Over lunch with Prof. Jayadeva Uyangoda last week, the conversation meandered into anecdotal capture of Sri Lanka’s new capitalism. We talked about snapshots of wealth and its generation, along with its public display through material goods, as distinct from even just a few years ago. Prof. Uyangoda spoke to what he thought were salient features of this new crass class, and their deep ties with higher echelons of political power. I shared a few stories with him, which inspired me to pen a column around what I’ve seen and heard in just over a month after returning to Sri Lanka briefly.
Going from Ratmalana to office on a working day, on average, takes around half an hour to just under forty minutes. Office is approximately twelve kilometres away, or slightly more if I choose to take a route that avoids the worst of the congestion at rush hour. Every day for the past month, I’ve kept a rough record of high-end luxury vehicles I’ve seen on the road, aside from the chance encounters – to the delight of my son – of two Aston Martins on weekends in Colombo. On average, I’ve seen 8 Range Rover HSE or Sport models, 10 BMW 5-Series, 4 BMW 7-Series, 5 BMW X5, 4 BMW X3, 8 Mercedes C-Class, 7 Mercedes E-Class, 8 Mercedes S-Class, 5 Audi A4s, 4 Audi Q2, 4 Audi Q5, 4 Audi A6, 7 Toyota Land Cruisers and about the same amount of Prados and 3 Porsches (Macan or Panamera) in the 25 kilometers of my commute to and from work, plus around 10 kilometers of driving during the day within Colombo. The combined value of just these vehicles is closer to two billion rupees. There is a distinct and immediate correlation between the value and the perceived width of vehicle as well as the frequency of horning and flashing of powerful LED headlamps which even during the day, blind other drivers.
Several public accounts on Instagram are now devoted to photos of exotic, high-end luxury cars in Sri Lanka. The first screen of just one account – Sri Lanka Car Spotters – has at the time of writing, 5 Maybach S560s (selling for $170,750 each in the US), a Bentley convertible (conservatively starting at around US$140,000), a classic Ferrari, 2 Brabus-Mercedes (around 69,000 Euros each), a Porsche 911 Turbo S (starting at $190,700 in the US) and 2 Aston Martin Vantages (around 1.64 – 3.27 crore each in India). That’s around 2 million dollars’ worth of vehicles, sold or registered in the country, in just a single screen of photos. The account had 6,529 posts at the time of writing. Scrolling down, there are photos of Lamborghini’s, more Bentley’s, a McLaren, an Aston Martin DB11 and even a Ferrari 488 GTB, all in Sri Lanka. These are cars considered exotic and high-end in the West.
Rich Kids of Sri Lanka, with 220 posts and 11,600 followers on Instagram, is another fascinating visual, social and political study. The general aesthetic is to have young people posing with brands or high-end luxury vehicles, with their purebred dogs. One photo shows a hand holding wad of 5,000 rupee notes, spread out like a fan. Another, possibly by the same photographer, shows an iPhone X surrounded by a circle of 5,000 rupee notes. Literally, stacks of 5,000 notes are shown in other photos adorning the interiors of luxury vehicles. There are dozens of photos featuring extremely high-end watches, gold and jewellery. Two photo show off handguns. Another, an automatic rifle, sported by someone in a Rolex and their garage. Each photo with a gun has generated over 200 likes, and not a single word or comment with consternation. Depending on the gender of the young person and the brand, breed of dog or model of the car, the other photos generate thousands of likes.
A friend was recently shopping around for an apartment in Colombo – carefully inspecting what was on offer, comparing prices and floor space, negotiating the price and looking at the deeds. The day my friend was finalising the purchase, another man had appeared, carrying two large bags. Putting them down, he had proceeded to just ask for two (“Mata dekak denna”). When inquired as to two of what he wanted, he had proceeded to say, with some annoyance as if it wasn’t immediately obvious, that he wanted two apartments. In each bag, he had brought with him around 35 million in cash, ready to make an instant purchase.
Another story was around how Volvo trucks are also bought with cash, by those who don’t once negotiate down the price first quoted to them. I was told of a leading maker of prefab houses and other buildings burying cash in the land they built on. I retorted that this was not unlike the Colombian drug cartels and Pablo Escobar’s shenanigans featured in Narcos on Netflix. One Aston Martin doing the rounds in Colombo, apparently, was a wedding gift. The stories got rather strange, with assurances that the owners of chicken farms (in and around the Puttlam area) were extremely cash rich, and along with other cash enterprises, were putting their money into luxury marques and apartments. Swank new cafes, hip bars and high-end restaurants were ways through which the children of politicians helped their parents clean black money. I was told that Range Rovers bought in Sri Lanka, were sent to the UK for bespoke modifications, and then shipped back into the country. At our neighborhood Keells, my son and I, admiring a beautiful Range Rover Sport were surprised to see the pot-bellied owner in chinos emerge from within, spit out a thick red wad of beetle with a mini gurgle of saliva from throat, wipe the remaining scoff on mouth with forearm, get in and drive away with his family in tow.
There seems to be an economy in Sri Lanka that is vast, growing and unbanked. Economists may know of a way to determine how much currency is in circulation or in banks in comparison to the number of high denomination notes printed. But almost all the stories I’ve heard, and clearly, what’s openly on display on social media, is a grotesque display of wealth which includes, literally, showcasing cash. Going by the number of Premier branches for high net worth individuals present in Colombo and the Battaramulla area, there is clearly a lot of money in the formal banking system. But the popular visual imagery is not around platinum cards or unlimited credit. It is about the open display of loose money. Years ago, in conversation with renowned composer and classical musician Lakshman Joseph de Saram, he lamented that Colombo didn’t even have a concert hall – something he wished he could see come up in his lifetime. The value of vehicles on a single Instagram screen, or what I see going to and coming back home from office on any given day, can easily pay for de Saram’s dream. And yet, nothing of what I see in the frames of wealth that generate so much adoration, admiration and adulation capture the one thing that Sri Lankans never tire of saying they have in abundance but lack the most.
First published in The Sunday Island, 24 February 2019.