Notes from Colombo // COVID-19, people-watching

To you,

On Saturday night, I found myself supermarket-hopping looking for Bombay onions and hand sanitizer.

The Bombay onion hunt preceded the COVID-19 panic (CoL in Colombo has been inching up. We also had a veggie shortage a few weeks ago which drove the prices higher). Our neighbourhood supermarket was back to relative normalcy this weekend – barring liquid soap and sanitizer – but last week, supermarket shelves were empty after the number of infections rose and people rushed to stockpile.

Packs and packs of Prima Kottumee were stacked in the wooden cases where vegetables should have been – as though the supermarket was assuaging us well we don’t have the vegetables you’re looking for but HEY when the apocalypse comes, you’ll have enough instant noodles.


There is a junction I dread during rush hours. If the traffic gods are benevolent, you breeze through. But when the traffic lights are switched off in the evenings and a young traffic cop is tasked with dealing with a swell of tired pedestrians and vehicles thrumming with impatience at a 4-way junction, honey, you’re stuck for a while.

There is a cemetery near this junction and one evening a few months ago there was a man outside it. Just standing there, his face pressed against the green metal barricade which separates the living from the dead. His back was towards us, he was dressed in work-wear and he had an office bag in his hand. Two cats sat at a distance, eyeing him with suspicion (what is it with graveyards and cats?).

Because we were stuck in traffic, because he ruptured the everyday body politic of urban evening life — people hurrying, speaking on the phone, hailing three-wheelers and buses – he began to draw attention. People walking along the pavement noticed the rest of us on the road staring at him and followed our gazes with curiosity. He stood there — silent, unmoving and unperturbed by the ripples of interest around him.

Did he have someone buried in the cemetery? Was he contemplating life and death? Was he reading the tombstones? The traffic cop finally turned to our lane and the lines of vehicles sputtered to life, lurching past the cemetery man.


The JNU news from a few months ago hit me hard because you have to realize what JNU is like. On most days it feels like a welcome bubble in a volatile city.

I went to spend the night with Indian A when I was studying in Delhi and we walked around the campus at 2am, stopping for tea and dinner at one of the canteens that stay open late into the night. 2am! In Delhi! A city I adored but rarely felt safe in! This was my first time in a student campus and it was so different from what I was used to at LSR, which feels like an afterthought added to a congested part of South Delhi. It was summer but I swear the air was a little cooler inside the campus. A few of A’s friends joined us and we walked and walked and talked. I never studied there but when JNU comes in the news, I think back to that night and of how safe I felt in that campus bubble.

And then the pogrom updates followed soon after and all I could do was follow the news updates with horror, watching a city I love consume itself.


I’ve been people watching a bit* and as I wrote about the cemetery man, I remembered the beach couple from a while back. I try and schedule my meetups at places by the beach because a) it is cooler. b) I have an excuse to go early and treat myself to a sunset. c) it’s the beach.

I was reading but this middle-aged couple (I am editorializing here, obvs. I am guessing they were a couple) caught my eye on a crowded Sunday evening. The two of them were knee-deep wading in the sea and neck-deep in conversation. I sat there for an hour, reading. Every time I looked up from my book, they were still there with drenched clothes. Oblivious to everyone else and only pausing to shift their weight, adjusting to the intensity of the waves crashing around them. Eyes and ears only for each other.

beach couple

Yours, with a stock of sharp, pungent Bombay onions.


*I feel like I should explain that I am trying to detox from bad phone habits – to not reach for my phone all the time when I am in public and to relearn how to be comfortable with blank space and nothingness. There’s an excellent Rebecca Solnit essay about this.

CV of Failures // Catalogue of Regrets

For a few months, I mapped out an essay for a writing competition I was eyeing. The essay involved something I have wanted to write about for a long time now. I made extensive notes and researched. I would revisit the word document I had already started my draft on, adding incrementally every day. I made notes on my phone. I put reminders on my calendar. I had post-its on my corkboard. There was a brief hospital stint during one month and I took my notebook to the cafeteria in the evening, jotting down notes while downing Nescafe and fish buns. I visited the website every few weeks to make sure that I had the deadline right.

A week before the deadline, after months of psyching myself up, I was unable to write. I kept making weak excuses. When I sat down, I produced very little. On the day of the deadline, I made an eleventh-hour effort to put something together but it was a long day with a few surprises thrown in and at 7pm exhausted, I crawled into bed telling myself, this is going to be a half an hour nap. I woke up with a jolt at 2am, reached out for my phone and realized I had missed the deadline for the competition.

I was – I still am – so angry with myself. I had no excuse here. You can’t keep saying that life is hectic because after a point that excuse doesn’t hold water anymore. After a point, even you get tired of hearing you say it to yourself. If something is important to you, you make time for it.  If something is essential enough, you work hard towards it.

What happened was also now a recurring pattern of self-sabotage that was seeping through other areas of life – working my way towards something I really wanted and then stuttering and stumbling when I inch towards the final bit.


I keep a CV of failures. To be honest it’s not very long.

I keep a Catalogue of regrets. Now that – that is another story. It was a list I began impulsively a few years ago. For some odd self-flagellation related reason, I carry it around with me as though one day someone will ask me what my life’s regrets are and I will say oh wait, wait — I have a list. idk, man. This is a list of personal, professional, random regrets.  Missed connections, missed opportunities. Things I almost did and didn’t and now wish I did. Things I should have been bolder with.

When you trip and fall, you have to contend with the sharp sting of failure. But when you don’t try, you don’t fail. This is a beautifully warped logic to sheathe yourself in and it keeps you safe but also stunts you.

The blunt fizz of what ifs and should haves is a wonderfully comfortable purgatory – the shots you didn’t take, the competitions you didn’t enter, the crushes you didn’t approach, the personal and professional opportunities you didn’t reciprocate, the trips you didn’t take. It is the paralysis which occurs at the prospect of not doing something well, of getting hurt, of being vulnerable, of failing. It is the self-sabotage that keeps you wedged in your comfort zone. And it’s far worse than failing.


Why am I here. Why am I back at a dusty part of the internet that no one visits?

It’s been a weird year and I have been writing and writing and writing to make sense of it. (FYI: daily writing and journaling has been so helpful with this. 10/10 will recommend.) The writing that has emerged is def not for public consumption but it’s made me realize that I need to reclaim my relationship with writing. It’s also been useful to unpack certain things that have unfolded in the past years.

This year, more than ever, I’ve been struggling to find the motivation to write and figure out why I do what I do. Don’t get me wrong, it’s been a rewarding year and my heart is full with gratitude, but I’ve felt unmoored.

Blogging was one of the things that got me started with writing and coming back to this digital relic felt like a weird homecoming of sorts.

A lot of things don’t fit. The self-confessional style I embraced earlier now grates at the part of me that guards her privacy. The spontaneity that marked my writing is definitely not there – this took 3 months. 3 months! I’m def not anonymous anymore. And then there is a pervasive anxiety that I should be doing writing that can be billed, work writing, professional writing – work that can be slotted into my resume (perennial freelance occupational thinking hazard. What to do.)


This is very garbled and all over the place and perhaps this should have been tossed into the daily writing folder and not out here in public. Perhaps this will be deleted tomorrow. Perhaps there is a part of me that naively hopes that something will magically unclog after I publish this and I will finish all the half-finished drafts lying around and apply to those competitions I’ve earmarked for years. Anyway, I’ve been thinking about regrets and self-sabotage and work writing and non-work writing and reflecting on chunks of 2019 and this is the outcome of it and thank you for reading.

New Relationship Energy

Urban Dictionary has this acronym: NRE. New Relationship Energy.

It’s the molten phase, the early beginnings of a relationship. Urban Dictionary informs me that it’s used mostly for polyamorous relationships, but this seems like an unnecessary containment of an acronym which manages to articulate that languid light sea green feeling when you are just getting to know someone romantically.


The social expressions both within dating and arranged marriage are so coded and have been on my mind for a while. Everyone in my family, both in the generation before and mine, opted for arranged marriage. I was hoping the younger folks would break the mould a bit but they have not. (Thanks, all)

In some ways, arranged marriage sandpapers the ambiguity involved with dating. Two people arrive at a crossroad with the mutual understanding that marriage is the next step. The question here is whether you choose to walk off into the sunset with the person in front of you or not. Ideally, there is no haziness about intent or the future. I say ‘ideally’ because there are scenarios where the people in question are nudged into an alliance by their family.

When people say ‘forced marriage’, the first picture that pops to mind is someone dragged to the altar kicking and screaming. But it’s a lot less dramatic than that. It’s impossible to discount the social/familial pressure which is implicit but also influences decision making resulting in marriages made from compulsion (South Asian parents are especially good with the guilt trips). Within the community I come from, marriage is seen as a natural progression of age-appropriate milestones.  Anyone who doesn’t adhere to this is viewed as an aberrant,  someone lacking a certain something. Marriage is also seen as an anodyne for problems: ailing parents, an escape hatch towards a new life etc.

The overt social engineering adds layers of complexity to arranged marriage. There are the background checks, dowry, the painfully awkward meetups, the arrangements between family, cultural baggage such as horoscope matching depending on what deity you pray to, as well as the spectre of social class (this is a big one, oof.) and compatibility which loom over arranged marriage. I feel like I’ve missed some stuff, but you get the gist.

But in other ways, arranged marriages aren’t very different from dating. Stepping into the arranged marriage arena can feel like Tinder but with your mother hovering over your shoulder, offering commentary on the profiles.

The self-mythologizing is similar. If every guy on Tinder is a CEO sapiosexual who has visited 53 countries, every guy on the arranged marriage circuit is a God fearing, pious, teetotaller devoid of all vices and who has been saving himself for marriage. The sifting through and sizing up of profiles has the same disposability of Tinder or any dating app. You are given a limited time window to size a person’s life based on a brief summary which strips the person to their age, occupation, education, family background, height, religion.

Of course, the dual anxiety and the thrill of getting to know the right person is also there with arranged marriage. If you take away the orchestrated circumstances of the meeting and if the chemistry is there, the New Relationship Energy (New Arranged Marriage Energy?) is similar.


I’ve been speaking to my grandmother about her marriage. She was 25 when she got married – late for a Muslim woman of her time. She met my grandfather for the first time on their wedding day. Even typing that made me wince. It’s fascinating in a quietly horrifying way. She was never forced into the marriage but wasn’t exactly an active participant in the process.

There’s a Blink 182 song – Stay Together for the Kids. It starts with a guitar riff, then the drums come in, the first verse sounds like someone’s speaking over the music and then it descends into this gloriously shouty chorus with Mark Hoppus and Tom DeLonge. The song takes on divorce and is the narrative of a teenager, angry about his parents divorcing. The refrain “Its not right” echoes throughout most of the song.

The marriages I witnessed while growing up were a product of their time and circumstances. Many of them stayed together for their kids the way the narrator in the Blink 182 song wanted his parents to. This isn’t the most inspiring template of marriage to be familiar with; these unions had a resigned “well we’re here so let’s make the most of things because we are all we have” energy to them. Marriages were unions born of social practicalities and norms. Love (or something like it) grew as a result of building a shared life.

My grandmother is in her eighties and my grandfather has been dead for a few years now. I’ve seen the effect his death had on her. A partnership of over 50 years, no matter how nebulous its beginnings, solidifies into something you build your entire life around and his absence plucked something out of my grandmother in a way I didn’t anticipate.

“Were you happy?”

My usually garrulous grandmother is quiet as if this question had never occurred to her. As though happiness in a marriage was an unheard-of prospect.

“I don’t know.”


NRE has antecedents: drunk in love, the honeymoon period etc. What these phrases fail to capture is that initial emotional intimacy and the tenuous process of making yourself vulnerable. Perhaps vulnerability can be thought of as an emotional muscle you need to flex regularly in any kind of relationship or friendship, or it gets rigid with disuse. It requires careful exercise, constant self-reflection, and a readiness to get bruised, hurt sometimes.

The synonyms for being vulnerable emphasize this alarmist exposure to the possibility of being harmed and aren’t the most reassuring: undefended, unshielded, unfortified, unarmed, without arms, without weapons, defenceless, easily hurt/wounded/damaged, powerless, helpless. Ok then.

This piece is floundering through multiple analogies but another way of thinking about vulnerability (and which has also been written extensively on) is to equate it with walls and boundaries. Putting up barriers gives us the illusion of control and acts as a protective mechanism. But like many have pointed out – the walls that you build to keep out pain, can also keep out joy.

Being vulnerable is hard. And messy, so messy. I know this is a very Breaking News: Water is Wet statement but some of us arrive at this realization at different points in our lives, offloading notions of intimacy we’ve grown up with and armed with our own experiences. Vulnerability takes practice, it means opening yourself to judgement and rejection and relinquishing control. If the thought of someone being intimately acquainted with your deepest hopes and fears terrifies you, well, you’re not alone. Some go through life wearing their heart on their sleeves, some arrive at social situations armed with an emotional hazmat suit – I have helpfully illustrated this below. There really is no playbook here.

Hazmat feelings////

To be vulnerable in a world which privileges coolness and nonchalance is a radical act. And it’s this openness which is so precious in the NRE phase. In the early stages of getting to know someone you often project the idealized version of yourself – the version you think you are, the aspirational self. Somewhere down the line when the contours of a relationship takes shape, you start revealing the fragments which aren’t always visible.

You quietly lay bare your foibles, your weirdness, your past, the most tender parts of your heart, saying this is me. These is what made me. This is what broke me. This is what healed me. This are my darknesses. These are my scars. Stay if you want. This is me.

And oh God, this is so scary – these moments of vulnerability, where things look like they could go either way.

But every now and then when the right person comes along, traces their fingers over your scars, slips their hand into yours and stays beside you – it’s also so very beautiful.

Run from Fear //





I was reading Jenny Zhang where she references Tracy Emin and then I  remembered my ambivalence about Emin’s work, specifically her neons (even though I’d walk to St. Pancras station just to gaze at her installation), and then I got to thinking about Bruce Nauman’s neons and then I remembered that I had taken this picture from the Nauman collection at Tate Modern. Somewhere down this meandering thought thread I realized what I was really chasing after was a specific feeling.

It came to me in full force on the afternoon I took this picture – I had played truant from assignments and spent a day with art. I emerged only when the gallery closed and remember walking along a sun-soaked Millenium bridge, with my House of Fashion jacket draped over my backpack, happy but also a little heavy.  Happy with a deep gratitude, heavy with the knowledge that days like these were temporary.

I haven’t fully processed, written or posted much about last year because of this heavy-happiness that kept following me the entire year. A lot of things happened last year that I wouldn’t have dared dream of. For some of us, our dreams are tethered to our middling realities.  Often, we don’t yet have the capacity to dream beyond the things that moor us. Rebecca Elson refers to the “existence of limits” in a poem and it’s a line which keeps coming back to me. A lot of last year was framed through this aching transience, that any moment this would be yanked away from me.

It reminded me of the time I caught a butterfly when I was a child. For a few heartbeats this beautiful thing nestled in my hands, was mine. Then when I touched its wings, it disintegrated into dust and I started crying, horrified at what I’d done.

Anyway, read Jenny Zhang’s prose.



Reasons not to write

Laundry Work Deadlines Emails Personal deadlines I want to bake cinnamon rolls The cat has brought a squirrel in Is the squirrel alive But then I kind of don’t like squirrels they’re just rats with better PR so yeah thanks cat Chores Finances Oh dear December was a heavy spending month I really have to do laundry There are excel sheets to be tackled and emails to be written Argh emails I don’t want to be that person who sends work emails on a Sunday Groceries My head is full of tweet drafts and Instagram captions Welp I write so much for work that I don’t know how to write for myself Work calls I have to buy a gift for two baby showers Why is everyone having babies Two books to finish An overdue library book to renew Why aren’t there puppy parties Need to workout Is workout one word or two It’s so warm today What is my wordpress password Should this be on medium All the cool kids are on medium or instagram Also this feels a bit stupid and passé Should I be writing about Topical Very Serious Things instead I can write about Very Serious Things it feels like I’m worrying about everything these days What if blogging is just so 2009 What if this is trash Who is going to read this anyway ffs.

Writing About Writing

To you,

If you and I have made plans at any point in time you’ve probably heard the refrain “I have some writing to finish” or “I have a deadline” multiple times. You’re also probably tired of hearing it.

These days, life revolves around stringing words to make coherent sentences.

Every other day, I fall into research rabbit holes, wrangling with academicspeak for my studies, emerging with garbled theories and thick footnotes. I barter words for a pay check (and not always the fat kind. The kind that you look at, sigh and wonder if you should just listen to your dad and get a proper job instead). At night, you’ll find me in rumpled pyjamas, swatting mosquitoes and squinting at hieroglyphic handwriting while transcribing interviews. Or tiredly trying to sidestep words like ‘game-changer’, ‘number one’ and ‘unique’ in adjective-padded press releases.

Often, I switch from corporatespeak, newspaperspeak and academicspeak while grappling with deadlines. Most days, I enjoy it. On other days, I wage wars in my head.


There’s a kind of false grandiosity perceived about writing. There’s also this myth that writing is easy and that anyone can write. Both myths are irksome in equal proportions.

The myth that anyone can write? Well, of course, everyone can write but there’s a vast difference between writing and writing well. Writing well requires a fistful of  talent and a truck load of hard work and is refined over time – much like any other skill.

Perhaps there is a fortunate breed of writers who have a muse they can summon on command and produce a cascade of beautifully crafted sentences. Perhaps writing really is an effortless activity for some people or a form of catharsis and joy to others. For some of us, writing isn’t easy

I have a pleasure/pain relationship with writing – I enjoy writing but I also struggle with it. My undergrad years left me with a voice constantly self-criticizing and scrutinizing my writing. Often, a certain percentage of the work I do is paid per word. When the rates are low there’s a tendency to fall into the dreaded freelance trap – when you spray your writing with needless adjectives and adverbs just to fill up the word count (…perhaps I shouldn’t be confessing to this). On these days, I have to chloroform my self-critic or I’d never get any work done. I’m not proud of this and the opportunity cost is terrible because either way, your writing suffers or your back balance suffers. When the voice of reason which dictates my finances takes precedence, my writing pays the price. Sometimes to my utter dismay, I find myself wading miserably in bloated, voluble paragraphs when something half its size would have sufficed.

But the self-editing and criticism prevail on most days. Often I delete more words than I type and during a deadline crunch, exacerbated by stress, my productivity is 10 words per biscuit. There are times when all I have to show for hours of work is a frail paragraph which sways, sighs and dramatically collapses after the third read. The perfected procrastinating also doesn’t help things, but that’s another malaise altogether.

And the perceived glamour associated with writing? What most people see is the manicured finished product – not the work in progress. Not the frustration of multiple dead ends or the back-and-forth editing loops with clients, monosyllabic interviewees and the inability to find the right hook. It’s easy to take a finished piece of work at face value and to forget what goes on behind the scenes before the curtain call. We’re all guilty of doing it.

I can assure you there’s very little glamourous about transcribing interviews at 2 in the morning, being forced to hear your nasal voice and polite laugh slowed down,  while stress-eating your way through a 1000 word article, knowing that you also have an early meeting the next day.


In the middle of all the work-writing, I soon realized that I had gradually forgotten how to write for the sake of writing. Little bits of solipsistic prose which only I would read. To selfishly write, not for an audience or for client approval, but for myself – for the sheer love of it. To remind myself why I started writing in the first place.

Like all unhealthy relationships, it was easy to ignore my own imperfections and evade responsibility for my dearth of non-work writing. One self-perpetuated myth was that it was hard to get any writing done at home and so I began making my way through coffee shops in Colombo in search of The Perfect Writing Spot. I’m not sure what I was expecting – multiple epiphanies? A muse who would magically appear and dictate my swan song? Shockingly, I didn’t find what I was looking for.

My favourite coffee shop is great but is so small that everyone can hear everyone’s conversations. I would rearrange my features into an expression which befitted a person who is working on important things, order an iced coffee, type a few throwaway sentences and then promptly (and unintentionally) drift into other people’s conversations. I would listen to earnest visiting scholars use words like ‘impuissant’ and solve the world’s problems, armed with theories and linen pants. Aunties would come and gently grumble about their children over plates of butter cake while nervous entrepreneurs pitched investors (“This is an idea for a start-up… ”). Disappointed, I traipsed in and out of more coffee shops in search of the elusive, perfect location.

I didn’t get much writing done but my foray into all of Colombo’s coffee shops taught me three things:

1.       I’m not a very sophisticated coffee drinker

 2.        I’m definitely a tea person

 3.       Drinking tea in a coffee shop is a terrible idea. Have you tried it? Who spends Rs. 300 for a tea bag floating half-heartedly in a mug of hot water?

 Determined, I briefly expanded my scope for the perfect location. The beach was also futile – the notebook was pushed away, a bag of manioc chips were devoured and I proceeded to have a nap instead. Then, I flirted with pen and paper in place of the laptop (rationale – let’s go old school, back to the roots) but that was also just a fling. After developing a dull neck ache from lugging my laptop everywhere, I briefly toyed with the idea of getting a shiny, sleek Macbook – because when have you ever seen TV shows where the earnest writer character slaves over a bulky HP Compaq?


Today, I am in one of my more unconventional locations – a lopsided bench in a mall, waiting for a cab. Every time someone sits on the other end, the bench seesaws upwards and we exchange awkward smiles.

Here’s the thing. It’s just so easy not to write. It’s easy to be paralyzed with disillusionment and lapse into long periods of stasis in the fear that what you are writing is absolute rubbish. There is no editor or client on the other end, awaiting your writing and no deadlines. There is no sense of urgency that what you are producing is needed out there in the world (is it ever?). There will always be a vortex of excuses. The weather will never be right, you will never have enough time or the right tools. There will always be distractions and you will never, ever have your mojo.

I wish I could tell you that by now, I have neatly packaged answers for this dilemma. I don’t, but I’m always trying. So here I am, sitting in a crowded mall, on a broken bench, writing about writing.

– Me

On a Street Art Trail in Colombo


A man (Gihan, he tells me his name later) catches sight of me surveying a stencil of a smiling child sandwiched between a photocopy shop and a dilapidated building on Dawson Street, and signals from across the road: “There’s more over here”. Cheerfully appointing himself as my guide and with a number of wide eyed, bashful children in tow, we weave our way through a path punctuated with bird droppings, ceramic bathroom fittings, criss-crossing clothes lines, concrete debris, drains and enter the unlikeliest of art spaces.



Lately, I’ve been juggling multiple lives. I secretly revel in the bustle that working divergent jobs bring. One line of work brings in a hint of order and solidity. The other brings in an element of uncertainty and creativity — never know if I’ll land up at a fish market, a five star hotel or as in this instance, alleys in Slave Island.


Occasionally during my moonlighting work, there’s a story which lingers long after I’ve transcribed the interview, wrestled with the deadline and then laid the article to rest. An interview with French artist C215, who was in Colombo recently, was one of those which stubbornly persisted. I’d mentally dog-eared his work when I had come across one of his graffiti stencils in Delhi years ago and was pleasantly surprised when I saw his cube shaped signature in Colombo. After our conversation, I found myself returning twice to Slave Island on a graffiti hunt, retracing the artist’s path, in search of pockets of colourful graffiti tucked away in unexpected nooks and crannies.

If you’re a fan of street art, C215’s work abroad is worth browsing. Favourites include the Caravaggio series, the stained glass series, this one of a couple (she has such an interesting face) and a recent tribute to Robin Williams. Christian Guémy’s technique is a head-on collision between the scrupulous detail of the classical and the unaffected spontaneity of street art (“You plan nothing and begin something – things happen with interaction”). There’s a gentle hijacking of standard, flat stencil art with layers of colours and minute details giving his work an unexpected depth.

Tracy, with graffiti outside her shop

Tracy, with graffiti outside her shop

Ranga, with his tuk. I liked the curiously apt quote on his tuk: “The eyes are useless when the mind is blind

Ranga, with his tuk. I liked the curiously apt quote on his tuk: “The eyes are useless when the mind is blind”

Street Cat – Definitely a favourite from the stencils in Colombo. So easy to miss this when you’re walking past.

Street Cat – Definitely a favourite from the stencils in Colombo. So easy to miss this when you’re walking past.

His choice of locations in Colombo were especially intriguing. I liked that he deliberately stepped out of Colombo’s rarefied art bubble and transformed non-spaces into visual poetry — all with polite permission from the residents and owners, mind. “I’ve always been interested in exploring the world. This kind of painting is a kind of exploration,” he shrugged. During our conversation, Christian pointed out that he liked people to follow his path, to wander down a street where they have nothing to do or no reason to go. “I think that the little street I have been painting in are not the streets you put on the tourist guides,” he remarked wryly, “but maybe rich people are making the right Colombo”.

Kanchana with C215’s art on her living room wall

Kanchana with C215’s art on her living room wall


Man with pigeon who wanted his picture taken

Christian’s stencils painted in Sri Lanka varied between those from his existing library of stencils from his work around the world to site-specific ones of the people of Slave Island themselves. Creating site-specific stencils is laboriously meticulous work and is a back and forth looping between the virtual and the real. It entails multiple visits to the same location, photographing people, printing the pictures out, carving out the stencils by hand from the printed portraits and then finally returning to paint. Once the painting is complete it is again documented and distributed online – almost a tango of sorts between multiple layers of the virtual and the real.

A stencil of Mohamed

A stencil of Mohamed

A stencil of Kanchana’s kid

A stencil of Kanchana’s kid

Pasindu with his portrait

Pasindu with his portrait

Some of the kids in Slave Island

Some of the kids in Slave Island


Street art has a short lifespan. While the rest of the art world battles time and decay in the fight for preservation, street art is resolutely temporal with an oddly poignant acceptance of the inevitability of aging, decay and deterioration. “Nothing is permanent, everything is ephemeral. And this is something that I believe deeply […] In some way, creating art outside in a public space is also a kind of comment or a meditation about giving up with yourself, with your ego, with what you are — because it is something you leave behind you — you know you have to abandon it every day. And every day when you pass by, you have to abandon it [the art] for a new one,” voiced Christian, referring to the natural decay wrought on street art.

“You cannot look for being permanent by yourself as a human being — it’s the same with art. When I paint, I know it has a birth and it has a death. And that’s interesting because it (I speak for myself) helps me to accept that I am alive and I will die”.



Public art can heavily impact a city’s visual culture and there’s a lot of potential for street art in Colombo – hence my enthusiasm for the manner in which artists like Christian have employed the medium.


Martin Irvine sums it up eloquently in the Handbook of Visual Culture: “Whether the street works seem utopian or anarchic, aggressive or sympathetic, stunningly well-executed or juvenile, original or derivative, most street artists seriously working in the genre begin with a deep identification and empathy with the city: they are compelled to state something in and with the city, whether as forms of protest, critique, irony, humor, beauty, subversion, clever prank or all of the above. The pieces can be ephemeral, gratuitous acts of beauty or forms of counter-iconography, inhabiting spaces of abandonment and decay, or signal jams in a zone of hyper-commercial messaging. A well-placed street piece will reveal the meaning of its material context, making the invisible visible again, a city re-imaged and re-imagined”.

For the most part, graffiti in Colombo have been school boy scrawls (RC ROX 2 DA MAXX) of neither literary nor artistic merit and is understandably linked with vandalism. In terms of street art, the only public murals — as far as I know — are ones on school walls (which are tediously didactic in nature), a rather gruesome mural on Baseline Road and a few works here and there. I remember Artists Collectives like CoCA having plans for public art projects and it would be great to see more around Colombo.

One work of street art which is almost indelibly imprinted on my mind is this simple black and white line drawing which was done in 2006 in Kollupitiya during the war- I wish I knew who painted it. Days after an attack was carried out in Colombo, it popped up on the shrapnel pocked wall (remnants of the attack), only to be speedily taken down afterwards.


Ps: Shout-out to T for the early morning company on the second leg of the photo-jaunt.

Update: Hat tip to Janith for linking to more street art in Colombo.