At 27 years old, Sugeeth Kumar is part of a generation of Slave Island’s young entrepreneurs. Tiring of the long hours his previous job at Pizza Hut required, he decided that if he must work so hard, he would do it on his own time and for his own business: vending prawn vadai – a popular Tamil fried food – out of a cart at the Galle Face Green Promenade.
Like many Slave Island residents, Sugeeth’s new livelihood is very much tied to his locality – his home is a few kilometers away from Galle Face Green and each afternoon, he must wheel his cart and ingredients to a rented spot, before setting up. Each vendor’s process is different. Sugeeth prefers to make his prawn vadai in advance, even frying them halfway through before coming to Galle Face. That way, when his customers flock to him hungry for hot vadai, they are not disappointed. He drops the half-fried vadai into a pan of boiling oil and in under a minute, they’re done. He fishes them out, bright orange and steaming, and after wrapping them up in newspaper with a few expert flicks of his wrist, hands them over into the waiting hands of his customers.
Sugeeth enjoys his work – he gets to be outdoors and seems to enjoy watching the revelry unfold around him as the evening wears on. He told us about the increasing numbers of Indian tourists he’d been seeing at Galle Face, and when we asked if he had seen any celebrities he nodded yes. “The only famous person I’ve seen from Sri Lanka is the President,” he said. “He comes here in the evenings for a walk sometimes. I’ve seen him from quite close”.
Galle Face is perhaps the only space in Colombo that allows for daily public gatherings on such a large scale and its popularity has soared since the end of war. It is at once a park, a beach and a market. Vendors like Sugeeth line the walkway, selling food like vadai, curried nuts, pickled fruit, fried chips and boiled corn; others have on display a treasure trove of toys and kites to which children always run, noisily beseeching their parents for permission to buy. The park is dotted with families sitting down together in groups, couples walking hand in hand or sitting on benches in a discreet embrace; and young children chaotically zigzag through the crush of people, maneuvering kites which snake colourfully against the wind. The beach below the promenade is as crowded as anywhere else – groups of fully-clothed girls cling to each other and scream with laughter as they allow themselves to be splashed by the waves; watchful but also keeping a safe distance from the knots of shirtless boys who boastfully meet the crashing water head on
At the end of the day, Sugeeth packs up his cart once again and wheels it back to his house – one of many packed tightly along Vauxhall Street. A small, simple place, backed by the green waters of the Beira Lake, it is home to Sugeeth’s wife Jeeva, and two young daughters. Outside, between the house and the lake, a makeshift shed has been constructed to act as a bathroom and washing room. Inside the main house, a large image of Christ hangs on one of the wall, perhaps strategically placed to catch a beam of morning light during the day.
Sugeeth knows that his home isn’t perfect. “All the houses here are built very close together. If the neighbors talk we can hear it,” he told us with a touch of annoyance in his voice. He also complained about the flooding – quite a common inconvenience for his house and many others during the rainy season.
Still, if there is one thing Sugeeth knows for certain, it is that he doesn’t want to move out of his home. For all its faults, its location is key for the smooth running of his work and family life. His younger daughter attends the Salvation Army nursery school, located within Slave Island, and his elder daughter’s school is also nearby, making it easy for him to find the time to drop them off in the mornings and pick them up each evening.
Even the thought of moving riles up the ordinarily mild mannered young man, as he worries for the future of his family and the business he has worked so hard to set up on his own. A few more kilometers further away and Sugeeth will not be able to wheel his cart to Galle Face each day; and if moved from Slave Island completely he will lose much more than his home. The promise of a bigger house and better facilities does not include the promise of financial security, Sugeeth insists, but knows that there may come a time when the choice is no longer his to make.
Produced by Sharni Jayawardena and Tarika Wickremeratne, as part of Walkabout: Slave Island. Watch the trailer to this series below, and visit the Moving Images website for more stunning content on Sri Lanka.