Java Lane, Vanishing With Old Colombo

By Abdul
The eviction and relocation of residents in Slave Island of an area approximately 160 acres in the heart of Colombo 1 began almost two years ago. Seventy thousand households are being relocated to newly constructed apartment-style housing elsewhere. It is part of a wider project called the ‘City of Colombo Urban Regeneration Project’ spearheaded by the Urban Development Authority, functioning under the Ministry of Defence and Urban Development. The project’s stated aims are to ‘eliminate shanties, slums and other dilapidated housing’, ‘resettlement of families in […] new housing schemes’, and ‘make the City of Colombo the most attractive city in South Asia’. Yet, as this feature reveals, the evictions are taking a heavy toll on the lives, livelihoods and community ties of the residents of these areas. In places like Java Lane, in Slave Island, the process appears to be rather haphazard, causing much distress to its residents. The majority of them have lived here for generations – some as squatters on state property, but many in privately-owned housing. In this feature, photographer and economist Abdul Halik Azeez takes you on a journey through the heart of Slave Island, into the community on Java Lane. Walking through the rubble, he explores the lives and homes of the people who live there, just days before it was all razed to the ground – with it, taking away not only concrete structures but also social structures of an entire neighbourhood of people.
JAVA LANE AT SUNSET, JANUARY 2014, JAVA LANE, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. As betrayed by its name, Slave Island, once surrounded by the crocodile-infested waters of the Beira Lake, was a home to slaves. African slaves left in Ceylon by the Portuguese were organised into labour pools by the Dutch. Most of them worked at ‘the castle’ – what is now known as the Fort – and at the ‘Stad’ or ‘Black Town’, known as Pettah today. In the early 18th Century, the ‘Kaffirs’ staged a violent insurrection after which they began to be interred at night at the place eventually to be known as ‘Slave Island’. Now the crocodiles have gone, bridges and roads have closed the divide and the slaves, the ones fettered by ball and chain at least, are no more. Drawn to the plethora of business opportunities from the early 20th century, Slave Island soon became a residential hub for a multicultural, emerging entrepreneurial class consisting of Indians and the Javanese/Malay people that helped form the backbone of the trade that made inner-Colombo what it was. They settled into the area, started families, and have now lived there for decades. However, as the century turns and neo-liberal post war development encroaches on old Colombo, Slave Island is transforming again. Residents are being asked to leave, their business activities disrupted and their long lasting communities dispersed and destroyed. The people of Slave Island are becoming refugees of progress.
JAVA LANE AT NIGHT, JANUARY 2014, JAVA LANE, SLAVE ISLAND. Soon the dilapidated government flats, the warrens of the ‘wathu’ nestled into the myriad of alleyways stretching every which way, and the old houses of long-time residents, along with their businesses, ways of life and culture will go. The remnants of decadent colonial relics will follow. I feel nostalgic for this past we are losing, and dread the “plasticky”, commercial empire we are welcoming. It is hard to live in-between changing eras and it is much harder to watch the real effect this change is having on the people and communities that are left amidst the rubble. Java Lane is the third Slave Island neighbourhood to be evicted from the area, and the compensation offered to residents of previously evacuated neighbourhoods (from Mews Street and the area now housing the premises of Elephant House) has been less than satisfactory. Replacement housing, in the few cases it has been provided, has been far less ideal than promised. In other cases, state disbursements of rent, after the initial two-year time period elapsed, have become increasingly sporadic and bureaucratic, putting many people in grave financial difficulty.
MR. SALDIN STANDS AT THE DOORWAY TO HIS HOME, JANUARY 2014, JAVA LANE, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. Mr. Saldin, 81 prefers to be called ‘Sallahudeen’ because that’s what his name is really supposed to be, meaning “righteous of the faith”, most famously belonging to the 12th century Kurdish/Egyptian general and conqueror Saladin, another person whose name most people appear to have gotten wrong. Mr. Saldin is rather cheerful and says he’ll be moving to Kolonnawa with his family, though his grief is obvious for not only having to leave his home of 75 years but for also having to watch his neighbourhood being destroyed. His three-storey house which he evacuated was on the way to being reduced to rubble when I saw it last.
MR. SALDIN’S HOUSE ON THE WAY TO BEING REDUCED TO RUBBLE, FEBRUARY 2014, JAVA LANE, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. Though primarily Malay and Moor, the neighbourhood was also home to many people from other ethnicities who have lived there for decades. Just before the scheduled demolition, Java Lane was a depressing place. Its residents seemed resigned to their fate as they bid goodbye to old friends they may never see, or never see in the same way, again.
NIMALAWATHI SITTING IN HER PORCH, DECEMBER 2013, DE SOYZA APARTMENTS, DE SOYZA ST, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. Since birth, Nimalawathi has lived in the government flats on De Soysa Street. She married Nataraja, a Tamil, and has two sons. Apparently during “their time” there was really no stigma attached to Sinhalese and Tamils getting married. Nataraja was in the army and he was a teetotaler before he joined, she said, but had started drinking after his stint in the military. Nimalawathi’s eldest son who was living in another part of the city was recently evicted. Together with his wife and mother-in-law they moved into Nimalawathi’s home. She is not happy with this and laments that her daughter-in-law is a headstrong lady and that she finds herself increasingly sidelined in her own home. She sat dejectedly on the porch, seemingly her last refuge, as a loud conversation emanated from inside. Her daughter-in-law had already been evicted once, and was now being evicted again. They have not been getting their rent payments regularly, nor have they got the house they were promised in return for their old one.
DE SOYZA APARTMENTS RAZED TO THE GROUND, FEBRUARY 2014, DE SOYZA STREET, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. Two weeks later, when I went back to Java Lane, Nimalawathi’s house, and indeed her whole building had been flattened to the ground. I have no idea what happened to her and her extended family. With rents going up around the city due to the influx of the newly homeless, it may not be long before they are again in distress and difficulty.
ANTHONY GEORGE STANDS AT THE ENTRANCE TO HIS HOME, JANUARY 2014, JAVA LANE, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. As I walked through the tiny alleyways strafing off Java Lane, I found the houses all hollowed out, their former residents cannibalizing them for anything of value. Here I met Mr. Anthony George, a bachelor who lives in a small barely-two-room house with his sister. The ‘waththas’ or ‘gardens’ as they are quaintly called are generally tightly packed dwellings squeezed into the insides of street blocks. All of Anthony’s neighbours were gone and he waited alone among the rubble to leave. A former Bible College employee, Anthony has been sick for a long time. An accident left his face burnt, along with his left ear. His sister, whose family he lives with, supports him.
NEIGHBOURS HELPING TO FIX A TV ANTENNA, AT THE CORNER OF JAVA LANE AND MASJIDUL JAMIAH RD, DECEMBER 2013, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. People gather to assist a neighbour in putting up their TV antenna. These people have known each other all their lives. They can count on each other both in bad times, like when someone needs some help to fix something up; and in good times like when the whole community gathered for the festivities of Milad (the Prophet Muhammad’s birthday) for one last time in January. They are offered compensation for property, but no amount of compensation can repay the loss of community, friends, safety nets and a collective sense of being.
A STREET CRICKET MATCH WITH THE JAVA LANE MOSQUE SERVING AS A BACKDROP, JANUARY 2014, MASJIDUL JAMIAH RD, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. The historic Masjidul Jamiah in the background was established in 1864 and primarily served the needs of Malay military personnel. The Malay people have a long history of service in the forces stretching from Colonial times to the 21st century. Many served and laid their lives down for the country in the war against the LTTE. Decades of living in close proximity makes people more than just neighbours, more than even friends; it makes them family. I wonder if these kids know how precious this thing is that they are losing. Communities like this are rare today, especially in the heart of busy, bustling, materialistic and self-centered Colombo.
KIDS HANG OUT NEAR A SEEMINGLY ABANDONED HOUSE, JANUARY 2014, JAVA LANE, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. I asked the kids running around what they think of having to leave. Of not being able to play football every afternoon and on weekends at the little park at the top of the lane. They all go to schools nearby, and if they get relocated, getting to school may become more complicated. They hope that at least the football club will be moved to a different location and that they would still be able to play together. But most of the previous evictees of Slave Island are still living transitory lives, reliant on sporadic rent payments given to them by the government. The materialisation of their promised new residences are getting further delayed. With talk of some of them being relocated to places as far as Avissawela, the possibility that these children will reunite any time soon seems very distant.
TWO BOYS POSE FOR A PHOTOGRAPH, DECEMBER 2013, MASJIDUL JAMIAH RD, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. The ‘Ja minissu’ or ‘Ja people’ are what those initial political migrants form the Dutch East Indies (modern day Indonesia) were called when they arrived in Sri Lanka. Java Lane, along with many other places like Ja-ela, Ja-watte etc. is named after them. Nowadays it seems as if the term ‘Malay’ and ‘Ja’ are jointly applied to those that speak the Malay tongue. And many here in Java Lane still do, even these kids; throwing out gangsta hand signs from an alien but all too familiar media culture. It is the neighbourhood that preserves their language along with their traditional culture. It passes it along through generations via gatherings, festivities and stories. The break-up of communities also endangers the transmission of this sense of identity and culture. How can you even account for the potential loss of your sense of self? This a loss that many of these kids probably can’t even begin to appreciate the magnitude of yet.
MR. FARUDDIN’S GROCERY STORE, JANUARY 2014, JAVA LANE, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. Businesses are ‘established’, not opened. When uprooted, small-time businesses like this one lose their markets, their best customers and their sense of ‘establishment’. In the case of neighborhood-dependent, community-oriented business like Mr. Faruddin’s grocery store, this is especially true. It’s hard to imagine how businesses like Mr. Faruddin’s, run by his family here for more than 70 years, can suddenly be expected to uproot themselves, live on rent in a transient manner, and make a new living. Would he be able to open up a store again and run it as successfully in the new neighborhood his family goes to? Will he face resistance and resentment from the existing businesses there for squeezing their own hard-earned community clout?
THE APPROACH TO A ‘WATTHA’ OR ‘GARDEN’, JANUARY 2014, JAVA LANE, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. The ‘wathu’ probably get their name from the fact that they actually were gardens and areas of cultivation at some point; cinnamon plantations, colonial lawns. Former areas of lush greenery and expansive beauty subsequently completely transformed. But ironically, even as concrete and congestion took over from the trees, the name stuck. People in the ‘wathu’ left much before anyone else, lured by easy money – 2 years of free rent. Their title deeds are ‘complicated’ so taking the deal made the most sense, says one resident. This left those more invested in the area in a conundrum. The ‘wathu’ houses were carved up weeks before anyone on the streets even came to terms with the idea of leaving and every single item of value was removed. Windowsills and doors were not spared, neither were the very bricks that made up their walls. When I walked through the ‘gardens’, as Mr. Faruddin called them, all that was left was wrecked ruins of rubble and broken concrete.
INSIDE THE DESTROYED ‘WATHU’, JANUARY 2014, JAVA LANE, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. A court order stipulated that 1st of December 2013 was the final date for all residents to evacuate. However, the trickle of people leaving carried on well into the beginning of February 2014 as compensation and two-year rent payouts took time to come through. Everything from furniture, bedding and electronics to pipes, doors and roofing were carried off in various vehicles ranging from lorries and three wheelers to bicycles and hand carts. I have no idea where these people took all of these things. I’m imagining them living in crowded rental homes cluttered with extra doors, window sills and asbestos roofing sheets. Or maybe they sold them to whoever that would buy it. They had been waiting for apartments to be built on the same land they left, as promised to them by the Supreme Court. But that promise would only result if an expected TATA development project goes through as planned. The plight of previous evacuees doesn’t give them much hope. And residents are also skeptical that private sector interests would really assure them welcoming homes now that they have been evicted from their ancestral lands. Those that were not confident that this promised housing would arrive as assured opted for compensation instead of rent, choosing to wash their hands completely from the hope of ever returning to a semblance of the place they used to call home. (Photograph and narrative by Abdul-Halik Azeez)
THE CASTLE HOTEL AT SUNSET, JANUARY 2014, MAJIDUL JAMIAH RD, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. The latest 8 acres that have been marked out for demolition include three significant buildings. The colourful Caves Building and the Java Lane Mosque are hard to miss when you walk through Slave Island. It is unclear what is to become of the Caves building, although it has been decided that the mosque which was built in the mid 19th century for Javanese soldiers stationed in Sri Lanka will be preserved. Pictured here is third, the Castle Hotel in Slave Island which is steeped in history. When I stopped for a bite at its ‘dodgy bar’, I found the waiters eager to chat in-between busily serving loyal customers. The creaky stairs and dimly-lit interiors are peaceful and welcoming, while the once tastefully decorated interior and mouldy remnants of luxurious furniture upstairs hint at a more glorious past. As I stepped out the hotel, bathed in the evening sunset, the wait staff told me that they have been given two years to vacate the premises. The Castle Hotel – a Slave Island icon – has been marked to go.
DE SOYZA BUILDINGS, JANUARY 2014, JUSTICE AKBAR MW, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. If you’re sitting at Burgers King at the corner of Malay St, or just passing through Slave Island, the De Soyza buildings are something you will not miss. The De Soyza family were the first and the most powerful Sinhalese capitalists and built an empire based on the plantation sector. Their vast property in Slave Island is now gradually eroding. The De Soyza flats, Nimalawathi’s former home, is now no more. As is nearly everything else on De Soyza Street. This iconic building, built by Charles Henry De Soyza, one of the wealthiest Sri Lankans of the 19th Century, will likely be gone soon too, or be rebuilt into a modern shopping complex continuing to serve the cause of capitalism.
JAVA LANE IN RUINS, FEBRUARY 2014, SLAVE ISLAND, COLOMBO. I went back to Java Lane one final time at the end of February, and saw desolation. The Mosque alone stood amongst the rubble. Near it, a few people wandered aimlessly, perhaps looking for things to pick out of the debris or simply saying goodbye. Besides, what is a mosque without people filling it with prayer from dawn to dusk? The street and alleys I had walked through just weeks before, homes I’d been welcomed into, porches I’d stood on as I talked to people, had all disappeared as if they were figments of my imagination. Not a single house stood, everything was reduced to dust. Soon three men claiming to represent the UDA approached me and asked me to leave, saying that I couldn’t take pictures here. I didn’t press the issue – I had got what I came for and there was really nothing else left to see.
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