Let me begin with this apartment, where a grocery store and six people are all crammed into 400 square feet in the Methsara Uyana high-rise. The people fit themselves around the groceries, which occupy all of the living room and most of the kitchen. Sleeping arrangements are flexible, and visitors and wet laundry must both be relegated to the corridor – there is room for neither in the apartment. Neela Kalyani used to own a successful grocery store, established with savings accumulated over years working in the Middle East as a maid. But her relocation to a high-rise apartment block by the urban authorities has gutted her business, entrenched her in debt and left her family floundering. The building is in fact crowded with small businesses like hers; seemingly every floor has its own grocery store in a living room. Kalyani’s former business was registered, and she says she was entitled to another apartment on relocation. But despite repeated queries it hasn’t materialised and Kalyani suspects it never will.
At a time when she expected to be planning for her retirement, Kalyani is contemplating returning to domestic work in Dubai. Her hands twist anxiously in her lap. “I am 51 now. I do not think I could do the hard labour I used to, but what choice do I have?” She is separated from her husband (“We never quarrelled, but what to do, he is a gambler”) and does not want to leave her children in his care. But there is no one else.
“We have faced so much injustice, and now for the next generation, this will be an inherited injustice,” says Samaradeera Samankanthi, Neela Kalyani’s neighbour across the corridor. Samankanthi lives on her own in this apartment. She is famously tough and outspoken. The story goes that all it takes is the sight of her for Urban Development Authority (UDA) officials to turn tail and flee.