White Butterfly

Where do i go
what can i say
when you say what you say

what makes you inhuman
is your evil comfort
that which i sensed

the first time ever i saw your voice
you will puke when you read this
be my guest

or it will have no effect
which is even worse
how can you?
say the things you say

i guess that is why
you are where you are
and i am where i am

i am surprized at how strong i am
that all i do now
is clear my mind

it is not stunned
nor bewildered
it all makes perfect sense

and my eyes pond
with tears like the gentle
calming rain

like a balm
they soothe me
like a mother’s touch

when still a child
and ill with fever
hush little baby
baby don’t you cry

i have now seen a world
that i have been avoiding
that I’ve entered in pretense

and i know why
i was right not to step out
but only make my feet wet
with boiling hot water

just enough to get burned
but my skin is thick and calloused
from working in the fields
and they will still walk

picking cotton
shackled
roughened
swinging
from trees

cutting cane
under the fiery sun
with only a song
to shelter me

with one foot chopped off
for wanting
to walk free
to some other meadow
where rats don’t roam free

i will have to deal with
dealing with the past
for opening up
as it was easier to do

it is always easier
to forget
not think
not listen to your heart

we are divided
by things far greater
than fences and walls
or borders or flags

we are divided by consciousness
history
responsibility
and irresponsibility

what we do and what we see
live on in our children
and their children’s children

i am responsible for those who are here
and for those who are yet to come
i am not an island
but a living breathing tree

tall
beautiful
dark
and strong

i carry the burden
of the hurts of the past
by those who have walked
before me

if i did not and if i forgot
i will never reach to the heavens
but stop
stand still
fall down
and die

so will my people
and their children
and their children’s children

i will live my life the best i can
and it is not easy
and not as simple

as waking up
getting on a bus
and letting the day
roll over my back

a white butterfly
flutters in my garden
i don’t know what it is doing there

i am sure
it does not know either

may be it likes
the flowers may be
it doesn’t matter
who tended them

it does not matter
what nurtured them
love, pain, solace or evil
it knows no difference

all it seeks is the honey
no matter who put it there
no matter where it came from
or what hands watered them

dug the ground
planted them
weeded and pruned

it does not matter
to the white butterfly
what those hands
have done
or what they have not done

it does not know
it does not care
it does not need to know
all it needs – is honey

the white butterfly
the white butterfly
the white butterfly

blazing whiter
in the bright
summer light
hurting my eyes

don’t come here
go away
this garden is not for you

but it still comes back
and i do not know what to do
it does not understand

and i cannot even begin
to think of
grabbing it in my palm
squeezing it lame

dropping it on the ground
and squishing it
with the calloused heel
of my only black foot

that would be a sin.

so i walk on
in the blazing sun
barefoot
blackened
shining and gleaming
with sweat

offending

singing a song

hush little baby
little baby
don’t you cry
there there
a pretty butterfly.

by Renuka Mendis – from July 1, 2000

With acknowledgements for Summertime to :
George Gershwin
DuBose Heyward

Three Awfully Immature Poems from 1993/94

These are from about 1993 or 1994 and somewhat green but I am very fond of them as they are some of the first I wrote. Though some of these lines make me cringe they were from another time and I do not wish to change a word.  I am particularly attached to Tony’s Father and some of the straight off the boat innocence of Disillusion.

 

Tony’s Father

The old man always walked
across the front yard of grandmother’s house
she saw him walk by, morning noon and night
like clockwork, like the sun rise and set.

He wore a black suit, leather shoes
a hat, a tie and black rimmed glasses
His skin was very dark, his hair was very white
He was quiet, dignified.

I walked across the front yard of grandmother’s house
Walked back and forth till I was twenty one
I played there, made mud pies, was middle pig
Played house, on the concrete slab
cooked rice in tiny pots.

The Concrete slab has been there since time began for me
One evening the old man walked back home
across the front yard of grandmother’s house
He tripped and fell, they called the ambulance.

The old man could not get up
They put him on a canvas stretcher
He’d hit his head on the concrete slab
The children were chased into the houses
they did not want us to see the blood.

Tony’s father was hurt very bad
His sisters cried, we wondered why
The next day, there was a big black box in their house
With tall white candles on silver candle sticks.

Tony’s father was in a big black box
white stain-lined, satin tasselled outside
The lid had a tiny glass window
To let the sunshine in? for a last glimpse?

Tony cried, Frankie cried
We heard their wails at the end of our house
Everyone went to the funeral
We could not go, for we were children
We saw the procession pass by
from a crack in the back door
We were quiet and very very curious.

The old man does not walk
across the front yard of grandmother’s house
The old man paid rent to my grandmother
now his children do
They paved the front yard, there is no concrete slab
No one will trip, be put in a satiny black box.

There is a monsoon of snow outside
Tony’s father walked in the steamy monsoon rain of long ago
The front yard is paved over, the concrete slab lies beneath
The old man walks
Across the front yard of grandmother’s house.

by Renuka Mendis circa 1993/94

 

 

 
Labour

A needle stuck in my arm, the pain comes in waves
I am in it, there is no way out
The books did not tell me it was anything like this!
Amma is with me, she holds my hand
I cannot sit or sleep, I want to walk
I bleed like an open tap.

I writhe too much, the needle comes off
It goes back in, in another spot
Amma looks concerned, as she always did
when I was ill with chicken pox, when a little girl.
She gives me comfort, I know I won’t die
But this is going on forever, there is no end in sight.

The needle pops out, it goes back in,
    In another spot,
The pain goes on forever.

The hours seem like years
The waves are higher, intense, and there’s no relief
Does the baby feel the pain? it did not occur to me then.
I want it to be over, I want to sleep
Please put me to sleep, the nurse looks at me
   as if I were a child.

They take me to a room, put me on another narrow bed
It will soon be over, I tell myself,
But no, she has “more time” the matron says.
Is the needle in or out? I do not know
I do not care! just stop the pain, please!

The needle pops out, it goes back in,
   in another spot
The pain goes on forever.

I push and push, but no such luck
She has more time, the doctor says
I am exhausted, I want to give up
They ask me to push, I push and push.

Sweet relief! a messy blob of life
All covered in blood as red as a beetroot
You scream and cry, the pain is gone,
I am excited, did I really do that?
I have given you life!

When you are far away and when I miss you
I think of that needle and the pain
It reminds me you are real, you are there
The pain tells me of that invisible,
   retractable umbilical cord.

by Renuka Mendis circa 1993/94

 

 

Disillusion

I was mesmerized
the crystal, the china, the shining pots and pans
Mannequins in glass cases, golden haired.
Strings of diamonds lined the streets – viewed from a plane;
gleaming and shiny – cars on the ribbons of highways.
Tense people – running about
I still don’t know where they run to
Do they fall over a cliff? like lemmings?

In Amsterdam -
they sold rubber penises in the name of free expression
my eyes could not believe.
Above all this, windmills turned
church steeples reached out to the starry night
Museums -
graced by lacemakers and pearl necklaced ladies
and crazed, terrified pictures drawn by a lost man.

Keep the crystal, the china, the shining pots and pans
Keep the mannequins and the golden hair.
Give me my clay pots, covered in soot,
The smell of burning wood and smoking coconut leaves,
The sound of a bull drawn cart
rolling along to a song of human proportions.
I’ve seen enough of the lost man’s crazy pictures
I prefer the face of the devil in the jungle
I am tired of long stemmed roses in vases.
Oh, bull drawn cart, take me to the forest
where the orchid blooms, and the bright hued birds sing.

The smell of cow-dung is still in my memory
The feel of cold fresh water out of a well
The reek of coconut husks rotting in a pit
To end up as coir ropes,
Ropes that make swings for me to fly in!
The fragrance of treacled sweets frying
The innocent music of the language
spoken by villagers.

by Renuka Mendis circa 1993/94

 

 

pretty thuggery

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pretty thuggery

when cosmos blooms and gangs up on you
on sidewalks as you pass
in sweet pinks and whites
a sadness enters; the rooms of the heart
slowly suffocating breathless in chamber pots of blood
but not enough to kill – a low grade terror.

when cosmos blooms on its way to full tilt en masse
fairies in pastel rising up from concrete to take them with you dancing
holding your reluctant hand by pinky finger
pointing you recklessly! towards a sunny end;
the cycle of nature that gives sweetness in shot glasses
but never in a three litre jug.

and blood’s oxygen keeps pumping iron
suffocating. pressing. near breathless, but just so far enough
not to kill off sadness that snuck in when you weren’t watching
feeding itself just enough to stay alive;
like cosmos’s boon on the sidewalks living between the cracks
milking the sun’s udders as if it were going out of style
and it hikes up its skirt on cue and careens down the paving stones
leaving behind empty shot glasses

by Renuka Mendis – aug 6, 2014

and… cue music: Annabel by Goldfrapp. http://grooveshark.com/#!/s/Annabel/5Xsh9g?src=5 Song based on Kathleen Winter’s wonderful book. One of my beloved books.

Chinaman: The Legend of Pradeep Mathew by Shehan Karunatilaka – a drunken note

I could write a book about Chinaman; but its late and I am a bit drunk. So consider this a shitty first draft.

A post colonial post post modern and well earned insult to colonialism and its barbarities; legacies and loves. Consider jonny; ahem and cricket. And a sweet sweet love song to cricket the way Sri Lankans see it, do it and love it. A highly realistic tale about Colombo people; their lives, loves, hypocricies and most of all their sometimes maddening yet occasionally adorable and definitely scary craziness.DSCF8261

Well. I’ve read Chinaman three times over the last two or three years and pining to re-read except for the stack of un-read books tugging at my skirt each time I pass them. At the outset I wonder if non-Sri Lankans will understand the gems in this book. And even for some who are not from Colombo some of it might go over their heads. Let me elaborate but not now. Later. In a twisted way I like that the book contains so many Srilankanisms (if there is such a word) and that not everyone might get it.

The achingly tenderest morsels in Chinaman are the few times when WeeGee talks about his long suffering wife Sheila in the tenderest way he can possibly come close to for an Arrack loving cricket obsessed drunk. And of course his love for Jonny is the benchmark for friendships for the ages. Irrespective WeeGee is a great man. More on that later.

The cruel corruptions that is the Colombo bureaucracy and the lives they destroy.

Beautifully written; Thousands would kill to write like him. Funny and even better –Sri Lankan funny! But with substance to every page. And read it also to find out what I.E. Kugarajah told WeeGee and here is a bit of a priceless (see I told you. insider’s privilege) catalogue I kept note of:
1. That the Jaffna of his childhood was the most beautiful place on earth.
2. That he invaded the pitch in 1975 during an SL vs Aus World Cup Game at the Oval, carrying an Eelam flag.
3. That he lost more relatives in the 1977 anti-Tamil riots than he did in 1983.
4. That he was a founding member of Eelam Revolution Organisation of Students in Wandsworth in 1978.
5. That it matters not whether you believe the Tamils were only brought here in 1823. Or whether you accept that they’ve been here since King Ellara Cholan’s reign in 100 BCE. They are now here to stay.
6. That most Sri Lankan Tamils and many Muslims would fail Lord Tebbit’s famous cricket test.
7. That the Burghers told to ‘burgher off’ in the 1960s by the Sinhala Only policy were the island’s first example of ethnic cleansing and its biggest cultural loss.
8. That ministers who laugh loudly, cry openly, bomb civilians, and burn libraries deserve to die.
9. That he trained with Palestinians in Beirut in 180 and several Tamil recruits died during that training.
10. That Buddhist priests have no business carrying handguns.
11. That many Sri Lankan geniuses have been Tamil. Anandan, Sathasivam, Mathew, Kadirgamar, Ediriweerasingham, and the Thalaiver himself.
12. That everything has a price. And that a Sri Lankan victory is far more expensive than a Sri Lankan defeat.
13. That Satyagraha does not work.

See I told you at the beginning I’d lose you. This stuff is arcane to outsiders. Insiders privilege and all that. But for insiders this is flesh and blood. Fear not you’ll find your way. Its worth the trip. All the bloody way to New Zealand. Yup.

More to follow. In the interim — this is in my top ten books list. I am not being arrogant, believe me I am a nice person but I feel sorry for anyone who has not read Chinaman; or indeed is unable to devour it as if it were a wonderful plate of your mother’s yellow rice with a killer beef curry, brinjals, ATD etc. etc. with Watalappam for desert. And of course Arrack on the side.

More later. Await a properly written review soon. Read the book. Really. Read it. No sh*t. You thought ceylon tea was the best thing that came out of sri lanka. No man. This is it.

hicis. as they say in Sri Lanka.

She loves you. Yeah yeah yeah.

DSCF5996

I remember the Beatles song “She Loves You” so well. It was the Carnival at Good Shepherd Convent (“GSC”) and I must have been twelve. The “it” girls had a girl band in those mod mini skirts, huge wide belts and of course the obligatory rubber boots. The Carnival was an annual event to celebrate the beginnings of the Convent which by now had grown into a famous Catholic girls’ school. And 1969 was full of those amazing songs on the radio from England and America.

This carnival was special. The convent was 100 years old. This is not the Carnival of the Brazilian kind but more a bazaar with pop music straight out of Popular Favourites, fun and games, a carousel, a ferris wheel, a swan wheel and my fondest game where you catch a paper fish with a magnet. That kind of Carnival. I am getting old now and may have got my numbers wrong but this was a big moment for Kotahena girls who had gone to school there. April 15, 1869 was when the convent first began according to their website. So the 100 year celebration would have been in 1969 when I was twelve-ish. That age when you really know some things just are not quite right. But you are still a wisp of a child and your hands are tied by your powerlessness.

Amma taught art and was well known for her talent in Kotahena circles. Everyone was asked to contribute something. A few weeks before the Carnival she bought a large terra cotta vase that must have been about two and a half feet high. There was always a collection of sea shells of varying sizes in our household given our fondness of the ocean and fishing. We often ended up bringing pockets full of shells from the tiniest as tiny as a fingernail, to really large ones the size of a serving spoon.

Amma painted and decorated the vase to look like an ocean full of fish. She used UHU glue to stick on some of the shells; I can still remember some of the ridged ones for texture; and they were used as the body and face for each fish and the brush and paint did the rest by way of the fishes’ beautiful tails. Amma always looked utterly complete whenever she worked on these art projects. At the time I did not realize how important this was because she was a GSC girl and it was her means of participating in the celebration. The vase was beautiful yet restrained and not flashy. Someone came round and took it away presumably to be auctioned off to raise funds for the convent. I often think of this vase though it was in my life only for a few days; and then as a child.

The Carnival went on for several days as I recall and it was open in the evening and night all lit up with rows of light bulbs and full of happy young girls and boys and families. I always felt an outsider at school. Especially a Catholic school. But my mother and father felt it was the best school they could send the girls to.

My Father who I called Thatha, was a talented angler and very good with his hands. He was pretty much addicted to fishing each and every day. Thatha had promised to take us to the Carnival after he got back from his evening fishing fix from the breakwater. Fish was a huge part of our childhood. He always caught amazing fish and thanks to Thatha we had a regular supply of fresh geela, salaya in season, paraw, parrot fish etc. Sometimes he even caught pokirissas which are langoustines – the sweetest tasting crustaceans anyone ever came across. I think I was his biggest fan; and I always felt I was his favourite. But then may be all children feel that way about their fathers. He too was a teacher and they met when they taught together in a Colombo government school.

Now you know how it is with the moon. Some days its covered in clouds and there is no moonlight; on good days the sky is bare of clouds and the moon shines as a moon should. That is how it was in our home growing up. Some days it was dark and that was how it was on most days. And on those few days when it was not dark it was full of light, brightness and sheer happiness and joy. Singing and play. But as a child I never knew which days would be dark, which ones would be bright. Had I known then I would not have woken up on those dark days and stayed in bed – eyes and ears shut and oblivious to the dark day.

The day of the carnival outing came and we were all waiting for Thatha to return from his evening fishing outing. Thatha came in through the backdoor with his fishing rods and gear and probably some fish. We were all waiting for him to get ready to go to the Carnival. About a minute or two into his arrival I knew it was a dark moonless evening in our house. I could always tell and I am sure all my brothers and sisters were also expert at it. Our invisible shields came up and we usually hovered around Amma and we all avoided Thatha on these days – which were not infrequent.

We were all in the kitchen and Amma was heating up oil to fry something. Probably some fish Thatha had caught. The kitchen was at the back of the house. And a lot of what happened in the kitchen could be heard by those who lived around us. Next door were my uncle and cousins. Behind us were my Grandma, Aunt, Uncle and more cousins separated by a backyard that we all shared when we played.

Thatha looked sullen and Amma was walking on egg shells so as not to upset him; quietly and meekly getting the dinner ready. And my head was full of the Carnival. Amma was still making sure not to upset Thatha. Us kids, we were waiting for the next bomb to go off though only metaphorically – usually by way of a violent lashing out at Amma often injuring her. It was almost a relief when it happened usually because the happening of the violence was less painful for a child than waiting for an unknown horror to happen; knowing full well that it will. Like the lancing of a huge and painful boil.

That night Thatha read from a different play book. The oil was hot. The blue flame on the kerosene stove and the oil in the wok-like thaachi bubbling hot with frying fish. Thatha was angry at Amma again for no reason known to us except that he was just angry at her; just because he could. Thatha kept demanding that Amma put her fingers in the boiling hot oil. And I was watching this, at ten or twelve years old. My stomach still sinks thinking of this although I am well over fifty now. All I could think of was my mother’s fingers in that boiling hot oil. All I could think of was that this was going to happen. Even at that age I knew I could not bear Amma’s fingers in boiling hot oil. Though twelve I know it was a horrific thing to happen. Unimaginable. May be we all started crying like a chorus of kittens meowing for their mother’s milk. Crying in terror. My Thatha, my hero — the torturer. My sweet mother, my flower, my care giver. Fried fingers. My mother’s.

Later that night Thatha took a shower. Dressed up. It was time to go to the Carnival at Good Shepherd Convent. No one wanted to go. I did not want to say no to Thatha. I did not know how. None of the other children wanted to go with us. I put on a dress and walked up Kotahena Street to the Convent. The “it” girls were in there mod clothes and dark sunglasses because their band was going to play soon. And the Beatles were on the loudspeaker singing “She loves You! Yeah! Yeah! Yeah!” I did not know if I was coming or going. I felt a million miles away, as far away as the moon, from my Father. Thatha bought the twenty five cents ticket so I could catch fish with a magnet — but I don`t think I caught any.

 

Originally written for a Guest Post for December 10, 2011 for Sri Lanka 16 Days Campaign Blog Curated by the Women and Media Collective http://womenandmedia.org.

Children of Midnight

fenugreek:

had bit of a debate about slums today; on slums from my highly unsuccessful blog.

Originally posted on fenugreek:

There is something about slums from one’s birthplace.  They grab you by the balls and do not let you go.  Slums of Bombay, Colombo, wherever.  In Midnight’s Children the new film by Deepa Mehta based on Rushdie’s booker of bookers, when Saleem returns home once again (an Indian by way of London and Yale) to a razed slum looking for another midnight’s child and steps into the glaring ochre sunlight of Maligawatte flats in Colombo (well it seemed like Maligawatte, what used to be and is still arguably a slum) the brilliant light grabs you by all the veins that run in your body and shakes you awake from merely being the constant other to just being – in full living colour and glorious warmth.  I knew at that moment I’d be irrecoverably homesick when I stepped out of the cinema.  I knew my heart was stolen and soon to…

View original 2,676 more words

Out on a limb with brinjals and BBU

 

What I think is brinjal moju which is listed as simply Moju in Doreen Peris’s book.* I made it without the dry fish or karawala with some slight and not so slight adjustments. Until I am lectured to and hectored and corrected I shall call this brinjal moju.

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On brinjals. I belong to an age where we were taught home science in school. Yup. They used to do that. Sewing. That too. Not that I have anything against teaching the necessities of day to day life except that the subject was only taught to girls; and boys did not need to know. That’s what I know. May be there were a few minor exceptions. I don’t know of those. There still is this crazy idea that cooking and sewing can only be done by women and girls and men or boys need not know a thing about it. Strange that. I thought you could teach a puppy any trick. Oh never mind.

At Good Shepherd Convent upper school started at Grade 6 and suddenly home science became a subject. A bit like a semi-grown up playing house kinda thing. There you learned how to make a bed god forbid; but not how to lie on it. As to sewing, hems were made on squares and the stitches had to be clean and virtually invisible. Talk about a tall order. At that time who knew that this was part of the great conspiracy but whatever. But back to brinjals.

The first thing they taught us to cook in home science was brinjals badala uyala and cheese balls. This may be part of my addled mind but before the cooking could start we had to have mastered how to make an apron and one wore it to the cooking class. You got into serious trouble if you forgot your apron for the home science class. Duly aproned we learned about balls and brinjals. The cheese balls involved boiled potatoes and grated kraft cheddar cheese to make them cheesy which were then breaded and deep fried. Something I never made again except perhaps once. I I recollect it really did not stand up to cutlis. Why bother to boil potatoes and go through the whole drama of breading and frying ra ra when you might as well make cutlis and what a waste of cheese dammit. Those expensive and precious blue tins of kraft cheese were there for only two purposes. 1) cheese and cheesebits; 2) cheese sandwiches. Not big sliced hunks of cheese sandwiches but those you made with grated cheese and sliced hot green chillies in soft chewy slices of bakery bread buttered with globe brand butter. Cheese balls my football. But I digress again not unlike Greece looking for the long way home (thank you Teju Cole).

Brinjals badala uyala stuck in my heart in the home science room at GSC. An early loaded food memory of sorts. But never mind the feminist conspiracy theory I still make a killer BBU and so does Arjuna despite ever having gone to a home science class. He learned it from love. Any time it is made I put my heart and soul into it which is never a hard thing for me when it comes to good food but this somehow gets a little bit more love. First loves of sorts.

 

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Arjuna’s brinjal BBU; not from a book but how his mom made it

Now dishes made with brinjals that are fried come under different names but I no longer know what is what and the only thing I know for sure as to a label is the brinjals badala uyala. At GSC our teacher left out an important bit. She simply called it brinjals badala uyala leaving the dish thus unnamed but hereinafter to be known as BBU. Then there’s brinjal sambol, brinjal pahi, and brinjal moju in the grand pantheon of brinjals that are thinly sliced or cut lengthwise and then liberally rubbed with lashings of salt (or salt water in the days of coarse salt from the sea) and finger staining turmeric and then deep fried; after which more unspeakable things are done to them. Yah. At the end of the day fried brinjals are fried brinjals and it has no equal. Especially when the brinjals are good and piping fresh and not too big so that each piece has some skin on. The question whether my BBU is moju or pahi still remains unanswered. Amma never used words like moju or pahi you see so blame it on my bad upbringing.

In my tiny household when we do the badala uyala brinjals thing we call it eggplant. Oh I forgot to explain brinjals is another word for eggplant but Sri Lankans like to call them brinjals. As to the terminology of brinjals versus eggplant that is for another day. In the curry context there is no need of clarification usually but if clarification is needed when eggplant is on the menu – brinjals fried and cooked – is what comes up; a literal translation of the Sinhala expression. The words moju or pahi are never uttered around here.

When I was planning a menu recently and discussed with my cousin the possibilities given she had inside information as to preferences of those on the guest list brinjal moju came up. Some investigations from said cousin as to how her mom made it bore little fruit. Did it have vinegar or did she use tamarind, did she use dry fish in it etc. were greeted with a curt “ahem no clue.” And thus I ran off on a junket of my own as to what goes into a proper moju. Seems the term moju may be interchanged (inaccurately? thus this ruminatory rant) with pickle. Sambol is straight forward and that I know. But is moju the same as pickle in context of brinjal moju? And what the hell is pahi? Is that the proper term for BBU? If not what is the proper term for BBU and so on and so forth.

Despite having gone through all three of my Sri Lanakan cook books to figure out the difference I was still no closer to the truth here. A quick look on the web only made matters worse as to the actual terms used. Don’t trust the web.

So I’ve come to the inconclusive opinion just as bad or good as any football world cup referee’s decision that brinjals badala uyala (fried and cooked) must be brinjals pahi; and brinjals moju is brinjals pickle. And now to confuse things even further moju is usually made with brinjals and yes, fried dried fish or karawala. So technically brinjal moju without karawala in it is not really brinjals moju. However given that karawala was not on the list I think I may have made brinjals moju with a little help from Doreen Peiris bless her heart. Or is it a pickle?

So let the great brinjal debate begin. As to the sewing; that is for another day.

 

 

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Use smaller brinjals and stay away from the huge ones so each piece gets some skin on.

 

 

Recipe:

3 lbs smallish brinjals (eggplant).
Turmeric powder and sea salt (the fine powdered type) for seasoning brinjals
½ – 1 lb Sri Lankan shallots from the Tamil shop if you are not in Sri Lanka, peeled.
Fresh Green Chillies – About half or same quantity in volume as the peeled shallots.
Oil to fry – lots. Not olive oil but oil with neutral taste or coconut oil.

2 tablespoons of Ceylon type mustard seeds
½ to 3/4 cup of Ceylon coconut vinegar
about 1 inch piece of fresh ginger
3 – 6 medium cloves of garlic peeled
chilli powder to taste and about 1/4 teaspoon or to taste of chilli flakes
A sprig or two of fresh curry leaves
A tablespoon of sugar

A few hours or more of your precious time.
A big deep pan to fry in safely.
Splatter shield just in case things splatter.
Kitchen paper towels.

Method in my madness:

Soak mustard in vinegar the night before and ideally seal with plastic wrap in case you have fruit flies or leave uncovered if safe. Alternatively cover and leave in fridge. Bring to room temperature before using.

Find brinjals that are not too long and not too fat and avoid the huge ones. Wash brinjals and remove the tough stem and cut them lengthwise into wedges about 3/4 inch at its widest. If they are too long feel free to cut them in half so each piece is about 5″ – 6″ max approximately. Breadthwise it should be no longer than 1 – 1.5 inches. Place in a large bowl as you cut and keep throwing some turmeric and salt to season as you go and mix gently. Leave aside for about an hour. Be careful not to over salt.

Peel the shallots then rinse well and drain and place in separate bowl. Wash the fresh green chillies and drain and make a slit (do not cut all the way) about halfway down the middle lengthwise with tip of sharp knife. Prepare the garlic and ginger and rinse and set aside the curry leaves.

Fill large deep sauce pan with about 2″ to 3″ of cooking oil (not olive oil). Bring to high heat (almost to smoking). Take a few handfuls of the brinjals and place in a bowl and quickly wipe with paper towels to remove excess liquid and carefully fry in batches. Adjust heat once the oil gets hot and deep fry somewhat slowly so they cook and turn nearly golden and crisp outside. Usually about 10 minutes per batch. Do not crowd the oil as this will result in the eggplant absorbing too too much oil like a sponge.

Drain in colander as you fry. Taste a piece from the first batch for salt. If it needs more salt add more to the rest of the raw brinjals and sprinkle the fried brinjals with a little salt to taste. You can keep doing this so each fried batch is properly seasoned. Fry all of the brinjals in batches.

Once brinjal is fried; fry shallots in batches and ensure some salt is added before frying. Follow with the green chillies and that too must be salted before frying. Add to colander as you fry.

Blend the vinegar and mustard in high speed blender and add ginger and garlic and chilli powder and chilli flakes and sugar. Be careful about not putting too much chilli as it may not be to your taste but the chilli flakes are important as it adds to the flavour. Remove to a bowl. Taste it for salt and adjust or add keeping in mind the salt content of the fried vegetables.

Place about 2 – 3 tablespoons of the oil (in which the vegetables were fried) in a large non reactive sauce pan that could easily hold about thrice the quantity of the fried vegetables. When hot fry the curry leaves till the whole house is fragrant then take off flame and add the vinegar mustard mixture and cook over a medium flame for about five minutes. Adjust flame to low so the sauce does not over boil. It should cook at a high simmer and then reduced to a simmer towards the last few minutes and it will thicken. Remove from flame and add all of the fried vegetables into the sauce and very gently incorporate the mustard sauce without breaking up the vegetables. Try your best to keep the vegetables in tact so it does not become a mushy mess while incorporating the sauce. Taste for seasoning and adjust salt. The vinegar and mustard flavour will be obvious but counteract beautifully with the eggplant.

 

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The vinegar mustard dressing cooking and thickening.  From liquid to creamy.

Let the brinjal cool to room temperature. Store in a glass jar or non-reactive dish covered in fridge for a few weeks.  Make sure vessel and cover is non-reactive to acid etc.  I like serving this at room temperature with rice and curries. Would go well in a sandwich filling on its own or with left over roast lamb or curried meat.

This quantity generously filled a 1.5 litre dish and easily made a dozen servings. Kept well for thee weeks in fridge. Time for another big batch.

 

*A Ceylon Cookery Book, A practical guide by Doreen Peiris. 6th Edition. (no publisher is named but Printed at D.P. Dodangoda & Co. Moratuwa). 1983. At Page 65.

looking for kankung on the kelani bridge

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Structures. Whether built by nature or by humans when they are magnificent for a few moments you forget the vagaries and the terrors of the day to day. Its inescapable power and effect takes over to the exclusion of all. Some bridges have that effect on me. Especially the bridges of my memory. The Kalutara Bridge, the Kelani Bridge and in its unique way even the Elephant Pass Bridge which one crossed on the Yal Devi. The bridge across the Nilwala in Matara where the kimbula swam with her baby and usually crossed at night as in a dream on trips from Yala and Kataragama and hardly noticed in the rush to get there. The abandoned truss bridges one finds running parallel to a better road on a more concrete bridge. The combination of a geographical transition and suspension does its trick heightened by the possibility it might all come crashing down in an instant. The old Kelani Bridge being the most accessible to the day to day of my memories.

There were and still probably are two Kelani bridges — the new bridge and the old bridge. The new bridge made of mostly concrete and cement with little steel to be seen and the sides of the bridge screening out much of the view unlike the old steel truss bridge with its geometric frames in sections leaving huge naked gaps through which one may fall straight into the river in the event the road or the railway track tipped sideways.

The old Kelani Bridge has such a sense of occasion and grandeur where it crosses the wide Kelani river at Grandpass in Colombo. On most trips out of town to Negombo, Kelani temple, to dear friends in Ja-Ela or if I took the bus with my mother to her school at Kelaniya; crossing the old truss bridge was always a thrill, craning my neck to look at the rolling muddy waters, the sand harvesting barges, and most of all the verdant green patches like little green handkerchiefs in different shades of jade that were way way below bridge level. The keera kotu where mukunuwanna, sarana and kankung grew. These patches of green seemed an unreachable and distant green paradise because they were far far below where the road was built and I always wanted to find my way there to touch them but never did.

I was told the sakkili people tended the verdant patches by the river. Cultivated to feed Colombo’s demand for mallung and kola thel daala or sarana kirata. The best leafy greens were brought right to our doorstep by these women who carried them on their heads with the greens all arranged in a woven reed basket, a wattiya. The women wearing saris with no blouses which never shocked me. They also wore heavy brass jewellery in their ears which made their ear lobes dangle close to their shoulders and their mouths were red from chewing copious quantities of beetle leaf with chunam. When I was little I wondered if the heavy jewellery was gold. Depending on which bundle of keera you bought the price was anywhere between ten to fifteen cents. As time went on I recall the price going up to 25 cents. Any good kitchen always produced a side dish of greens with every rice meal. These greens grew in somewhat waterlogged soil found in the flood-prone areas by the Kelani river where no one but the poorest and the most destitute lived in shacks. When the river flooded their fragile homes flooded too. Children lived in them and I could see from the bus little girls in tidy white uniforms being readied for school and their hair being braided on fragile doorsteps.

We had a few sakkili women who came regularly to our compound to do the dirty work that no one else wanted to do but which still needed doing; and they were paid a tiny fee for their services. Often we gave them our left over food which no one else wanted to eat. Mudira’s wife was one of my favourite persons. She cleaned our gully, the drains, the bathroom and lavatory. She scrubbed and washed the garbage can which in those days was used with no garbage bags or even patas putus bags to line them. She was tough and walked a tight rope eking out a living doing menial labour but still managed to keep strong boundaries. There was a line you could not cross with her. A line of authority that only I saw because I too was invisible. She gratefully took any old left over rice just on the verge of becoming inedible; happy to take home with her so we did not have to throw out more food. And old rice has a way of rotting in Colombo’s hot humidity turning it into a putrid hash in days when refrigerators were a luxury and the antique that was in our home was broken down most of the time. Mudira’s wife was a karupi or a sakkili but we never referred to her as that sakkili woman. She was Mudira’s woman instead. Tall, dark, strong, handsome just like Mudira who was more handsomer than most men and he only beat his wife when he had spent too much time at the local toddy tavern where a lot of sakkili men; and women; hung out at the end of their labours. Mudira was one of the strongest and nicest men I’ve come across again with the same reserve as his wife’s and could be relied upon to do the dirtiest jobs. A local family owned the toddy tavern and got ridiculously rich on it was the story going around in Kotahena. No one messed with them and they were mostly unseen; their women coddled and sheltered princesses driven around in nice cars wearing nice saris and nicer jewellery. They lived in even nicer houses. They were hated because of the toddy tavern which was seen as an eyesore by the purportedly respectable families of Kotahena. Once there was even a referendum to close down the toddy tavern and now in retrospect I wonder where Mudira’s people would have gone for their night’s libations after cleaning our septic tanks during the day.

But I digress. Mudira’s wife had no name. It never occurred to me to ask. Long ago one did not know there was an alternative to the status quo in some places. I still think about them. They were a presence in my life growing up because Mudira was like a prince and he was always courteous; and big and strong. He had the loveliest smile. Mudira’s wife might have made a fine prime minister. Mudira’s wife was always pleasant but never talked too much and never cow towed. She had that kind of stature. I still see their son in my mind’s eye; then a strong toddler taking after his parents and he often came around with them when his parents came to do things. Or when they came by to pick up left overs which we packed in old milk powder tins. And once they had been to our house and scoured the drains, the gully, the garbage can, the lavatory, the bathroom, somehow life always seemed immensely more liveable. The way they scrubbed everything in an intense flurry using a tightly tied up bunch of short coconut ekels made me feel taken care of. My grandmother referred to them as the sakkili people. To call a non-sakkili person a sakkili or a karupi was usually an insult to mean you were the lowest of the low. But growing up any visit by these people be it the person who cleaned our garbage cans, or the woman who sold us our greens; they were a sign of stability for me to remind me that some things were working as they ought to in this adult managed world. They could be relied upon. Mudira was a pillar in our community but at its lower levels so to speak. If anything needed to be done like a difficult job in the garden or the drains; the cleaning of the septic tank; dirty dirty work; you could count on Mudira. But the women were always nameless.

Amma sometimes called our bringer of greens keerakaraing or sometimes we called her the keera woman. She regularly appeared at our gate and stood there. The dogs barked and she kept a safe distance and waited for the lady of the house or one of us to appear. She’d then come in through the gate and her wattiya basket squealed and creaked as she heaved it off her head and placed it on the red cement floor of our front verandah. She was so strong despite her petite build. In those days she brought mostly two types of greens. Mukunuwanna and kankung. Mukunuwanna makes wonderful mallung but just like other bundles of greens one had to carefully hand pick and pluck the good leaves and stems and discard the dried out and rotten slimy bits. Then you washed them and thoroughly shook off the water and gathered small bunches of them to finely cut with a sharp knife. The finer the better. No one would marry you if your mallung was not finely cut was the lie that was being propagated at the time.

On days that Amma did not buy mukunuwanna the other choice was kankung. Most greens were either made into a mallung with coconut or made thel daala. While I loved eating these greens; whenever a bundle of mukunuwanna or kankung was put in front of me to pick over and clean and then to cook them; it was always one of my least favourite sights. This meant seemingly hours spent picking, cleaning, breaking and washing so you ended up with the best bits and with little time to do more interesting things like sit in a corner and read and listen to the little people speaking and singing from inside radio. Sometimes if you were lucky only half the bunch was unusable because the stems were too tough or rotten or the leaves were dried out and yellow. Often these bunches were bundled in such a way to hide the unusable parts and to show off the more verdant aspects of the bunch. A chance one took whenever you bought the day’s greens. Amma had her favourite keera women who she was sure always gave her better greens with less to discard. But there was always a lot to discard after a long time spent picking over the greens. And one bunch was hardly enough for a household of eight to ten mouths needing to be fed.

In those days most of the time that was spent in preparing food was spent not actually cooking it but in the preparation of it. Ensuring what went in the pot was clean and good took a long time. Not rotten, not dried out, not past its prime and to ensure there was no dirt, sand or grime that ended up in the pot. It is not that much different today when you go to the Nugegoda market to buy greens except that the variety of greens have broadened immensely and the women who sell them are Sinhalese last I saw. I wonder where the keerakaraing went and where Mudira’s people are. I asked my niece in Colombo on an online chat the other day about the sakkili or karupis and she told me that she had never met one but that her mother had told her about the work they did in our old house in Kotahena.

When one leaves home you miss these everyday things like mukunuwanna mallung and kankung thel daala. You forget the tedium of all the seemingly wasted hours of your girlhood and youth relegated to picking over keera. In Sri Lanka some call greens palaa the Sinhala term for greens; and I still call it keera because that is what my mother and my grandmother called them growing up. I went for years without kankung or mukunuwanna until I discovered kankung in our local Chinatown here in Toronto well over a decade ago. Kankung is always more expensive than most other Chinatown greens. Consequently I only buy it when I am brave enough to splurge or when I am pining for something from home so badly that I throw all caution to the wind.

The way I was taught to make kankung theldaala however has often resulted in failures of soupy outcome with too much liquid requiring lengthy keera abuse over a hot stove to boil down the excess. My cousin’s wife taught me how to make it. You clean the greens and put it in a pot with all the ingredients. No liquid is added except for a little tamarind mixed in water; and a little oil for it to somewhat fry in at the end when the liquid has dissipated. On lucky days I have less liquid but most days the kankung ends up swimming in a pool of excess liquid. These greens are indeed mostly water more so than the sturdier kale or collard. Its no wonder that all the liquid seeps out especially when the pot is covered which one must do so as not to dry it out. However a good kankung thel daala is a dryish dish of wilted and spiced up and slightly tart greens cooked somewhat slowly in its own liquid and a little oil resulting in crunchy tasty greens that go beautifully with rice and other curries.

So it was quite the revelation to me when I discovered while skimming over an old cook book* purchased for seventy-five rupees in Colombo perhaps over thirty years ago; a kankung thel daala recipe which seems to have overcome this waterlogged problem. Here is my version of it with very slight tweaking. A whole new world awaits.

By way of explanation “thel daala” is to cook covered, a vegetable or greens in a little oil and in its own liquid mostly; not to boil but cook gently in its own steam and some oil until most of the liquid is dried out and the vegetable or green is cooked till near tender and then it simmers in a covered pan in the residual oil so it is crisp on the tooth yet tender; not crispy crunchy but just a slight crunch with texture. The term “thel daala” is unique. It does not translate to devilled or to sautéing either. I still believe a proper thel daala is done in the way that I was taught but this recipe is a solution to the problem of excess liquid though the process is somewhat unorthodox which does worry me a little. Incidentally when I cook dandelion leaves in the manner I was originally taught to make kankung theldaala it works beautifully.

And the further good news is that the kankung you get from the local Chinatown here in Toronto is so good in quality there is very little to discard; and the time spent picking over the greens is minimal though it is always good to leave yourself some extra time. What was once utter resentful tedium has now become a heart soothing ritual of comfort for me.

I did grow up long before I left home to clean the gully, and scrub the drains, the toilet and the bathroom and a lot more though I never had to clean a septic tank; not yet. I still remember those women and some men that lit up my girlhood and early youth with their presence whenever they came to our house to do the dirty work that we did not want to do at sometime in our lives. I remember how hard their lives were. I remember how the excess food that we did not want was so easily gotten rid of on them and I sensed that something was not right with that equation. I remember their children. I remember the grace with which they seemed to welcome and endure their existence; something I ought to learn from. Where are they now and where are their children and their children’s children. Do they still clean the drains and gullies of people with houses so they can feed their children? And where are the keera women? I’d give a kingdom to hear the music of her creaking basket heavy with the weight of bundles of keera being set down on our front verandah. And what was Mudira’s wife’s name? Does anyone know? I wish I could talk to her now.

 

 

Kankung Thel Daala (Serves 2 – 4)

Stage 1

1 large bunch of kankung (about 1 to 1.5 lbs)
1 teaspoon chilli flakes (hot) or to taste – then ground up to a rough powder in electric spice grinder
1/3 teaspoon turmeric powder
1 to 2 tablespoons maldive fish roughly broken (pounded or ground in electric spice grinder) to small pieces; but do not powder.
2 – 4 fresh green chillies including a ripe red one sliced diagonally
A sprig of fresh curry leaves or just the leaves.
A walnut sized ball of fresh tamarind soaked in hot water in a small cup/bowl.
salt to taste

Stage 2

2 – 3 tablespoons coconut oil or other neutral tasting cooking oil
1 or 2 sprigs fresh curry leaves or just the leaves
½ cup to 3/4 cup of thinly sliced Ceylon shallots; or other sliced shallots.
1/4 teaspoon fennel seeds
1 or 3 whole dried chillies broken to a few pieces.

Rinse all fresh ingredients and set aside. Slice shallots and set aside.  Soak the tamarind in a small cup/bowl and cover with just enough boiling water to soak it. Once it is somewhat cool mix softened tamarind with fingers and squeeze in water to dissolve and then set aside for about ten minutes to settle the sediment. Then strain liquid being careful not to let any sediment come through. Reserve liquid and discard the residue.

Pick over the kankung carefully and discard any tough stems or stem parts by breaking them. Pick off any dead or wilted leaves or stems so you are left with fresh green and tender stems and leaves. If the stem snaps easily with a plop sound it is good. As it goes to the thicker end of stem they get tougher depending on the bunch. Do not use the thicker tougher parts of the stem.

Wash thoroughly and drain. Break the stems into about 2 or 3 inch pieces with leaves intact. At this stage you may dry the kankung in a salad spinner. The salad spinner sounds like more work but may be worth it because you are left with much less water.

Place spun and/or drained greens in a suitably sized pan just enough to fill it up. Now add all ingredients in Stage 1 to the greens along with the prepared tamarind water which you should pour over the greens once it is in the pan.

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Cover with a tight fitting lid and bring to boil and immediately lower to a simmer. Stir, cover and cook till all the liquid is nearly dried out being careful not to let it burn. It will take anything from 7 – 15 minutes or so depending on amount of liquid. The greens will be wilted and now take them off the burner. Using this method there should be little to no liquid left. If there is still obvious liquid then uncover and cook over high heat, stirring occasionally, being careful not to let it burn.

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Kankung at end of Stage 1 with barely any liquid left.

Use a wok or similar vessel or a large skillet as we move to Stage 2 ingredients.  Ensure your your wok is non-reactive to acid due to tamarind content.  Be careful and use a splatter shield because the oil will splatter. Heat the oil in pan or wok. Fry the curry leaves and in a few seconds add the fennel seeds and broken dry chillies and when they start to pop and toast add the sliced shallots and fry them.

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At outset try to gauge the amount of oil you might need depending on the amount of shallots you plan to use. Once the shallots are fried and near golden and some of them are starting to crisp up add the greens mixture and stir frequently over a medium heat till the greens are crisp and any liquid is almost dried out. Check for seasoning and adjust for salt and tartness. You may add lime juice at the end.

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Kankung good to go.

 

 

 

 

The quantities mentioned in this recipe are somewhat malleable. The type of chillies and quantity used will make the dish more or less hot so be careful if you do not tolerate chillies to be judicious as to how much is used. The greens once cooked will reduce to about half and that too depends on each batch you buy. Thus one has to have a few trial and error episodes to get this to a somewhat predictable method. Also there is usually less liquid in the kankung I remember and much more in the Kankung I buy in Toronto and probably they must be slightly different species. A word on pronunciation. Malaysians say kankung just like Sri Lankans. For pronunciation go to –  https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=57gnA_JSxoI

*A Ceylon Cookery Book, A practical guide by Doreen Peiris. 6th Edition. (no publisher is named but Printed at D.P. Dodangoda & Co. Moratuwa). 1983. At Page 44.