Us and Them

The street we lived in, like the country, was home to a diverse mix of people. A Buddhist businessman and his family lived a few doors down from us. They lived in a large house, had two cars and three servants. They were obviously very well off. Further down the street was a large Muslim family. They too appeared to be doing well. Their large, expensive, black, chauffer driven Mercedes would glide past, curtains shielding the women and girls in the back seat from the prying eyes of strange men and the outside world.

Next door to us was a Burgher family whose trendy westernised daughters terrified me with their fashionable clothes, worldly ways and short skirts. I never knew whether I should stare at their legs or not. They excited me but were definitely too scary to talk to or look at directly. The three girls lived with their mother and an uncle. They were outgoing and very friendly and laughed a lot. They would always look me in the eye, smile, say hello and ask me about myself, while I would avoid their eyes, feel embarrassed and mumble and stutter while looking at the ground.

The two younger girls were always going out to parties and to the beach with their boyfriends. Very cool guys, who drove their own cars, had the only surfboards in the country and wore board shorts that had to be from overseas. I would sneak envious looks at them and let my adolescent imagination run riot.

The eldest girl was quieter, stayed at home more often and didn’t appear to have a boyfriend. She was more like most of the young women in Sri Lanka at the time. Single, available but unattainable. She wasn’t as terrifying as the other two and I had secret thoughts about her.

My grandmother liked these light skinned girls. She never seemed to mind that they stayed out late, partied hard and were never seen in Church. I didn’t hear her talk badly about them like she did about everyone else down the street. This surprised me.

It never occurred to me that this may have been because my grandmother was also a Burgher. My grandmother, like most other Burghers, claimed to be of Dutch ancestry. She used to brag about her light skin and how her grandfather came from Holland. This made her feel superior to the ‘locals’ as she called them; even though she had never met her grandfather and had only heard about him and where he came from.

On the other side of the road was a row of smaller houses. These were occupied by large extended families. Not really that poor but much worse off than us. They didn’t appear to have the same luxuries. Some of the women would come over to ask my grandmother for ice cubes. This was when I realized that not everyone owned a fridge. Sometimes Alice would give them leftover food, medicine or old clothes. I’m not sure if my grandmother knew about this.

The street we lived in was unpaved, the exposed gravel throwing up dust and stones each time a car went past the house. We lived in a closed off street so this wasn’t a huge problem. Cars would turn around a few meters from the house just before the road ended at a canal.

Near the canal at one end of the street was a large sprawling block of land. Coconut trees covered the block with clumps of banana plants and pawpaw trees growing along the banks of the canal. Three or four mud brick huts with thatched roofs made from the leaves of the coconut tree huddled together in a small clearing in the middle of the block. These were in stark contrast to the more modern brick houses like ours.

The huts were home to a large extended family of ‘Bothal Karayas’ or ‘bottle men’ as we called them. Men who would collect old newspapers and bottles and resell them. Long before it became environmentally desirable and fashionable in the West to recycle bottles and paper, we in the third world were doing it out of sheer necessity. All over the city generations of families and underemployed eked out an existence; collecting, sorting, repairing and reselling everything from paper, bottles and cardboard to thongs, shoes, odds and ends and bits and pieces. This was before plastic bags, bottles and disposable containers arrived uninvited on our shores, squatted on our streets and clogged up our drains and canals. In those days we used to wrap our take away food in banana leaves.

Behind the bottle men lived the others.

A crowded shantytown of seething poverty and violence. Children did their homework under the dim light of an oil lamp while their fathers got drunk on illicit liquor in the dark. This was our neighbourhood. There was us and them.

We lived in the same street but in different worlds.

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