25 June, Colombo, Sri Lanka

By Pasan Jayasinghe

You break one routine for another. So out with waking and eating and sleeping at all or no hours of the day, and in with restarting something like a routine and trying not to forget the mask and creeping down submerged streets still waking from an unbidden, alien shock.

There are new things to get used to. People at a skittish distance and sweat beads congregating on the nose. But less obvious are the parts of the old routine which have vanished. Like the lunchtime buth kades from before, which have all shut down, along the outer edges of Wellawatta and into Pamanakada. If the window fronts aren’t barred with tables and chairs, they are marked out with To Lease signs.

Now that they are gone, I suppose it is romanticising to recall them, even if I point out how uncomfortable they were at midday, packed and alive and slowly steaming. The struggle to place an order, the small terror of getting it wrong and being too anxious to change it back. But there were also the un-remarked, lilting negotiations over time. Trying to build enough familiarity so that your order is remembered. Slowly bartering down the ratio of rice to curries. Relationships that existed only in what was packed and read into parcels of carbohydrates and assorted spiced vegetables, their price increasing in 10 rupee increments every few months. By which point you wouldn’t consider finding a new kade.

For the owners of the buth kades, those momentary kindnesses and lapses in profit margins have now been wiped out wholesale. Without access to even the meagre capital the government is doling out to ‘small businesses’ or ‘entrepreneurs’, the shock was fatal for most of them. In the economy that rises from all this, buth kades do not really exist. In the many lines pored over on The Recovery, there are none spared for them. It never felt possible that the uncles holding the hovering spoons could be vanished so easily.   

In their place instead are those outfits—less kade and more industrial business—that can dispense rice packets hygienically, in uniform cardboard boxes ready-made for Uber Eats and PickMe dispensation. Less haggling for time and deliberating how and when you can force yourself into a gap to make an order. More deliveries of uniform, far more expensive, lunches that feel and taste safe.

This is maybe what we wanted all along. Perhaps it is a relief to beat away the spectre of too much rice and not enough curry.  But you wish back for a second those old anxieties and the brief, salted glimpses of the lives that sustained them. An extra fried chilli and a curt smile.