4th August 1996

Armour Street: it's all about living

By Rajpal Abeynayake

"Ayubowan Armour Veediya" is transliterated as "Armour Street. Here I Come" in the new book released by former 'Divaina' journalist Merril Perera. Merril was a journalist who fostered the new tradition of journalism that eshewed the beaten track culture in which Lake House journalists were nurtured.

Time was when there was no journalism to speak of outside Lake House. Traditionalists will of course argue that this is nonsense because the 'Sun' and the 'Dawasa' were alternate beacons that offered some kind of antidote to the Lake House.

But there could be hardly any argument that the Dawasa followed the tired Lake House tradition. There used to be a joke that one had to buy two copies of the Dawasa to read one paper, because the presses were so bad and the paper used to come out half obliterated.

Lucien Rajakarunanayake, the columnist is fond of saying that a single family and its branches own most of the newspapers in Sri Lanka. Though the Divaina did not break with that proclivity, it is indubitable that Upali Wijewardene was responsible for new and brave vista's in journalism that the Divaina typified.

The Armour Street and those Kotahena environs added colour to the new journalistic pursuits of men, such as Merril who seemed to be determined to break out of the Lake House tradition. Armour Street may look like a hell on earth, but it is also an earthy place.

Seedy is how one would best describe the Armour Street ambience, but, beneath the obvious ramshackleness, Armour Street is also a polyglot place that is home or near-home to some very diverse and interesting characters. The Armour Street culture would have had some resonance with Merril as well. He did title his book 'Ayubowan Armour Veediya'.

This is not however a review of Merril's book. "To do justice to Merril's book a more exacting effort is called for". But, thanks to people such as Merril the different facets of Colombo and its satellite cities are put down on the record. Merril combines his book to journalism, but we will hear more about Armour Street later?

Carl Muller has recently added to this Colombo collection, With his new book simply called 'Colombo'. Before Muller, there have been the likes of Keerthi Abeysekera who have written about Colombo, especially its ugly but earthy side which exists behind the sophisticated facade.

There have been dozens of works in Sinhalese, especially books such as "Pathala Lokaye Soldaduwo" written also by a Divaina journalist who was particularly clever at giving life to the characters of Colombo's underworld in print.

Though Merril's book is not about Armour Street at all the book recalls his earlier experiences in Lake House.

Merril must have had Armour Street in mind, because Armour Street probably was more vivid and organic than the more clinical surroundings of Lake House.

Anyway as Colombo evolved, places like Armour Street began to thrive and the vices and virtues that were associated with such locals like Armour Street began to thrive as well. Though a tyro in the streets of Colombo would think that the underside of Colombo appeared with the arrival of the open economy, this, like much of the hyperbole associated with the open economy is a myth.

The Lake House papers themselves are a best testimony to this fact. Glancing through the moth eaten issues of the fifties or the sixties, one reads of crime, of mobile brothels, of tales of woe and hard-luck stories of city slickers with the same frequency with which one would read such stories in today's dailies.

Colombo's crime bosses of course are probably more sophisticated, in these times but having given room for this natural evolution, the keen observer cannot help but notice that the scene is still the same, though the variations may be different.

But coming back to Armour Street and Kotahena, it is moot to ask why places like this being so dirty, seedy and ramshackle still pulsate with life.

It is probably because living is a priority in these places. Polyglot and multi-cultural to boot, their earthiness is borne of the fact that they are a microcosm of multi-cultural living, down to every dirty inch.

The Pope conducted high mass at St. Lucia's and he made a surprise stopover at St. Anthony's, Kochchikade which is a church that looks like a church but is almost like a kovil inside in the fervour of its worship. The surrounding locales have more than one kovil and more than one Buddhist temple to complete the picture.

This is a locale for utilitarian living and hence has little tolerance for sophisticates of any sort. Armour Street, a living hell of course is far less hellish than Vavuniya or Jaffna, where civilians run a premium risk of being bumped off.

In 'Auybowan Armour Veediya' Merril Perera recalls that he stepped out onto the street to take a cover photograph. He and his friend 'Divaina' cameraman were rudely interrupted by a policeman who informed them that no photographs of Armour Street could be taken without prior approval of the Kotahena Police.

Intrepid reporter that he is Merril laboured on. But this time he was stopped by a whole squad car of policemen, who advised him to report immediately to the Kotahena police. Merril did so, though he could not come to terms with the fact that a journalist working not far away from Armour Street had to obtain the approval of the cops to photograph a dirty but busy street.

Even Kotahena has come to that, of course. But the night boutiques, the taverns and the ever so slightly up market 'restaurants' or eating places of Armour Street have not lost any of their rainbow-hue melting-pot character.

Don't ask me who owns buildings in Armour Street or why they are so dirty or why Kotahena still remains predominantly Catholic, because these are not questions that are easily answered and because no place is that simple. But ordinary people who are forced to eke out an existence, probably do not have the time to think about the policy of hate. Life is kind of organic in these places you have to be immersed in the elements.

Go to the Guest Column

Return to the Editorial/Opinion contents page

Go to Rajpal's Column Archive