Tag Archives: sri lanka

The Venus Flytrap: An Honest And Heartfelt Feast

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If I’m going to give you a recipe that contains this much love, then I must also tell you the truth about why I learned it. On a rainy day in Colombo once, someone reached across a table and tore my heart up – with visible pleasure, and very little thought. Like a piece of tissue paper. I picked up the shreds and took them back home with me, or more accurately, to the flat in that city in which no one lives except a caretaker who is, in all senses but one, family. The caretaker, my Rasi Maama, had already made lunch.

It waited, simmering within clay pots on a stove that’s too low for him, but perfect for me. It had been my grandmother’s kitchen, made to her height, which is exactly how small I stand. I sat down to eat, but became overwhelmed by sobs because of the bruising that morning had contained. I couldn’t tell any of them why I was so uncontrollably crying, and so I settled for a loving lie: that Rasi Maama’s raal vullakari tasted exactly like Ammamma’s, and it had been so many years since I had eaten hers.

Say it with me, in my dialect: raal, not yeraal. Prawns. Vulla, not vela. White. Kari, you know. Prawns in a coconut milk curry, with eggplant cooked until softened to a tender green colour. There was nothing else to do that day, having wept and having eaten, than to learn how to cook it from him. My uncle-if-not-by-blood who had learned how to cook from my grandmother, beloved.

Dice two eggplants, and soak the slices in water with rock salt. Remember what is said about rock salt: that it contains the cure for everything from over-empathy to the evil eye. More importantly, in vegetables at least, it removes bitterness and germs. Rinse the slices and put them into the pot they will be cooked in. Clay pots make everything taste better, and remind you of the earth, of the grounding you need. Add to the pot: a sliced onion, four small green chillies, turmeric and salt. Keep the stove unlit.

Milk the flesh of one coconut. Keep the first, full milk aside (it will be added last), and milk it again once or twice. Add this milk to the pot. Clean and de-shell the prawns, and put them in too.

Cover the pot. Let it cook now for twenty minutes. Check the texture of the eggplant. It will have softened, and turned green. The prawns will have shrunk to half their size. When the liquid in the pot has reduced, add the coconut’s first milk, set aside earlier. Bring this to a boil too. Switch off the stove.

Cover the pot, and then wait for someone to come home with whom you can share it. Make rice as you wait. If there is no one to wait for – but you find yourself always waiting, somehow, don’t you? – then wait until the tears stop. Never cry as you eat, for you will choke. (Yes, that’s in the recipe). I give it to you, this inheritance, this honest and heartfelt feast.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on August 16th 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Sri Lankan Saudade

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Because I am almost never in Sri Lanka, but my heart – like the south-seeking gaze of Vishnu-Ranganatha, who was also meant to live on the island but doesn’t – is always turned in that direction, I obsessively watch the Instastories of a friend of mine. A few seconds of tuk-tuk sounds accompanying the sights of a backstreet of Colombo. Rain dripping off low-hanging leaves on trees by the Kallady lagoon. Sun-kissed beach tides. Sights that have precise impacts in places in this unhomed heart of mine. Like me, she is diasporic Tamil, with some metaphysical umbilical cord rooted in the dust or immersed in the waters of Batticaloa. And she is leaving the country for a while – which means I am going to be deprived of my vicarious living for a while too.

I was supposed to have gone to see her before she leaves, but I’d been foolish. I’d been swayed by a sort of empty promise and not made independent plans in time. How am I going to get by without her daily glimpses? Ridiculously, I’m so sad that she tried to console me. But, as I said to her – “Maybe to be an island girl is to always have a little sadness”.

The Portuguese and Galician word saudade captures that emotion – a word often described as untranslatable, but with equivalents in many languages. Missingness in English, hüzün in Turkish, Sehnsucht in German, keurium in Korean and natsukashii in Japanese are among some – all conveying a certain wistful melancholy. Saudade is also a musical undertone, most famously evoked by the Cape Verdean singer Cesaria Evora (another island girl – or most accurately, a woman of many isles). What would the Tamil word be?

Without boring him with the backstory, I asked the translator Chenthil Nathan. He gave me the beautiful ulluthal – to think back. The word reminded me of ulloli – inner light. The last time I was in Batticaloa, I’d stood in my ancestral temple with my heart sinking to hear Sanskrit hymns. Just six months earlier, the prayers had been in Tamil. The native religion and culture are disappearing – no, they are being disappeared, in favour of the monolithic. I ached, and actually prayed to hear Tamil – and then I did. As the priest and the crowd moved away, a woman’s soft voice rose in song. I found its source, and sat down to listen. Quietly, she was singing to our goddess from a booklet. I brought that booklet back with me. It was called Ulloli.

Then, Chenthil remembered and gave me what he called “a poetic phrase” – nanavidai thoythal, or soaking in dreams or memories. I asked him if he had found the word in a specific text. His answer brightened this un-homed heart of mine: “I read it first in a Jeyamohan essay. Most Sri Lankan writers use the phrase. S. Ponnudurai wrote a book with the same title. So I assume the phrase came from Sri Lankan Tamils. Thinking now, it is natural the Lankan immigrants formed a word for nostalgia.” Indeed. A word, a way of life, some moments that disappear like Instastories, some yearnings held steady, some meanings reclaimed.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on May 31st 2018. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: Contained Within All Homecoming Is Risk

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October 1st was the tenth anniversary of my move to Chennai. I observed it by escaping to my motherland, Sri Lanka, my third such trip within a year. This will not seem as amazing to you as it is to me if you haven’t known for yourself what displacement does to the mind. On the first trip, I accepted the jarring I felt at not having a foothold that wasn’t built of childlike nostalgia. I chose to risk it by building an adult’s orientation. By the third, I love that I have bearings now: tangible mappings, viable anchors.

I love Colombo for its airport that brings me into the island, so I can wend my way into the places that fill my dreams and my pages with their waters and groves and pastoral lands – places I didn’t grow up in, but have me in a bloodbound soul-hold. At first, I thought: why do I need a relationship with the capital city at all, even if it was my first home?

But then, I love coming down Galle Road as the sun sets and looking to my left to see the sea at the far end of each avenue, dazzling between the facades of buildings in that west-facing marigold light.

I love that in this terrible economy, where nothing costs as little as it should, avocados – among the more indulgent fruits in my regular life – are a mere SL rupees 15 for a 100 grams, even in supermarkets. “What’s that?” asks my Tamil auto driver when I call out at the road-side fruit stall. “Oh, butterfruit,” I say.” He repeats to himself for practice the (he says) “stylish” word I use. Ah-vo-cah-do.

He offers me the Sinhala word: “Allibera.” I ask for the Tamil word. “Tamil le butterfruit dhaan.” he says. But of course.

I love the chill that goes through me as I have a moment of double recognition on a familiar road from my childhood: the indelible image of a “dreadlocked man under a dreadlocked banyan tree”, imprinted in my earliest years somehow, regurgitated in a homesick poem nearly 20 years after, coming together still later, because these trees are still here. And so am I.

I love the love-cake. I love speaking in my native dialect.

Are these small things love, and if so, what is their sum? Maybe I can’t be sure whether I love this city, or even need to anymore, but I do know how deeply you can dislike a place that is your utter comfort zone, your geographical arranged marriage, the place that cannot ever break your heart because you never fell in love with it to begin with. I love not being in Chennai.

Contained within all homecoming is risk. Those who take it move beyond nostalgia. This can be a bitter loss, or great luck. Let us say I have been lucky. Let us say by assuming nothing I gained much.

It’s a simple thing, really: when I say that I love that I can be here, what I mean is that I love that I could come back. That I want, still, to keep coming back.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 12th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

Writer’s Room: Sharanya Manivannan

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For “Writer’s Room”, a feature in Sri Lanka’s Daily Mirror LIFE (Architecture), December 2017

I like to have plants within my sight, and so I work with my desk pushed up against the doors of my balcony. I currently grow bougainvillea, roses, jasmine and hibiscus – all of them miss the Chennai summer, which inspires immodestly beautiful blossoms in them. I had grown tulasi, too, but it did not survive the fortnight in October I spent away – incidentally, in Colombo and Batticaloa, where my roots are. Pun unintended. Other plants, like the karpuravalli, have not survived the gluttony or envy of pigeons that claim this as their habitat too. Not long ago, I was delighted to learn that the mysterious half-circles I found on the leaves belonged to the leaf-cutter bee. The leaf-cutter bee is shy and autonomous, which might tell you why I love her. This balcony that for now is mine is in Chennai, a pleasantly green city of India, and I am doubly fortunate to have many trees thrive within my sight too.

I work on my computer, and this one is an old lady who’s been with me for nearly seven years. In notebooks, I make to-do lists and brainstorm and doodle and scribble in atrocious handwriting when I’m trying to record quickly what another is saying. My real handwriting is quite pretty, but it is not what fills their pages. Speaking of which – this desk is not ever nearly as clean as this picture suggests. Take it from me: most of the writers you’ll meet in this column will spin a little lie about that! As they say: a clean desk suggests a messy drawer, and I really think the only place that needs to be pure is the heart.

Book Review: Song of the Sun God by Shankari Chandran

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A young Tamil boy in Colombo watches a Buddhist monk immolate himself; it is 1932, fifty years before the world will come to know about Sri Lanka’s ethnic crisis. The island is still known as Ceylon and is under British rule, but the monk’s act is not anti-colonial, but anti-Tamil. Even 11-year old Rajan, whose family has come from their village in the north to try to save their sick daughter at a hospital in the capital, knows this. Shankari Chandran’s debut novel, Song of the Sun God, opens on this dramatic incident and follows Rajan’s line through three continents over the eight decades that follow.

Rajan becomes a highly-respected doctor and marries the smart and charming Nala, who in later life proves herself to be even more modern and sensible than her offspring. They have two children, Priya and Nandan. Firmly ensconced in elite Colombo circles, Nala resists migration for decades, one of several dubious choices which impact everyone around her. Only under eventual duress does the couple join Priya’s family in Australia. By the end of the novel, they are great-grandparents.

Dhara, the character closest to and most vividly impacted by the civil war in every sense, is the only one who remains in the country. Nala’s niece, she comes into their lives permanently as an 8 year-old in 1956, when her father is murdered by a mob and her mother is too broken by rape to continue to parent her. Nala and Rajan raise her as theirs, but loyalty and treachery within families are deeply entwined, and with neither malice nor fairness they send Priya to London to study medicine instead of the more gifted Dhara. Dhara goes to Jaffna instead, where the war chews her up – but spits her right back out, shattered and strong. Among the most tender moments in the book is of her adult daughter helping her cross the railway tracks on the beach at Wellawatte, Colombo’s Tamil district. The most brutal moments of the book also belong to her.

Modern Sri Lankan history runs through, without contrivance, the vagaries of this family’s lives – and the fact that upon leaving a homeland, it is relatives and a bricolage known as “community” that become the entirety on which cultural identity or disconnection are hinged. This is the truth of being Sri Lankan Tamil in the last century: no one, no family, has gone unscathed. The episode of Nala being pulled from a car and doused in kerosene during a riot melds into the episode of Rajan insisting that his funeral be held in Tamil, instead of by the Sanskrit-chanting Indian priests of Sydney. Life’s cycles manifest in myriad ways: there’s death by mobs and death by disease. In the sum telling, all of it happens to the same people – “our people” as one character argues furiously in the aftermath of the 2009 massacre, the hierarchies that would have kept apart his kin from the impoverished who died in a strip of beach in Mullaitivu dismantled – even if only deceptively – by genocide and in this case its sibling, linguicide.

Chandran’s command over the sprawling storyline is remarkable, and there is a didactic quality to this novel that is intelligently obscured by the elegance of her lines. One does not feel the weight of the research undertaken, even while admiring peripherally that it had to have been conducted. The author moves as easily, and with great detail, between mid-20th century Kandy and Colombo high society as she does the atrocities and realities of more recent jungle warfare and the camps of the internally displaced. Also instructive are the numerous quotidian exchanges that reveal what privileged diasporic life is like. The author’s etching of emotional lives is keen; still, she adapts the form of the classic generational saga and replaces the usual sentimentality with something very different and insightful.

The novel’s triumph is that it foregrounds the middle-class diaspora’s practical, and in many cases perfectly normal (and even privileged) lives, without using either trauma or nostalgia as a manipulative crescendo. In its own non-confrontational way, light is thrown on some of the uncomfortable nuances of this diaspora – for instance in this gently rendered line: “During the war, Tamils thought they were funding orphanages and later found they were arming children instead”, and more broadly in the numerous conversations between characters that underline how tenuous that homeland connection is. In one memorable one, Smirithi and Prashanth discuss what it means to be Australian Tamils, to have no legitimate claim to oor (village), but to definitely have an almost perfect sense of belonging where they are.

For readers of diasporic writings, whether Sri Lankan or Indian, this will stand out as a highly unusual frankness, subverting the traditional emotive norms of the genre. Particularly among those whose middle-class (or affluent), upper-caste parents and grandparents fled or moved to the West, and who themselves were born or raised there, a complex amalgam of survivor’s guilt, stability and post-colonial malaise makes for a cocktail that can sometimes manifest in entitlement or overcompensation. The author treads here with a compassion that makes these tricky points more easy to discuss. Perhaps it helps that the Rajan-Nala family are relatively well-adjusted, but it is precisely this narrative of the Sri Lankan Tamil diaspora that is so refreshing to encounter – one that gracefully concedes comfort and even joy.

Song of the Sun God is a magnum opus, luminous with honesty: a book that is at once so familiar in what it describes yet brings a fresh approach to diasporic narratives. Chandran does not dwell on war in the guise of love; it is love itself that is the core of this story.

An edited version appeared in Scroll.

The Venus Flytrap: Diving Into The Distance

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I went in search of secrets, and stories only spoken but never committed to script. There in a fan-less portico in the far eastern coast of Sri Lanka, in the unforgiving Chithirai month, the elderly gentleman I had gone to see told me candidly: “I have amnesia”. And then: “I also lost all my documents in the flood.”

But the flood he spoke of seemed suspiciously far away; he told me of writing to his grandmother with an exaggeration about kitchen appliances made of stone floating in the calamity. But no one at 90 years old has a grandmother who writes back and exposes the lie. “Was this the flood of 1956?” I asked. He shushed me. In the labyrinth of his memory, the true distances of decades had long ceased to exist.

Distances. My ancestors were mostly fisherpeople who migrated from present-day Kerala, and when I look at Batticaloa on maps I wonder what it was that drew them further and further. I have drawn that map by hand myself, and wondered: which route did they take to the island’s central east: upon sighting shore, did they voyage southwards, where the gorgeous beaches of Mirissa and Galle didn’t seduce them, or north-bound, where the palms of the Jaffna peninsula too failed to beckon? It’s inconceivable that they followed the path that I did, cutting clear across the country on ground, for they navigated by water. Unless they started elsewhere and moved deeper and deeper east to where lagoon-and-field and field-and-lagoon alternate in a geography of perfect balance.

More than a thousand years later, I take a short flight and a long drive: into the country via the capital city on the west coast, followed by nine hours of highways until I arrive on the farther shore. For the longest time, under alibi of war, it was an emotional distance – an expanse, not a detachment – that was hardest of all for me to cross. One’s roots can only be watered by tears.

I discover that the distance between a matrilineal, matrilocal culture and its swallowing into the patriarchal world order is sometimes a mere generation, or one stroke of a clerk’s pen that accidentally transfers the land to the holder of the masculine name because of an ordinance that never considered how it was possible for a society like this to exist at all.

I try to bridge the distance between that pen and mine when I talk to a group of teenagers from surrounding villages and ask them to name ten writers, anticipating correctly that not one would be a woman. “Complicate the narrative,” was what the outreach worker had told me beforehand, and later over dinner with her I felt saddened that the most I could do was to offer my presence as a kind of shock value. Dialogue cannot happen at a distance.

Always, two literal bridges: the old one and the new one over the Kallady part of the Batticaloa lagoon. I crossed it several times each day, carrying more each time by way of knowledge. I never felt the distance. Even now, days later, I still don’t feel the distance.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on April 27th 2017. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.

The Venus Flytrap: A Litany To The Saint Of Lost Things

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Her ammi kal and arivaal in a corner, sentinels of stone and blade. I am here in the last house my grandmother walked in, the kitchen in which she fell and broke her hip weeks before she died in another October. I am here in the first city of my childhood, first city that I lost. Colombo. We are here, my mother and I, to clean this house so that it is something other than a relic to parallel lives we didn’t get to have, hauntings that river beneath the existences we wear, like hidden veins.

At the church of St. Anthony, patron saint of lost things, I tally up the heart’s inventory and ask him to help me lose even more. Everything one loses leaves behind residue, the way the plastic bottle of seawater I filled at Hikkaduwa became bottom-heavy with granules of sand. A litany as I light candles: Let me lose the things I still carry, the weight of what I lost. The grief and the greed, the sorrow and the sin.

A family emergency. The return postponed. And suddenly I have unstructured time, days that will either be too long or inadequate. My friend with two lines of Robert Frost tattooed on his forearm is in the same city now, a coincidence. If we meet, we will break our long history of seeing each other just before one us catches a flight out. That had been the plan. But in mine’s postponement, in the unexpected glut-gift of extra time, it’s another poem of Frost’s that I stumble on. It’s called “Directive”, and contains these darkening lines: “There is a house that is no more a house/ Upon a farm that is no more a farm /And in a town that is no more a town. / The road there, if you’ll let a guide direct you/ Who only has at heart your getting lost…”

My book comes out here before it does anywhere else. At its launch, I say, “I’ve read my writing on three continents, but this is the first time I’m doing it in my motherland.” It is. Do you know what a distance a one-hour flight is, if you calculate that distance in the intangibles of separation? I lived in Sri Lanka as a child, I lost and longed for Sri Lanka while still a child, and then that longing became the ink of my life as an artist. It’s taken until my early 30s to try to build something that isn’t connected to family or nostalgia. An adult’s emotional cartography. To fall in love with, and in. I barely know where to begin.

The first thing I make in my grandmother’s kitchen is her chukku kopi. The blend comes from Batticaloa; its secrets include coriander. I drink it and call on St. Anthony to take away my cynicism, to let me misplace it among all my other lost bearings. To give me back the only story I have told over and over: the fiction that I belong somewhere, to something worth holding, that anyone at all claims me among the elements that compose their definition of home.

An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 20th. “The Venus Flytrap” appears on Thursdays in Chennai’s City Express supplement.