Jean Arasanayagam

Reminiscences of a colonial childhood

Jean Arasanayagam is of Dutch Burgher origin. She has attracted attention as a highly imaginative and sensitive poet. Besides being autobiographical, her writings also project the tragic state of affairs in her country Sri Lanka, which is torn by internal conflicts. She considers herself as an outsider called upon to observe her surroundings and the happenings. Jean Arasanayagam was born into one of Sri Lanka’s minority communities, and married into another. By birth she is a “Dutch Burgher”.The “Dutch Burghers” are the offsprings of intermarriages between Dutchmen and women of the indigenous communities, “I have suckled on a breast shaped by the genetics of history.” She married a Tamil, and this marriage was not approved by her husband’s family and consequently she found herself being ostracized. Her agony finds expression in her writings, Apocalypse ‘83 (1984) and Trial by Terror (1987). A Colonial Inheritance (1985) explores the writer’s own Burgher background and identity. Out of Our Prisons We Emerge (1987) is a more subjective collection while Reddened Waters Flow Clear (1991) and Shooting the Floricans (1993) contain some of the very best of Jean Arasanayagam’s poetry. Jean Arasanayagam is also an eminent short story writer. The Cry of the Kite (1984) is a collection with intense poetic descriptions of the bare, desertlike landscape in the neighbourhood of Jaffna in northern Sri Lanka, the traditional homeland of the Tamils. It also describes the decay of the small villages , their marginalisation through rapid modernization. Peacocks and Dreams (1996), a series of vignettes from Tamil village life, narrated from the point of view of a boy, won a prize for non-fiction in 1984 but was not published until twelve years later. It is characterized by a finely tuned, precise and objective prose. Fragments of a Journey (1992) and All is Burning (1995) show us once again the writer as a painter as well as an explorer. Arasanayagam is, as always, an excellent observer. She seldom tells a straighforward story in the conventional sense. Different time planes, insightful character portraits, a circular composition and a rhythmic, detail-shimmering prose are some of the characteristics of her short stories. Some of the stories explore the bitter truth of ageing and loneliness, some bring the bitter fighting between the armed forces and the guerilla of the Tamil tigers into focus. In Arasanayagam’s short stories there is also something more than transience and decay. They are also attempts to give expression to the enigma of existence, the presence of God. And in this sense, Arasanayagam seems to say, the old religions have to be defended against a new age of brutality, ethnic division and spiritual death: “She wakes early, the call of the prayer from the Muezzin and the Hindu theravams from the temple fill the whole city with the waves of sound. There is no contradiction, no argument between gods and prophets, only reminders of man’s sinfulness and his need for both hope and penance.”

REMINISCENCES OF
A COLONIAL CHILDHOOD

JEAN ARASANAYAGAM

The Beginnings – Kandy
The map is blank. My birth is its first landmark. An unformed map
without routes. Where is the forest? Where is the desert? The roadways? The
waterways, rivers and oceans? Where will the land be cleared for the setting up
of the first dwelling place? The blood predicts that there will be several. The
final one, in the wilderness. The going back, after the discovery of that Canaan
land, to the locusts and manna. The map already bore its invisible tracery webbed
with its crisscross of routes explored by earlier discoverers. My own life map
was an opaque sheet of parchment, clear and unsmudged, without its territory
and boundaries marked out.

Surrounded by tea estates and forested hills is the valley in which I was
born. The hill slopes with burning beacons flaring and sparking off flames
when the manna grass, tall, sharp-bladed stalks so harsh and abrasive, was set
on fire on the tea estate.The temple stood by the lake with the King's palace
and the bathing pavilion of the queen.The forest sanctuary was the backdrop
with its hoary trees,vines,creepers, and ferns. Its tribes of monkeys,reptiles
and animals within those dark coverts,churches,schools, built by missionaries--
Roman Catholic, Anglican,Methodist,Baptist. A turreted,high-walled gaol
painted deep rose- red in the heart of the township. A market place with mazes
of corridors and small shops.Pyramids of fruit.Baskets piled up with an
overspill of mangoes,passion fruit,avocado,pears,and pineapples. Bunches
of ripening plantains.Buckets filled with gladioli,carnations,lady's lace,
hydrangeas that had come wrapped in fir branches, from up-country. Fish laid
out on slabs, the last gasp and quiver, stilled. Great carcasses of meat suspended
from iron hooks.

Katukellewatte. Acres and acres of land, which belonged to Colonel
Piachaud. His wife, Lilian was my grandmother Charlotte Grenier’s cousin.
They lived in a house with spacious rooms and a sprawling verandah named
“The Retreat”. Two lofty, leaf crowned mangosteen trees stood sentinel before
the house. A stone birdbath was sunk into the earth. There was an emerald
green grass trimmed lawn with an arbour of bougainvillea. My parents lived in
one of the Colonel’s houses. Gowanlea, a name that emerged out of someone
else’s mythic dream of a mythic place in a mythic country. Somebody else’s
imagined landscape. I sought out its meaning years later. Transposed from
across the seas and planted in a tropical landscape. The Colonel was of French
descent, settled in this island but the name of the house he constructed was
plucked from some mystical memory of landscapes he had perhaps encountered
in a world of books in the remembrance of an idyllic pastoral. As for his own
house - it was his imagined haven. So distant from the warlike antecedents of
those soldiers of fortune, his ancestors. Katukellewatte abounded in fruit trees,
birds, bowers of bougainvillea, fern banks, hibiscus and frangipani. The colonel
had an estate in Kadugannawa too. Just below the point at which the hollowedout
rock tunnel marked the Pass. Rising from the valley, the tea estate spread and
covered the hill slopes. My mother as a young girl spent holidays with the
Piachaud children from time to time. She read to them, narrated stories, was
their young companion whom they loved dearly. Where was that house? I
searched for it as I passed through during all those growing years, but could
never see it. Was it still there, hidden away in some sheltered copse? What I
wanted to know, what I wanted to see, was some imagined part of my mother’s
early youth of which no photograph remained. To share her view of a hidden
valley and mountains wrapped in a blue, distanced haze beyond her vision and
yet, part of it.

Who had named me at my baptismal font? In the Methodist Church in
Brownrigg Street where John Wesley’s hymns were sung together with hymns
translated from Latin and German, the walls covered with historical plaques in
copper and marble.

My names were inspired by the readings into colonial text, the Bible
and the canonical literature of’ those times. Those names swam round,
imprisoned within that baptismal font, netted and flung from that ocean, fringed
by subjugated territory, gliding in those shallow depths, without a channel of
escape. Silvery shapes, luminous in the clear, fresh water shafted with green
and violet light glancing from the circular stained glass window above the carved
pulpit from which a succession of English missionaries delivered their sermons
every Sunday morning and evening to a fervent pew filled congregation. Names
embedded in my mind. Lansdowne, Nelson, Beven, Middlehurst, Jackson,
Small, Cartman, Tattersall, Nodder, Robinson... Was that first baptismal font
ever replaced during the passage of the years? In my imagination there still
remains the rainbow touch of glinting fish scales within those ever replenished
blessed waters that touched each infant forehead with the chill of presaging...
my names remain but their significance needs a new interpretation, the need to
be translated using new codes and ciphers.

I begin, then, here, at this point of time, with my entrance into the world
of Katukellewatte, define myself, an iridescent speck against the moving, shifting
glaciers of history. I go backwards into the past, my birth that lies within the
pre-history of the ice age. The speck appears on the blank map and begins, but
very gradually, to assume a shape and form. My birth, then, was located on that
map. It had its own mysteries. I had to construct, piece together those fragments
of memories and spin each thread to weave its unending tapestry. Who then
was that Colonel who had mapped out his territory in that once unsubjugated
Kandyan Kingdom? His existence possessed a historical credibility if not
justification. His ancestor who fought in the Seven Years War in 1759 was yet
another military officer, another Colonel Piachaud, brother officer in the same
regiment as Jean Francois Grenier, my mother’s French ancestor. Unlike my
mother’s great, great grandfather who had fathered one son and sailed away
across the Bay of Bengal never to be seen or heard again, Colonel Piachaud had
served in a regiment of the mercenary army of Colonel de Meuron, one who
had fought first on the side of the Dutch and after their capitulation and surrender,
on the side of the British.

Marriage alliances between the Greniers and the Piachauds proliferated
throughout the nineteenth century. As for their offsprings and the generations
to come there were no genealogical tables or records. The remaining descendents
were scattered over the face of the earth, emigrating to different parts of the
globe, mainly to England and later, the Grenier Janszs to both England and
Australia. There did not appear to be any need for those recorded histories,
documented to establish links and connections in the exile of death and migration.
To whom did it matter any longer that champagne flowed at the wedding of
one of the Piachauds and that the bride wore a gown of satin with a long train or
that the bridegroom was a famous Cambridge cricketer? What did it matter
that the descendants of those two soldiers of fortune should have given
birth to officials and dignitaries in the British colonial Government, becoming
puisne judges, colonial soldiers, accountants in the general treasury, attorney
generals, and civil servants, seeming to have shed whatever war-like antecedents
their ancestors possessed?

Colonel Piachaud was the chief attesting witness at my birth. He would
never live to see what I would grow up to be. Nor would he have approved my
rebellion against the customary mold of tradition. His wife Lily outlived him,
a gracious and beautiful woman, who also lived to see my own children. “Mother
would love to see your daughters”, Marguerite, Lily’s daughter told me one
day. That meeting was a historical event. Equivalent to being presented to the
Queen Mother. Her gifts to her cousin Dolly’s children were two kapok stuffed
cloth balls with variegated strips of colour that she had sewn herself. And the
two Victorian high chairs that my sister and I had inherited from the Piachaud
bungalow were part of her gifts, now bequeathed to my children. Those
variegated colours of the hand-sewn balls, looking back, provide the metaphors
for a genealogical hybridity.

The township in which I had my birth was not an unfriendly one in my
infancy. I was safe in my cradle, rocked to sleep with lullabies. My mother
loved me greatly. I was her youngest and close to her, as close as the whorled
fleece of cotton in its pod. She had special names for me then. Magical names.
Names I will never utter aloud for anyone to hear. They belong to that time
when I did not have full knowledge of pain, of that feeling called sorrow, of
hurt, death or violence. My mother told me I had a Guardian Angel; I believed
her. I believed I could hang on the edge of a steep, precipice and not fall down,
down deep into the chasm of death.

My uncle and aunts, all unmarried, lived close by at Sunnyside Gardens.
When I grew up, my sister and I were taken on visits where we played among
my uncle’s flowerbeds. He was a florist and his garden was filled with roses
imported from Holland, blue, mauve, pink clusters of hydrangeas, carnations
of dark crimson and deep rose pink streaked with red, gladioli, dark green ferns.
There was a biling tree laden with pale green, translucent, thick-skinned fruit,
so thick that it stung the tongue. Biling, mulberries, and China guavas we
gorged on, like wild birds fluttering in the garden.

By the time I had come to live at Sunnyside the carriage road was no
longer private. The ‘Bhishanaya’, the radical movement, Jathika Vimukthi
Peramuna that had begun in 1989 had gathered momentum by the early nineties.
There was death in the air. Gunshots echoed through the township at night.
And on Colonel Piachaud’s road, two bodies splattered with blood from gunshot
wounds with hands tied behind their backs, blindfolded, were dumped into the
drain beside the road and left there, exposed for the whole populace to view
until the hearse drove up and bore them off to an oblivion from which they had
come. ‘The Retreat’ has been sold off. Once it was a place of refuge for
mothers and their babies born out of wedlock. There were other changes too...
but the house still stands, its boundaries marked out, its shrunken garden fenced
in.

Beyond Blue Mountains
Childhood often writes remembered episodes of the past in memory,
episodes without strategy, that often in those long periods of time during which
we grow, shape ourselves into the completeness of the explorer’s discovery
whereby we recognize those landmarks we have journeyed through. We set up
our habitations there and go back to them as we retrace our steps. We follow a
path, a signpost, whether of face, rock or stream, plant or tree and find ourselves
traversing a landscape in which those once familiar figures encounter ours,
their faces still recognizable, although we knew them in a different clime, a
different season. Time has taken them away from us but we do not speak of
them as the dead. They are still there, inhabiting those landscapes of the mind,
that vast terrain in which we are often alone, wandering over those solitary or
crowded places. We glimpse the past as in that phase of silver that appears
through a gap in the mountain, to tell us that a restless ocean lies beyond it. My
aunt Nellie had once given me a book, beautifully illustrated called “Beyond
the Blue Mountains” and it was that imaginary and fabulous land that I had to
reach someday.

From the garden of the house where we lived in Kadugannawa, Dawson’s
tower with its gleaning whiteness stood out starkly against the blue green hills
of Belungala. Within its dark interior, a narrow spiral stairway with broken
steps wound up to a circular platform with railings. From this vantage point,
the view offered you a complete landscape, both close and distant, of lush foliage
fed by trickling streams and steep precipices dropping into valleys, with a
checkboard of paddy fields, houses and temples with never a person in sight.
The green belt lay spread beneath the blue hills, across which passed shadows
of light and dark and the eye searched for the path that descended beneath its
terraces and trees, where those truly ancient roots delve into the past of some
forgotten beginning.

Inside Dawson’s tower it was always fusty and dark, the atmosphere
fetid with bats and their droppings, but my brother and sister with their
intrepid friends had dared to climb to the top of the tower, through the almost
choking darkness, till they reached the light and drank in the fresh, pure air.
Below them was the world of mosque minarets, church spires and the rubber and
tea estates. The vast circle of the turntable with its shunting engine slowly
revolved - - it was an experience we sometimes enjoyed, climbing onto it and
feeling the blast of heat from the inferno of stoked fires, the coal shovelled in
with great metal scoops. To wipe out the grease and grime we were given wads
of coloured threads - my greatest joy was to try to unravel these coloured
strands of red and green, blue, white and yellow, smoothen them out, try to
thread them through the needle to embroider impossible and fanciful designs on
fine muslin and cambric.

I remained below the tower. My brother and sister felt I was too young
to go through the suffocating darkness. They were also old enough to escape
adult sanctions, to explore their own freedoms. They could take any road they
wanted, appear or disappear at will, climb tall mango trees, perch on a branch
and eat half-ripe mangoes. And my brother taught me a delicious secret of
taking ripe yellow lime, making a small hollow in the skin and filling it with
salt crystals and finely sifted chilly powder which we sucked as we sat on a
rock overlooking the railway lines, away from my mother’s watchful eyes. I
had a treasured Kodak snapshot of my brother camouflaged in a world of fruit
and leaves, with a felt hat perched on his head, on the mango tree above our
house. But very often I was left alone. My view was hazy; dreaming through
the garden, my brother’s and sister’s the bold ascent. As they walked round the
tower they carried the view visually with them - perhaps they could see even as
far as Bible Rock. I had to wait till my father led me up the summit of Belungala,
to lift me high on his shoulders and show me his vision of the ocean, so distant,
so beyond reach, through a haze of blue.

The Search
I walked up the steps curving up the hillside that led to the house, so
many years later with my two young daughters and a friend of theirs.
Kadugannawa, a place, a location where my awareness of myself would be
gradually realized. It was here that I began to be conscious of a landscape that
allowed for discovery and exploration. My steps took me wherever I willed.

Now, I had come in search in memory of those whom I had lived with
here. My father, my mother. Through this search I wanted to know them more
completely, through the remembrance of utterances, happenings, events,
narration; the dawning of sorrow; the joyful grasping of a transitory rainbow. I
had hoped that at least one person would be alive to greet me, if not recognize
me for I had altered beyond all things; growing away from the child I had been
within that garden where Mungo, my companion, had spent endless hours with
me.

My starting point, my investigation would begin from here. The retracing
of the route that led from this house on the hill. There is no one left to greet me,
no familiar figure from the past, friends, neighbours who had lived in those
railway bungalows clustering about the station. The railway lines still ran from
Kandy to Colombo on unalterable routes. The signal cabin, the overhead bridge
arching over the platform, the platform itself, was all unchanged. But the old
friends had all departed. First, on transfers to other stations in the island, then
migration, finally death. All those Burgher families whose lives had been so
close to ours. The colonials too. My eyes glanced at the Railway reading
room. Yes, the tennis courts still remained, but were with overgrown grass.
And the swing, which had been my delight. The giant turntable was no longer
in use. I had been on the huge steam engine with my father as it revolved
slowly, ponderously round being readied for the direction it would take; the
engine with its cavernous belly, a furnace of blazing flames, the firemen
shovelling coal into its inferno. My first journeys had been on the trains powered
by those steam engines, flying cinders prickling my eyes as the train passed
through tunnels; stopped at temporarily, alighted at stations; embarking,
disembarking. But there had been other journeys too. Wholly unpredicted
ones. On this journey back did I expect to find Mungo still living? Was it only
because I had become vulnerable, inevitably, to all that she had tried to protect
me from, that I still clung to the memory of the safety she had given me and the
knowledge she had within her, sharing her life with me. I had never known her
to go on any journeys on those trains that passed through, day after day. Her
route was from her home, in the interior of that village where her hut was, mud
walled, thatched growing out of its earth, to my home. It was through her that
my awareness grew of another way of life, the life in the village with its myths,
folklore, legends and rituals. Of her way of looking at good and evil. All this
existed beneath the layers and layers of my parents’ way of life. The inheritance,
the heritage that was what I had been born into.

We spent endless and timeless hours of leisure in that garden or within
the small, whitewashed rooms of the house. At night the Bali drums, thunderous
and echoing through the stillness had instilled an unknown fear in me. In the
morning she had taken me along the pathway that led to her home where the
ceremonies and rituals of exorcism had taken place. Holding me by the
hand we would go in that early morning walk through that mist covered path
with its fecund, moisture-drenched foliage of plants and flowers, ferns, ant-hills,
trees on either side of it. Mungo’s brother Charlie was the Kattadiya who in his
trance, addressed the spirits of demonic forces in his incantations, slit the throat
of the sacrificial cock bird, sliced hundreds of limes, swallowed fire from the
blazing kerosene soaked torches bound with old cloth and spewed out the flames
which shot forth in wavering plumes, flowing into the night air. Engulfed in an
ocean of fire and scattered sparks. She had taken me into the room where the
child Menike lay wrapped up in a white cloth on a woven reed mat, a padura,
on the floor. The ceremony had been held to cure her of some malady, some
affliction.

Outside, in Mungo’s garden the huge effigies of the demons, the yakkas,
had been lifted down and lay among the scattered offerings of brilliant yellow
marigolds, red hibiscus, yellow, white, pink, orange and red-tinged araliya. I
had wanted to pick up the flowers. “No bebi. Do not touch. The evil is in
them. You too will be harmed.” Her hand had been protective and restraining
on mine. What were those intimations of evil she had shown me? By word, by
utterance. Evil was inherent even in the seemingly peaceful landscape which
we inhabited. She had parted that screen to the other life concealed from those
with whom I lived the accustomed ways, - my parents, their friends, my teachers
in the missionary school I would go to later.

I lay awake, often, in the four-poster, wrapped in the fleecy folds of a
woollen English blanket, the shadows playing on the white, trilled cotton valance,
glancing on the whitewashed walls in a chiaroscuro of light and shade. Listening,
listening to the thud, thud, thud of the hollow sounding drums, which reached
through the dark, tree crowded silence, until the sombre echo filled the entire
space of the bedroom, filling my ears with the insistence of a relentless rhythm.
I would lie awake for hours in silence my sister beside me, my mother in the
French bed against the other wall, my head hidden in the folds of the blanket.
At night it was the sound of the drums that kept me awake. At dawn the mistdispersing
machine sounded its dirge - like siren on the Englishman’s rubber
estate across the railway tracks. Its long drawn, monotonous wail filled me
with an inexplicable sense of melancholy. I felt myself in a space less vacuum
being sucked in, a vacuum shimmering with brilliant pointillist specks of colour
from which I could never struggle out until I woke startled out of its disturbing
dream.

And in those nightly dreams I was always falling off that bridge onto the
railway track, the shrill whistle of the steam engine echoing, re-echoing through
a dense, opaque dark. Only the thought of the signal lamp that my father flashed
with its sliding shades of colour gave me any sense of comfort. And then, there
was a different kind of terror, the tales that Mungo would relate to me,
remembered from her own childhood. The rakshasa could entice you with
those delicious honey seeping kewun, the cakes which she hung on a tree so
that you would be tempted to pluck them and then became captive through her
ruses.

Gamarala’s Tale
This is one of the stories I remember which belonged to that ancient oral
tradition of the village. I sat cradled in Mungo’s lap and heard her narrate the
story. I searched for this story in later years and found it in a collection of folk
tales published by the Englishman Parker, in the year 1910.

“In a certain country there lived a Gamarala who had seven children.
The six elder children woke up at daybreak to work in the rice field. The
youngest went to school. Together with the other children, the whole party of
them used to go near the dwelling of a rakshasi who lived nearby. The rakshasi
saw them and from that day onward, decided to eat them. But she was afraid of
the men in the village and was kept from seizing the children. She craved for
them and so decided that she would use her daughter to catch them. She broke
off the leaves of a tree, which stood on the road which the children passed by
on their way to school and hung plantains and kewun on strips of white cloth
which she had bound the branches with. The children were enchanted by the
cake tree and plucked the kewun and plantains, which they ate. The rakshasi
hid in the jungle. She was afraid that the children would scuttle off when they
saw her and tell the men of the village who would kill her. So she bided her
time. One morning the Gamarala’s son came earlier than the others, climbed
the tree and began plucking the fruits and cakes. The rakshasi suddenly appeared
with a bag. She stood at the bottom of the tree and spoke to him.

“Here you! Son, pluck a cake for me,” she said. He plucked one for her
but she threw it on the sand. “Pluck another”, she said, “I can’t eat this because
it is covered with sand. As he plucked and threw them down, she kept dropping
them. “I can’t catch the cakes you are dropping. I will tell you an easy way to
do it. Pluck as many as you can and jump into the bag. Jumping is easier than
climbing down the tree.” The foolish child thought to himself, “Yes, what she
tells me is easy” and he plucked as many kewuns with both hands, filled his
pockets and jumped into the rakshasi’s bag. The rakshasi tied the mouth of the
bag and concealing him inside took him stealthily to her house and told
her daughter “Daughter, today I must eat something tasty. There is some meat
in the bag that I have carried over my shoulder. Boil the meat for me.” The
rakshasi gave the bag to her daughter and went about her business. The daughter
opened the bag and found the boy inside. When she was about to take him out
to prepare the meat, the boy said, “Aney, akka, sister, there are lice on your
head.” “If you can catch them, do so” she told him and sat down. The Gamarala’s
son parted the strands of hair as if searching for lice. And then suddenly took
up the axe that had been brought to kill him and struck off her head. After killing
her, he put her into the cauldron of water, placed the pot on the hearth and
boiled her. He then prepared her for the rakshasi to eat. He collected the rice
mortar, the pestle and a great number of knives that were in the house. He then
climbed a palmyrah palm that stood at the doorway and lay in wait for the
rakshasi.

When she returned after her bath she called out to the daughter “Has the
tasty food been prepared today? It must be done secretly or the men of the
village would kill us.” When she came into the house she found that the boiled
meat was there for her to eat but there was no sign of the daughter. She called
out to her, but there was no answer. While the rakshasi was searching for her,
the youth on the palm tree began to beat the rabana and said, “tan, tun, their
own flesh they themselves will eat. On the palmyrah tree at the doorway, tan,
tun.” Saying this, he began to beat a rabana.

The rakshasi saw him and came running to seize him when he threw
down the pestle and mortar, which struck her. She died at the bottom of the
tree. Then the boy climbed down, went home and told the rest of his family the
whole story. They came with him and took away all the rakshasi’s possessions.
They lived happily together.”

Those were the stories Mungo would tell me in her gentle ruminating
way. The stories themselves were frightening. In my imagination the cake tree
grew in my garden, but it was the anodha tree with its ripening fruit and the owl
that nightly gave its melancholy omen-filled call beside the green tats of the
verandha that haunted my dreams. Both Mungo and my mother would advise
me of the spells, and the enchantments that would bind me if I left nail parings
or hair clippings about the place. They could be used to make ‘charms’ which
would perhaps be harmful to me. So when my hair was cut every strand of hair
was gathered up and taken away, who knows where, but hidden from the gaze
of anyone who might bury it after ‘charming’ it. Nail clippings too were carried
away in folds of newspaper.

Lullabies in the Wind
The power of memory assails my senses as I think of Mungo, her face,
the colour of her eyes, the fragrance of her skin with its earthy smells and of
paddy stalks ripening in the sun, the smell of the coconut oil in her hair, and of
her cotton camboya washed with ‘sunlight’ soap, pervading my senses as I lay
on her outstretched knees being lulled to sleep. She was crooning her lullabies
to me, the words which I would seek later in order to understand more than
what those dream induced, hypnotic words that soothed me with their gentle
rhythms. For me that moment the rocking motion of her knees, the lulling tones
of her voice, the feel of her hands lifting the pillow beneath my head were
enough to give me a sense of peace. Those were her inherited lullabies, from
her own childhood in the village, heard from her mother and her grandmother.
Lullabies, which she shared with her own children and with me whom she now
nurtured. In my half sleep I knew she was crooning words that I recognised, of
familiar flowers that grew in my garden, sainan, pitcha, and jasmine; of fruit,
veralu and dodang, the olive and the orange; of the green parakeet and of the
spilt milk flowing in the river and of the deep hum and throb of the bakamuna,
the night owl that I heard on the anodha tree. My eyes, their lids becoming
heavy, weighed with drowsiness and oncoming sleep, observed fragments of
her face and body, the ruddy sheen of her golden skin, the white cotton jacket
with the little silver knobs like drops of coalesced mercury fallen from a shattered
thermometer, the safety pins attached to the neckline. These safety pins served
so many functions, picking out those thorns as she trod the earth barefooted or
were used in passing tapes and elastics through the hems of sundry garments.
The tiny gold safety pins were used to pin on that particular arrangement of a
fan-like handkerchief on the front of our printed chintz dresses. My eyes were
mesmerised by the silver bracelet coiled round Mungo’s wrist, her chain with
the suraya, the amulet, the earings, silver cylinders thrust through her elongated
earlobes.

In the garden we played for hours within a world that no one else shared.
In the afternoons, beneath the mara tree, red petals carpeting the earth, we crushed
juices on stones to make play food. She taught me how to twist the dried jack
leaves, secure them with ekels and send them whizzing in the air above the
thornless roses on their missions high, high above the mugerine bushes and the
Holy Ghost orchids. Facing each other we sat, the two of us, playing athuru
mithuru, placed the tiny stones and pebbles on the back of the hand, flipping
them over to fill the palm. We shooed away the crows, both real and imaginary,
lifting out hands and crying out... Goraka dain, goraka dain, dain like the refrain
of the ancient ballads. I collected orange-red sapu seeds strewn all over
the garden. The selalihini in the cage could talk imitating our human language.
Laughter gurgled in my throat as we exchanged our formal greetings, the birds
and I. My father had taught the bird, human language. I would stand at the
barred cage and offer it sapu seeds from the garden, coral red seeds.

“Good morning, Sally. Hello, Sally! Good morning”

“Good morning, good morning,” sang out Sally.

Sally hopped about on the bars pecking at ripe papaw and taking tiny sips of
water. Selalihinis are rare, my father told me, mynahs are more common. To
me, bird language was what I sought to understand. It was the language I
wished to speak to them, not the human tongue. We inhabited the same garden
of my childhood. My father taught me the language of birds, for he too listened
to every birdcall.

Mungo washed me and bathed me in the big enamel basins and zinc
bathtubs, lifting me off my warm bed early into the morning to ready me for
school. She crushed anguru, charcoal from our wood fire and filled the empty
pots of Pond’s Vanishing cream bottles with the powder. She would place
some of it on my palm. I would dip into it with my finger and rub it gently on
my teeth leaving them white and sparkling. The cool bathroom with its half
green painted walls had little spider sacs as soft and powdery yellow as pollen
set in the window niches, fragile spider webs that trapped motes of sunlight in
their delicate mesh, and boxes of sawdust with wooden scoops. There were
also the adobe dwellings of the orange and black potter wasps, with their mazes
and tunnels. It was here, musing that I felt the orange tree sprouting within me
from the careless seed I swallowed imagining the branches thrusting out of
each orifice of my body. Love for Mungo was also a growing thing. Its full
intent was felt so many years later in recollection, in remembrance of the
nurturing woman, the woman in whose presence I never spilt a tear. But why,
why did I once pursue her as she carried the night lamp to the bedroom at dusk?
She who spread her padura, the mat with its green and red designs beside the
high four poster to sleep beside me. Her hand shielded the wavering flame as
she stepped along the verandha. “Mungo”, I called, “Mungo” and I tried to
hold her back from leaving me, going away from me, but she went on firmly
ahead. I wanted to keep her by me, prolong the conscious hours of hearing her
voice, feeling the touch of those firm hands and began a chase. “Stop, bebi” I
called. “Stop”. “Stop, don’t be a naughty girl, stop”. My mother called out as
I pursued her, ran behind her, as fast as I could. My feet were nimble. We ran
through the dining room, through the hall, along the back verandha. Mungo
ahead of me, I behind her, almost upon her, my hand outstretched to grasp
whatever of her. I could hold onto and then she fell. The night lamp shattered
into fragments, the flame went out. I was pulled away, punished, smacked,
Mungo? Was she angered? Did she upbraid me? Perhaps she did. It was a
dangerous game. The flame could have spread. Mungo could have been hurt.
Feelings and emotions that were unbridled. A wildness that was almost primitive.
Who would explain it all?

I knew what the consequences would be. I would not escape. And now
the next chase began. My mother complained to my father of my behaviour.
Now it was she who came behind me. I fled from them all and sought out my
brother who was in one of the rooms going about his own business. Wordlessly
I ran up to him, clasped his waist from behind and used him as a shield to
protect me. We swayed to and fro together, but my mother grasped me, pulled
me out. I remember my brother’s strange smile, almost as if he understood an
act of mischief for its own sake. But he had to allow justice to be meted out.
And Mungo? she said, I think. “Bebi you are very naughty, very dangerous
very mischievous.” I could not get protection from any quarter. I learnt that day
that I would have to take the consequences of any act that caused hurt or pain to
someone else. I could not control it. Nor could I hide away from aggression. I
had to articulate those feelings with words I was still to learn.

Storm On The Lagoon
My mother always dramatized her experiences, brought risk, danger,
and excitement closer home involving me in many of those happenings. Her
narratives began anywhere, at anytime when we were together, alone. Was she
talking to me or were her words reaching somewhere else, someone else. I now
think to myself, ‘why did you never write all this in your journals, record your
own past?’ My father, my mother, were always reaching back into their own
lives, delving into the experience which had significance on their personal
journeys. Somehow the message reached me and after all those years they are
there within my own secret mind-cache, to retrieve.

I hear her voice, my mother’s voice recalling the storm on the lagoon. I
was with her, that evening, ‘a babe in arms’ as she told me ‘when I went boating
on the Batticaloa lagoon and the boat capsized. It was so hot, so very hot here
on the eastern coast and I wanted to feel the cool breeze that blew over the
stretch of water. It was so inviting and as I stood with you on the shore I had
this sudden urge to take a boat ride. Your father was at work. He was stationed
in Batticaloa. I had remained behind in Kandy at aunty Tommy’s. Your father
hated being separated from us but after Budgie’s death and your birth
there had been a period of disturbance in our lives. I felt you were too young to
be taken so far away. Perhaps it was a sense of reluctance to leave the familiar
things, the comfort of the known place and friends.... I had come here on a
holiday. We were sailing in the boat. I sat cradling you comfortably in my arms.
The waters were calm like crushed silk, gently ruffled by the breeze that touched
each wave. Suddenly a high wind rose. The air grew dark. The boat first tossed
violently from side to side, tilting dangerously into the turbulence. The waves
were rising high”.

I listened, my play suspended. I feel a thrill of excitement run through
my body. My mother’s story of the danger we had shared was more exciting
than my solitary game. Was it a jigsaw I was so carefully setting like a mosaic
before me?

It was a story about myself too and I wanted, with every fibre of my
being to experience that sense of danger, of near drowning, even of being so
close to death. The lagoon waters had drenched us and when the boat capsized
in those moments when my mother kept afloat. ‘I swam’ she told me, ‘I swam
against those turbulent currents, it seemed for ages but. it could not have been
for so long the boatmen righted the craft and plucked us both from those waters,
how they swirled about our bodies And I? What did I know of that underworld
of fish and water plant, being watched by the secret eyes of scuttling crabs, fins
touching the skin, fish sliding against the bodies... We did not go under even
once.... You had to be safe... your father could not lose a second child so soon.’
She was telling me how she had wanted to escape from the heat, the ennui of
that holiday. What was she reminding herself of? Days, snatched from a
calendar, times that were, in her life, never predictable? Her mind seemed to be
recreating her own imagined role. ‘I had held you high in my arms but the
water inundated us. The lagoon was so alive - seething waves, fish leaping
above the water, the chill currents... yes, you had to live... I was reminded of
the time of your birth... you were like a tiny fish clinging so tenaciously to the
womb, swimming in that amniotic fluid that protected you...’‘ A little mermaid?’
I asked.

‘Yes, if you like to think of yourself as one’, She smiled. ‘I must have
felt the turbulence within that miniature storm. Did that upheaval toss me about?’
‘Oh you clung tenaciously. Refused to emerge. You bided your time and curbed
my impatience too’

My mother must have wanted to be over and done with that birthing.
And perhaps she had decided she had had enough. No more children. Had she
willed it? For there were no one born after I had emerged out of the ocean of
her womb. I had dreamed those months away in darkness... I now grasped those
brilliant shafts of light to give myself new sighting.

I would always feel the bonding of those nine months. ‘Feel, feel my
head, have I got a whirlpool....’ My mother had said so often, ‘if you have a
suli, a whirlpool, you will have to be careful of water, of being drowned.’

‘I wanted there to be a whirlpool. I wanted to feel the danger that
surrounded me in unknown oceans.’ Her fingers probed among the clusters of
my hair. She merely said, ‘you will always have to be careful of water, oceans,
rivers.’ But I would always walk into the sea as deep as I could and then float
on my back with the sun striking my eyes, or swim out as far as I could but
keeping the light house in sight.

But, one day, many years later, I went under ridges of tall, sweeping
waves which dragged me far out into the sea. It was at Closenberg, in Galle.
Batticaloa, Galle are landmarks in my mother’s family histories. Those forts
had known the presence of my ancestors. I couldn’t surface from the salt tasting
waves, stringing my eyes and face, blinding me. I couldn’t breathe, I was
carried, farther and farther out and there was only the blue, turquoise-blue; seagreen
expanse of water.... suddenly I was pinioned by the strong arms of the
swimmer who had seen me disappearing beneath the waves. My head was
lifted above the spume and I took a breath of air. It was the third time I had
been able to, my gills furiously taking the life-giving draught, shaking as I
tossed my hair, the tiny starfish and molluscs clinging on, with tendrils of seaweed
into the wet strands. And again, later, the gold wedding ring I had but
newly worn, my engagement ring of blue sapphires, the bracelet around my
wrist had all slipped off, swept away by the waves, small recompense for the
life that had been given back to me. Gold to sink deep into an ocean bed,
treasure of innumerable shipwrecks, while the plankton, molluscs and smaller
fish floated in opaque depths among the drowned bodies of those lost human
cargoes.

Aggression
What are little girls made of?
What are little girls made of?
Sugar and spice and all that’s nice
And that’s what little girls are made of
What are little boys made of?
What are little boys made of? Frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails
And that’s what little boys are made of

Was this ditty first learned at my missionary school? Was it meant to be
a deterrent to the early awakenings of sexuality or was it meant to use the
imagery of confectionery to titillate the imagination of the little boys we teased
in school? Swooping down upon there with our arms twined around each other’s
waists, during recess, which our ten minutes tea interval was named on our
printed timetables. Was it the early transformation of the female image into an
icon? We were, as girls, taught to think of ourselves as special. Little boys
were made to stir the sense of distaste within us. That was the message that
reached us in translation. But that’s not what we felt at all - we played joyfully
with them and sat next to them in the classroom until they grew older and were
banished into the missionary colleges for boys. Of the three boys I remember,
one became a Buddhist monk and died young. Another published pamphlets
on Islam later on in life. He too died before his time. Only one of them remains.

Were puppy dogs tails unintentionally or intentionally a corroboration
of the incipient phallic image? Who knows? There was always the dark side to
the things that went on in the minds of adults while sometimes they were unaware
of what went on under their very noses. We were careful to hide most of our
secrets away from them.

I cannot remember whether I told anyone of how a very young playmate
in Kadugannawa called me out to play one evening. My mother was visiting
his family in one of those railway bungalows by the rail track and had taken me
along too. There were two boys in the family and not only were our two families
very friendly with each other, but we children were playmates, travelled by
train to school in Kandy, played with the Meccano sets and Homby trains in
their drawing room. We also heard the minstrel singers who entertained us on
their verandah. I heard “South of the Border”, “Down Mexico Way”, on their
wireless for the first time in the drawing room of a railway home, while the
trains thundered down the lines to Colombo and the shunting of the engines of
the turn-table filled our ears. It was on the verandah of Renny’s house that the
minstrel shows were held while the young men, their faces all tricked out in
black and white with red bow ties and top hats, serenaded us on the verandah
with Shanendoah, Old Folks at Home, Swanee River, Polly Wolly Doodle all
the day. We sat and listened to them singing, strumming bangos and mandolins
and playing the mouth organ. All of us played the mouth organ or made music
on combs covered with tissue paper.

Renny led me to one of those secret places our parents knew nothing of.
Behind his house, at the foot of the tea-estate, was a deep ditch, more a huge
crevice in the earth with its tangle of wild plants. Here, when we had clambered
down into the deepest part of the ditch instead of playing one of the exciting
games which we devised, getting lost on our adventures’ journey into the jungle,
Renny suddenly turned on me, his expression inscrutable but determined. He
began to punch me black and blue, pummel my body giving it thumping blow
after blow. I could not protect myself from him. His grip on me was so firm.
He tore my hair and pinched my cheeks. His hands were round my neck,
tightening, almost strangling me. My chintz dress was in shreds. I felt the
bitter taste of sunflower petals in my mouth. My feet slipped among the rocks
as I tried to break away from him. He hit me repeatedly, almost strangled me to
finish me off. He had lost all control of himself. We were both silent. I pushed
him away finally, but the blows and thumps I could not ward off. I left him in
the ditch alone, spent out. I escaped, clambered up the rocky footholds and ran
back to his home where my mother was chatting peacefully to his mother. I
had learned early, the ploys and strategies of defence and escape. Resistance I
offered, tears I did not shed. In the vulnerability of childhood there were hidden
strengths, in which adult interference was not needed. But I would never forget
that the jungle was everywhere, even in the most idyllic landscape.

Doopvisch & Karamanadje
Memory has sometimes the colour of hibiscus and the flavour of tangy
lemon. My mother and I culled the red hibiscus flowers from the hedge in our
back garden where they flourished, their petals fresh with a sheen on them. The
red hibiscus petals were steeped in boiling water, which tinged the water in the
bowl with a rose pink. Freshly cut limes were squeezed in for flavour, sugar
stirred and then the moss added which helped the jelly to set. Poured into a
silvery mould, the jelly unmoulded sat transparent and quivering in the cut
glass dish. My thoughts were often the colour of hibiscus. Blancmanges too
my mother would make, milk white blancmanges served with red strawberry
jam, like snow covered mountains over which the sunset streamed. And caramel
custards. My mother created a childhood of colours and flavours together with
her stories that grew in my mind into unending fictions. I was growing up in a
world that was being revealed to me day by day, a world in which my mother
was the guardian and the custodian of a way of life which she shared with me.

I would creep into the kitchen to sit by Emily and Podi Singho while
they had their food. I preferred the white china plates they ate off, with clusters
of blue flowers. ‘Made in Japan’ was the trademark. Even their cups and saucers
were white with blue-flowers. Now, Emily had come into our lives. Mungo
was my dream of the past. Emily not only cooked for us with the help of old
Amme whose back was bent, and had worked for the Sunnyside aunts.
Emily also ironed our clothes with the hot coals in the pol-katta smoothing iron,
brought us hot bowls of soup of chilly on rainy evenings and watched our
pastimes, offering the balm of solace to tumultuous feelings.

It was not easy for me to forget Mungo during that transient period of
my Kadugannawa childhood. A childhood, which I thought, would last forever.
There in that world, it had been play among the mugerine bushes, the thornless
roses and Holy Ghost orchids, but here in Kandy, I became more curious of a
world, a mysterious one, which existed far away from the rest of the house;
reached by a flight of stone steps, the kitchen where hours and hours were spent
preparing those repasts that were served on the Johnson and Johnson or Meakins
platters. The kitchen was a special preserve, a special world with Podi Singho
in between polishing the brass and sweeping and dusting, running up and down
to the boutique to bring newspaper cones filled with condiments. The cooking
went on almost the whole day for the spices were freshly ground, the coriander,
the cummin and fennel, the chillies dry and crackling, on the black-pitted
grinding stone. The grinding stone must not be too smooth, so from time to
time the old craftsman came to hammer out an intricate design so that it became
some archaic game board and the red chillies filled the tiny pits upon the surface.
The chillies crackled and burst like Chinese firecrackers as the stone, cylindrical,
crushed them and the, pale yellow seeds merged into the smooth red mound of
chilly paste.

My mother used to prepare smoore or roast beef. For the roast she
marinated the beef in pepper, salt and vinegar, tied it up into shape with twine,
and set it in the pot where it boiled for hours until the gravy had been reduced
to almost an aroma which clung to the earthenware… then it was lifted out and
fried in its own fat. The thinnest slices would be carved at dinnertime and
served with roast potatoes, carrots and boiled cabbage. What remained would
be ‘devilled’ the next day for lunch.

The place in the house, away from the cretonne covered furniture and
the polished brass and china ornaments was the kitchen, encrusted with bark
like dumbutu from the soot, the beams, rafters and tiles blackened with
woodsmoke from the hearth fires. In the railway bungalow at Kadugannawa,
there was a big iron stove fed with coke and coal from the railway-yard on
which my mother baked cottage loaves, crusty and brown, to be eaten with
cloverleaf butter. On the hearth, curries simmered-pots of jak, beef, fish and
chicken. The fires of the hearth were fed with jungle wood, coconut shells and
coconut husks that the men brought in bullock carts.

When I think back on my mother’s prowess and skill, with her delicate
hands and wrists, I marvel at all that she accomplished in the serving up of
those delicacies, which we took for granted and accepted as our daily fare. And
she shared all that she made with a most hospitable heart. The aunts and uncles
who visited us were given their ‘share’ to take home afterwards. Aunty Maud
would come visiting of an evening, all dressed up and groomed for a social
call. My mother usually had a tin of breadfruit chips, one lot dipped in sugar
syrup, the other in turmeric and sprinkled with salt, huge chunks of home made
sweets, milk toffee and cashew toffee. There again, my mother was never
parsimonious with the generous portions she cut. “Dolly’s Christmas cake was
always in big chunks.” She never cut the cake into thin slices or wrapped them
in silver paper like wedding cake. Each time the visitors came round, the cake
trays were taken out of the almirah. In fact, the whole almirah was redolent of
its aroma during the season, for it was kept on the bottom shelf of the wardrobe
section together with all our very special dresses on hangers, my mother’s, my
sisters’ and my own.

My mother had a huge serving pan in which she made all the conserves
and preserves. Especially the pumpkin preserve which had to be taken off the
wood fire, at the correct time, the last stages being crucial in getting the correct
consistency, not too hard not too crystallized. Ah! She was such an expert in
making her confectionery. Cakes, sweets, and savouries- all the special flavours
of childhood were associated with my mother’s unwritten recipes - handed
down from the Jansz and Grenier side of the family. I wonder just how much
she learned from her maternal grandmother with whom she spent many years
after her childhood. In the kitchen where skills were being practised, I too
wanted to master. I would watch the rhythmic movements of those women’s
hands crushing the dried chillies, the coriander and cumin, the turmeric, on the
grinding stone until everything became a smooth paste in varying shades of
yellow, red and brown. Then to be placed in rounded mounds on an aluminium
or china plate, pinched off bit-by-bit and added to the earthenware vessels with
the simmering curries. The chicken, meat and fish cooking slowly on the wood
fires. It was always the women’s hands that performed every task – meticulously,
skilfully. The Maldives fish was washed, sun dried and pounded in the mortar.
It went into everything –seeni sambol, pol-sambol, kiri hodhi, omelettes,
vegetable curries but best off all we loved to taste the powdered maldive fish as
it was being pounded with the pestle and scraping off the sides of the mortar
with a spoon.

There were traditional ways of doing everything. the women brought
their lore from their homes in the village, sharing their skills with my
mother’s own inherited knowledge. She possessed a rich store of memorised
recipes handed down from generation to generation. The kitchen hearth, the
roaring wood fires, the clack of the coconuts being cracked and the sound of it
being grated thus began the day for us, giving us a sense of security and order,
a well known and familiar pattern of life was being resumed. The hearth was as
hard as brick with the fires that burned daily. In our Kandy home we used only
the hearth, feeding the fires with wood. The coconut shells were not used for
cooking meat, as there was a belief that it would not turn out tender. Through an
iron funnel or ‘bata’, held close to the mouth, the living breath made the flames
rise high as the women blew through it until the brands kindled were set alright.
What an art there was in the kindling of that fire, the particular arrangement of
firewood sticks, the quick springing to life of the growing flame licking the
sides of the soot-blackened chatty pots; the smouldering firebrands drawn out
so that while the curries still simmered, the oil would rise to the surface. Chatty
pots containing polkiri baduns, the meat cooking and frying in the thick coconut
milk itself, the beef smoore, which was a Burger speciality in which my mother
excelled. There were chatty roasts and mulligatawny, made of beef or chicken
stock, tempered and flavoured with cummin and coconut milk.

Before going out for a dance when we didn’t know at what time we
would have supper, we would have bowls of mulligatawny and rice served in
soup dishes. Food did not matter very much then as we whirled about the
music of Strauss Waltzes in the Queen’s Hotel ballroom with Peter Allon playing
his repertoire of music with its ripple of chords and arpeggios. Mulligatawny
and rice were then all in one meal, sustaining yet not leaving one uncomfortably
overfull. Many years later I thought of that meal when I had ikanbilisi cooked
specially for me by a Chinese friend, rice, boiled in stock with pork chops,
spring onions, slivers of ginger and raw egg tipped whole into it so that the egg
is cooked in bubbling stock. The ikanbilisi, tiny dried sprats added fillip to it.
There were special cooking vessels, all earthenware and as hard as iron with
the preservation of the years, for the roast beef and smoore(ismore); large, wide
mouthed chatties with delicately incised designs ornamenting them.

For the ismore, the indigenised meat stew, a special hunk of beef was
bought, about four or five pounds in weight. It was lightly washed and pricked
all over with a fork to tenderise it and allow the ground spices to impregnate it.
Roasted dry chillies were ground into a rounded ball, a ‘guliya’, while the
condiments, the coriander and cummin were roasted separately and ground
into a fine paste. The dark sienna gamboge, the ochre turmeric and the dark red
chillies were set on a plate – the artist’s preparations - the sliced red onions,
rambe-karapincha, ground garlic and ginger, cardamom, lemon grass and
fragrance emated from the pot as the beef cooked for hours on end in a slow
fire. Thick coconut milk was added later. The temparadu. The word ‘temperadu’
derives from the Portuguese and has its specific meanings and connotations.
Wasn’t it also a compound of our personalities, the process by which the delicate
flavours were so skilfully amalgamated to produce the preparatory stages of
cooking the dish? The Burgher personalities had its similarities to this process,
the way I see it, like that special, very special aroma that tilted the senses. That
awakened the taste buds, enwrapped in a savoury seam the dish served hot, hot
from the kitchen, straight off from the chatty which was left on the fire,
simmering till the last moment. The skill in mixing, the correct timing, of putting
in each ingredient into the hot oil until it was correctly browned carried the
secret of its success. The mixture was slightly stirred with the coconut shell
spoon. There were special spoons for special preparation, individual spoons for
fish, meat, vegetables, rice, milk, sweets, cake mixing.

What were the other specialities my mother made? Lots of “devilled”
dishes, hot with chillies, vinegar and fried rings of Bombay onions. Dishes,
which probably made us by temperament even more volatile than we were. Our
food was hardly bland, nor was our natures but there were the dishes that
created a fine balance too. My mother’s Karamanadje, the rolled Dutch cutlet
of meat, seasoned with pepper and vinegar and cooked in coconut milk was
one of my favourites. The original Dutch Karamanadje was altered to suit my
father’s taste buds. More pepper and spices added. And there was yet another
favourite of mine, Doopvisch, slices of seer fish, boiled first, the stock flavoured
with turmeric, pepper, karapincha, rampe, lemon grass and pepper corns. The
doopvisch was served with an egg sauce, the raw egg beaten into the fish stock
until it was of a creamy consistency. Meat, and fish cutlets, what would generally
be termed meat or fish cakes, rissoles and rolled cutlets with their fillings of
minced beef or mashed hardboiled eggs were brought piping hot to the dinner
table together with a tureen of mulligatawny. And on long railway journeys we
would take parcels of cold beef cutlets and slices of bread and butter to still our
hunger as children. Left over cutlets from the night before were made into
delicious cutlet curry for lunch the next day. Frickadela, forced meatballs were
for special festive occasions when we had ghee rice or yellow rice.

What I think back on now is that a special relationship existed between
my mother and the women who cooked in our old fashioned kitchens. They did
things together harmoniously, talking to each other, sharing their knowledge
and skills. My mother taught Emily, Sophy, Pinchiamma, Menike and the
others all she knew and they too revealed their way of doing things. Things
which I remember to this day, the way they washed the rice so that the minute
stones settled in the patterned grooves of the clay koraha with that rhythmic
movement of the two palms holding the circular edges; the way they cut and
sliced and tasted for the adding of more seasoning, a little soupcon of the gravy
taken up with the coconut shell spoon and slipped on to the cupped palm and
then with a delicate lick to proclaim ‘just a little more salt or lime’ to add that extra
fillip to the curry. For some of these women who did not eat chicken, fish or meat
the aroma was sufficient to correct proportioning or seasoning of condiments,
spices, salt and lime.

Yes it was a special world for women in many ways with their bonding
as women. Preparing almost ritualistically the meals for the family. Sharing in
the pleasure of eating of a carefully prepared dish. They too were discerning
women meticulous in their special skills displayed in the way they sliced an
onion, a green chilly or even a lime. They were not considered servants in our
home; they were friends; they were companions to us. I learned a way of life
from them, their manner of doing things in the way they had learned, just as my
own mother had done, from their elders. I used to often ask them questions.
How did you learn to cut the mallun leaves like that or how do you know how
much chilly or thunapaha to put into the curry, or who told you that coconut oil
is the best way to remove the sticky white milk from the jak fruit. Or I would
plead with them to teach me how to grind chillies on the grinding stone, or
pound rice into flour, or make hoppers or string hopper or halapa with its jaggery
and coconut and kurakkan flour steamed in the special leaf, the kenda leaf. Oh!
I wanted to learn so much from them. They possessed so much wisdom, so
much women lore, deep recesses of knowledge; of herbs and the qualities of
certain fruits and vegetables, how they produced ‘heat’ and ‘cooling properties.’
Their lives they shared with us in every way yet sometimes they would say,
‘Ah! It is better to eat salt and rice and be with our families’, enduring poverty,
and enduring hardships. It is a phrase that has served me to this day, to a
philosophy that I have evolved from those ancient sayings. To possess a proud
sense of independence even with very little of this world’s goods. That which
suffices to give a sense of contentment even during moments of the greatest
duress. Lunu – salt, buth - rice. What more is needed when all craving ceases?

My mother, although she never consulted a recipe book and had
everything stored in her head also had books. Books which she must have
consulted in the early days of her marriage to help her in running the house,
entertaining guests. Foulsham’s Guest Entertainer was a book that I have
preserved to this day and the opening quotation from John Blunt in the ‘The
Daily Mail’ reminds me of the hospitality of our household. “Real hospitality”,
the author said, “consists of making other people happy and not just looking
after our own interests.” The contents of each chapter fascinated me with the
detailed descriptions of how to conduct every single event in the calendar from
the giving of a lunch party to a private dance, garden party, a “Jolly Children’s
Party.” Menus, recipes, letter writing, the duties of host or aspects of “An Empire
Day Luncheon” were described in chapter after chapter. The descriptions of
the patriotic lunches, official and private reviewed within the postcolonial
context, revealed a whole mystique of that period. The Empire Day was on the
twenty fourth of May. The private parties were meant to be specially regarded
as a compliment to the colonial friends who happened to be visiting the Old
Country. The menu was to be an “All British One”. Everything from wine to
dried fruits, from tinned salmon, the flour in the pastry, the joint of beef, the
dessert and everything else should come from the Motherland or the Colonies.

The centrepiece would be a large dish of fruit - apples from Tasmania,
bananas from the West Indies, oranges from Jamaica, plums from the Cape.
The table decorations had to be special and a tricolour scheme used, with bows
of ribbons - red, white, blue fixed to each dish. The flower vases too should be
filled with blossoms of the same three colours. The menus were to be decorated
with little Union Jacks, and scattered around the table small Empire flags should
be fixed. The suitable toast were as follows:

“ Ladies and Gentlemen, the King and Empire.”

“The Mother Land and her far flung dominions, Britain and all the
British.”

“The Empire.”

“ The United Kingdom and her United Empire.”

We never, however, found occasions or necessities to celebrate such a
luncheon party. The British Empire was at our table, with the wanderers of the
empire, appreciating our menus. The toasts that Johnny Walker proposed were
“To Harry Sol, Harry Boy or Harry Solo and his family,” The whisky continued
to flow as Johnny refilled his glass as an accompaniment to rice and curry.

Where my mother’s life was concerned, home, marriage, family with all
its concerns dominated the greater part of her life. And that home was kept
going with just one man’s earnings, my father’s salary in the Railways – every
comfort we owed to my father’s labour. But it was the women who ran the
household and created its order and stability. Both of them, my father and mother,
were the most self-sacrificing people in the world and in those
days our education in the private Missionary Schools; boarding fees at Trinity
College were all paid out from that one man’s wage. There was never a complaint
or grumble about it – responsibility was taken for granted and duties carried out.
Now it becomes so significant when I think of how my father would bow his
head over his plate before every meal and repeat the litany of grace. ‘For what
we are about to receive, the Lord, make us truly thankful, Amen’ and after the
completion of the meal ‘for what we have received, the Lord, make us truly
thankful. Amen.’ As children we repeated the simple words ‘God bless this
food. Amen.’

My father had moral strictures about how we ate. ‘Never take more onto
your plate than you can finish.’ He would advise us ‘Never grumble at the
table.’ It was his wages that provided everything on that laden table and nothing
was ever denied to us but any ‘complaints’ or faddiness would earn a stern
‘Well, if you can’t eat what’s before you, please leave the table.’ We were
sufficiently warned not to repeat the error. My long-suffering mother however
endured all things, rebellion in all its forms, both silent and vociferously
expressed. What she left behind was the memory of a living example of a mother,
friend and companion. She bequeathed a legacy of unwritten stories, which it
was for me to record in later years.

My mother’s nature was never a solitary one and she was always
accustomed to the companionship of those who were part of our household,
intimately so. We had women who were individualistic and allowed to be so,
like the old Amme who was unmarried and centred all her devotion on dogs that
she fed from our kitchen. There was Ampitiya amme who earned for her
grandchildren, kept nothing back for her and was self-compelled to scrub, scrub,
scrub and swab kitchen floors every day with her bare hands. But Emily?
Emily was special as Mungo. Emily belonged to our lives in Kandy. She was,
moreover, not exactly mine but belonged to the other members of the family
too for she was responsible for the greater part of cooking. Other women too
came in to help but Emily had left her village and lived with us. She was a very
pretty, very petite woman with wavy hair, tendrilling about her forehead, a soft
skin and a bubbling laugh. She advocated her own kind of beauty treatment
like using hot ash as a depilatory and rubbing white sandalwood with milk on a
stone to use on the skin to remove blemishes. She was adept at preparing every
dish and trained by my mother could prepare rissoles, caramel custard, polkiri
baduns, ghee rice, hoppers, soups, anything. For afternoon tiffin she had her
specialities, soft white laveriyas filled with pani-pol, the jaggery and coconut
mixture – halapa, steamed in kenda kola, wide leaves plucked from the back
garden, aggala, thala guli, pancakes with a filling of sugar and lime, Bombay
toast. But Emily did more, much more. Not only did she cook for us but would
also iron a frock or skirt in a jiffy with the old polkattu iron, heat water for our
baths, comfort us when we were ill or sulky, demanding attention, cosset us
and try to restore us into a good mood.

“Shall I bring you a cup of hot soup, bebi? A glass of milk? Ginger tea
for your cold?” She would sit beside the bed telling us stories of her own life
and of the people she had worked for, one family being a Sinhala doctor with
an English wife. When I had fever and tossed restlessly in bed, Emily would
press my small feet with her equally small hands and I would cling to the feel of
her presence in that half darkened room with the faint light flowing in from the
skylight. She never interfered in our quarrels but would detach herself after
trying to reason with us, waiting abstracted and patient until the turbulence was
naturally quelled. Quarrels left her sad but philosophical. We were growing up
and were trying to cope with adolescence, with new awareness, to live with our
siblings and us. Our conflicts could not be resolved.

Emily stayed with us until she said “I can’t eat fire anymore.” She would
walk down Peradeniya road sometimes to the meat stall and one of the neighbours
who had had an eye on her for sometime, took her on to look after the children.
How I missed her. There was never anyone, after that to replace her. I had
‘attained age’, reached puberty when she was with us and she had assisted in all
those rituals of bathing, wearing new clothes, having jewellery put on my wrists,
fingers and round my neck after my isolation in the bedroom for some days.
She took part of my childhood away with her when she, left. There was an
aching void ever afterwards.

As for Podi Singho. He had lived with us for years and years. He had
been with us in Kandgannawa too and had put my brother Pat to sleep as a
baby, rocking him on his knees and singing lullabies to him. Sometimes we
called him lovingly “Old Boy.” He was supposed to have come from a tea
estate, brought up from the time he was a child by the Jeronis family to whom
he would return whenever he felt like it. He helped with the marketing, polishing
brass and silver and washing the dishes after our meals. He lived to a great age,
would quarrel with the other servants and flounce out of the house and return
when he wished. Laying the table was one of his great artistic efforts, the placing
of every bit of cutlery and the folding of the serviettes. I suppose, in our home,
individual talents were always encouraged. And everything he did especially
the painstakingly arranged decor of the table, was sheer artistry – the origami
shapes of those starched damask napkins and the arching serving spoons
of silver beside the dishes. In his sleep he would still sing snatches of lullabies
he had sung to my brother in his babyhood. He was always ready to go to the
Muslim Hotel and bring us those luscious triangles of Turkey bread, layers of
sugared pastry with fruits and nuts, ice cream from Elephant House and boondhi,
jalebis and Kalu dodol from the market sweetmeat stalls. Ours was his only
real home. And all who were part of that home were also part of our family.