Memory, History

(Written a few months ago, posting now. Fervently hoping this has lost its relevance.)


New Delhi,

June 2013.

 To you,

I’m not sure when it happened but Running in the Family has become one of my favourite books. I’d read it years ago and I stumbled across a battered copy at a Sunday book bazaar last year and pocketed it (50 Rs!) with little hesitation. Over the months, I would head for it almost instinctively whenever I needed a pick-me-up or a reminder of home and my already worn copy now bears the brunt of public transport, marginalia and dog-eared pages.

‘You know, I honestly haven’t been homesick in months’, I muse to my mother the other day. 1506 miles away I can almost hear her bristling over the phone and I hurriedly repair my tactlessness. Tonight though, I’m overcome with a wave of melancholy and I push away my mini mountain of readings and reach out for the book. An exercise in nostalgia, I think one of the many reasons I love it is because Ondaatje manages to combine just the right eccentricities of Sri Lanka with his perfectly imperfect family, reminding me so much of my own.

While reading, I suddenly remember an incident—I think it was during the late nineties when the terror was slowly reaching its zenith and Colombo’s comfortable little bubble was in danger of being punctured. It was around this time that security was drastically increased and warning posters about unknown parcels containing bombs dotted bus interiors. Emergency training was conducted in schools. All I remember was that we were told to put a pencil between our teeth and scramble under a desk in case of an explosion which, between you and me, seemed quite pointless.

My cousin sister was a member of the national netball team and had been out of the country for a tournament. The entire team had arrived back to Sri Lanka earlier than planned and there had been little or no time to make arrangements for accommodation. Most of the girls hailed from far flung parts of the island and so the entire team and coach apologetically arrived on our doorstep with nowhere else to go. The army had suddenly started doing spot checks around this time, and just after we had settled into bed that night, the doorbell rang.

Awakened by the voices, I crept halfway downstairs and sleepily observed the motley crew assembled in my living room—My mother in her pastel housecoat; four perplexed army personnel unsure of what to do; a dozen girls rudely interrupted from their sleep, scrambling from their makeshift beds, and my father unsuccessfully trying to explain in fragmented Sinhala why there were a dozen unknown girls asleep in our living room. I think my parents managed to convince the army personnel that their house wasn’t a front for nefarious night time activities and the army personnel saw the humour of the situation. They finished their security check, patted my head awkwardly, as adults usually do with children, and with a few parting quips, headed out.

Lately, in light of the recent events unfolding in Sri Lanka, I’ve been trying to reconcile three ideas of home. One is the sanitized, selective history propounded by the state. The other is a far more sinister side siphoned off information sources on the internet and international news. The final one is the version of home in my mind and the limited geographical space I grew up in. All three meet rather jarringly. There’s a quote by Julian Barnes which seems apt as I attempt to untangle my own notions of personal identity and geographical space; ‘History is that certainty produced at the point where the imperfections of memory meet the inadequacies of documentation’.

It’s been years and I don’t know how it is now, but when I was in school our text books conveniently trailed off after 1948. We would spend months memorizing kings, cataloguing their bloodthirstiness and making lists of their achievements. We dutifully memorized the advent of the Portuguese (1505), the Dutch (17th century. My social studies teacher should be proud of me) and the British. More names were memorized—colonial governors, freedom fighters, dates of quelled rebellions. Certain changes in the constitution after Independence and elements of parliament were included in the syllabus like an afterthought and then it conveniently trailed off into ellipses. Like a person hurriedly using a napkin to blot stray specks of sauce before it congeals on his shirt, insurgencies, political parties, uprisings, tensions were blurred away.

While living away from home brings an enviable sense of detachment, it also brings about an augmented anxiety in times of crisis. The recent wave of violence in Sri Lanka has left me in a state of agitation. I’m writing to you because I’m scared and sad and I’m struggling to make sense of this madness.

News alerts, snippets from blog posts, articles from dubious sites with even more dubious grammar, racist rhetoric in the guise of opinion columns, information compressed into 140 characters, grainy videos of mobs led by monks storming commercial establishments and places of religious worship, pictures of torn Qurans on Facebook—I devour all of it in an attempt to wrap my mind around what is taking place at home.

All the information I siphon is second-hand and I don’t know enough to differentiate if this recent eruption of violence is a result of professional agitators and higher political powers staging a decoy or if this will snowball into a repetition of the conflict we have only just emerged from. I’m sad that selective amnesia was and still is the norm. That memory and an acknowledgement of the past are dismissed as irrelevant and that our country seems to be approaching the future with all the arrogance and brash indifference of an adolescent teenager.

I feel helpless because I’ve seen enough of the world today to know that violence is now the first impulse and not a last resort. Everything I’ve read about the riots in the eighties suddenly come to mind—the betrayal of neighbours, mobs drunk on power, men stripped naked and burned on the streets, houses looted and families forced to flee. I’m scared because my Muslim family lives in a staunchly Buddhist neighbourhood and while this never seemed important all these years, I’m suddenly acutely aware of it.

Yours in anxiety,


Eid at Home

At this time back home, our house will be brimming with activity. The 27th night of Ramazan as always is spent in prayer but afterwards, there’s a sense of anticipation which blurs the final days of fasting.

 Every year, a week before the festival, my mum will announce that she won’t be making too many food items for the table. Each year we nod and agree knowing well enough that when Eid dawns, our table will be creaking under the weight of all our favourite food items. Each year, we tell my dad firmly in uppercase that the day will be spent with FAMILY ONLY. Each year, he nods and acquiesces but the night before, he would sidle up to my mum and casually mention that X uncle might drop in at night and do we have enough food to go around. My mum (armed with years of foresight to keep the freezer well stocked) would sigh and feign impatience and say yes, yes, we just might have enough food. Oh brilliant, my dad would sigh in relief. Then, he would wait till we get back to our work and hurriedly mumble that therewasachancethatafewmorepeoplemightdropin and then swiftly make his exit before either of us could register what he said.

 The day before Eid is chaos. I’d run around in a rare mode of domesticity dusting this and washing that. My sister would help my mum in the kitchen and my dad would be sent out no fewer than five times on varied errands.  The cat would lounge about everywhere, gazing at us languidly and tripping everyone over. I remember as a kid how my mum, aunt, grandmother and our faithful domestic who used to work for us before she became a nun (that’s another story) would get together and make sweetmeats weeks before. My grandmother would bring out all her utensils which her mother had used and our domestic would be coaxed into the daunting task of stirring the sticky, sweet mixture. I say daunting, because the mixture for muscat is incredibly heavy and has to be mixed by hand. Mixing it required immense upper body strength, fortitude and alarming amounts of patience. My favourite though, was making palaharam. The dough was made, rolled out and then cut into minute squares. Once they were cut, we would sit around the table, catch up on general chit chat and twist the squares into dainty shapes. Once the dough was ready, they were fried and coated in sugar syrup – A homemade recipe for a heart attack, if there ever was one. The food during Eid was fantastic. Our table would be filled with thakbir, date cake, donuts, marshmallows, cutlets, nuggets, cheese rolls, samosas, egg shaped moss jellies and cupcakes for all the visitors who came throughout the day.

On Eid itself, we would be woken up at an ungodly hour. I would wake up only when my mum would storm into my room yelling at me for sleeping while everyone else had been up for hours (Every. Single. Year. I kid you not) I would, as usual be the last to bathe and saunter to the breakfast table in my pyjamas while everyone else was squeaky clean and attired in their new clothes.

The first thing that pops to my mind when I think of Eid is the abundance of family (no, it’s not all about the food).  The mosque is, as can be expected, overflowing with people of all shapes and sizes. Relatives I haven’t seen for months would troop into our house (and we, into theirs) as we wish each other for the season. Thankfully, most of the extended family has migrated abroad so the list of houses we visit isn’t too extensive but it can be an overkill sometimes. There’s only so many times you can politely answer that you’re not going to get married just yet and make small talk about the weather before you start yearning to throw objects at someone. But I usually avoid family functions and gatherings the rest of the year, so I suppose one day doesn’t really hurt.

The loot definitely helps ease any mental trauma. I used to get the funniest gifts. The loot ranged from money, cosmetics, clothes to the slightly more eccentric ones like chopping boards, digestive biscuits and underwear. Earlier, my parents would go out of their way to buy personalized gifts for the kids who come visiting but as the years went by the kids became harder to please so instead every kid who comes home now leaves with a handful of crisp notes and a mercenary smile on their faces.

Lunch is always a family affair at my grandparents. Biriyani, achcharu, green pea and cashew curry, tandoori chicken, raitha and of course the crowning glory – the watalapan. I love watalapan and I don’t know if its a Sri Lankan thing, but I haven’t been able to find it anywhere over here! The afternoon is usually a food-filled stupor with a bevy of uncles, aunts and cousins and after a quick breather, the evenings are spent entertaining the guests who come over.

There’s an uncle who always, always comes over just when we’ve called it a day. Every year, after we dust away the vestiges of the day and gratefully slip into the comfort of our ‘regular’ clothes and are about to turn in, the doorbell rings. We’d look at each other in almost comical dismay and groan audibly. Happens like clockwork every year. I couldn’t make this stuff up even if I tried.

So that’s a snapshot of Eid back at home. I’ve glossed over some details, but here’s the gist of it –prayers, family, friends and food. I used to crib about the visiting, the food and bustle while I was back at home but absence really does make the heart grow fonder – I guess that’s why I was seized with a sudden desire to document it.

Eid Mubarak everyone.

Notes from Delhi: Little Miss Accident Prone

It’s one of those days, today.

This year alone, I’ve been hospitalized once, sprained my ankle twice and today I go and cut my hand on the exhaust fan.  I remember a lot of blood, feeling very numb and then blacking out briefly for a minute. My fingernails are shattered, there’s a dark clot formed on my finger and a lot of dried blood which I can’t scrape off. I don’t know why I feel it important to describe it to you. I think I want you to understand that I’m not making a big deal over a mere paper cut?

I don’t know if it was weeks of exam stress, all the blood or this being the proverbial straw on the camel’s back but I slipped into the bluest of blue moods. After M sent for my meds, and seeing that I was a little upset gave me a huge hug, and left for work, I curled into a foetal position sobbed like a baby.

Suddenly, I was tired of constantly looking out for myself. I wanted to rest my head on someone’s lap, have my head patted and just be comforted (nothing too profound. Just generic phrases of sympathy would have done). I wanted to be looked after and I was feeling completely, utterly miserable and ashamedly ‘little girl in a big world-ish’.

 I was suddenly reminded of home. If this had happened back at home, my dad would have rushed me to our family doctor for a tetanus shot; my family doctor would have told me I’ve put on weight; my mum would have made soup; my grandmother would insist it was all evil eye and hide her worry by telling me about people who have died of similar incidents; the sibling would ply me with reading material and the cat would sit on my lap and purr my blues away.

It’s moments like this when I’m reminded that I’m so very alone in this country, without everyone I love. At times of crisis; I don’t have anyone to fall back on. Of course, I’ve made good friends, but I can’t keep relying on them all the time.

2011 doesn’t seem to be favouring me physically, I guess I need to have my game face on for the next few months and keep my fingers crossed.

 Rant over. I just hope this horrible mood lifts soon and my hand heals in time for exams.