Forget the horror stories of regular bomb attacks on the city by Tamil rebels, the banner headlines chronicling Sri Lanka's 15-year-old separatist war. It's Friday night, and Colombo is staking its claim to the title of the most cosmopolitan capital in South Asia.
The evening typically begins at one of the dozens of clubs dotted round the city, where hundreds of men and women ranging from teenyboppers to the happily middle-aged congregate on the weekends. 'I am at my second home,' says Ray De Silva, senior executive in a tea export firm, relaxing at the century-old Gymkhana Club. This is the start of the weekly partying ritual that Ray has diligently followed for the last two years. While the members-only club is primarily a sports club, on weekends this is where the evening begins. Patronised by a cross-section of Colombo's happening set-business executives, journalists, young sportspersons and the small but upmarket jetset-it's small wonder that like other sports clubs in the city, 70 per cent of its revenue comes from the bar.
But Fridays and Saturdays are when the city's discos really start to rock 'n roll. Run on the lines of Hard Rock Cafes rather than classic discos, the crowds that flock to them are undeterred by the odd bomb explosion or night curfew. Teenagers rock the night away at Cascade; the older crowd hangs out at Blue Elephant, Legends or Cyclone.
'All of them earn a minimum of Sri Lankan Rs 100,000 a night on the weekends,' says Harpo Gooneratna, the man who introduced discos to Colombo in 1975 when he set up Cellar in the tourist resort of Negumbo. 'Those days discos were seen as sex, drugs and rock and roll places. Parents did not allow their children to go to these places. Today, most parents would not dream of having a party without a disk jockey in attendance.' Gooneratna is now the entertainment manager at the Colombo Hilton.
After over a decade of warfare, the military checkpoints that stud the capital's streets are too familiar to throw a spoke in the partying. The soldiers armed with automatic rifles are invariably polite on the few occasions that they do stop merrymakers. In the unlikely event of a night curfew-a rare occurrence these days-Colombo's beautiful people are willing to make concessions. They ensure that they reach their destination before curfew timings come into force-and the curfew will have been lifted anyway before the last bottle of beer has been drained.
There have been practically no incidents of brawls between over-enthusiastic partygoers and soldiers, or of bombs bringing a party to an untimely end. The only incidents of violence merely confirm Colombo's status as a swinging capital-fistfights inside nightclubs that degenerated into free-for-alls after some of the protagonists produced weapons. Several nightclubs, though not all, have introduced body checks as a consequence.
The options keep multiplying. There's no such thing as a free lunch, right? Wrong: try the casinos, open 24 hours a day, every day of the year.Alcohol, food, live music and even cigarettes are on the house-all you have to do is to lose money. For winners, it's a net profit, with the added charm of not having to settle a bill. The casinos attract a blend of people, from the serious gambler to the amateur who's out for a lark, down to the cadger who's in it only for the free booze. Either way, the casinos are always packed. 'We don't mind the people who gamble a bit but come mostly for free drinks, food and the music. No gambler wants to gamble in an empty casino,' says one casino manager.
Colombo manages to impress its particular stamp even on a concept as hackneyed as the fund-raising dinner dance. Tickets entitle the holder to dinner, dancing, and....breakfast! A dinner dance that collapses before 6 am is considered an absolute flop.
But it wasn't like this in the early eighties, when one or two desolate discos and a few downmarket restaurants summed up the list of options offered by the capital. It was only after the effects of the open economic policy introduced in the late '70s began to be felt that business started booming in Colombo. And now, in the best traditions of the free market, there's a shakedown happening in the nightclub sector. Three new nightclubs have opened their doors over the last year, offering a blend of live music and DJs at non-five star prices.
A discotheque owner who asked not to be named had this take on the competition: 'Although we are packed on the weekends, people don't spend much money, especially the young crowd. That's why some nightclubs are trying to attract the more affluent with a members-only policy.' The competition is heating up, but as Harpo Gooneratne points out, none of the new nightclubs fulfil one obvious need. 'Colombo lacks pubs where people who don't want to go dancing can hang around till late at night.'
That could change faster than you can say Pale Ale. A new entertainment centre is slotted to open in the heart of the capital, come the millennium. This will offer an entertainment park for children, water sports, a bowling alley, speciality restaurants and yes, a German-style pub. And a leading local brewery is finalising plans to open a chain of Blue Pubs, where mini breweries will brew the beer once you place the order. New Delhi, eat your heart out.
Colombo also has options for those who're looking for a quiet evening with family and friends. Duplication Road is dotted with popular restaurants. 'Nightclubs are noisy and I am too old for them,' says Siri Fernando, a mercantile executive who eats out with his friends most days of the week. 'At restaurants, we can chat in peace. And the food options in Sri Lanka are the best in South Asia, though not quite as good as Hong Kong or Singapore.' While Canton Seafood and Gourmet Palace are among the most popular Chinese restaurants, gourmands looking for a change can choose from a menu that offers places like Siam House for Thai food, Il Pomte for Italian, and Beach Wadiya for classic seafood.
If there are any doubts that Colombo is serious about its partying, it's dispelled at a Pilawoos-one of the three wayside counterparts to India's dhabas where the night owls gather, reluctant to end the party too soon. Business begins moving after midnight, and the place is buzzing by three in the morning as smartly-dressed partygoers sit on the bonnets of their flashy cars, washing down a uniquely Sri Lankan kottu rottie with cups of coffee. The food here is tasty and cheap; but the real attraction? This is the place to be seen at in the wee small hours of the morning. 'Our busiest time is the early hours of the weekend when people going home after a late night stop over for a snack and drinks,' says the manager. Turnover can exceed Sri Lankan Rs 200,000 a day on the weekend.
Back in Colombo after a decade in America, Sanaka Samarasinha is an enthusiastic customer. 'This kind of place is not very common in the States-it's a great place to hang out. I came back after eight years for the first time, and I met more of my old pals here than anywhere else!'
Not everyone approves of Colombo's swinging night life. Some argue that with hundreds dying every month in the separatist war, it's in bad taste to have so much fun. The debate hasn't stopped; but neither has the guaranteed hangover on Saturday morning. The one that serves as a winking green light to Saturday night fever, Colombo-style.