Until a few years ago, Hambantota was an obscure town in south-central Sri Lanka, around 190 kilometers (118 miles) from the capital Colombo, with a population that barely exceeded 10,000. Its daily rhythms were defined by the twin activities of farming and fishing. But once Mahinda Rajapaksa, one of its native sons, became president in 2005, all that began to change.
Mr Rajapaksa’s dream was to transform his sleepy hometown into a modern industrial city, an urban hub to rival Colombo, the country’s capital. His ambitious plans for Hambantota included a 2,000 hectare international airport costing $210 million, while another $360 million were to be spent on the construction of a seaport.
These projects were under way in 2011 when I visited Hambantota while reporting on the cricket World Cup. Of the 13 cities that hosted the tournament, in Bangladesh, Sri Lanka and India, Hambantota was the most unlikely venue of all. In the Colombo newspapers, there was persistent talk of Hambantota’s transformation into a world-class city. But the great claims seemed hollow, because Hambantota was still a largely rural expanse. In one of the tournament’s matches, elephants had appeared at the boundary fence of the stadium.
I had arrived in Hambantota exactly 100 years after Leonard Woolf made a journey in the opposite direction. As a fresh-faced 24-year-old, Mr. Woolf had been inducted into the colonial Ceylon Civil Service. Following spells in Kandy and Jaffna, he arrived in Hambantota in 1908 as the chief administrative and judicial officer. Mr. Woolf was said to be an active civil servant, enthusiastically traversing the district on his pony and occasionally by bicycle. In 1911, after three years in Hambantota, he left for England on leave but subsequently resigned from the job.
In 1913, Mr. Woolf wrote “The Village in the Jungle,” a novel inspired by his years in Hambantota. This was a year after he had married the 30-year-old writer Virginia Stephen — the novel is dedicated to her. Not possessing the literary genius of his rather more famous spouse, it was one of only two novels that Mr. Woolf ever wrote. Later, he was to call that book “a symbol of the anti-imperialism which had been growing upon me more and more in my last years in Ceylon.”
Under the circumstances, it was ironic that, a century later, Hambantota was succumbing to an enterprise whose thrust and motivations had distinctly imperial overtones. Soon after arriving, I found myself in the office of Azmi Thassim, director-general of the Hambantota District Chamber of Commerce. A tall, impressive figure in his mid-50s, Mr. Thassim appeared minutes later, returning from afternoon prayers. He quickly set about his task, handing me thick brochures and narrating the grand designs envisaged for the town, with a practiced air.
He had known Mr. Rajapaksa for a long time, he said; they both grew up in Hambantota. Mr. Thassim’s wife and Mr. Rajapaksa, as practicing lawyers, had been colleagues. Mr. Thassim fondly recalled weekends spent playing cricket with Mr. Rajapaksa in inter-bar matches. “We used to have lunch regularly. Often we would go for a swim,” he said. And then, to emphasize that his proximity with Mr. Rajapaksa had not waned, he continued, “Just a couple of days back, I called him and said hello.”
I asked Mr. Thassim about his early impressions of Mr. Rajapaksa. Mr. Thassim’s reply was revealing in a way he had probably not intended. “Mr. Rajapaksa was a fighter, always very aggressive,” he said. “But he always had the common touch.”
Did he ever think that Mr. Rajapaksa would be president someday? “No, never,” Mr. Thassim exclaimed. “I knew he would become a minister or some such senior figure, but never thought he’ll be president. That’s luck.”
For all the talk and the public relations blitz, Hambantota was little more than a vast emptiness at the time of my visit. The only thing that could be said to be complete was the cricket stadium. But, and this was another surprise, the stadium was not in the town of Hambantota. It was in Sooriyawewa, more than 30 kilometers (20 miles) away to Hambantota’s northeast. The journey was on a deserted highway flanked by thick forest on either side.
The auto-rickshaw driver ferrying me was a young man called Shifar. Mr. Shifar, 20, belonged to the district’s substantial Malay community. As he drove on the highway, in a landscape as removed from the skyscrapers of Kuala Lumpur as could be imagined, Mr. Shifar reclined and rested one foot beside the steering. There was no fear of oncoming vehicles.
“How long would it take for this place to become a full-fledged city?” I had asked Mr. Thassim. “Twenty years,” he had replied, “depending on whether the government is able to raise funds.” Hambantota’s future was intimately linked to Mr. Rajapaksa’s staying in power.
Another vast obstacle facing Hambantota was the fact that it was a dry zone. It seemed a calamitous risk for a project of this scale to exist at a site where the supply of water was not assured.
By Sri Lankan standards, Hambantota has an unusually harsh landscape. Once you cross Tangalle, from lush green, the terrain assumes a faint yellow hue. As we traveled in Mr. Shifar’s auto-rickshaw, large signs put up in the wilderness alerted me to another startling fact: Hambantota was vying to host the 2018 Commonwealth Games. I had seen the strain and destruction Delhi had undergone to host the 2010 Commonwealth Games and it defied comprehension how Hambantota, not yet even a city, could take on an event of such magnitude. Fortunately, for its own sake, Hambantota lost the bid later that year to the Australian city of Gold Coast.
After a monotonous hourlong drive, the cricket stadium appeared. Two floodlights towers rose above the surrounding jungle. MAHINDA RAJAPAKSA INTERNATIONAL CRICKET STADIUM — the name was inscribed in baroque capital lettering. There was little human activity in its vicinity. I could not think of a stranger location for a cricket stadium.
Because it was an hour away from the nearest urban settlement, it was impossible to see how this stadium could sustain itself financially. The full houses seen at its World Cup games, I was told, had been an exercise in propaganda. Mr. Shifar had attended one of the games. He spoke frankly of how they had been handed free tickets and herded to the stadium.
During our conversation, Mr. Thassim admitted that maintenance of the stadium would be a “challenge.” A few months after I visited, the challenge proved to be insurmountable. Sri Lanka Cricket, the game’s national governing body, stated it could no longer afford the upkeep of Hambantota’s stadium and two others. They were handed over to the military.
In the evening, after we had returned to Hambantota’s main town, Mr. Shifar took me to one of the Malay cafes facing the harbor. I spoke to Mr. Mansoor, the owner of the cafe, and asked for his thoughts on the transformation of Hambantota. “What does it matter?” Mr. Mansoor replied wearily. “We are not getting any jobs. They are building all these concrete buildings, but what about us?’
The massive seaport under construction was only a few hundred meters from Mr. Mansoor’s cafe. The port was being built with Chinese support, through a heavily subsidized loan. The condition, in return, was that Chinese workers would be employed. As many as 50,000 workers from China were said to present in the area. While entering Hambantota, I had seen sprawling work sheds with Mandarin signage. The port became operational in June 2012 and was named in Hambantota Mahinda Rajapaksa International Port. According to the Sri Lankan press, 93 ships have already docked in Hambantota port and the 100th ship is expected to dock there in a few weeks.
Mr. Rajapaksa continues to leave the imprint of his rule on his hometown. In March, the Sri Lankan president inaugurated the country’s third international airport in Hambantota. The airport on the outskirts of his hometown is again named after his family: Mattala Rajapaksa International Airport. Some of its residents struggle to recognize it. “We will become strangers in our own town,” said Mr. Mansoor.
Vaibhav Vats’ first book, Triumph in Bombay: Travels During the Cricket World Cup, will be published this month by Penguin Viking India. This essay has been excerpted from the book.