waiting for employers to hire them, and at nighttime, the street is their bedroom. At night and during festivals and celebrations, the street emerges as the haunt of criminals. In “The Leafy Mango Tree”, the rapist Justin roams around at night looking for his prey.  In “Let Sleeping Gods Lie”, Oscar’s daughter Nelum is assaulted and abused as she goes to see the spectacular Vesak festival with her family: “someone squeezed Nelum, dug a finger into the cleft of her buttocks, brushed a hand against her breast” (Muller 89).  Thus, the streets of Colombo represent the paradoxes inherent in the notion of modernity itself.

      In The Hungry Ghosts, Selvadurai presents a comparison between the streets of Toronto and that of Colombo. In Toronto, Shivan frequented the streets of Kensington Market and the Queen Street and found them as an embodiment of Canada’s multicultural spirit. As a homosexual, he appreciated Toronto’s “cold” and indifferent attitude towards foreigners. Shivan does mention that he experienced some amount of racism in the bars, however, on hindsight, Shivan favours the streets of Cananda over the streets in Colombo that he saw, turned into sites of violence during the civil war.  Shivan highlights that in 1983, when Colombo was in the grip of communal riots between the Sinhalese and the Tamils, the streets became a site of large gang attacking activities. The streets became a place for political spectacle, a space for slogan raising, procession and rallies of violent people. The small alleys and lanes in Colombo, that usually were points of contact between people of various communities emerge as palimpsests of narratives of victimization, persecution and retaliation. Shivan highlights how during the riots, some Sinhalese people helped their Tamil neighbours escape the brunt of violence, while there were others who turned against their own neighbours and moved into streets to burn down Tamil houses. Aacho helps a Tamil family migrate to Canada but on the condition that they sell their house for the lowest price possible. In another instance, Aacho gets Mili, Shivan’s homosexual partner in Colombo, killed by the goons.  Thus, the streets are manifestation of intolerance and resentment towards the minorities and highlight the paradoxes inherent in the notion of modernity in the postcolonial city.

     Thus, Muller and Selvadurai ultimately represent Colombo as a real place with real problems. Their representation defies the audience’s expectations to see an exotic and heavenly place. Muller, in his narrative, incorporates as he subverts the exotic descriptions of Colombo by travellers from the West – Pablo Neruda called Ceylon “a pearl of greenness, flower of the island, tower of beauty” (Muller 246); Anton Chekov called Ceylon “the site of paradise” where he enjoyed “dalliance with a dark-eyed Hindu girl … in a coconut grove on a moonlit night” (Muller 247) and Andre Malraux found “Colombo one of the calmest places on earth” (Muller 247) – by putting disease, death and poverty at the center of narrating Colombo. Muller’s analysis of the everyday life of his characters brings forth the corrupt and dehumanized face of the city; for the characters Colombo is anything but a dream space. There is a conscious effort on the part of the writers to resist the stereotypical way of looking at the Sri Lankan landscape as pristine and paradisiacal. The writers overturn the inherited traditions associated with European romanticism by refiguring and reimagining the postcolonial landscapes of Sri Lanka in new ways. They do not uncritically replicate the modes of landscape and they highlight the perceived otherness of the landscape as the basis for a distinctive Sri Lankan identity. Instead of initiating a pastoral or wilderness narrative, the writers opt to map the landscape by placing the struggles of the island – poverty, overpopulation, collapsing eco-systems, militarization, terrorism, industrialization, death and disease– at the center thereby offering a counter narrative.













[i] See Muller’s Once Upon a Tender Time, The Jam Fruit Tree and Yakada Yaka.

[ii] In another study, Representing Calcutta: Modernity, nationalism and the colonial uncanny (2005), by Swati Chattopadhyay, Calcutta is shown as a place where modernity has gone astray.

[iii] Walter Benjamin, as explained by Buck-Morss, understood modern experience as one that is neurological and based on the experience of shock. Buck-Morss explains that Benjamin believed that consciousness usually protected a person from the “excessive energies” of stimuli; however, without consciousness, excessive energy or stimuli of the modern experience may result in what he calls shock and trauma. See Buck-Morss’s The Dialectics of Seeing: Walter Benjamin and the Arcades Project (1989).



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