She loves you. Yeah yeah yeah.

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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…

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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.

Link

David Lebovitz says I`m sorry, Vancouver.

“Vancouver is a very eco-friendly city; there are recycling bins everywhere, and, if they could, I’m sure the parking ticket machines apologize to the sun for borrowing some of its energy to power them.” – David Lebovitz

 

You may have noticed I never post from other blogs.  That does not mean I do not gawk at the amazing world of food bloggers out there and David Lebovitz is up on top amongst them.  He probably has an army of editors and web savvy experts who make sure the page shines and is well designed.  And consider the ad revenue.  Nevertheless his is one of the best that I keep peeking into.  I hate sharing my favourite candy you see but this cannot continue.

David Lebovitz recently wrote another book and he is traveling to promote it   His posts from  just about each stop have been coming in while he is on tour.  Seems like he rushed through Vancouver.  I am sorry.  But this I must post.  Both because i think it is hilarious but sometimes the Canadian pride seeps out around here.  True no one in Canada appeared on someone`s world`s top restaurants list but really who cares.  We know how good we are.  Sorry!    Time to get my ass to Vancouver.

 

Click here for David`s blog post on the pretty city:  http://www.davidlebovitz.com/2014/05/im-sorry-canada-vancouver/

 

 

Hunting for Artichokes with Rose Water in my Tea

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I’d much rather be sucking on Turkish delight for breakfast with my tea; but there are shortcuts. Just started a new fashion around here; a drop of rose water in my tea in the morning. Cream no sugar thank you. As I sip my tea and write, a lone bird chirps outside my window perched on a naked tree branch. Just an ordinary but adorable bird and the moment I turned my head and discovered her; she flew off to a higher perch. May be she was looking at me as I was penning this and saw me turn my head and she ran off. Takes one to know one I guess.

It is midweek and the bird still chirps from a higher branch. Wednesday spilled onto Thursday. Tuesday turned out to be a day to update my stock portfolio; for making soup and stock although I had hoped I’d be stuffing artichokes instead. On Monday I went looking for artichokes and even took a list for ingredients for the stuffing. But there were no artichokes at Kensington Market. Instead I bought ingredients for soup and stock. The chicken stock for the stuffed artichokes soon to come.

These past few years I have missed artichoke season because I let the short season slip away giving other seemingly important things priority in the bigger scheme of things in the movie called Waiting for my Ship to Come In. But stuffing artichokes is important. Not living in or near Castroville, every spring I realize the importance of artichokes. It was disappointing not finding any at the market but rather than cry over missing artichokes which will soon arrive I spent all of Tuesday tending to stock pots; for all the recent lost years with no stuffed artichokes. Chicken stock mainly and also beef and vegetable soup which is all I have yearned for as a means of sustenance these days. And of course tea in the morning. Engrossed in skimming and stirring I forgot to eat until 4p.m. All my focus on making soup and stock and so much goes on in a kitchen in the process. Lots of bowls, pots and pans get used up in the skimming and the straining and the adding of vegetables and herbs at each stage; all to be washed and reused for the process. And in a small apartment kitchen one has to stay on top of the washing or else the tending of stock pots will come to a sudden halt. The pots tended to so they do not suddenly boil and ruin the clarity of the end result and worse; make it bitter on your tongue. The hours spent at the beginning carefully — some say tenderly, very very tenderly – skimming.

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You must be in the moment with your pots and exclude all other thoughts and you end up on your feet all day. The clang of the covers keeping you company as you keep opening and closing and checking on what is going on undercover. The pleasure of a good skim spooning out all that foam like in Boticelli’s Venus except Venus isn’t there; she’d scald. The terror when suddenly the pot starts to boil like the rolling sea and you hurriedly make space on your stove top to save it and remove it from the heat. Then wait for some time for the heating element to cool off and put it back on and then wait for it to come to the right level of simmer; again.

 

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It is not the actual time that the stock takes to be made which takes all day; it is the in between of it. The tending to so as to ensure the broth never goes over a simmer so all the scum rises to the top and the skimming to ensure every bit is removed. One skims an article or an essay; but to skim you have to perhaps have your brain on in a different way so you don’t miss the best parts. Its that kind of skimming.

“An excellent skimmer of scum”would not be an inappropriate epitaph for me. One has to skim the scum to get a fine clear broth and only stir the pot just so to coax the scum to rise without incorporating it into the broth which makes it murky. If the simmering is at the correct tempo which ideally is an adagietto and never at presto which would be too violent; one can harvest a small potful of scum. The surface should remind you of a patch of gently bubbling brook.

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And scum, just like cream, rises up to the top in its early stages in soft ephemeral billowy clouds of all shapes and sizes. For the scum to surface one tenderly simmers with the pot covered. The best part of skimming is when you have a wonderful foamy top reminiscent of a beer head and you spoon the luxurious foam off the top in silent glee. But as the skimming progresses they reduce to only a few bubbles on the margins of the watermark inside the pot. But one continues to gently spoon the last bubbles off till the broth is clear and free of any more rising scum. One must not forget to gently stir the pot from time to time wheedling the last bubbles to surface; for those of you who are not bred in the bone pot stirrers; use the back of a wooden spoon after the major scum harvest has been reaped.

For the stock I purchased a bunch of chicken carcasses from Sanagan’s at Kensington Market and they cost me less than $4.00. There was enough meat on them which I reaped to add to my soup later. Next time I am poverty stricken and need a chicken curry this is where I will go to get some chicken for cheap. There was a lot of standing around Tuesday and I am glad I finally put to use the old camping mat which travelled across a continent with me in my big road trip from Toronto to California and back over a decade ago. I’ve now slipped it under the kitchen rug where I seem to spend most of my standing hours; to cushion my feet and cradle my knees and ankles against gravity’s weight and allows me longer stand up time and the bonus of no aching feet.

I have my rose water fix and I have my foot support in place but I still have a complaint – I need more stock pots. With only one stock pot in my kitchen which is really not large enough any more now that I am back to using meat stock I needed a second and third pot for the excess of the chicken stock which takes up more space once the aromatic vegetables are added. I also had a beef broth going for soup. Every dowry must include three stock pots. One regular, one large and one to feed a village. So glad I bought that big Paderno stock pot for Arjuna some years ago for his birthday or was it Christmas. The one I have is somewhat flimsy. Bought it in Chinatown more than a decade ago but it is not as solid as a Paderno but does the job. Arjuna’s Paderno, part of his dowry that gets paid in installments once or twice a year at birthdays and Christmases, can stand in for a stew pot whereas mine will burn in a slow cooking of anything of substance. I’ve used my stock pot to cook rice in a pinch and unless one watches judiciously it can easily burn rice. So more stock pots are now on my search list at the next garage sales I will haunt this summer once the artichoke season is behind us. And then I can look forward to veal stock for demiglace.  Have you noticed however that veal bones are hard to come buy now that the nose to tailers are on board.  I visit Sanagans regularly like a prayer and every time I ask for veal bones they do not have any.  Wonder what is going on on that count.  Could it be that the whole world is making demiglace?  Need to look into this mystery another day but soon.  It worries me.

I am rich. The freezer holds three three-cup containers of wonderful chicken broth; and an additional two in smaller sizes including a one cup size for easy use. And also a whole stock pot full of beef and chicken vegetable soup; simmered tender nourishment and wonderfully tasty. A day well invested.

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The bird outside my window has gone quiet as it is now night and a three-quarter moon looks me in the face fearlessly and the moon is going nowhere. And here I am chirping in the bird’s stead. And unlike the bird that ran off as soon as it turned its head and saw me I hope you will stay and read on just like the moon that is staying put this beautiful night.

 

With whiskey in your water and rose water in my tea.

Now where are those crazy crazy artichokes that keep bugging me.

 

But wait; it is 3:00a.m. in the morning and I think I heard the bird chirp. Thrice.  Wishing the moon good night.

 

 
*Reference to “whiskey in your water” and rose water rather than sugar “in my tea” is from the song: Mama Told me Not to Come by Three Dog Night; written by Randy Newman. 1970.  The original line from the lyrics:

Want some whiskey in your water? Sugar in your tea?

Ham bacon and pumpkin chutney or; can you read cursive?

Growing up I never developed a taste for what was generally sold as ham in Colombo but bacon was another story entirely. On occasion my father would bring home the bacon literally; purchased frozen usually at the pharmacy on Bonjean Street around the corner from our house or from Forvil House up the road. The pharmacy sold medicines and cough syrups but also had fancy goods and in its fridge and freezer – bacon, ice cream, butter, etc.

The words “ham bacon” implied people with means. Luxury foods given they were far more expensive than regular meat or other proteins such as daal. Also their western origins added to the fancy provenance. Reference to ham or bacon was usually a strange “ham bacon” always said together. Perhaps I never was drawn to Colombo ham because my father never brought it home. Guess he too never liked it. Although bacon was not an every day occurrence at home whenever it appeared it was always a welcome treat; sometimes with eggs. Eggs; the other Colombo luxury. I remember when eggs were still fifteen cents each in Colombo. Then they went up to twenty-five cents and last I recollect was thirty-five cents and may be then I left the country. Now the cost of an egg is in rupees and probably around Rs.20 per egg.

Even at twenty-five cents Sri Lankan eggs were a luxury; but never failed to comfort. And when friends who farmed gave us trays laden with eggs when we visited them and if it was still not yet the end of the month when money was tight bacon appeared. Made me think “aah, daddy’s rich” long before I had ever come across the song. And off came the flimsy dented aluminum pan from its nail on the kitchen wall; for the eggs and bacon to be fried; and good bakery bread with butter. In those days we simply sliced bread and there was no toast. Toast was only for when you were sick and then it was made on the stove top on the same flimsy aluminum fry pan.

Bread, bacon and eggs. Sunny luxuries. Bacon from Goldi or Elephant house was standard in those days long before today’s newer brands were ever dreamed of. Today from where I am bacon is easily affordable but it does not taste like the Goldi or Elephant House bacon from the days when an egg cost twenty-five cents in Colombo or even fifteen. My father never bought ham. Not the raw ham of raw pork we today refer to as raw ham but I refer to the cooked pink ham that was the ham of yore in Colombo; and not like the charcuterie that I am fortunate to have access to in the West from prosciutto to Parma ham to Serrano ham. The main dish for breakfast was come to think of it – bread. Butter was the vehicle that made anything that went with it even better. There was Globe butter which was Australian if I remember right. Always tasted better than the Milk Board butter that came along later. This is long before Anchor butter was heard of and then god forbid; Astra margarine. And bread came fresh and wonderful from the bakery up the road long before the hard times of the Sirimavo days when bread was rationed to a quarter pound per person; and the weevils were free.

My secret treat was tomato sandwiches. Bread lots of butter and a nice tomato sambal which then got thrown between slices of bread – and I could not stop eating them. I’d take half a loaf for lunch to school and tomatoes were also a somewhat expensive item come to think of it. But somehow not as expensive as eggs or bacon.

When there was nothing to make sandwiches with I sometimes simply filled the sandwich with amma’s pumpkin chutney which she made when short eats like Chinese rolls or cutlets were made. Though it was just a chutney its tang and sweetness went well with bread and butter and it was immensely satisfying. Of course I had never heard of bread and butter pickles then but when I came across them after I moved to the west decades later I immediately thought of amma’s pumpkin chutney and how I used to come home from school and look for food; and then find some bread, butter and if Amma’s pumpkin chutney was around simply slathered some on between two slices of buttered fresh bread; to while away my mid-afternoons after school on hot Colombo days.

So to get back to ham bacon and bread; forget bacon forget ham all you need need is some of amma’s pumpkin chutney and here is the recipe written in her fair hand.

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From May Day to Labour Day – September 5, 2011

The burner drip pans are clogged with carbonized spilled over food.  Burned boilings of rice, parippu, porridge, pasta, left over from well before early August.  The liners are soaking now in hot water and detergent – to be scrubbed clean with all my might.   And after months I can see the surfaces of my counter tops. I have found a new place to make tea. On the counter that is close to the stove; leaving more space on the counter where I do the cutting and the chopping and the prepping.  The one next to the sink.  More space to do things.  More room.  Tiny change, huge impact.

It is shortly after mid-day.  But outside there is no sun.  It feels like evening already except there is no sunset because the sun is still riding high in the sky — except invisible.  The light is pallid, a curtain hiding everything we don’t want to see and do and think about.  A last chance to indulge in the dubious pleasures of procrastination.  There are no children who need new shoes, late summer jackets, pencils and pens for when school starts tomorrow.  No university fees to be paid for when the academy re-opens after its summer hiatus.  No school lunches to worry about.  Today is the third day of the last long weekend of summer.  The next long weekend is in fall at Thanksgiving.  And all I have done is stay home unwashed – and somewhat unread.  Except when I stepped out for an hour yesterday for a sanity walk Eastward on Soudan until well after Soudan morphs into Parkhurst Boulevard and onto Leaside.

I have forgotten laundry altogether.  And its stingy pleasures.  Clean clothes somewhat crisp and definitely fresh.  Folded.  The laundry better get done today.  To wear musty clothes would be a sad start for the new year.  Last night I did my delicate hand-wash items and they are hanging in the washroom and some are draped over the back of a chair in the messy place I still call my living room.  My apartment has been completely neglected since well before August started.  I must bring it back to ship shape like it was Christmas; because Thanksgiving will soon be here.  I want to have a glorious thanksgiving; better than Christmas.  The best ever Thanksgiving.  Our American neighbours give thanks in late November.  But because the leaves fall off the trees, leaving them bare, well before it happens south of here we have ours in early October.    I want this to be the richest thanksgiving ever.  Rich from everything I experienced during twenty days in August.

Every exchange and every encounter I took in to be savored – some sweet, a few bitter sweet.  I welcomed all of them.  Even that iconic barren tree in Peradeniya.  I hope someone either cuts that tree down or that tree better start bearing leaves again, fast.  A barren tree that is dead yet upright is an absurdity and should be seen by no one.  It justifies unjustifiable conduct  — like inexcusable self imposed misery, negativity.  Here in the cold North we rarely ever see bare trees as barren.  They are merely waiting for spring.  And new leaves will appear.  We wait for time to pass and for something new to begin again.  Geography and climate does affect our lives as it affects what people do to each other.  At the cusp of summer’s tarrying end and autumn’s lazy beginning something for me to think about when trying to understand those we care about. Yes trees.

Trees are curtains, covers, refuges of safe harbour; shelter.  I see no other role for them.  I look out my window to count the number of trees in near vicinity outside my apartment.  I can easily count at least twenty large trees.  Still clothed in green but as the days grow shorter they will start turning colour, likely yellow, and start to fall.  There is a word for it; that moment when a leaf detaches itself from the tree.  May be it will come back to me.  But there are hardly any birds outside, actually not  a single bird can I hear.  Birds muted.  Have they already flown south?  Before August I heard many birds outside my window and thought I was blessed with rich bird songs.  But Toronto is a cemetery even before the birds leave us when one recalls the thousand bird choir that performs all the time until well after nightfall in Colombo or Kandy.  A boistrous imposing and insistent choir  that shakes you to consciousness all the time  — and then you learn to completely blank it out.  Still, each morning when you get up thinking you are in quiet Toronto, the bird choir grabs you by your heart and ears and wakes up parts of you that you did not even know existed.  You think  a part of you is lost when you leave home and that you will have to search for it.  But the bird choir does it for you right when you land.  I want to remember their noise, their song.  Never to forget.  A ten year absence and a little heartbreak in between can blank out memories.  But not this time.  Yes trees and birds; constant companions holding me up.  Not to be misused.  But to honour.

Yes, trees and growing things.  The air here is mercifully coldish – Nuwara Eliya like – not quite chilly but the kind of weather that encourages strenuous activity.  Like raking leaves or putting gardens to bed — except that there are yet no leaves to rake, and gardens are still not quite ready for their winter slumber.  When I used to have a garden this is the time when you milk your garden for all its worth and cling to it to make it last a little longer.  To fool yourself that summer is still here.  That last tomato, the last few beans, or greedily let a few beans ripen and dry so you have seeds for spring.  You nurse the last basil to produce more fragrant leaves though the plant has turned leggy and un-tender. The worst is to think that you should bring some herbs or vegetables inside and make them last into the dead of winter.  Inviting disaster and insects.  It is strange what people do to make summer last a little longer in our lives.  Letting go of summer is always hard.  At first the realization that its over is a betrayal.

And then suddenly one day you are free of it and give up this push and pull between you and the garden, this struggle between summer and the coming of winter, and just let it all go.  You get in there and crazily pull out the dying beans, tomatoes, aubergines and whatever else is there that isn’t going to come back up in the spring —   and go on the rampage like a wild elephant.  Not stopping till everything is out of the ground and in large paper bags we use for garden waste and which the city takes out to be composted — right off the sidewalk in front of your home.  And then you are free of summer and its wildness, its lightness and fizzy pleasures and petty licenses and its untepid romances. You let go, like letting go of lost love and turn your mind to new things.  New tasks.

It was only in May that I was looking at Magnolia, Forysythia and the roses were not even in bud.  The lilacs were lush.  And now they are all gone.  Whoosh.  Like a sweet dream.  And as fall shyly walks towards you like a pretty girl to her first date, autumn’s bounty fills the fruit and vegetable shops.  Peppers, beans, squash, apples, and even tomatoes.  Ready to be pickled and stored for winter for those who pickle.  Stored like rain water in ancient wewas in Anuradhapura and Polonnaruwa.  And just like them I want to store and hold close to me every moment from those twenty days; as if it were rain water not to be wasted.  Every drop a nourishment.

Frankfurt with its bells.  The strange pickled cheese.  My friend’s house in Colombo.  Bathing from a well when the air is warm.  Jabus jabus, godos godos.  Marine drive early in the morning on a Sunday.  Malinga’s third hat trick.  Eating mango popsicles with vanilla ice cream insides.  Drinking Lion Larger with family, with friends, with cricket.  Yes that heaven where everything else does not exist, not even heartache  – just cricket at Premadasa stadium in Maligawatte. The din of the crowd and the quiet when everyone waits for something to happen and when you think your team is in trouble. All in voices that make you feel like you never left home. Treasures. Absolute.  To hold close forever.

Elephants, over thirty of them, uninvited, across the water in Panama.  The fire dancers of Kandy Perahara.  The freedom in the streets at the end of it when the shops in the heart of Kandy are open into the wee hours and life becomes a carnival.   Traveling with three women across Sri Lanka from west to east.  The tender and courteous considerations offered.  The little and large irritations caused by me, ignored by all but most of all endured with pure grace.  Like how I’ll throw out questions but not listen to the answer.  And then ask the question again.  And to look at with an observant eye in their company the devotions offered at an eastern dewale.   The heavenly ocean waves near the sand dunes at Arugam Bay as the sun began to set.  Like love lapping at your feet, never ever to forget.  Such sweet sweet pleasures.  Most of all the light in Panama.  How it found me and kept me in its light, forever.

I came looking for me; who I had left behind long ago.  And I found her and I found much much more. To bring it all back with me here, home, to Toronto.  To witness whilst long tutored to believe that biology is no longer destiny, the desperation and devotion of purportedly barren young women offering Angapradarshanam to the Goddess Paththini.  Women rolling in the hot sand,  using only their bodies, thrice around the Goddess’ dewale.  To  come under her spell over several days while treading the hot dusty sands of the dewale with the villagers of Panama and my three women friends.

Most of all I feel marked.  Like the pottu the kapurala from the ganadewi kowil placed on my forehead, in beige and brick red — marked forever by every encounter over those days in August.  The sweet and the not so sweet.  Singing “palay wasana ran malee” in the tuk tuk in Colmbo with a friend in the afternoon.  The pleasure of my mother tongue, the way it is spoken.  The pace  and lilt of it depending on who is speaking and in what company and in which circumstances.   The civil exchanges.  The way even English is spoken; and the endearing Singlish.  There is nothing more and nothing else that can make me happy.

The bird choir.  The huge super giant mara tree on the way to Panama.  The road from Panama to Kandy with the lovely and utterly courteous and talkative Bandara.  Stopping in Bibile for indiappang breakfast in a bath kaday.  Robbed time spent with unnamed others.  Schoolboys on holidays playing cricket near where I stayed at Asgiriya a few days.  The drive with probably one of the most amazing persons in Sri Lanka; from the Airport to Colombo.  Being told by someone you love that he thinks he is going to die soon and that he can feel it and then in a few days never to hear his voice again.  These things mark one like “sel lipi”.

Day one at Barefoot with Revel Crake unable to recognize me though we played in the same band.  And running into Jean Vanheer at CRFC who remembered me as a really good singer; from the days when we all sang on the same band stand out at Pegasus Beach Hotel when I may have been twenty.  All on day one.  Well talk about finding that girl I left behind.  Finding people who remembered me from so long ago.

I don’t want this to be too long.  These are but a sprinkling of the memories I want to treasure.  You find what you look for — well mostly.  And you also find what you did not look for that will change you forever.  Even the fascinating fact that there are no sketch books that can be purchased in Kandy, never mind how hard one looks or how far one walks.  Memories, harvested one by one, leaf by leaf, like the finest tea by hand, to nourish this sterile life we live here in the West.  A hybrid of home and non-home and always alien.  Memories like tea, every drop to be savored and to feed and warm through the frigid winter that is sure to come.  Its the dread of winter and the dread of reality at summer’s end that makes this long September weekend so fraught with sadness, anxiety and expectations.  A postman told someone I know that in summer the mail they carry is minimal but come September it quadruples.

The laundry is done.  The drip pans must be scrubbed.  Vegetables have to be purchased because the children are coming for dinner before the new year starts.  Tomorrow is really the new year.  The day after labour day when the real new year starts when matters that are important that have been put away for the frivolities and short spanned dreams of summer get back on the agenda to be tended to with full force and fury.  A new year, a new life.  New goals and new changes.   A new hybrid of the past and the present, losses and gains, all blended together to live a new reality richly earned and deserved.

So I keep tidying up my apartment as if it were Christmas.  Inch by inch.  Room by room.  Table top by table top.  Shelf by shelf.  Turning it into a temple of solace.  And come thanksgiving in October — I will start a new tradition.  A form of Paththini pooja here in Toronto to say thank you for taking me under her wing — and ask her to watch over me through the long winter sure to come.  And when its cold and dark and desolate and when the sidewalks turn to slippery ice rinks and when you cannot bear to go outside — I will just close my eyes and be back in that magic light  of Panama.

Image

Author’s Note:  This was originally a note  by me on Facebook from September 5, 2011.

rose water blues

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the teapot on the window ledge
moon drunk
believing;
she only looked at her
unknowing;
that someone filled the teapot with port
thinking;
it was tea.

the teapot drunken
so in love with the moon
gazes skyward
not knowing;
there’s no one here
to spoonfeed
roses by the galleon
no kiss to distill
a million hindi film songs

knowing
there will be no flowers
again;
today;
and tomorrow;
the next tomorrow;
and the next;
a law of physics.

the tea pot wonders flippant
but why! she laced the cream with roses
and whipped it into a frenzy

sitting quietly spartan
bowl in hand puritanical
shriveled berries startled by the buxom plump
spooning cream
tasting kisses forever gone
in clouds of tender cream
and the tongue remembers rose water
a whole book
a safely distant love.

Renuka Mendis
February 14, 2014