New Year brings back memories of a childhood enriched with what could be termed today as dual “ethnicity”. A Buddhist Sinhala father and Burgher Christian mother, which enabled the assimilation of both cultures, for which I am very grateful.
In our home the fact that my mother was a Burgher was no deterrent to her entering into the spirit of New Year with gusto. Every rite and ritual was given place. The Nakath (Auspicious times) and “Nonagathe” (or ‘No nakath time’ – as I’ve heard it described) were observed. She did it all from the making and supervision of home-made sweets and oil cakes, over a wood fire in the outside kitchen to the boiling of milk in a brand new little pot, the wearing of the prescribed colours, and the purchase of new clothes for everyone.
It was always my task to set the table for the “Avurudu” meal, something I took great pride in even as a child. A polished brass lamp in the centre of a lace tablecloth, the base arrayed with betel leaves and ‘araliya’ flowers, the wicks and oil made ready.
|Andewatte: Memories of New Year in the village
I remember the laden table groaning under the weight of platters of milk rice, bananas, the betel-leaf shaped cakes (that as I grew older I was allowed to bake and ice) the kavum, kokis, mung kavum, athiraha -best eaten fresh off the fire. (Today- we steam or microwave the oil cakes to renew them, and re-fried kokis is always yum !) The array of home- made sweets such as milk toffee, coconut rock, and my favourite the little “pana kavum” consisting of fried bits of rice flour dough rolled in sugar syrup. There was always a pot of curd and a bottle of treacle kept on the table to signify milk and honey.
We didn’t have TV back then, and the radio would be tuned to the Sinhala Service as the announcer guided us through the paces and phases of the “observances”, the ‘raban’ playing drum beat in the back ground. Thus the first morsel of kiribath went into our mouths at the appointed time, after which obeisance was made to elders – and the exchange of ‘lucky money’ took place.
The next was the distribution of trays to neighbours and friends, and visiting my father’s three paternal aunts, Seetha, Soma and Daisy.
But it is NOT the “Colombo New Year” that tugs at the heart strings. This time of year the heart and mind go back to “Andewatte” to the valley amidst the hills of Matale. “Andewatta” in the village of Waalawela is where we converged like homing pigeons every New Year to that little village homestead, that embodied “Aththa”, my grandmother. Aththa’s home that was “open house” to family and friends. It amazes me how that little house stretched to accommodate everybody at “Avurudu” time.
In Andewatta - Aththa reigned over her little kingdom of rubber, coconut and cocoa – the few acres that sustained a family of six children, after she was widowed in her early thirties. She moved from a mansion in the vicinity of All Saints Church, Borella – back to the village and to the plot of land that was bequeathed to her. Her father was a landowner and Andewatta was where his horses were originally stabled.
From a cosseted childhood, and schooldays at Musaeus College under the tutelage of Marie Musaeus Higgins herself, Aththa adapted, and became adept at coping with a new life.
My memories of her include seeing her tying cattle, jumping fences, getting up at pre-dawn hours to milk the cows, over-seeing the rubber tapping, the harvesting of other minor crops such as pepper and coffee, the husking and pounding of rice, always on the move never slowing down.
At New Year she was in her element supervising the activity in the kitchen. The outhouses containing the kitchen and storeroom were separated from the house by a section used as a car port and drying area. Access to the kitchen section was up some steps- all made of wattle and daub.
The car port and drying area floor was the same – swept clean – the paddy was spread out, as were the chillies and whatever needed drying.
There was no running water or electricity. Buckets and basins were filled with water in the area demarcated for washing up. My father had built a sizeable tank on the side of the house to collect rain water, and after days of rain when the water from the gutters ensured a full tank of water – we had our ‘body washes’ standing in a small cemented area using buckets and bowls to sluice ourselves,most often shivering at the coldness of the water.
We had all seen New Year “in” - in our own homes, before making the journey to Matale. Sweaters and scarves were packed – because it meant a venture to the cooler climes. Boxes of sweetmeats, clay pots of “ambul thial” fish, chicken curry coated in spices sans coconut milk, and other contributions were all loaded into our Peugeot 203. Aththa’s “Thay mese” (tea table) was always at the ready when we arrived. We added our contributions to it and watched as the “plates” came in from other village households.Not on trays, but plates, first covered in newspaper with an overlay of cloth lovingly hand sewn and embroidered for just such an occasion as this (polythene, cling film and the common lunch sheets were not in use then).
The blackened kettle was always on the boil, at the ready for the countless cups of tea Aththa dispensed. Even on ordinary days anyone passing by Andewatte to the huddle of shops at the “Deniya handiya” (the junction) stopped by at Andewatta for the “cuppa” that was always on offer.
One year we all piled into a bus and the hilarity and happiness of that journey lives within me. At Alawwa cousin Ujith took it upon himself to stand “conductor” style on the footboard and shout “Galla! Galla ! Galla” !!! (Galle ! Galle ! Galle ! ). The puzzled faces of the onlookers on the roadside is worth mentioning – because Galle and Alawwa are totally unconnected!
We gave lifts to a few individuals, and, as is customary in this dear land of ours –(even when one is carrying a bucket and towel and heading towards a well !) we were asked where we were going. Again, it was Ujith who answered by saying that we were all in the bus together on our way to “view” a bride for him, and he was most anxious to see her…. desperate in fact!
This was accepted without question, in-spite of the fact that one of the passengers at the back was a large Alsatian dog!
Ujith’s cavorting continued into the evening when Aththa elected that we accompany her with “plates” to a few of the village households she had missed out on. At the home of a villager known as “Heen Aiyah” – there was Ujith calling out through the dusk “ Heen Aiyye, Heen Aiyye, Avurudu, Avurudu”…we giggled uncontrollably as Aththa tried to shush us up in a vain! (Our behaviour obviously categorized by a bemused Heen Aiyah as that of badly brought up Colombo folk ! )
When we headed back, it was to “lamp lighting time in the valley” as my aunt Kusuma termed it, Uncle Tom ( Thomas mama, one of Aththa’s many brothers) had already completed the task of cleaning out and lighting the many kerosene lamps and lanterns. We could see him with a ship’s lantern (a relic of my father’s Navy days) heading towards the toilets situated a little away from the house.
Then came that family time proper, the pre-dinner hour when we sat on benches in the outside area between the house and kitchen to SING! The repertoire varied from the old Tower Hall songs in Sinhala to songs such as ‘Galway Bay’ and “Coming through the Rye” and other oldies.
Uncles and Aunts with good voices held sway and everyone sang. Cups of thick vegetable soup were passed around, with some village folk actually turning up at “soup time”. The sing song always ended with Uncle Tom’s rendition or rather ‘direct translation’ of the passage from Julius Caesar.
We never, ever, tired of it! He began in English, “Friends, Romans, Countrymen lend me your ears “……holding forth, with the direct translation including the words “thope kan mata nayata denu”. He had another favourite anecdote about “hearing the cow laughing in English” after one of my visits! Uncle Henry was the quiet one, the listener, whose stories had to be coaxed out and were all the more interesting, fact, and not fiction, about his days as a vet in India working for a Maharajah and looking after his animals.
Bertie mama was the teller of the tall tales of my childhood. “You should visit my house. I press a button and it opens out of the mountain, I pull a lever on the side and there is the well”. All the time “Makulussa” the real mountain looming over us- it sides a soft green lawn of velvet – a myth my father soon dispelled, telling us of the time he climbed Makulussa with his uncle, Aththa’s youngest brother – Albert ( Oh yes, all of them “Princely” names ). “Those velvety lawn like areas, are actually tall grasses, razor sharp that can even cut your face.”
So we listened and wondered and looked out at a clear moonlit sky- so bright over Makulussa you could read a book by its light, until sleep engulfed us as we lay ensconced in Aththa’s metal four poster bed.
Breakfasts at New Year were substantial. Aththa had been up in the wee hours ensuring perfection as always. “Hunusaal buth” (made out of the fragments of rice after pounding and de-husking) with Kiri hodhi (the white coconut curry) and pol sambol. My favourite was Aththa’s very own – string-hoppers soft and creamy, made out of home grown (and back breaking) pounded rice flour. The ambrosial kiri hodhi was always made by maiden aunt Padma – who passed on the secret of the wood fire – the clay pot – stirred just so- with the addition of a lime. I dreamt of Aththa after her death when she told me her secret of the creamy string-hoppers,… ah ! but by then she had already passed it on to me !
After morning games of cricket and badminton, and large glasses of green orange juice, fresh off the tree - and spiked with salt - we set off for the wells. One year it was to “the Bibile Kumbura” the water spout in the village of Udasgiriya on a higher elevation above Andewatta. This water spout that never ran dry was a constant source –for bathers and one stood under it – shower style.
At Andewatta there was a choice of two wells – our choice was always the well in the rubber tree section that overlooked a paddy field. No drawing out of water with rope and pail – just to reach in with a bucket, splash and pour!
At oil anointing time it was Aththa who anointed our heads with the oil she had brought from the temple. There were leaves hung overhead and leaves spread underfoot and I remember her chanting and blessing each of us as the oil was applied with a betel leaf.
When the time came to leave there was always much sadness. I remember her rushing to the fence to stand and wave for a last glimpse of us, the cars slowing down and all of us waving! This, she did unfailingly even during her latter enfeebled years.
Andewatta is no more, first the roof gave way and the house was later bulldozed to the ground. On recent visits as I walk over where it once stood I can still see the round and oval shaped bricks that made up the cornerstones of the entrance steps.
A few of Padma nanda’s rose bushes are still in bloom and here and there sprout bits of the maidenhair fern that formed an arch over the little verandah. I dream of the cool cement floors that I sat on as a child reading all those back copies of the Reader’s Digest in what served as the shrine, cum office room and library. Letters I found and could barely discern, from my grandfather to my grandmother always beginning with “My darling Lou” ! Aththa was Louisa and he was writing from Oxford! What treasure I held in my hands - I never knew – if only I had grasped and held on – their story would have been a novel in itself.
All gone and vanished like the rest of that little house.
I hold on to the memories of a lost time and place – that I wish the children of today could experience. Village life, clear clean water pure organic food, (we didn’t know it- for what it was- at the time !) listening to the stories, watching the buffalo wending its way round and round the threshing floor, hearing the plaintive cries of the farmer coaxing the animal on, the hiss.. of the “Petromax” lamp, the tart taste of the cocoa fruit, and yes – even speaking to Raththi the cow in English.
The Matale heat is pretty much as in Colombo today. There are no more rivulets and streams running along the roadside, none of those little crabs in the paddy fields. Noteworthy is the absence of even the pesky leeches we had to guard against in the rubber patch! De-forestation and chemicals in agriculture have put paid to all that.
“Naw gala” (the upturned boat shaped rocky mountain) and Makulussa still look benignly over a landscape – that burns with the cloying smoke from the kilns of Matale “lime” used for plaster and building construction. Descending the winding mountain road to Dodangaslanda and its environs, we stop to make way for trucks and container transportation on a road not built to cater for such huge vehicles .
Back in those days a single car was an “event” !
Every bit of the route is so familiar and holds a particular memory of a time untrammelled, of heading back to hearth and home and all that Andewatta personified! Bringing back my very own - New Year nostalgia.