Precariously living on the edge, with the roar of the sea in their ears all the time and the wind-swept spray not only splashing them but also coming into their tiny lean-tos, has been the plight of 21 families for many long years.
A living hell, between the deep blue sea, not so blue at times but angry and glowering, and the railtrack, not in some God-forsaken area but right in the heart of Colombo, hidden by a wall in close proximity to posh high-rise buildings, neatly paved roads and efforts to beautify the city.
Just a peek behind the wall that shields the Bambalapitiya (Colombo 4) Railway Station from the sea throws up images of dire straits, absolute poverty and may be even nefarious activity………for these souls have fallen through the system.
|Hidden from the public eye behind the Bambalapitiya Railway station: An unimaginable world of toil, filth and disease. Pic by M.A. Pushpa Kumara
These 21 families are “stateless” from what they tell the Sunday Times, after we step into “their world” with trepidation of what awaits us. It is an unimaginable world of toil, filth and disease.
As we walk past the first shack, boldly scrawled with No. 1 and enter the narrow path between the shanties and the rocks which drop into the sea, strewn with rubbish, muck and rotting food, bleary-eyed men are squatting by the “front doors”, children of all ages are loitering here and there, some running around naked, a few boys fishing in the rough sea and the women going about whatever they do in the mornings. The shacks they call home are tiny and in their recesses as many as eight or 10 have spent the night.
All eye us suspiciously, until we tell them our purpose – to write about their plight and bring it to the notice of the authorities, while aggressive dogs hover around us on the verge of taking a nip and cats, small and big, scramble in and out of the shacks.
How should we identify them, we ask and promptly comes the reply, “Bambalapitiye Pelapath Nivasa”. We are led to the matriarch, 67-year-old Kesawan Ramasamy Chandra who pulls out the single plastic chair in her home and offers it to us while she squats on her doorstep.
The tragic stories pour forth, firstly from her and then from each household.
Mother of six who are all grown up and grandmother of eight, Chandra is happy that only two of her children are sharing her misery here. The others have all gone away. “We were at Kandana,” she says, adding that puthala seeseekada giya (her sons have got scattered). That was when she came here in 2002 and “built” this shack to have a roof, even one riven with holes, here.
No drinking water, no proper toilets, no lights…..hendewe hayata passé anda karuwalai, she says, explaining that they don’t have drinking water or electricity and it is pitch dark after 6 p.m. The waves batter them, mostly in the nights, with the sea-water coming into their homes and keeping them awake.
No Grama Sevaka has sighted these “homes” as long as they can remember, says Chandra as the knot of men, women and children gathered around nod their heads in vigorous agreement. Chandra keeps the home fires burning at least for one meagre meal a day for herself and her grandchildren by working as a labourer at the Bambalapitiya Flats. She is also the “guardian” of K.V. Gunawathie whose hand had been sliced off by a machine many years ago when she was working for a coir mill, after which her family abandoned her.
Every day, Gunawathie crosses the double railtrack and walks up to Galle Road to beg. She brings back something for the common pot that Chandra cooks, but on Monday when we went into their world, breakfast had not figured in their scrap-meal menu.
“I will cook a little rice for my grandchildren in the afternoon,” says Chandra.
The bitterness and scepticism are apparent when she smirks that sometimes people come with “loku” files and take down details but no politician has ever visited them, for they don’t have the vote and they are expendables.
How can I marry and bring a woman to this apaya (hell), says Alagaratne Suresh Kumara, 38, who calls himself a thanikadaya, as he leads us to a narrow, deep hole. “We can’t drink this water,” he says, making us peer down its murky depths, while showing us piles of clothes near most doors which have to be washed.
We have to get drinking water from a “hotel” about a km away which has a tap, says scraggy Kumara who is a Nattami at Pettah, earning a few rupees by carrying back-breaking gunny-loads from lorries to shops.
They have to either carry the water pots back or hire a three-wheeler which most of them cannot afford.
There are three latrines, only one of which is the “community” one with the others being locked up by their owners, the Sunday Times finds out.
Whenever there is a funeral, the Railway Station kindly gives them a light, so that they can keep watch over the dead in the night until burial or cremation, we hear.
We then meet Niluka Nilmini carrying a beautiful big-eyed baby, returning after earning a few rupees. “Atha pala keeyak hari hamba karanawa. Rupiyal deseeyak withara thama davasakata hamba wenne,” explains this mother of four children, who earns about Rs. 200 by begging.
All the children including the one she is carrying are hers, she assures us, grumbling that the police are “catching” people like her and she has to dodge them. She has to feed her children because her “mahaththaya” is jobless, she says, proudly pointing to a small boy who is standing on the treacherous rocks attempting to catch a few fish, as her son.
The “oldest” resident here is 52-year-old J. Nandawathi Fernando who had been living with her family in a tiny house at Dehiwela. They were thrown out from there no sooner they could not pay the rent and it was here that they “landed” and put up a shelter way back in 1984.
Her husband had been clubbed to death by two youth living in the same shacks in 1995. They had served time and are back, but she has no animosity towards them. Except one son, her children have moved out and she is looking after her grandchildren because her Leli (daughter-in-law), goes begging, earns a few bucks, comes home reeling drunk and shouts at her son and assaults the children.Nandawathi buys tea leaves, sugar, toffees etc and runs a small boutique for her community.
We then meet K.W. Seetha Sherine, the owner of the “hotel” located at No. 1 who categorically tells us that her photo should not be taken as her son is attending a good school. “Kakul allala puthawa iskole dagaththe,” she says explaining that she held the feet of people to get her son into school. Her husband, she says in hushed tones is “inside” for taking drugs but she runs the hotel by buying buns, bread, banana, tea and cigarettes and selling them for a small profit. She appeals for help to collect Rs. 75,000 as her son has been chosen to go abroad for some programme.
While we walk around the shacks, many women give each other, knowing and sometimes hostile looks indicating that there may be many things unsaid about what they do to keep body and soul together and also feed their children.
With not even a whiff of Samurdhi coming the way of these families living a cliffhanger lifestyle the vicious circle plays out before our very eyes. Parents caught in the poverty-crime trap and children who will also be enmeshed in the same snare.
A forgotten people right in the heart of Bambalapitiya……….people of a lesser god.