Reminiscences of a Colonial Childhood

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




The Beginnings – Kandy

The map is blank. My birth is its first landmark. An unformed map

without routes. Where is the forest? Where is the desert? The roadways? The

waterways, rivers and oceans? Where will the land be cleared for the setting up

of the first dwelling place? The blood predicts that there will be several. The

final one, in the wilderness. The going back, after the discovery of that Canaan

land, to the locusts and manna. The map already bore its invisible tracery webbed

with its crisscross of routes explored by earlier discoverers. My own life map

was an opaque sheet of parchment, clear and un-smudged, without its territory

and boundaries marked out.

Surrounded by tea estates and forested hills is the valley in which I was

born. The hill slopes with burning beacons flaring and sparking off flames

when the manna grass, tall, sharp-bladed stalks so harsh and abrasive, was set

on fire on the tea estate. The temple stood by the lake with the King’s palace

and the bathing pavilion of the queen. The forest sanctuary was the backdrop

with its hoary trees, vines, creepers, and ferns. Its tribes of monkeys, reptiles

and animals within those dark coverts, churches, schools, built by missionaries–

Roman Catholic, Anglican, Methodist, Baptist. A turreted, high-walled gaol

painted deep rose- red in the heart of the township. A market place with mazes

of corridors and small shops. Pyramids of fruit. Baskets piled up with an

overspill of mangoes, passion fruit, avocado, pears, and pineapples. Bunches

of ripening plantains. Buckets filled with gladioli, carnations, lady’s lace,

hydrangeas that had come wrapped in fir branches, from up-country. Fish laid

out on slabs, the last gasp and quiver, stilled. Great carcasses of meat suspended

from iron hooks.

Katukellewatte. Acres and acres of land, which belonged to Colonel

Piachaud. His wife, Lilian was my grandmother Charlotte Grenier’s cousin.

They lived in a house with spacious rooms and a sprawling verandah named

“The Retreat”. Two lofty, leaf crowned mangosteen trees stood sentinel before

the house. A stone birdbath was sunk into the earth. There was an emerald

green grass trimmed lawn with an arbour of bougainvillea. My parents lived in

one of the Colonel’s houses. Gowanlea, a name that emerged out of someone

else’s mythic dream of a mythic place in a mythic country. Somebody else’s

imagined landscape. I sought out its meaning years later. Transposed from

across the seas and planted in a tropical landscape. The Colonel was of French

descent, settled in this island but the name of the house he constructed was

plucked from some mystical memory of landscapes he had perhaps encountered

in a world of books in the remembrance of an idyllic pastoral. As for his own

house – it was his imagined haven. So distant from the warlike antecedents of

those soldiers of fortune, his ancestors. Katukellewatte abounded in fruit trees,

birds, bowers of bougainvillea, fern banks, hibiscus and frangipani. The colonel

had an estate in Kadugannawa too. Just below the point at which the hollowed out

rock tunnel marked the Pass. Rising from the valley, the tea estate spread and

covered the hill slopes. My mother as a young girl spent holidays with the

Piachaud children from time to time. She read to them, narrated stories, was

their young companion whom they loved dearly. Where was that house? I

searched for it as I passed through during all those growing years, but could

never see it. Was it still there, hidden away in some sheltered copse? What I

wanted to know, what I wanted to see, was some imagined part of my mother’s

early youth of which no photograph remained. To share her view of a hidden

valley and mountains wrapped in a blue, distanced haze beyond her vision and

yet, part of it.

Who had named me at my baptismal font? In the Methodist Church in

Brownrigg Street where John Wesley’s hymns were sung together with hymns

translated from Latin and German, the walls covered with historical plaques in

copper and marble.

My names were inspired by the readings into colonial text, the Bible

and the canonical literature of’ those times. Those names swam round,

imprisoned within that baptismal font, netted and flung from that ocean, fringed

by subjugated territory, gliding in those shallow depths, without a channel of

escape. Silvery shapes, luminous in the clear, fresh water shafted with green

and violet light glancing from the circular stained glass window above the carved

pulpit from which a succession of English missionaries delivered their sermons

every Sunday morning and evening to a fervent pew filled congregation. Names

embedded in my mind. Lansdowne, Nelson, Beven, Middlehurst, Jackson,

Small, Cartman, Tattersall, Nodder, Robinson. . . Was that first baptismal font

ever replaced during the passage of the years? In my imagination there still

remains the rainbow touch of glinting fish scales within those ever replenished

blessed waters that touched each infant forehead with the chill of presaging. . .

my names remain but their significance needs a new interpretation, the need to

be translated using new codes and ciphers.

I begin, then, here, at this point of time, with my entrance into the world

of Katukellewatte, define myself, an iridescent speck against the moving, shifting

glaciers of history. I go backwards into the past, my birth that lies within the

pre-history of the ice age. The speck appears on the blank map and begins, but

very gradually, to assume a shape and form. My birth, then, was located on that

map. It had its own mysteries. I had to construct, piece together those fragments

of memories and spin each thread to weave its unending tapestry. Who then

was that Colonel who had mapped out his territory in that once un-subjugated

Kandyan Kingdom? His existence possessed a historical credibility if not

justification. His ancestor who fought in the Seven Years War in 1759 was yet

another military officer, another Colonel Piachaud, brother officer in the same

regiment as Jean Francois Grenier, my mother’s French ancestor. Unlike my

mother’s great, great grandfather who had fathered one son and sailed away

across the Bay of Bengal never to be seen or heard again, Colonel Piachaud had

served in a regiment of the mercenary army of Colonel de Meuron, one who

had fought first on the side of the Dutch and after their capitulation and surrender,

on the side of the British.

Marriage alliances between the Greniers and the Piachauds proliferated

throughout the nineteenth century. As for their offsprings and the generations

to come there were no genealogical tables or records. The remaining descendents

were scattered over the face of the earth, emigrating to different parts of the

globe, mainly to England and later, the Grenier Janszs to both England and

Australia. There did not appear to be any need for those recorded histories,

documented to establish links and connections in the exile of death and migration.

To whom did it matter any longer that champagne flowed at the wedding of

one of the Piachauds and that the bride wore a gown of satin with a long train or

that the bridegroom was a famous Cambridge cricketer? What did it matter

that the descendants of those two soldiers of fortune should have given

birth to officials and dignitaries in the British colonial Government, becoming

puisne judges, colonial soldiers, accountants in the general treasury, attorney

generals, and civil servants, seeming to have shed whatever war-like antecedents

their ancestors possessed?

Colonel Piachaud was the chief attesting witness at my birth. He would

never live to see what I would grow up to be. Nor would he have approved my

rebellion against the customary mold of tradition. His wife Lily outlived him,

a gracious and beautiful woman, who also lived to see my own children. “Mother

would love to see your daughters”, Marguerite, Lily’s daughter told me one

day. That meeting was a historical event. Equivalent to being presented to the

Queen Mother. Her gifts to her cousin Dolly’s children were two kapok stuffed

cloth balls with variegated strips of colour that she had sewn herself. And the

two Victorian high chairs that my sister and I had inherited from the Piachaud

bungalow were part of her gifts, now bequeathed to my children. Those

variegated colours of the hand-sewn balls, looking back, provide the metaphors

for a genealogical hybridity.

The township in which I had my birth was not an unfriendly one in my

infancy. I was safe in my cradle, rocked to sleep with lullabies. My mother

loved me greatly. I was her youngest and close to her, as close as the whorled

fleece of cotton in its pod. She had special names for me then. Magical names.

Names I will never utter aloud for anyone to hear. They belong to that time

when I did not have full knowledge of pain, of that feeling called sorrow, of

hurt, death or violence. My mother told me I had a Guardian Angel; I believed

her. I believed I could hang on the edge of a steep, precipice and not fall down,

down deep into the chasm of death.

My uncle and aunts, all unmarried, lived close by at Sunnyside Gardens.

When I grew up, my sister and I were taken on visits where we played among

my uncle’s flowerbeds. He was a florist and his garden was filled with roses

imported from Holland, blue, mauve, pink clusters of hydrangeas, carnations

of dark crimson and deep rose pink streaked with red, gladioli, dark green ferns.

There was a biling tree laden with pale green, translucent, thick-skinned fruit,

so thick that it stung the tongue. Biling, mulberries, and China guavas we

gorged on, like wild birds fluttering in the garden.

By the time I had come to live at Sunnyside the carriage road was no

longer private. The ‘Bhishanaya’, the radical movement, Jathika Vimukthi
that had begun in 1989 had gathered momentum by the early nineties.

There was death in the air. Gunshots echoed through the township at night.

And on Colonel Piachaud’s road, two bodies splattered with blood from gunshot

wounds with hands tied behind their backs, blindfolded, were dumped into the

drain beside the road and left there, exposed for the whole populace to view

until the hearse drove up and bore them off to an oblivion from which they had

come. ‘The Retreat’ has been sold off. Once it was a place of refuge for

mothers and their babies born out of wedlock. There were other changes too. . .

but the house still stands, its boundaries marked out, its shrunken garden fenced


Beyond Blue Mountains

Childhood often writes remembered episodes of the past in memory,

episodes without strategy, that often in those long periods of time during which

we grow, shape ourselves into the completeness of the explorer’s discovery

whereby we recognise those landmarks we have journeyed through. We set up

our habitations there and go back to them as we retrace our steps. We follow a

path, a signpost, whether of face, rock or stream, plant or tree and find ourselves

traversing a landscape in which those once familiar figures encounter ours,

their faces still recognizable, although we knew them in a different clime, a

different season. Time has taken them away from us but we do not speak of

them as the dead. They are still there, inhabiting those landscapes of the mind,

that vast terrain in which we are often alone, wandering over those solitary or

crowded places. We glimpse the past as in that phase of silver that appears

through a gap in the mountain, to tell us that a restless ocean lies beyond it. My

aunt Nellie had once given me a book, beautifully illustrated called “Beyond

the Blue Mountains” and it was that imaginary and fabulous land that I had to

reach someday.

From the garden of the house where we lived in Kadugannawa, Dawson’s

tower with its gleaning whiteness stood out starkly against the blue green hills

of Belungala. Within its dark interior, a narrow spiral stairway with broken

steps wound up to a circular platform with railings. From this vantage point,

the view offered you a complete landscape, both close and distant, of lush foliage

fed by trickling streams and steep precipices dropping into valleys, with a

checkboard of paddy fields, houses and temples with never a person in sight.

The green belt lay spread beneath the blue hills, across which passed shadows

of light and dark and the eye searched for the path that descended beneath its

terraces and trees, where those truly ancient roots delve into the past of some

forgotten beginning.

Inside Dawson’s tower it was always fusty and dark, the atmosphere

fetid with bats and their droppings, but my brother and sister with their

intrepid friends had dared to climb to the top of the tower, through the almost

choking darkness, till they reached the light and drank in the fresh, pure air.

Below them was the world of mosque minarets, church spires and the rubber and

tea estates. The vast circle of the turntable with its shunting engine slowly

revolved – – it was an experience we sometimes enjoyed, climbing onto it and

feeling the blast of heat from the inferno of stoked fires, the coal shovelled in

with great metal scoops. To wipe out the grease and grime we were given wads

of coloured threads – my greatest joy was to try to unravel these coloured

strands of red and green, blue, white and yellow, smoothen them out, try to

thread them through the needle to embroider impossible and fanciful designs on

fine muslin and cambric.

I remained below the tower. My brother and sister felt I was too young

to go through the suffocating darkness. They were also old enough to escape

adult sanctions, to explore their own freedoms. They could take any road they

wanted, appear or disappear at will, climb tall mango trees, perch on a branch

and eat half-ripe mangoes. And my brother taught me a delicious secret of

taking ripe yellow lime, making a small hollow in the skin and filling it with

salt crystals and finely sifted chilly powder which we sucked as we sat on a

rock overlooking the railway lines, away from my mother’s watchful eyes. I

had a treasured Kodak snapshot of my brother camouflaged in a world of fruit

and leaves, with a felt hat perched on his head, on the mango tree above our

house. But very often I was left alone. My view was hazy; dreaming through

the garden, my brother’s and sister’s the bold ascent. As they walked round the

tower they carried the view visually with them – perhaps they could see even as

far as Bible Rock. I had to wait till my father led me up the summit of Belungala,

to lift me high on his shoulders and show me his vision of the ocean, so distant,

so beyond reach, through a haze of blue.

The Search

I walked up the steps curving up the hillside that led to the house, so

many years later with my two young daughters and a friend of theirs.

Kadugannawa, a place, a location where my awareness of myself would be

gradually realised. It was here that I began to be conscious of a landscape that

allowed for discovery and exploration. My steps took me wherever I willed.

Now, I had come in search in memory of those whom I had lived with

here. My father, my mother. Through this search I wanted to know them more

completely, through the remembrance of utterances, happenings, events,

narration; the dawning of sorrow; the joyful grasping of a transitory rainbow. I

had hoped that at least one person would be alive to greet me, if not recognise

me for I had altered beyond all things; growing away from the child I had been

within that garden where Mungo, my companion, had spent endless hours with


My starting point, my investigation would begin from here. The retracing

of the route that led from this house on the hill. There is no one left to greet me,

no familiar figure from the past, friends, neighbours who had lived in those

railway bungalows clustering about the station. The railway lines still ran from

Kandy to Colombo on unalterable routes. The signal cabin, the overhead bridge

arching over the platform, the platform itself, was all unchanged. But the old

friends had all departed. First, on transfers to other stations in the island, then

migration, finally death. All those Burgher families whose lives had been so

close to ours. The colonials too. My eyes glanced at the Railway reading

room. Yes, the tennis courts still remained, but were with overgrown grass.

And the swing, which had been my delight. The giant turntable was no longer

in use. I had been on the huge steam engine with my father as it revolved

slowly, ponderously round being readied for the direction it would take; the

engine with its cavernous belly, a furnace of blazing flames, the firemen

shovelling coal into its inferno. My first journeys had been on the trains powered

by those steam engines, flying cinders prickling my eyes as the train passed

through tunnels; stopped at temporarily, alighted at stations; embarking,

disembarking. But there had been other journeys too. Wholly unpredicted

ones. On this journey back did I expect to find Mungo still living? Was it only

because I had become vulnerable, inevitably, to all that she had tried to protect

me from, that I still clung to the memory of the safety she had given me and the

knowledge she had within her, sharing her life with me. I had never known her

to go on any journeys on those trains that passed through, day after day. Her

route was from her home, in the interior of that village where her hut was, mud

walled, thatched growing out of its earth, to my home. It was through her that

my awareness grew of another way of life, the life in the village with its myths,

folklore, legends and rituals. Of her way of looking at good and evil. All this

existed beneath the layers and layers of my parents’ way of life. The inheritance,

the heritage that was what I had been born into.

We spent endless and timeless hours of leisure in that garden or within

the small, whitewashed rooms of the house. At night the Bali drums, thunderous

and echoing through the stillness had instilled an unknown fear in me. In the

morning she had taken me along the pathway that led to her home where the

ceremonies and rituals of exorcism had taken place. Holding me by the

hand we would go in that early morning walk through that mist covered path

with its fecund, moisture-drenched foliage of plants and flowers, ferns, ant-hills,

trees on either side of it. Mungo’s brother Charlie was the Kattadiya who in his

trance, addressed the spirits of demonic forces in his incantations, slit the throat

of the sacrificial cock bird, sliced hundreds of limes, swallowed fire from the

blazing kerosene soaked torches bound with old cloth and spewed out the flames

which shot forth in wavering plumes, flowing into the night air. Engulfed in an

ocean of fire and scattered sparks. She had taken me into the room where the

child Menike lay wrapped up in a white cloth on a woven reed mat, a padura,

on the floor. The ceremony had been held to cure her of some malady, some


Outside, in Mungo’s garden the huge effigies of the demons, the yakkas,

had been lifted down and lay among the scattered offerings of brilliant yellow

marigolds, red hibiscus, yellow, white, pink, orange and red-tinged araliya. I

had wanted to pick up the flowers. “No bebi. Do not touch. The evil is in

them. You too will be harmed. ” Her hand had been protective and restraining

on mine. What were those intimations of evil she had shown me? By word, by

utterance. Evil was inherent even in the seemingly peaceful landscape which

we inhabited. She had parted that screen to the other life concealed from those

with whom I lived the accustomed ways, – my parents, their friends, my teachers

in the missionary school I would go to later.

I lay awake, often, in the four-poster, wrapped in the fleecy folds of a

woollen English blanket, the shadows playing on the white, trilled cotton valance,

glancing on the whitewashed walls in a chiaroscuro of light and shade. Listening,

listening to the thud, thud, thud of the hollow sounding drums, which reached

through the dark, tree crowded silence, until the sombre echo filled the entire

space of the bedroom, filling my ears with the insistence of a relentless rhythm.

I would lie awake for hours in silence my sister beside me, my mother in the

French bed against the other wall, my head hidden in the folds of the blanket.

At night it was the sound of the drums that kept me awake. At dawn the mist-dispersing machine sounded its dirge – like siren on the Englishman’s rubber

estate across the railway tracks. Its long drawn, monotonous wail filled me

with an inexplicable sense of melancholy. I felt myself in a space less vacuum

being sucked in, a vacuum shimmering with brilliant pointillist specks of colour

from which I could never struggle out until I woke startled out of its disturbing


And in those nightly dreams I was always falling off that bridge onto the

railway track, the shrill whistle of the steam engine echoing, re-echoing through

a dense, opaque dark. Only the thought of the signal lamp that my father flashed

with its sliding shades of colour gave me any sense of comfort. And then, there

was a different kind of terror, the tales that Mungo would relate to me,

remembered from her own childhood. The rakshasa could entice you with

those delicious honey seeping kewun, the cakes which she hung on a tree so

that you would be tempted to pluck them and then became captive through her


Gamarala’s Tale

This is one of the stories I remember which belonged to that ancient oral

tradition of the village. I sat cradled in Mungo’s lap and heard her narrate the

story. I searched for this story in later years and found it in a collection of folk

tales published by the Englishman Parker, in the year 1910.

“In a certain country there lived a Gamarala who had seven children.

The six elder children woke up at daybreak to work in the rice field. The

youngest went to school. Together with the other children, the whole party of

them used to go near the dwelling of a rakshasi who lived nearby. The rakshasi

saw them and from that day onward, decided to eat them. But she was afraid of

the men in the village and was kept from seizing the children. She craved for

them and so decided that she would use her daughter to catch them. She broke

off the leaves of a tree, which stood on the road which the children passed by

on their way to school and hung plantains and kewun on strips of white cloth

which she had bound the branches with. The children were enchanted by the

cake tree and plucked the kewun and plantains, which they ate. The rakshasi

hid in the jungle. She was afraid that the children would scuttle off when they

saw her and tell the men of the village who would kill her. So she bided her

time. One morning the Gamarala’s son came earlier than the others, climbed

the tree and began plucking the fruits and cakes. The rakshasi suddenly appeared

with a bag. She stood at the bottom of the tree and spoke to him.

“Here you! Son, pluck a cake for me, ” she said. He plucked one for her

but she threw it on the sand. “Pluck another”, she said, “I can’t eat this because

it is covered with sand. As he plucked and threw them down, she kept dropping

them. “I can’t catch the cakes you are dropping. I will tell you an easy way to

do it. Pluck as many as you can and jump into the bag. Jumping is easier than

climbing down the tree. ” The foolish child thought to himself, “Yes, what she

tells me is easy” and he plucked as many kewuns with both hands, filled his

pockets and jumped into the rakshasi’s bag. The rakshasi tied the mouth of the

bag and concealing him inside took him stealthily to her house and told

her daughter “Daughter, today I must eat something tasty. There is some meat

in the bag that I have carried over my shoulder. Boil the meat for me. ” The

rakshasi gave the bag to her daughter and went about her business. The daughter

opened the bag and found the boy inside. When she was about to take him out

to prepare the meat, the boy said, “Aney, akka, sister, there are lice on your

head. ” “If you can catch them, do so” she told him and sat down. The Gamarala’s

son parted the strands of hair as if searching for lice. And then suddenly took

up the axe that had been brought to kill him and struck off her head. After killing

her, he put her into the cauldron of water, placed the pot on the hearth and

boiled her. He then prepared her for the rakshasi to eat. He collected the rice

mortar, the pestle and a great number of knives that were in the house. He then

climbed a palmyrah palm that stood at the doorway and lay in wait for the


When she returned after her bath she called out to the daughter “Has the

tasty food been prepared today? It must be done secretly or the men of the

village would kill us. ” When she came into the house she found that the boiled

meat was there for her to eat but there was no sign of the daughter. She called

out to her, but there was no answer. While the rakshasi was searching for her,

the youth on the palm tree began to beat the rabana and said, “tan, tun, their

own flesh they themselves will eat. On the palmyrah tree at the doorway, tan,

tun. ” Saying this, he began to beat a rabana.

The rakshasi saw him and came running to seize him when he threw

down the pestle and mortar, which struck her. She died at the bottom of the

tree. Then the boy climbed down, went home and told the rest of his family the

whole story. They came with him and took away all the rakshasi’s possessions.

They lived happily together. ”

Those were the stories Mungo would tell me in her gentle ruminating

way. The stories themselves were frightening. In my imagination the cake tree

grew in my garden, but it was the anodha tree with its ripening fruit and the owl

that nightly gave its melancholy omen-filled call beside the green tats of the

verandha that haunted my dreams. Both Mungo and my mother would advise

me of the spells, and the enchantments that would bind me if I left nail parings

or hair clippings about the place. They could be used to make ‘charms’ which

would perhaps be harmful to me. So when my hair was cut every strand of hair

was gathered up and taken away, who knows where, but hidden from the gaze

of anyone who might bury it after ‘charming’ it. Nail clippings too were carried

away in folds of newspaper.

Lullabies in the Wind

The power of memory assails my senses as I think of Mungo, her face,

the colour of her eyes, the fragrance of her skin with its earthy smells and of

paddy stalks ripening in the sun, the smell of the coconut oil in her hair, and of

her cotton camboya washed with ‘sunlight’ soap, pervading my senses as I lay

on her outstretched knees being lulled to sleep. She was crooning her lullabies

to me, the words which I would seek later in order to understand more than

what those dream induced, hypnotic words that soothed me with their gentle

rhythms. For me that moment the rocking motion of her knees, the lulling tones

of her voice, the feel of her hands lifting the pillow beneath my head were

enough to give me a sense of peace. Those were her inherited lullabies, from

her own childhood in the village, heard from her mother and her grandmother.

Lullabies, which she shared with her own children and with me whom she now

nurtured. In my half sleep I knew she was crooning words that I recognised, of

familiar flowers that grew in my garden, sainan, pitcha, and jasmine; of fruit,

veralu and dodang, the olive and the orange; of the green parakeet and of the

spilt milk flowing in the river and of the deep hum and throb of the bakamuna,

the night owl that I heard on the anodha tree. My eyes, their lids becoming

heavy, weighed with drowsiness and oncoming sleep, observed fragments of

her face and body, the ruddy sheen of her golden skin, the white cotton jacket

with the little silver knobs like drops of coalesced mercury fallen from a shattered

thermometer, the safety pins attached to the neckline. These safety pins served

so many functions, picking out those thorns as she trod the earth barefooted or

were used in passing tapes and elastics through the hems of sundry garments.

The tiny gold safety pins were used to pin on that particular arrangement of a

fan-like handkerchief on the front of our printed chintz dresses. My eyes were

mesmerised by the silver bracelet coiled round Mungo’s wrist, her chain with

the suraya, the amulet, the earings, silver cylinders thrust through her elongated


In the garden we played for hours within a world that no one else shared.

In the afternoons, beneath the mara tree, red petals carpeting the earth, we crushed

juices on stones to make play food. She taught me how to twist the dried jack

leaves, secure them with ekels and send them whizzing in the air above the

thornless roses on their missions high, high above the mugerine bushes and the

Holy Ghost orchids. Facing each other we sat, the two of us, playing athuru

mithuru, placed the tiny stones and pebbles on the back of the hand, flipping

them over to fill the palm. We shooed away the crows, both real and imaginary,

lifting out hands and crying out. . . Goraka dain, goraka dain, dain like the refrain

of the ancient ballads. I collected orange-red sapu seeds strewn all over

the garden. The selalihini in the cage could talk imitating our human language.

Laughter gurgled in my throat as we exchanged our formal greetings, the birds

and I. My father had taught the bird, human language. I would stand at the

barred cage and offer it sapu seeds from the garden, coral red seeds.

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

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

Sally hopped about on the bars pecking at ripe papaw and taking tiny sips of

water. Selalihinis are rare, my father told me, mynahs are more common. To

me, bird language was what I sought to understand. It was the language I

wished to speak to them, not the human tongue. We inhabited the same garden

of my childhood. My father taught me the language of birds, for he too listened

to every birdcall.

Mungo washed me and bathed me in the big enamel basins and zinc

bathtubs, lifting me off my warm bed early into the morning to ready me for

school. She crushed anguru, charcoal from our wood fire and filled the empty

pots of Pond’s Vanishing cream bottles with the powder. She would place

some of it on my palm. I would dip into it with my finger and rub it gently on

my teeth leaving them white and sparkling. The cool bathroom with its half

green painted walls had little spider sacs as soft and powdery yellow as pollen

set in the window niches, fragile spider webs that trapped motes of sunlight in

their delicate mesh, and boxes of sawdust with wooden scoops. There were

also the adobe dwellings of the orange and black potter wasps, with their mazes

and tunnels. It was here, musing that I felt the orange tree sprouting within me

from the careless seed I swallowed imagining the branches thrusting out of

each orifice of my body. Love for Mungo was also a growing thing. Its full

intent was felt so many years later in recollection, in remembrance of the

nurturing woman, the woman in whose presence I never spilt a tear. But why,

why did I once pursue her as she carried the night lamp to the bedroom at dusk?

She who spread her padura, the mat with its green and red designs beside the

high four poster to sleep beside me. Her hand shielded the wavering flame as

she stepped along the verandha. “Mungo”, I called, “Mungo” and I tried to

hold her back from leaving me, going away from me, but she went on firmly

ahead. I wanted to keep her by me, prolong the conscious hours of hearing her

voice, feeling the touch of those firm hands and began a chase. “Stop, bebi” I

called. “Stop”. “Stop, don’t be a naughty girl, stop”. My mother called out as

I pursued her, ran behind her, as fast as I could. My feet were nimble. We ran

through the dining room, through the hall, along the back verandha. Mungo

ahead of me, I behind her, almost upon her, my hand outstretched to grasp

whatever of her. I could hold onto and then she fell. The night lamp shattered

into fragments, the flame went out. I was pulled away, punished, smacked,

Mungo? Was she angered? Did she upbraid me? Perhaps she did. It was a

dangerous game. The flame could have spread. Mungo could have been hurt.

Feelings and emotions that were unbridled. A wildness that was almost primitive.

Who would explain it all?

I knew what the consequences would be. I would not escape. And now

the next chase began. My mother complained to my father of my behaviour.

Now it was she who came behind me. I fled from them all and sought out my

brother who was in one of the rooms going about his own business. Wordlessly

I ran up to him, clasped his waist from behind and used him as a shield to

protect me. We swayed to and fro together, but my mother grasped me, pulled

me out. I remember my brother’s strange smile, almost as if he understood an

act of mischief for its own sake. But he had to allow justice to be meted out.

And Mungo? she said, I think. “Bebi you are very naughty, very dangerous

very mischievous. ” I could not get protection from any quarter. I learnt that day

that I would have to take the consequences of any act that caused hurt or pain to

someone else. I could not control it. Nor could I hide away from aggression. I

had to articulate those feelings with words I was still to learn.

Storm On The Lagoon

My mother always dramatised her experiences, brought risk, danger,

and excitement closer home involving me in many of those happenings. Her

narratives began anywhere, at anytime when we were together, alone. Was she

talking to me or were her words reaching somewhere else, someone else. I now

think to myself, ‘why did you never write all this in your journals, record your

own past?’ My father, my mother, were always reaching back into their own

lives, delving into the experience which had significance on their personal

journeys. Somehow the message reached me and after all those years they are

there within my own secret mind-cache, to retrieve.

I hear her voice, my mother’s voice recalling the storm on the lagoon. I

was with her, that evening, ‘a babe in arms’ as she told me ‘when I went boating

on the Batticaloa lagoon and the boat capsized. It was so hot, so very hot here

on the eastern coast and I wanted to feel the cool breeze that blew over the

stretch of water. It was so inviting and as I stood with you on the shore I had

this sudden urge to take a boat ride. Your father was at work. He was stationed

in Batticaloa. I had remained behind in Kandy at aunty Tommy’s. Your father

hated being separated from us but after Budgie’s death and your birth

there had been a period of disturbance in our lives. I felt you were too young to

be taken so far away. Perhaps it was a sense of reluctance to leave the familiar

things, the comfort of the known place and friends. . . . I had come here on a

holiday. We were sailing in the boat. I sat cradling you comfortably in my arms.

The waters were calm like crushed silk, gently ruffled by the breeze that touched

each wave. Suddenly a high wind rose. The air grew dark. The boat first tossed

violently from side to side, tilting dangerously into the turbulence. The waves

were rising high”.

I listened, my play suspended. I feel a thrill of excitement run through

my body. My mother’s story of the danger we had shared was more exciting

than my solitary game. Was it a jigsaw I was so carefully setting like a mosaic

before me?

It was a story about myself too and I wanted, with every fibre of my

being to experience that sense of danger, of near drowning, even of being so

close to death. The lagoon waters had drenched us and when the boat capsized

in those moments when my mother kept afloat. ‘I swam’ she told me, ‘I swam

against those turbulent currents, it seemed for ages but, it could not have been

for so long the boatmen righted the craft and plucked us both from those waters,

how they swirled about our bodies And I? What did I know of that underworld

of fish and water plant, being watched by the secret eyes of scuttling crabs, fins

touching the skin, fish sliding against the bodies. . . We did not go under even

once. . . . You had to be safe. . . your father could not lose a second child so soon. ’

She was telling me how she had wanted to escape from the heat, the ennui of

that holiday. What was she reminding herself of? Days, snatched from a

calendar, times that were, in her life, never predictable? Her mind seemed to be

recreating her own imagined role. ‘I had held you high in my arms but the

water inundated us. The lagoon was so alive – seething waves, fish leaping

above the water, the chill currents. . . yes, you had to live. . . I was reminded of

the time of your birth. . . you were like a tiny fish clinging so tenaciously to the

womb, swimming in that amniotic fluid that protected you. . . ’‘ A little mermaid?’

I asked.

‘Yes, if you like to think of yourself as one’, She smiled. ‘I must have

felt the turbulence within that miniature storm. Did that upheaval toss me about?’

‘Oh you clung tenaciously. Refused to emerge. You bided your time and curbed

my impatience too’

My mother must have wanted to be over and done with that birthing.

And perhaps she had decided she had had enough. No more children. Had she

willed it? For there were no one born after I had emerged out of the ocean of

her womb. I had dreamed those months away in darkness. . . I now grasped those

brilliant shafts of light to give myself new sighting.

I would always feel the bonding of those nine months. ‘Feel, feel my

head, have I got a whirlpool. . . . ’ My mother had said so often, ‘if you have a

suli, a whirlpool, you will have to be careful of water, of being drowned. ’

‘I wanted there to be a whirlpool. I wanted to feel the danger that

surrounded me in unknown oceans. ’ Her fingers probed among the clusters of

my hair. She merely said, ‘you will always have to be careful of water, oceans,

rivers. ’ But I would always walk into the sea as deep as I could and then float

on my back with the sun striking my eyes, or swim out as far as I could but

keeping the light house in sight.

But, one day, many years later, I went under ridges of tall, sweeping

waves which dragged me far out into the sea. It was at Closenberg, in Galle.

Batticaloa, Galle are landmarks in my mother’s family histories. Those forts

had known the presence of my ancestors. I couldn’t surface from the salt tasting

waves, stringing my eyes and face, blinding me. I couldn’t breathe, I was

carried, farther and farther out and there was only the blue, turquoise-blue; seagreen

expanse of water. . . . suddenly I was pinioned by the strong arms of the

swimmer who had seen me disappearing beneath the waves. My head was

lifted above the spume and I took a breath of air. It was the third time I had

been able to, my gills furiously taking the life-giving draught, shaking as I

tossed my hair, the tiny starfish and molluscs clinging on, with tendrils of seaweed

into the wet strands. And again, later, the gold wedding ring I had but

newly worn, my engagement ring of blue sapphires, the bracelet around my

wrist had all slipped off, swept away by the waves, small recompense for the

life that had been given back to me. Gold to sink deep into an ocean bed,

treasure of innumerable shipwrecks, while the plankton, molluscs and smaller

fish floated in opaque depths among the drowned bodies of those lost human



What are little girls made of?

What are little girls made of?

Sugar and spice and all that’s nice

And that’s what little girls are made of?

What are little boys made of? What are little boys made of?

Frogs and snails and puppy dogs tails

And that’s what little boys are made of

Was this ditty first learned at my missionary school? Was it meant to be

a deterrent to the early awakenings of sexuality or was it meant to use the

imagery of confectionery to titillate the imagination of the little boys we teased

in school? Swooping down upon there with our arms twined around each other’s

waists, during recess, which our ten minutes tea interval was named on our

printed timetables. Was it the early transformation of the female image into an

icon? We were, as girls, taught to think of ourselves as special. Little boys

were made to stir the sense of distaste within us. That was the message that

reached us in translation. But that’s not what we felt at all – we played joyfully

with them and sat next to them in the classroom until they grew older and were

banished into the missionary colleges for boys. Of the three boys I remember,

one became a Buddhist monk and died young. Another published pamphlets

on Islam later on in life. He too died before his time. Only one of them remains.

Were puppy dogs tails unintentionally or intentionally a corroboration

of the incipient phallic image? Who knows? There was always the dark side to

the things that went on in the minds of adults while sometimes they were unaware

of what went on under their very noses. We were careful to hide most of our

secrets away from them.

I cannot remember whether I told anyone of how a very young playmate

in Kadugannawa called me out to play one evening. My mother was visiting

his family in one of those railway bungalows by the rail track and had taken me

along too. There were two boys in the family and not only were our two families

very friendly with each other, but we children were playmates, travelled by

train to school in Kandy, played with the Meccano sets and Homby trains in

their drawing room. We also heard the minstrel singers who entertained us on

their verandah. I heard “South of the Border”, “Down Mexico Way”, on their

wireless for the first time in the drawing room of a railway home, while the

trains thundered down the lines to Colombo and the shunting of the engines of

the turn-table filled our ears. It was on the verandah of Renny’s house that the

minstrel shows were held while the young men, their faces all tricked out in

black and white with red bow ties and top hats, serenaded us on the verandah

with Shanendoah, Old Folks at Home, Swanee River, Polly Wolly Doodle all

the day. We sat and listened to them singing, strumming bangos and mandolins

and playing the mouth organ. All of us played the mouth organ or made music

on combs covered with tissue paper.

Renny led me to one of those secret places our parents knew nothing of.

Behind his house, at the foot of the tea-estate, was a deep ditch, more a huge

crevice in the earth with its tangle of wild plants. Here, when we had clambered

down into the deepest part of the ditch instead of playing one of the exciting

games which we devised, getting lost on our adventures’ journey into the jungle,

Renny suddenly turned on me, his expression inscrutable but determined. He

began to punch me black and blue, pummel my body giving it thumping blow

after blow. I could not protect myself from him. His grip on me was so firm.

He tore my hair and pinched my cheeks. His hands were round my neck,

tightening, almost strangling me. My chintz dress was in shreds. I felt the

bitter taste of sunflower petals in my mouth. My feet slipped among the rocks

as I tried to break away from him. He hit me repeatedly, almost strangled me to

finish me off. He had lost all control of himself. We were both silent. I pushed

him away finally, but the blows and thumps I could not ward off. I left him in

the ditch alone, spent out. I escaped, clambered up the rocky footholds and ran

back to his home where my mother was chatting peacefully to his mother. I

had learned early, the ploys and strategies of defence and escape. Resistance I

offered, tears I did not shed. In the vulnerability of childhood there were hidden

strengths, in which adult interference was not needed. But I would never forget

that the jungle was everywhere, even in the most idyllic landscape.

Doopvisch & Karamanadje

Memory has sometimes the colour of hibiscus and the flavour of tangy

lemon. My mother and I culled the red hibiscus flowers from the hedge in our

back garden where they flourished, their petals fresh with a sheen on them. The

red hibiscus petals were steeped in boiling water, which tinged the water in the

bowl with a rose pink. Freshly cut limes were squeezed in for flavour, sugar

stirred and then the moss added which helped the jelly to set. Poured into a

silvery mould, the jelly unmoulded sat transparent and quivering in the cut

glass dish. My thoughts were often the colour of hibiscus. Blancmanges too

my mother would make, milk white blancmanges served with red strawberry

jam, like snow covered mountains over which the sunset streamed. And caramel

custards. My mother created a childhood of colours and flavours together with

her stories that grew in my mind into unending fictions. I was growing up in a

world that was being revealed to me day by day, a world in which my mother

was the guardian and the custodian of a way of life which she shared with me.

I would creep into the kitchen to sit by Emily and Podi Singho while

they had their food. I preferred the white china plates they ate off, with clusters

of blue flowers. ‘Made in Japan’ was the trademark. Even their cups and saucers

were white with blue-flowers. Now, Emily had come into our lives. Mungo

was my dream of the past. Emily not only cooked for us with the help of old

Amme whose back was bent, and had worked for the Sunnyside aunts.

Emily also ironed our clothes with the hot coals in the pol-katta smoothing iron,

brought us hot bowls of soup of chilly on rainy evenings and watched our

pastimes, offering the balm of solace to tumultuous feelings.

It was not easy for me to forget Mungo during that transient period of

my Kadugannawa childhood. A childhood, which I thought, would last forever.

There in that world, it had been play among the mugerine bushes, the thornless

roses and Holy Ghost orchids, but here in Kandy, I became more curious of a

world, a mysterious one, which existed far away from the rest of the house;

reached by a flight of stone steps, the kitchen where hours and hours were spent

preparing those repasts that were served on the Johnson and Johnson or Meakins

platters. The kitchen was a special preserve, a special world with Podi Singho

in between polishing the brass and sweeping and dusting, running up and down

to the boutique to bring newspaper cones filled with condiments. The cooking

went on almost the whole day for the spices were freshly ground, the coriander,

the cummin and fennel, the chillies dry and crackling, on the black-pitted

grinding stone. The grinding stone must not be too smooth, so from time to

time the old craftsman came to hammer out an intricate design so that it became

some archaic game board and the red chillies filled the tiny pits upon the surface.

The chillies crackled and burst like Chinese firecrackers as the stone, cylindrical,

crushed them and the, pale yellow seeds merged into the smooth red mound of

chilly paste.

My mother used to prepare smoore or roast beef. For the roast she

marinated the beef in pepper, salt and vinegar, tied it up into shape with twine,

and set it in the pot where it boiled for hours until the gravy had been reduced

to almost an aroma which clung to the earthenware… then it was lifted out and

fried in its own fat. The thinnest slices would be carved at dinnertime and

served with roast potatoes, carrots and boiled cabbage. What remained would

be ‘devilled’ the next day for lunch.

The place in the house, away from the cretonne covered furniture and

the polished brass and china ornaments was the kitchen, encrusted with bark

like dumbutu from the soot, the beams, rafters and tiles blackened with

woodsmoke from the hearth fires. In the railway bungalow at Kadugannawa,

there was a big iron stove fed with coke and coal from the railway-yard on

which my mother baked cottage loaves, crusty and brown, to be eaten with

cloverleaf butter. On the hearth, curries simmered-pots of jak, beef, fish and

chicken. The fires of the hearth were fed with jungle wood, coconut shells and

coconut husks that the men brought in bullock carts.

When I think back on my mother’s prowess and skill, with her delicate

hands and wrists, I marvel at all that she accomplished in the serving up of

those delicacies, which we took for granted and accepted as our daily fare. And

she shared all that she made with a most hospitable heart. The aunts and uncles

who visited us were given their ‘share’ to take home afterwards. Aunty Maud

would come visiting of an evening, all dressed up and groomed for a social

call. My mother usually had a tin of breadfruit chips, one lot dipped in sugar

syrup, the other in turmeric and sprinkled with salt, huge chunks of home-made

sweets, milk toffee and cashew toffee. There again, my mother was never

parsimonious with the generous portions she cut. “Dolly’s Christmas cake was

always in big chunks. ” She never cut the cake into thin slices or wrapped them

in silver paper like wedding cake. Each time the visitors came round, the cake

trays were taken out of the almirah. In fact, the whole almirah was redolent of

its aroma during the season, for it was kept on the bottom shelf of the wardrobe

section together with all our very special dresses on hangers, my mother’s, my

sisters’ and my own.

My mother had a huge serving pan in which she made all the conserves

and preserves. Especially the pumpkin preserve which had to be taken off the

wood fire, at the correct time, the last stages being crucial in getting the correct

consistency, not too hard not too crystallised. Ah! She was such an expert in

making her confectionery. Cakes, sweets, and savouries- all the special flavours

of childhood were associated with my mother’s unwritten recipes – handed

down from the Jansz and Grenier side of the family. I wonder just how much

she learned from her maternal grandmother with whom she spent many years

after her childhood. In the kitchen where skills were being practised, I too

wanted to master. I would watch the rhythmic movements of those women’s

hands crushing the dried chillies, the coriander and cumin, the turmeric, on the

grinding stone until everything became a smooth paste in varying shades of

yellow, red and brown. Then to be placed in rounded mounds on an aluminium

or china plate, pinched off bit-by-bit and added to the earthenware vessels with

the simmering curries. The chicken, meat and fish cooking slowly on the wood

fires. It was always the women’s hands that performed every task – meticulously,

skilfully. The Maldives fish was washed, sun dried and pounded in the mortar.

It went into everything –seeni sambol, pol-sambol, kiri hodhi, omelettes,

vegetable curries but best off all we loved to taste the powdered maldive fish as

it was being pounded with the pestle and scraping off the sides of the mortar

with a spoon.

There were traditional ways of doing everything. The women brought

their lore from their homes in the village, sharing their skills with my

mother’s own inherited knowledge. She possessed a rich store of memorised

recipes handed down from generation to generation. The kitchen hearth, the

roaring wood fires, the clack of the coconuts being cracked and the sound of it

being grated thus began the day for us, giving us a sense of security and order,

a well known and familiar pattern of life was being resumed. The hearth was as

hard as brick with the fires that burned daily. In our Kandy home we used only

the hearth, feeding the fires with wood. The coconut shells were not used for

cooking meat, as there was a belief that it would not turn out tender. Through an

iron funnel or ‘bata’, held close to the mouth, the living breath made the flames

rise high as the women blew through it until the brands kindled were set alright.

What an art there was in the kindling of that fire, the particular arrangement of

firewood sticks, the quick springing to life of the growing flame licking the

sides of the soot-blackened chatty pots; the smouldering firebrands drawn out

so that while the curries still simmered, the oil would rise to the surface. Chatty

pots containing polkiri baduns, the meat cooking and frying in the thick coconut

milk itself, the beef smoore, which was a Burger speciality in which my mother

excelled. There were chatty roasts and mulligatawny, made of beef or chicken

stock, tempered and flavoured with cummin and coconut milk.

Before going out for a dance when we didn’t know at what time we

would have supper, we would have bowls of mulligatawny and rice served in

soup dishes. Food did not matter very much then as we whirled about the

music of Strauss Waltzes in the Queen’s Hotel ballroom with Peter Allon playing

his repertoire of music with its ripple of chords and arpeggios. Mulligatawny

and rice were then all in one meal, sustaining yet not leaving one uncomfortably

overfull. Many years later I thought of that meal when I had ikanbilisi cooked

specially for me by a Chinese friend, rice, boiled in stock with pork chops,

spring onions, slivers of ginger and raw egg tipped whole into it so that the egg

is cooked in bubbling stock. The ikanbilisi, tiny dried sprats added fillip to it.

There were special cooking vessels, all earthenware and as hard as iron with

the preservation of the years, for the roast beef and smoore (ismore); large, wide

mouthed chatties with delicately incised designs ornamenting them.

For the ismore, the indigenised meat stew, a special hunk of beef was

bought, about four or five pounds in weight. It was lightly washed and pricked

all over with a fork to tenderise it and allow the ground spices to impregnate it.

Roasted dry chillies were ground into a rounded ball, a ‘guliya’, while the

condiments, the coriander and cummin were roasted separately and ground

into a fine paste. The dark sienna gamboge, the ochre turmeric and the dark red

chillies were set on a plate – the artist’s preparations – the sliced red onions,

rambekarapincha, ground garlic and ginger, cardamom, lemon grass and

fragrance emated from the pot as the beef cooked for hours on end in a slow

fire. Thick coconut milk was added later. The temparadu. The word ‘temperadu

derives from the Portuguese and has its specific meanings and connotations.

Wasn’t it also a compound of our personalities, the process by which the delicate

flavours were so skilfully amalgamated to produce the preparatory stages of

cooking the dish? The Burgher personalities had its similarities to this process,

the way I see it, like that special, very special aroma that tilted the senses. That

awakened the taste buds, enwrapped in a savoury seam the dish served hot, hot

from the kitchen, straight off from the chatty which was left on the fire,

simmering till the last moment. The skill in mixing, the correct timing, of putting

in each ingredient into the hot oil until it was correctly browned carried the

secret of its success. The mixture was slightly stirred with the coconut shell

spoon. There were special spoons for special preparation, individual spoons for

fish, meat, vegetables, rice, milk, sweets, cake mixing.

What were the other specialities my mother made? Lots of “devilled”

dishes, hot with chillies, vinegar and fried rings of Bombay onions. Dishes,

which probably made us by temperament even more volatile than we were. Our

food was hardly bland, nor was our natures but there were the dishes that

created a fine balance too. My mother’s Karamanadje, the rolled Dutch cutlet

of meat, seasoned with pepper and vinegar and cooked in coconut milk was

one of my favourites. The original Dutch Karamanadje was altered to suit my

father’s taste buds. More pepper and spices added. And there was yet another

favourite of mine, Doopvisch, slices of seer fish, boiled first, the stock flavoured

with turmeric, pepper, karapincha, rampe, lemon grass and pepper corns. The

doopvisch was served with an egg sauce, the raw egg beaten into the fish stock

until it was of a creamy consistency. Meat, and fish cutlets, what would generally

be termed meat or fish cakes, rissoles and rolled cutlets with their fillings of

minced beef or mashed hardboiled eggs were brought piping hot to the dinner

table together with a tureen of mulligatawny. And on long railway journeys we

would take parcels of cold beef cutlets and slices of bread and butter to still our

hunger as children. Left over cutlets from the night before were made into

delicious cutlet curry for lunch the next day. Frickadela, forced meatballs were

for special festive occasions when we had ghee rice or yellow rice.

What I think back on now is that a special relationship existed between

my mother and the women who cooked in our old fashioned kitchens. They did

things together harmoniously, talking to each other, sharing their knowledge

and skills. My mother taught Emily, Sophy, Pinchiamma, Menike and the

others all she knew and they too revealed their way of doing things. Things

which I remember to this day, the way they washed the rice so that the minute

stones settled in the patterned grooves of the clay koraha with that rhythmic

movement of the two palms holding the circular edges; the way they cut and

sliced and tasted for the adding of more seasoning, a little soupcon of the gravy

taken up with the coconut shell spoon and slipped on to the cupped palm and

then with a delicate lick to proclaim ‘just a little more salt or lime’ to add that extra

fillip to the curry. For some of these women who did not eat chicken, fish or meat

the aroma was sufficient to correct proportioning or seasoning of condiments,

spices, salt and lime.

Yes it was a special world for women in many ways with their bonding

as women. Preparing almost ritualistically the meals for the family. Sharing in

the pleasure of eating of a carefully prepared dish. They too were discerning

women meticulous in their special skills displayed in the way they sliced an

onion, a green chilly or even a lime. They were not considered servants in our

home; they were friends; they were companions to us. I learned a way of life

from them, their manner of doing things in the way they had learned, just as my

own mother had done, from their elders. I used to often ask them questions.

How did you learn to cut the mallun leaves like that or how do you know how

much chilly or thunapaha to put into the curry, or who told you that coconut oil

is the best way to remove the sticky white milk from the jak fruit. Or I would

plead with them to teach me how to grind chillies on the grinding stone, or

pound rice into flour, or make hoppers or string hopper or halapa with its jaggery

and coconut and kurakkan flour steamed in the special leaf, the kenda leaf. Oh!

I wanted to learn so much from them. They possessed so much wisdom, so

much women lore, deep recesses of knowledge; of herbs and the qualities of

certain fruits and vegetables, how they produced ‘heat’ and ‘cooling properties. ’

Their lives they shared with us in every way yet sometimes they would say,

‘Ah! It is better to eat salt and rice and be with our families’, enduring poverty,

and enduring hardships. It is a phrase that has served me to this day, to a

philosophy that I have evolved from those ancient sayings. To possess a proud

sense of independence even with very little of this world’s goods. That which

suffices to give a sense of contentment even during moments of the greatest

duress. Lunu – salt, buth – rice. What more is needed when all craving ceases?

My mother, although she never consulted a recipe book and had

everything stored in her head also had books. Books which she must have

consulted in the early days of her marriage to help her in running the house,

entertaining guests. Foulsham’s Guest Entertainer was a book that I have

preserved to this day and the opening quotation from John Blunt in the ‘The

Daily Mail’ reminds me of the hospitality of our household. “Real hospitality”,

the author said, “consists of making other people happy and not just looking

after our own interests. ”The contents of each chapter fascinated me with the

detailed descriptions of how to conduct every single event in the calendar from

the giving of a lunch party to a private dance, garden party, a “Jolly Children’s

Party. ” Menus, recipes, letter writing, the duties of host or aspects of “An Empire

Day Luncheon” were described in chapter after chapter. The descriptions of

the patriotic lunches, official and private reviewed within the postcolonial

context, revealed a whole mystique of that period. The Empire Day was on the

twenty fourth of May. The private parties were meant to be specially regarded

as a compliment to the colonial friends who happened to be visiting the Old

Country. The menu was to be an “All British One”. Everything from wine to

dried fruits, from tinned salmon, the flour in the pastry, the joint of beef, the

dessert and everything else should come from the Motherland or the Colonies.

The centrepiece would be a large dish of fruit – apples from Tasmania,

bananas from the West Indies, oranges from Jamaica, plums from the Cape.

The table decorations had to be special and a tricolour scheme used, with bows

of ribbons – red, white, blue fixed to each dish. The flower vases too should be

filled with blossoms of the same three colours. The menus were to be decorated

with little Union Jacks, and scattered around the table small Empire flags should

be fixed. The suitable toast were as follows:

“ Ladies and Gentlemen, the King and Empire. ”

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

British. ”

“The Empire. ”

“ The United Kingdom and her United Empire. ”

We never, however, found occasions or necessities to celebrate such a

luncheon party. The British Empire was at our table, with the wanderers of the

empire, appreciating our menus. The toasts that Johnny Walker proposed were

“To Harry Sol, Harry Boy or Harry Solo and his family, ” The whisky continued

to flow as Johnny refilled his glass as an accompaniment to rice and curry.

Where my mother’s life was concerned, home, marriage, family with all

its concerns dominated the greater part of her life. And that home was kept

going with just one man’s earnings, my father’s salary in the Railways – every

comfort we owed to my father’s labour. But it was the women who ran the

household and created its order and stability. Both of them, my father and mother,

were the most self-sacrificing people in the world and in those

days our education in the private Missionary Schools; boarding fees at Trinity

College were all paid out from that one man’s wage. There was never a complaint

or grumble about it – responsibility was taken for granted and duties carried out.

Now it becomes so significant when I think of how my father would bow his

head over his plate before every meal and repeat the litany of grace. ‘For what

we are about to receive, the Lord, make us truly thankful, Amen’ and after the

completion of the meal ‘for what we have received, the Lord, make us truly

thankful. Amen. ’ As children we repeated the simple words ‘God bless this

food. Amen. ’

My father had moral strictures about how we ate. ‘Never take more onto

your plate than you can finish. ’ He would advise us ‘Never grumble at the

table. ’ It was his wages that provided everything on that laden table and nothing

was ever denied to us but any ‘complaints’ or faddiness would earn a stern

‘Well, if you can’t eat what’s before you, please leave the table. ’ We were

sufficiently warned not to repeat the error. My long-suffering mother however

endured all things, rebellion in all its forms, both silent and vociferously

expressed. What she left behind was the memory of a living example of a mother,

friend and companion. She bequeathed a legacy of unwritten stories, which it

was for me to record in later years.

My mother’s nature was never a solitary one and she was always

accustomed to the companionship of those who were part of our household,

intimately so. We had women who were individualistic and allowed to be so,

like the old Amme who was unmarried and centred all her devotion on dogs that

she fed from our kitchen. There was Ampitiya amme who earned for her

grandchildren, kept nothing back for her and was self-compelled to scrub, scrub,

scrub and swab kitchen floors every day with her bare hands. But Emily?

Emily was special as Mungo. Emily belonged to our lives in Kandy. She was,

moreover, not exactly mine but belonged to the other members of the family

too for she was responsible for the greater part of cooking. Other women too

came in to help but Emily had left her village and lived with us. She was a very

pretty, very petite woman with wavy hair, tendrilling about her forehead, a soft

skin and a bubbling laugh. She advocated her own kind of beauty treatment

like using hot ash as a depilatory and rubbing white sandalwood with milk on a

stone to use on the skin to remove blemishes. She was adept at preparing every

dish and trained by my mother could prepare rissoles, caramel custard, polkiri
, ghee rice, hoppers, soups, anything. For afternoon tiffin she had her

specialities, soft white laveriyas filled with pani-pol, the jaggery and coconut

mixture – halapa, steamed in kenda kola, wide leaves plucked from the back

garden, aggala, thala guli, pancakes with a filling of sugar and lime, Bombay

toast. But Emily did more, much more. Not only did she cook for us but would

also iron a frock or skirt in a jiffy with the old polkattu iron, heat water for our

baths, comfort us when we were ill or sulky, demanding attention, cosset us

and try to restore us into a good mood.

“Shall I bring you a cup of hot soup, bebi? A glass of milk? Ginger tea

for your cold?” She would sit beside the bed telling us stories of her own life

and of the people she had worked for, one family being a Sinhala doctor with

an English wife. When I had fever and tossed restlessly in bed, Emily would

press my small feet with her equally small hands and I would cling to the feel of

her presence in that half darkened room with the faint light flowing in from the

skylight. She never interfered in our quarrels but would detach herself after

trying to reason with us, waiting abstracted and patient until the turbulence was

naturally quelled. Quarrels left her sad but philosophical. We were growing up

and were trying to cope with adolescence, with new awareness, to live with our

siblings and us. Our conflicts could not be resolved.

Emily stayed with us until she said “I can’t eat fire anymore. ” She would

walk down Peradeniya road sometimes to the meat stall and one of the neighbours

who had had an eye on her for sometime, took her on to look after the children.

How I missed her. There was never anyone, after that to replace her. I had

‘attained age’, reached puberty when she was with us and she had assisted in all

those rituals of bathing, wearing new clothes, having jewellery put on my wrists,

fingers and round my neck after my isolation in the bedroom for some days.

She took part of my childhood away with her when she, left. There was an

aching void ever afterwards.

As for Podi Singho. He had lived with us for years and years. He had

been with us in Kandgannawa too and had put my brother Pat to sleep as a

baby, rocking him on his knees and singing lullabies to him. Sometimes we

called him lovingly “Old Boy. ” He was supposed to have come from a tea

estate, brought up from the time he was a child by the Jeronis family to whom

he would return whenever he felt like it. He helped with the marketing, polishing

brass and silver and washing the dishes after our meals. He lived to a great age,

would quarrel with the other servants and flounce out of the house and return

when he wished. Laying the table was one of his great artistic efforts, the placing

of every bit of cutlery and the folding of the serviettes. I suppose, in our home,

individual talents were always encouraged. And everything he did especially

the painstakingly arranged decor of the table, was sheer artistry – the origami

shapes of those starched damask napkins and the arching serving spoons

of silver beside the dishes. In his sleep he would still sing snatches of lullabies

he had sung to my brother in his babyhood. He was always ready to go to the

Muslim Hotel and bring us those luscious triangles of Turkey bread, layers of

sugared pastry with fruits and nuts, ice cream from Elephant House and boondhi,

jalebis and Kalu dodol from the market sweetmeat stalls. Ours was his only

real home. And all who were part of that home were also part of our family.

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

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