The Other Side of “Development” – The Plight of Kumar

This post is primarily about a man named Kumar, and his small, neighborhood fruit shop. Kumar is a Sri Lankan Tamil Hindu from the high-altitude region of Nuwara Eliya, where his parents earned their livelihood as vegetable farmers. He and his wife, Diyana now live with their soon to be two-year-old daughter, Danushka, in a small, third-story room in Colombo, in the area of Thimbirigasyaya. Their home resides on top of a small fruit shop that Kumar runs, though Diyana and their daughter are almost always there with him. Kumar, along with another man who lives nearby, sells all sorts of fresh fruits that vary with the seasons—bananas, papayas, mangos, pineapples, guavas, watermelons, and sometimes king coconuts when he has enough money to buy them.

The shop is simple and non-ostentatious–without even a name—but it is known among the community for the quality of its fruit and its reasonable prices. It’s also a very pleasant atmosphere—when one enters beyond the outer black tarping that often protects bananas from the harsh coastal sun, there is a television playing Tamil shows and music videos, while patrons sit around, chat, and watch endearingly as Danushka climbs around the tables and chairs. When I am in Colombo, I almost always get my fruit from this shop, and my friend Amiya and I always enjoy visiting their family and connecting with other members of the community who pass through here.

But don’t get the wrong idea—despite the pleasant ethos of the place—Kumar works his ass off. He opens the shop around 8 am, and almost always keeps it open until 10 pm, hustling back and forth to cut bananas off the stalk or to blend up a fruit juice (for 80 rupees; $0.60 USD) popular among patrons on a hot day. Two or three times a week, Kumar travels in the early morning by bus across town to Pettah, where he purchases his fruit from a central market and hauls it into a tuk tuk, where he pays the fare and returns back to Thimbirigasyaya to commence another day. In my 8 months around the neighborhood, I’ve hardly seen Kumar take a day off until a few days ago, when I noticed the shop was shuttered closed.

I was eating in a Sri Lankan kaDe (small shop) this evening when I observed that Kumar’s fruit shop across the street had been closed for a second consecutive day. Curious and concerned, I asked one of the men working there, who’s also one of our neighbors in Thimbirigasyaya, why the shop was closed. He told me that Kumar was unable to pay rent for the month, and was forced to close the shop. “Pau,” he mumbled–a term that comes from Buddhist sources in Pali, indicating suffering. He took me outside and pointed up to their third-story home. A simple light was illuminated, and the silhouette of Diyana nursing her baby daughter was apparent on the balcony. The worker yelled out to them, and soon Kumar emerged on the balcony, and looked out with his wife and baby girl. We stood there, motioning back and forth toward the shop for a few moments, at a distance where words could hardly be made out, but devolved into a state of mutual stillness as a feeling of loss and uncertainty became apparent.

Thoughts clouded my mind. What should I do? This place was a valued part of our community, and Kumar and his family were too. I also had a sense of respect and personal appreciation for his work—after all, I had worked to sell fruits and vegetables for a co-op of organic farms in California just last year.

At the very least, I felt obliged to hear him out face-to-face and see how he was doing. I walked across the street, and motioned to Kumar to come down and meet me out on the street. As he lifted a metal barricade and came out to meet me, I could see an overwhelming sense of loss in his eyes, with beads of sweat shimmering on his brow. Indeed, he told me he simply couldn’t come up with the 60,000 rupees (~$458 USD) to pay rent for the month. He was battling to meet that expense along with a 15,000 rupee (~$115 USD) bimonthly light bill, 10,000 rupee (~$76 USD) rent for his family’s own room, and the other inevitable living expenses of life in Colombo. He told me his wife and daughter were moving back to live with his parents in Nuwara Eliya later this month, while he resolved to stay here and try everything he could to come up with the money and reopen the shop.

Once again, I didn’t know what to do. Should I give him money? If I did, would that actually help him in the long-term, or forestall what unfortunately seemed inevitable—that his small fruit shop might be functionally obsolete and simply outcompeted on this “developing” strip of Colombo metropolis? After all, I’d heard many stories of the humble, small shops that lined the streets of Thimbirigasyaya just years ago, and Kumar’s was clearly struggling for relevance amid the immediate presence of a health food restaurant, coffee shop, supermarket outlet, and other modern establishments with their sexy storefronts, strategic advertisements, name recognition, and air conditioning.

I asked Kumar how close he was to paying the rent; how much money he had to spare. “moggut naeae,” he mumbled. Nothing.

We often hear about the upsides of “development”—the people brought out of poverty, the jobs created, the increase in health standards, and the expansion of personal opportunity. I’m not naive enough to think that a small fruit shop is destined to be there forever, and I believe enough in an open market (albeit compassionately managed and regulated) to recognize that people should try to understand the demands of the local and (increasingly) global economy to inform realistic work and life choices. But I also believe that behind every human life is a unique story, and no shift in the market or closing of a small fruit shop can ever eradicate the stories of those whose lives reside therein—stories filled with struggle, pride, sacrifice, and love.

Only time will tell what will happen to Kumar, Diyana, their baby daughter, and their fruit shop. Despite the odds, I hope they stay. But even if they don’t, I will look into the eyes of those who find work in these emerging modern establishments, and beyond the projection of relevance, order, and necessity, I know I will witness the same tumultuous journey for simple sustenance, happiness and love that drives Kumar to open his fruit shop every morning.