Ameena Hussein is a writer and partner of the Perera Hussein Publishing House. She has published 2 collections of stories, one novel, edited a children’s book and a book of adult stories. She has won national awards and has been longlisted for international prizes. She attended the prestigious International Writers Program at Iowa University. She currently lives and works in Colombo, Sri Lanka.
Before the British, before the Dutch, before the Portuguese, Colombo was a small Moorish settlement visited by Ibn Batuta from Tangier and the Chinese traveler Wang Ta Youan. Today the city by the sea has become a bustling metropolis with all the usual accompaniments of traffic, pollution, commuters and sky scrapers.
When I was four months old I was brought to a house down Turret Road in Kollupitiya where I have lived ever since, with short gaps abroad. Today, Turret Road is called Dharmapala Mawatha and is one of the main streets of Colombo, dotted with banks, shops, businesses, restaurants and a few die hard residents like myself.
I live near a junction that has come to be called Pithala Handiya. Which means Brass Junction. In the early 80s a family came from Pilimatalawa in the hill country and set up shop on the little grassy verge that existed and still exists on the right side of the street. That grassy verge was part of my aunt’s garden who was made to give it up for the greater good when the road was widened. For years while I walked down the street to my music lessons, my prayer evenings and to visit my relatives who lived all around me, we passed this family and got to know them well. After some time, my aunt, the same lady who lost parts of her garden gave their brass wares sanctuary in her garage, it was only a matter of time when the wares were joined by their owners. One day, tragically the young father passed away leaving two pre-teenage sons to run the business with their mother. They ran errands for my aunt, provided security, opened her gate and sat over their wares. They grew to be young men.
On the 1st of December 2006 the President’s brother the Secretary of the Minister of Defence was targeted in a bomb blast at the Pithala Handiya. The lone elder brother who had been selling his wares was arrested and taken away. They said he was in a prime position to be a spy, sitting there day in and day out by his brass wares, watching traffic, the military movements, a permanent fixture not raising any suspicion. After four hours of questioning he was released but asked to leave the area and refused permission to sell his brass there anymore.
He came to my house with the story of his expulsion. My husband and I went off to the Kollupitiya police station. We explained that without this young man and his family selling wares at the junction, the name Pithala Handiya would not have existed. We said that we have known them for many years, since he was a child. We asked them to please reconsider the decision. The police told us that they would allow the brass sellers to stay on two conditions, that we guarantee and vouch for their integrity; and that they move 100 yards and sell their brass wares outside our gate. If anything happened and they were suspected we too would be hauled up for questioning. We agreed.
As with my aunt, the brass wares soon found a home in our porch to be followed by the brass sellers. For many years our little expanded family continued quite happily. They became our chowkidars or gate keepers, opening and closing the gate for us and our visitors, receiving registered letters, keeping packages to be picked up and taking down messages. When we had an excess of watermelons from our farm, they sold them together with the brass. They lit their brass lamps all over our gardens when we had parties, they helped care for my father when he had a minor stroke and they had many poojas for my recovery when I fell seriously ill. We too became enmeshed in their lives, facilitating a knee operation for their mother, donating to good causes in their village and hosting their relatives from out of town.
Together we saw the street change. First came two flower shops which were a welcome addition as they beautified the street. Then an unlucky house was pulled down and an eight story building came up. We signed letters of protest against this major change in our neighbourhood to no avail. It belonged to a large company that had more clout than we did. The large colonial houses were transformed into offices and shops. Small houses began to be built in large gardens so that children could be close to their parents. A house became a bank, an Italian restaurant, a travel agency. Then the demolitions began in full force. In one week three houses were torn down and large banks and apartment buildings began to rise up. An Indian restaurant opened up next door introducing us to a large rat population and perpetually blocked our entrance but the food was good. We forgave easily. An art gallery brightened the middle of the street. One flower shop closed down and became a television show room that broadcast cricket test matches very kindly on their showroom Televisions so that all of us could watch them on impressive large screen flat TVs. The other flower shop expanded. A small herbal shop arrived in a little square that was no bigger than a closet. They flourished but had no room to grow. A disgruntled employee from the corner shop of the next street set up shop next to the TV showroom. We were delighted. Milk, bread, newspapers, ice-creams, phone cards, yogurt, and other essentials were shouting distance away, if not for the cacophony of traffic. A Chinese restaurant was created out of a semi abandoned house but was perpetually empty at all times. We wondered if it was a front for some illegal activity. A jewellery shop, a corporate office for a large phone company, a finance company and on and on all took residence down my road.
The two way street became a one way highway. A super light was installed at the crossroads as were close circuit cameras. Protest marches and police barricades became a common occurrence. The Navam Perehera spilled onto the junction.
But back to my brass sellers. Last year they vanished. They refused to answer their phones and we missed them terribly. They had become our friends and it was strange not to see them seated patiently outside watching the world go by, polishing their brass to an unnatural glow.
Then I heard they went to Italy.