Aiyo! Ruminations on Two Disputes that Weren’t

By: Kamil Ismail | 12.12.23 | Media

The two incidents I relate here may seem improbable coming from an attorney whose livelihood is in civil litigation, but they are both true. At least, one is. I know because it happened in front of me. The other was told to me, and may be apocryphal. I just pass them on for what they may be worth, if anything, drawing no inferences, and making no judgments.

First, a little background. I was born and raised on the tropical island of Ceylon, now Sri Lanka, whose natives are said to have a carefree disposition. When bad things happen, they say “Aiyo!” perhaps shaking their heads in sorrow and clicking their tongues. Then they move on. A very different outlook from people in my adopted land of Maryland, who take rights and wrongs seriously, meaning there is usually no scarcity of civil litigation to make a livelihood of.

Not so in Ceylon, though.

This was brought home to me in the first incident I speak of. It happened about ten years ago, when I was visiting Colombo to commiserate with a relative who had just committed himself to a future of marriage. Awake at sunrise my first morning there, I stepped out for a stroll along the wide pavements – as they call sidewalks there – adjoining Galle Road, the main artery for vehicular traffic, which runs from the capital city to the ancient seaside fortress of Galle.

When I first left those shores in 1971, a tender lad embarking on his teens, the streets hosted bicycles and bullock carts, Bedford lorries, Morris Minors and Austin Cambridges, punctuated by the occasional, bright-red, Leyland Motors double-decker bus. Now, the streets were a cacophony of speeding vans, loud horns, and ubiquitous tuk-tuks, the three-wheeled vehicles with lawnmower-sized motors that are used to shuttle people and their goods all over the island. The tuk-tuks scurried in, out, and across the traffic lanes, or what the architects of Galle Road may well have intended to serve as traffic lanes, but which had long since been merely aspirational.

The pavements, too, were already teeming with Colombo’s populace, hurrying on its way to that morning’s work or returning home from last night’s revelries, the former carrying smart briefcases or satchels and weighty cogitations, the latter with only their languid reveries. As I approached the junction where Dehiwala Station Road meets Galle Road, my gaze fell on a well-dressed office worker, striding along in smart attire, the creases of his trousers moving rhythmically but never losing their starched form. And racing in from the opposite direction, a tuk-tuk leaving the roadway and sweeping right onto the pavement, the driver to better discharge his passengers at their destination, a tiny shack selling steaming cups of tea, individual cigarettes out of circular tins, essential items of hardware and masonry, assorted trinkets of jewelry, and perhaps even – who knows, notwithstanding its diminutive size? – items of furniture. The tuk-tuk and Office Man seemed destined to meet.

And indeed, they did. Or at least a part of each did, specifically the tread of the tire on one of the rear wheels of the tuk-tuk and the polished and shiny shoe on one of Office Man’s feet. As the former rolled and crunched over the latter, Office Man grimaced, crouched over and a string of vocabulary escaped him, to be returned – with compound interest – by the tuk-tuk driver after he had collected his fare from the passengers and dismounted.

I listened with interest – albeit not compounded – and learned from the exchange that the tuk-tuk driver ought perhaps not to have been driving his vehicle on the pavement. After all, he had the roadway as his domain, and could well spare the pavement for pedestrians. Conversely, Office Man ought, just perhaps, to have been paying more attention to where he was walking, or – might it not be too much to say – blundering? Back to the perspective of the party of the first part, the tuk-tuk driver seemed a man of low morals and lesser intelligence. And back again to the other, something about Office Man’s evidently zoological parentage and feral upbringing. And then, the tuk-tuk driver’s unkempt appearance and uncivilized attitude – without intending to rebuke, was he really presenting a model to be admired, especially with all these schoolchildren clustering around the hullabaloo? Not to mention that the time of Office Men – just speaking in the abstract, now – could perhaps be better spent getting on to their offices instead of haranguing working-class innocents trying to deliver the traveling public to their necessary destinations. Plus a few other phrases, not all of which I followed – as the conversation careened from English to Sinhala and back again – the gist of which all seemed somewhat short of complimentary.

Then – having exhausted the views he felt he had to impart – the tuk-tuk driver got back into his vehicle and started its engine. Office Man, almost equally spent, conveyed one final impression, then pulled out a handkerchief and restored a shine to his shoe. Each then resumed his respective journey, the tuk-tuk driver to pick up another fare, Office Man on towards his office, conceivably with a stop along the way for a cup of tea to salve the pain in his foot and restore his damaged composure. And I walked on, struck not by the incident itself but by what it had not turned into. I expressed a silent sympathy to the absent personal injury lawyers who had lost any chance of a modest fee.

The second incident, as I mentioned, was merely recounted to me. It seems that there was a beautiful and profitable restaurant about a mile or two further down, occupying a choice location facing a well-trafficked section of Galle Road, where the clientele had its choice of lobster, squid, and other seafood delicacies. Because the plot of land on the other side of the restaurant was vacant, diners had a spectacular vista of the Indian Ocean, where waves rolled gently onto golden sands, and the sight of the distant fishing trawlers and ocean liners was only occasionally obscured by the no less scenic Ruhunu Kumari, the Southern Princess, chugging her way from the Maradana Railway terminus to Galle Fort Station. Given its spectacular view, the restaurant was called, naturally, the Sea View Cafe. It had sat there for decades, feeding patrons since before the time Queen Elizabeth named her first Governor General of the Island, and generating handsome profits for its owners.

Then, disaster struck. The vacant plot was acquired by a foreign government, which promptly erected its brand-new embassy on the spot, a giant, six-story, concrete eyesore that utterly blocked the view of the ocean from the Sea View Cafe. No longer had diners a vista of sands, waves or seagoing vessels. From a marketing perspective, the Sea View Cafe had been utterly bereft of one of its erstwhile attractions, its very name now rendered false and a hollow mockery. Sea View Cafe without a view of the sea? What to do now?

The owners of the restaurant were at first distraught. And the property-rights lawyers at the Hulftsdorf Courts, I surmise, must have been rubbing their hands at the prospect of a (perhaps less modest) fee. But once again, this dispute was not to be. Aiyo!, aiyo!, the restaurant owners said, and perhaps they shook their heads and clicked their tongues. Then they took a deep breath and – forgoing the assistance of lawyers, just as Office Man had – they did what they could to make the most of the altered circumstance. They changed the name of the Sea View Cafe.

Now, I am told, the lobsters, red mullet, and grouper are just as delicious, but the diners consuming them are seated at the Embassy View Cafe. It is still a beautiful restaurant, almost as profitable as before, with its frontage still on the Galle Road. And the lawyers over at the Hulftsdorf Court may have briefly lamented the lost opportunity, but I’m sure would have promptly found other cases with which to employ their time gainfully.


Kamil Ismail 2020Kamil Ismail is a partner with Goodell DeVries, where he practices in the areas of product liability, insurance coverage, and commercial and business tort litigation. He can be reached at