By Stefany Anne Golberg
They’re flying kites on Galle Face Green. The air is alive, twisting and fluttering against the blue in swatches of yellow and red and blue and flags. All along the mile of Green, children grasp their kite strings like umbilical cords to the sky, only just barely keeping hold of the ground beneath them. Families and lovers walk patiently through the tangle. A boy who has only been alive for a few years has gotten his kite into the clouds. The women are wearing gold-and-peach saris and t-shirts and white headscarves and sundresses and sandals and sneakers. The men wear pants with jerseys and sarongs with business shirts, heads covered and not. There are clusters of women in long black abayas and niqabs, which also flutter in the breeze, and clusters of bright balloons with feet underneath, that walk through the crowd, peddling themselves to passersby. Every outfit worn by the children is the perfect outfit for a game of cricket. Girls hold their fathers’ hands and boys roll around in patches of dirt where the grass has worn bald with play. The Galle Face Green is reported to be the most expansive place in the city, and though the Green itself is as bustling as the street, you can catch your breath there. It is, as was once written, Colombo City’s lung.
You can look all your want for a ‘face’ on Galle Face but you will be disappointed when you learn that ‘face’ is another way of saying ‘faas’ which means ‘front’, as in, in front of the fortification that once faced toward Galle. The fort was the great legacy of the Dutch in Colombo (aside from kokis cake and a Dutch-inspired legal system), who finagled colonial control of the island from the Portuguese in 1638, and rebuilt the Portuguese fort to look more like a Dutch fort. This was before the island was finagled from the Dutch by the British in 1802, and the ramparts were demolished entirely.
It is Sunday and the citizens of Colombo are picnicking on the grounds once used by the British army for martial parades and the occasional execution, and where bustled and bow-tied families would race horses and stroll politely and golf. If you’ve read Ceylon: An Account Of The Island, Physical, Historical, And Topographical With Notices Of Its Natural History, Antiquities And Productions published by Sir James Emerson Tennent K.C.S., LL.D. &c. in 1860, you will have learned that small crabs once employed themselves by digging holes in the Green, holes that proved most injurious to horsemen employed in trotting up and down the promenade. Crabs are these days rounded up and stuffed behind the plastic windows of food carts, soft middles exposed and legs outstretched, making a tiny red light district. A stone plaque on the seaward edge at the end of Galle Road reads
GALLE FACE WALK
Sir Henry Ward
and recommended to his successors in the interest
of the Ladies and Children of Colombo
It’s notable that this former British Governor of Colombo—at a time when there was such a position—was intent on bringing PROGRESS to Ceylon. He assured the Queen that the construction of new railroads and telegraphs and green spaces, not to mention the abolishment of polyandry and introduction of penny postage, were not simply matters of ease and convenience but life, and would, moreover, encourage the ‘unexceptional conduct of the entire population’. On another Sunday—an Easter Sunday morning in 1942—as Colombo citizens idly made their way to church, a Hurricane aircraft piloted by one Flight Lieutenant McDonald crashed onto the Green, hit by a Japanese Zero. As the story goes, the good Lieutenant, unharmed, emerged from the plane, and before the eyes of stunned churchgoers, walked across the street to the Colombo Club and ordered a double Scotch. Not long after, people began to wonder whether colonialism and PROGRESS were very well suited to one another in the first place. I’m told the United Kingdom still operates a lovely cultural center here.
Facing north, the towering tin can of the Bank of Ceylon and the silver sticks of the World Trade Center are garlanded in kite tails and string. In the 1950s and 1960s, Radio Ceylon—which in its mid-century heyday was the most important such institution in all South Asia and maybe the world—would broadcast Mignonne and the Jetliners singing ‘My Boy Lollipop’ from the Galle Face Hotel. And out there, beyond the promenade with its food vendors hawking fried lentils and prawn crackers and mangoes and pineapples and avocadoes and guava, everything dusted with chili pepper and salt, the wide Indian Ocean. A young mother in a red-and-white sari stands on the promenade, shading the last bits of falling sun with an umbrella, her son and husband close by, waiting. I watch her watching the sea, watching the sky turn scarlet, watching the teenagers of Colombo wading mostly clothed into the waves, watching a colossal tanker lumber directly under the fat fireball of the sun. The sun is drifting orange into the ocean and I am walking with my love, the sea air drying the sweat on our neck and shoulders. The day is done now and three young men are taking the flag of the nation down for the night, a small camera crew loom over them on a crane. They move with pageantry and purpose, the young men, their red hats are tall and smart. They are like a little parade. Was it just a few years ago that they called this the ghost park, that there were more soldiers here than kites?