Soap Opera – Brahmanawatta


My father is dead. For a few years now his body parts have been educating someone in some medical faculty somewhere.

From time to time when I go to the Tamil shop I buy a certain soap. Not that I make a list and go looking for it. I just see it and my hand reaches out and it follows me home.

Then I forget about it and leave it somewhere. In a cupboard. A medicine cabinet, whatever. And on days when the day to day soap runs out I remember and I open its crisp cardboard box and it falls willingly into my palm. And its size is the perfect fit for my hand. Always been. Not too big and not too small. Like some kind of play thing. Manageable. Friendly.

I then put it to my nose and sniff it like a dog sniffs a disgustingly stinky bone. And it takes me right to my father. To Balapitiya. To the well in Balapitiya. Where he used to give us a well bath and the soap was this. Rani’s sandalwood soap. They loved it, the ancestral home crowd in Balapitiya. Rani’s sandalwood soap. Now starring at my kitchen sink. And next time I go to Ambal Trading I’ll just stock up on a few more. This time I’ll put it on my list and may be put it inside my pillow in shards wrapped in cheese cloth as if it were lavender.


A cheap ticket to that Balapitiya well and to my father’s love. It was always there. Often it lay hidden. But it was always there. Still is. The soap’s the proof of it.

He knows. So do I. What a soapy mess. I’d better go lie down in the sun with the soap box now … and dream of Balapitiya wells. This is it. I found him. In sandalwood soap. A true story. I swear.

Renu – October 27, 2015

Armide’s Arabic calligraphy; after the hustings


It rained a lot yesterday in Toronto. I encountered a man on the Spadina street car. He was carrying home a large boxed toy for his son cheering up the gloomy day. I’d just picked up a stack of books including Pamuk’s new one. The books and the toy. They felt like treasures as the deluge seemingly continued unabated. A good time to strike up a street car conversation. In seconds I could tell my fellow traveler was Egyptian and a question popped up because something has been bubbling away in my mind since Tuesday evening.

“You must be greatly relieved with the election results?”

He beamed with joy and said: “I am very happy with the result!”

His response was genuine and effervescent. We talked about our pre-results fears that Harper’s racist narrative might have easily won. Personally it is still not entirely clear if it did or not but that is for another day. Consider the race-baiting political football that is Bill C-51 and its convoluted trajectory during the election campaign; which remains conspicuously unresolved.


All that stubborn hatred of the other that was spewing out of Harper’s campaign. The petulant absurdity of going to court because two Muslim women covered their faces moored in their religious beliefs (or not). And my fellow traveler today was not the first person I’d talked to about how deeply uncomfortable and even fearful it has been to be Muslim in Canada during this election campaign especially. It is in this yet not quite unresolved climate that I found myself inside the beautiful Elgin Theatre on Yonge Street on Tuesday night. Based on two good reviews; one by Robert Harris (see: and the other by Richard Ouzounian (see: I thought I’d throw my lot in and judge Opera Atelier’s Armide for myself.

It’s cathartic to discover that while Stephen Harper was out in the hustings preaching Islamophobia to the rafters, Toronto’s Opera Atelier had been busily hived away in their workshop creating Arabic calligraphy on their set for Armide. It’ll take a little more reading and study for me to expertly write or critique opera but I know a good story and a song and dance just as well as any other person. Misplaced and misused strengths. The tension between Islam and Christianity, the crusades, duty and discipline at the cost of sacrificing all our humanity and any semblance of vulnerability. Prudery or puritanism versus sensual pleasures. Fear versus freedom; and yes, the most feared – love. Subjects that were callously bandied about during the election campaign; all that is there reframed for us and packaged in silks and brocades of jewel hues that feed the eye and the bittered heart. Not like magazine or TV eye candy but at a deeper and better ordered sensibility that is only possible on the live stage.

I remember one of the earlier Opera Atelier productions tailored for children and adults from probably Mozart’s Magic Flute when Opera Atelier and even Tafelmusik were still quite green. I recall feeling it was all a bit overwrought and bordering on frivolous however delightful and superbly crafted. How far they have come since those early days. The set and costumes in Armide are just another thread by which the whole tale magically enchants your heart, head and soul. A sorely needed enchantment. The intricate patterns of Islamic art and calligraphy with their orderliness and the spare beauty of its curves and scrolls are unique and carry a spiritual depth and a clarity. Clarity to me was what this production was about. Everything becomes crystal clear. What is important and what is not in exquisite visuals and music and voice. I believe the set and the costumes and the Islamic influence played a part in the magic in that the Islamic art aspects were carefully embroidered into the production instead of being placed in opposition.

What thrilled me most was finding out that the set designer Gerard Gauci had worked with an unnamed Persian master calligrapher which work appears on the set in the form of graphic Arabic script. The house curtain which greets you as you enter the theatre are the names of Armide, Lully and Quinault written in Persian in the traditional Arabic script which at first comes as a shock because you don’t expect something so literal in an Islamic sense to be placed smack dab in the middle of a Toronto establishment institution which is a far cry from anything Islamic. Talk about throwing the book in your face but written in calligraphy so beautifully and in the Persian tradition. The work, effort, love and thought that gave life to these art forms and Armide’s tale in her encounter with the crusaders is what had been happening at the atelier unbeknownst to most of us while we were suffering through the horror of a racist election campaign.

And Tuesday night was even more relevant because Armide is a beautifully wrought and lovingly and skilfully crafted rejection of the entirely unexamined base banality that we had to endure as a nation; and Opera Atelier brings it to you with such profound powerful and heart stopping yet accessible beauty accompanied by the wonderful period music of Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra and Chamber Choir. Perhaps the production got even more exquisite to counter the political hell we had been put through.


The rich silk costumes are jewels on their own making one want to reach out and touch its fabric with your fingertips; everything on the stage at each turn a poetic feast to the eyes and the heart in emerald, sapphire and flame. Jade, black and chartreuse. A closely woven and filigreed enchantment to banish the horrors of the past few months. And banish them it did. I am so utterly smitten that I will be returning Saturday for the last performance and in a seat even closer to the stage to drink in the fabric of the costumes and the calligraphy even more. And most of all to be once again utterly enchanted and transformed by this tale that is far far more than just a love story.

Opera Atelier and Tafelmusik Baroque Orchestra are not just Canadian treasures but they are world treasures that we Canadians should be proud of and nurture. And Armide is an exquisitely crafted jewel to wear and feel against your own skin.

Opera Atelier’s Armide runs until October 31, 2015 at the Winter Garden Theatre. Then it moves to the Palace of Versailles.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, October 29, 2015

Images are not mine.

A music update:A beautiful recording of the entire opera here.

The Last Mooncake – A very short Story by Renuka Mendis

Honest to god I know not what I should do. There’s one desolate mooncake left and I don’t think I can bear the thought that it will be gone. Feels like I walked across cataracts between high mountains knitted to the sky, across a deep river in the Yangtze gorge to get to them. And to have no more mooncakes means I put myself so far away from that place they took me to; never to return until next mid-Autumn and its silver full moon. Who knows what might happen between now and then. Now and then that chasm of time.

Perhaps I should walk over to the Metro and get myself some chocolate and have a piece each time I go near the last mooncake. So I don’t eat it and disassociate with its magic.

At Christmas I put out a piece of Christmas cake, a cookie and a cup of milk. The milk turns to a yogurt after a few days when it gets sloshed down the sink out of Arjuna’s little boy milk cup. But the plate with the cake and cookie ends up in my little shrine space where i keep treasured things. And often i forget for months. This also happens when every few years I offer kiribath to the Buddha statute (yes yes i know big secret and all) which is also kept in said shrine space. They all dry out and turn into fossilized kiribath, christmas cake and cookie. I could fossilize similarly the last mooncake. The treasure.

I have solved my dilemma. May be this is where this was going from the very start of this mooncake journey. I had turned fully away from the Buddha over the last twenty or twenty five years having seen what was being done in its name. The hypocrisy of so called Buddhists. The cruelty. I doubt I’d ever turn to the Buddha fully again. Not that I ever had anyway. But on occasion there are passing glances. Especially since January 2015. A smidgen of comfort and solace to be drawn. A finding of a sense of vague equilibrium – Upeksha slightly tilted.

I think I have solved my dilemma. I will not eat the last mooncake. Indeed I ought to have offered the first mooncake to the shrine where the buddha, aiya’s photo, a family photo of my siblings, my most treasured books, and even the Dhammapada sits with my O/Level and A/Level Shakespeare texts. The first mooncake however was eaten by me. Instead I will offer the last mooncake on a pretty plate to that shrine and it will slowly dry out and who knows what it might turn into. So let me go light a candle and make an offering to the moon, to the Buddha, and if there is any goodness left in the universe; to that too. The last mooncake on my prettiest plate. Johnson brand, Hyde Park. And hauled in a suitcase from London, to Riyadh, to Colombo, back to Toronto.  I forget the


big London store where I bought it and the whole set for twenty-five pounds.   Probably a good thing. That was too long ago when my braid was long and as thick as my wrist and fell all the way to my passa paththa inviting unnecessary attention.

And may be I’ll dream in my sleep that you are with me under the moon sailing down the Yangtze as Li Qingzhao recites her poem – thus:

It was far into the night when, intoxicated,
I took off my ornaments;
The plum flower withered in my hair.
Recovered from tipsiness,
the lingering smell of wine
broke my fond dream.
Before my dreaming soul could find
my way home.

All is quiet.
The moon lingers,
And the emerald screen hangs low.
I caress the withered flower,
Fondle the fragrant petals,
Trying to bring back the lost time.

And we can nibble at mooncakes in our dreams. Always. Forever.

Translation of poem by Li Qingzhao sourced from

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, October 2, 2015

Passing through Hungary – A Novel by @BBCMatthewPrice

So I came across a woman from Syria today. Walking along the hard shoulder of the motorway.

Pushing a pushchair. In it her two year old son. Asleep and oblivious. A handbag hanging from the handles. And a bag of apples.

Her four year old held her hand as she pushed it. The car headlights lighting them up. Then they would fade again in the darkness.

They walked like that from the central station in Budapest. Walked for eight and more hours. You know what it’s like to walk with three kids that age? That far? With a few belongings?

Her six year old daughter wrapped in a thin blanket. She told me her husband was in Germany. That she was going to find him.

The kids were amazing. Like so many have been. Most actually. But then the distance mounted. And this little family slowed.

The boy started to complain. Then cry. And he said no more. The daughter looked helpless. And mum burst into tears. There on the motorway.

She shook and crumpled over the pushchair. Her baby slept on. The cars flashed by. And mum and son cried. And trembled.

They were helped. The boy carried on shoulders. The pushchair pushed. And mum and daughter moved forwards slowly. Mum limping.

And that was how it was. For another three kilometres or more. Until they found their friend and stopped.

They lay out blankets on the grass verge. The little boy found his teddy bear. The girl wrapped herself up. They lay down.

And still the cars passed. And re baby? Slept through the lot. He will never remember how he once passed through Hungary.


Embedded image permalink

“Thank you. Thank you Austria” they say politely as they cross the border.



Approximately 8p.m. on September 4, 2015 in EST. on Twitter. All credit and ownership for content and photographs belong to: Matthew Price of the British Broadcasting Corporation. Matthew Price on the ground from Hungary near the German border today.

Compiled from Twitter feed of Matthew Price by Renuka Mendis, in Toronto. September 4, 2015. Bearing witness. (Pending permission from Matthew Price).

Title Passing through Hungary – A Novel by @BBCMatthewPrice was assigned by Renuka Mendis (Pending permission from Matthew Price).

115 Degrees Fahrenheit


Sweet tender mango and warm fresh delicate just set yogurt made at night while the world slept; the combination of a perfect mango’s sweet sensuality and the innocence of milk made more resonant in its newly jellied form.

You wanted to know how to. So here it is. First of all get yourself a food thermometer.  I know many make yogurt without one but that is the secret for success around here.  You will never go wrong. And anyway it is a useful tool to have around the kitchen.  As to the rest here you go.

What you need:

4 Litres Whole Milk (you can use skimmed or in between or add cream for richer yogurt)

4 tablespoons unflavoured yogurt (formula is 1 tablespoon per litre of milk)

Special equipment:

Food thermometer

Wide mouthed glass jars with lids

A balloon whisk

A glass cup measure for filling jars

A cup to rest the thermometer between checks

A heavy bottomed sauce pan

Oven with pilot light

Important Temperatures to keep in mind:

Milk holding temperature – 160F – 180F

Inoculation temperature – 115F

Ambient temperature to rest the yogurt – 110F

Something about ambient temperature.  The ideal temperature for yogurt to set is 110F more or less.  How this works for me is if I leave the light on in my electric oven it hits that temperature.  It should not be too much higher than that.  The yogurt takes between 5 – 6 hours to set.  The longer it sits from the moment it sets the more tart it becomes.  If you don’t like yogurt tart remove the yogurt as soon as it is set.  You will know it is set because when you tilt it the whey will separate from the solids.  For the first time suggest you give it about seven hours and you can experiment with your next batch.  I tend to like it un-tart so I remove it as soon as it is set.  Just set warm yogurt is pure magic.  Especially with ripe mango.  Anyway, back to work.

First sterilize your jars …

First sterilize your jars, lids, whisk and the cup measure in boiled water for 15 minutes. Then remove with tongs and drain on a tray lined with a clean kitchen towel. If your jars and equipment are not sterilized your yogurt might not set due to bacteria. Don’t skip this part.  Also make sure your working areas are super clean and same with your oven.

Now heat the milk in a heavy bottomed non-reactive pan stirring all the time.  Bring to between 160F – 180F and keep it at that temperature for 20 – 30 minutes.  Make sure to keep stirring and adjust heat to ensure it does not go outside this temperature range.  If you don’t stir a skin will form on top which is not a good idea.

After 20 – 30 minutes place the pan in an ice bath or cold water bath and bring temperature down to 115F.  115F is the magic temperature at which inoculation can occur which will make sure the culture you add to the milk will multiply and magically transform milk to yogurt.

As soon as the milk reaches 115F remove from the cold water/ice bath and add the yogurt and whisk it in.  Promptly transfer the milk to the jars using the measuring cup.  Cover the jars with the lids and place on a large tray in oven which should be at 110F.  Cover the bottles with a kitchen towel.

After 5 – 6 hours your yogurt will be set.  Sometimes it may take a little longer but not a lot. As I said if this is your first time just do it before you sleep and it should be set when you wake up in the morning but it will be a little tart.

I think yogurt is lovely when super fresh and warm.  But in order to store the yogurt place them in a cold water bath till room temperature.  Then refrigerate.  They keep easily in the fridge for a month without any problem provided you don’t open the lids.  Once they are open they are still good for two to three weeks.  Always keep refrigerated.

DSCF2962Until you get the hang of it after making a few batches; it’s best to use large mouthed jars.  These are small jars I make for single servings.  I leave a bunch in the office fridge; end up being my breakfast often.

And the best part.  You get to use the yogurt you made for your next batch as the culture.  Just use one tablespoon for each litre of milk.  Best of luck. This has become a beloved ritual for me.  I no longer buy yogurt.

Tips:  Sometimes I add about a tablespoon of rose water into a jar (1 litre) to give it a rose flavour.  Although I’ve never done so you could also sweeten the yogurt by adding sugar to the milk and other flavourings.  I am happy with plain yogurt and I jazz it up with some fruit preserves or fresh fruit or sometimes just some toasted oats.  Ripe perfect apricots and mangoes, fresh, are divine with just set yogurt before it gets tart. It is paradise.  Sometimes when I need something fancy I just get out the yogurt and have it with a little sugar and plop a few drops of rose water in it.  Needless to mention all the savoury possibilities for salads and things.  Chop up a cucumber and a tomato.  Throw in some yogurt and some chopped mint and/or dill.  There’s a summer salad for you.

Renuka Mendis, in Toronto, August 31, 2015.

today i plan to steal a sequin


around now on days like this
i wait
for her to appear
as she does
every tired afternoon
a lovers visit
she turns up dressed
in soft silvers and golds
in three sequins off each ear
to politely
steal kisses
that were all mine when night turned into days
days that get shorter and shorter

in alarm
like a tailor without cloth
i hang on in hope off a rope
of tensile silk
as the day gets shorter each afternoon
by miles at a time compounded
the thread she hangs me by
gets thinner
across the sky a fragile tightrope
as i drown into shorter days
and its sure promise
that soon, very soon
she will not return.

Renuka Mendis, Toronto, August 22, 2015

Photo by Renuka Mendis, in Toronto, August, 2015.


the peacock
on the mosque in silhouette
its mane heavy
its long eyes survey
as tires burn on the causeway
and a boy child gapes
from far away
through window’s bars
and sees —
a peacock at the crest

of a minaret.

Renuka Mendis, March 23, 2015



Photo by Renuka Mendis, in Pottuvil, August, 2011.

Footnote: I am told this is the 50th Post on my Store Room here. Thank you to everyone who visited and are yet to visit. I like being here most days. Renuka – Aug 12, 2015.

smoke gets in my eyes

at loose ends
hiding from the world
the sun comes down in shards
benignly cuts
trying to rip up my thin old dress
hanging loose and lazy
hammock style
i fear the unknown of sunday afternoons
as mondays lie in wait
in fear
sleeping feigning early hibernation
of oncoming summer’s end
a death
an entombment of possible escapes
seeking solace in afternoon tea cups
of hours wasted except for listening
to music
the silence of rustling leaves on the first quavers of dry
towards a bonfire’s early evening blaze
smoke and smell that straight line to when we first walked the earth upright
and noticed trees
unclothed or covered in leaves
can we stop the time at 4.11p.m.

but it’s time
to put away last night’s dishes now dry
except for the drip drip drip of a few spoons that stuck together
so i can rinse that messy pan
and fry something up to slake hunger
and once again forget the world
but then i remember
i can be useful
and stir some milk
and make yogurt
and laugh again fearless;
because you
my darling
are here.

Renuka Mendis, Aug 9, 2015, Toronto.