By A. Jessie Michael
The parcel arrived in a postal van and James’ wife, Doris, put it aside for James to return from work and open it. It was an annual ritual — its arrival and his opening of it. This cardboard box measuring one foot by one foot by ten inches, wrapped in brown paper, with colourful stamps all over the top right hand corner and cross-tied with twine, came all the way from Mathagal, James’ home village in the Jaffna peninsula to the North of Sri Lanka, by sea-mail, to Malacca in Malaysia, and it contained his very own piece of home.
Actually, two similar parcels arrived every year, the other one landing at the house of James’ brother Joseph in Singapore. Joseph, naturally a little sardonic and less nostalgic about the contents, let his wife Lily open the box. Nevertheless he appreciated the efforts put in by their sister in Mathagal for sending them this parcel, with a whiff of their homeland. He made Lily list each item in the box so that he would not forget them when he got Lily to write his sister a thank you letter in Tamil. His written Tamil was pretty rusty after near fifty years of disuse.
James came home at about 5.00 pm exhausted from office, saw his parcel and instantly his tiredness lifted. He hastily cut through the twine, tore off the brown paper and pried the box open, a boy-like delight showing on his face. A treasure-box of edible memories — fruits of the earth and sea!
It was the same every year but the pleasure never ceased. A dried, nine-inch stick of Maldive fish, so hard that it could serve as a weapon, and a large pack of slices of assorted, dried salted fish; a bag of brown rice from their family plot which was the only thing left of their bankrupted, dead father’s fortunes; several bundles of pulukodial (boiled and dried palmyra sprouts) and a whole lot of little palm-leaf baskets of compressed palmyra brown sugar. And last but not least, the so precious odial flour — made from pounding pulukodial— to make the signature broth of the Jaffna Tamils — kool*.
For a few hours, James stayed submerged in nostalgia as he returned to the rice fields and the palmyra groves of his childhood, the old house, his school — St. Patrick’s College, where he excelled and all else innocent that he had to give up to move to Malaysia, under Joseph’s wing, for a better future, when the family lost everything.
“Tell you what,” James said to Doris, “Let’s take the odial flour when we go to Singapore tomorrow. Lily will help you make kool and it will be a big treat for brother.”
Doris was happy enough for the suggestion. Eating kool needed a crowd. Joseph’s family of five, their cousin Francis who lived alone also in Singapore, and her own family of six would make twelve — a very manageable kool crowd.
Going to Singapore was an eight-hour trip in the cramped Vauxhall with a pit stop in Yong Peng for lunch. The children loved to visit their cousins who lived smack in the middle of the city on Kirk Terrace, above Dhoby Ghaut, and there was always the excitement of watching movies in the Cathay cinema at the end of Kirk Terrace. They were expected at Joseph’s house, so Lily had cooked copious amounts of food which the children soon demolished at tea and dinner. The next day was Joseph’s birthday, the reason for their get-together.
“For your birthday we are having a kool party,” declared Doris.
“What do you mean by cool? Ice cream?”
“Kool with a K,” Doris clarified.
“Oh, I thought you meant cool with a C!” replied Joseph. “Good idea! We have odial flour that sister just sent from Mathagal.”
“Oh, you got your parcel too?” James asked and they were soon comparing the contents of their boxes, which as it turned out, were identical.
“But you’ll need to buy a lot of ingredients for the kool,” fretted Joseph. “Lily, I think you should take Doris to the market with you to buy all the things you need. Then you won’t forget anything.” An unnecessary suggestion, as Lily knew what was needed, but Joseph felt it put him in a superior position for having suggested that his wife might need extra help.
Doris produced from her luggage a bundle of drumsticks or moringa pods and stalks of fresh, young moringa leaves carefully laid between newspaper sheets. It was from their tree in Malacca, the mother stem of which originated from Mathagal, carefully wrapped and carried by ship from a visit there so many years ago. Doris’ contribution took care of one of the main ingredients for the kool.
The next morning both women took a bus to the Bras Basah wet market before the children awoke or the men were ready. Lily was glad for the company. They picked out a large Garoupa fish head, several swimmer crabs, and some prawns at the fishmongers’ stalls, then headed for long beans and chillies. At the fruit stalls, they found jackfruit and bought three bags of the fleshy petals with the seeds still in them. They almost forgot the cassava but remembered before they left the market. Two tubers of arm’s length would be enough. With their baskets full, they caught the bus home and plodded up the slope of Kirk Terrace to the house.
They were home in time to feed the men and children breakfast. Their cousin Francis, the court interpreter who was prone to a little hypochondriasis, had also arrived, complaining of an impending cold. Joseph began his interrogation of the women. “Now did you buy the correct fish? The fish must be fresh. Was it fresh? Otherwise the kool will be smelly and spoilt.”
Lilly ignored him, giving him the usual “Hmmm, Hmmm” much to his annoyance.
James tried to distract his brother. “They know what they are doing. Why are you interfering? “
“I am not interfering! It is so hard to get good odial flour, we must not waste it.” Joseph was not about to give up his nagging and preaching of how the dish should be prepared, though he never ever cooked. It was an ingrained cultural habit, of seeming to be in charge of everything including how food should taste.
As the children took free rein of the first floor of the house, the women took to the kitchen and the men, comfortable in their sleeveless singlets and sarongs, settled in the armchairs of the living room to dissect the politics of their homeland.
“The trouble is, the Sinhalese fellows are jealous of the Jaffna Tamils. They are afraid of us.” Joseph was convinced he came from a superior race.
“In a way it is the British government’s fault. They gave us the education and the jobs, even overseas jobs, but they kept the Sinhalese subdued. Then, when the country got independence, they gave the power to the majority — which is the Sinhalese. And because they are all Buddhists, the monks are now the power brokers.” Francis knew a little more because he travelled to Jaffna every two years to visit his wife and children there. He could not afford to have them live in Singapore.
“Yes. The British should have realised that we are a different ethnic group from the Sinhalese. We are even different from the Indian Tamils they brought in here for labour. We have been in the Jaffna peninsula for generations! And we have the best Christian schools.” James had left the island when he was fifteen and returned twice on family matters.
“Can’t blame the Tamil leaders now for asking for some autonomy, especially since they are losing out on jobs and business opportunities in their own territory. I know they are resettling Sinhalese into Tamil areas. It is causing tension and there is already trouble in many areas.” Such social engineering was sacrilegious in Joseph’s eyes.
Francis was worried about the educational changes happening. “This latest business of changing the medium of education to Sinhala is really too much. Our children will lose their mother tongue.”
Their voices overlapped as they got more agitated and interrupted each other.
“You mean the children there? Our children here have already lost theirs. But at least they all speak good English”. That was Joseph, ever the proud English speaker. “What can you do with Sinhala? It is only used in Sri Lanka.”
“They have taken control of the schools,”interrupted James. “Already they have pushed the Tamils slowly out of the civil service jobs because Sinhala is the official language. I am wondering what next.”
“As you said, they are resettling a lot of Sinhala people into the North and paying them to move. This is their way of weakening the Tamil parties there.” Francis, though more reticent of the three, had the more reliable information, thanks to his regular calls and letters to and from his family in Sri lanka.
“The Tamils are quite well organised but they seem more interested in having a war with the government than finding a political solution through negotiation. Did you hear about the attacks on the West coast? Apparently, the Tamil Tigers have taken a stronghold there.”
“Yes, but this declaration of war is causing many people to flee overseas. All the young Tamil brains are leaving to study in England, France, Canada. I have a feeling the government might eye property after that.” Not that Joseph cared for any property there but he was almost apoplectic with indignation.
“They are already doing that brother,” confirmed James. “I heard that in troubled areas when Tamil populated villages are attacked by government troops, the villagers flee into the next village and the army is billeting soldiers into the abandoned homes.”
“You know what brother; I am worried about sister.” James worried about her incessantly. This sister had mothered him in childhood. “She is growing old. She is complaining it is harder to get labourers to work on the land. How long can she hold on to it herself? Her boys are working in Colombo now. We have to think of something.”
They all knew what the something was — sell. But it was a forbidden word. It would mean the end of memory, the end of the parcels, the end of kool.
But the moment passed.
Joseph asked “Did you get any news from Anthony?” This was their sister’s oldest son.
“Yes, yes!” replied James. “Every month I send him some money for the family and his part- time studies. He writes regularly.”
“I am glad you help him. He is a hardworking chap,” said Joseph of their nephew who was their news line from Sri Lanka and worth the investment of educational support.
“Anyway”, replied James, “Anthony wrote that there was trouble between some university students. The Tamil students have to score much higher grades than Sinhalese students to get into universities. That’s a terrible discrimination.”
“James, I heard that there are groups in Malaysia and Singapore, collecting funds for the Tamil cause. Has anyone approached you?”
“O yes! They asked me but I told them to go to hell. How do we know where the money will go? Probably into their own pockets!”
Francis who had been secretly giving small amounts to the cause with the dubious hope of protecting his wife and children in Jaffna, was too nervous to admit it lest the much older Joseph lambast him, so he merely said “Apparently, it is a big fund but we don’t know how they are going to use the money.”
“You should know that they are buying weapons – tanks, boats and guns! Don’t you fellows listen to the BBC?” Joseph tuned in daily to the BBC as faithfully as he said his morning prayers.
Having worked themselves up to a thirst, the men despatched James’ son and Joseph’s son, two teenaged boys, down to the nearby coffee shop for iced Stout, Tiger Beer and peanuts (this was during an era when there was no age barrier for the purchase of alcohol) and they continued their remote scrutiny of the fate of Sri Lanka.
Meanwhile, in the kitchen, the women prepared the kool in perfect tandem. Doris cleaned the seafood while Lily tackled the vegetables.
“How is your sister’s family in Sillalai?” asked Doris.
“They are not happy. Their children’s education is affected because they all have to learn Sinhala now. Also, there are gangs of men trying to influence their sons to join the Tamil political parties. They are only boys.”
“Are the older children married?”
“One girl is but the husband has only a small job. All the good jobs are in Colombo but it is difficult for the Jaffna boys to get jobs in the city. Besides, the cost of living there is too high.”
“I know,” replied Doris. “My sister’s family are managing because the girls are working. But we don’t know what the future will be for their children. They are still in Jaffna but they are worried the trouble will get into the town.”
When the ingredients were readied, the kool making began. Lily put a large pot of water to boil on a stove on the floor rather than on the table-top stove so that it would be easier to stir the broth. They added ginger and garlic, a little rice and the peeled and split jackfruit seeds, then chilli paste and turmeric. As these simmered, they topped the broth in turn with the cubed cassava and moringa leaves, and strips of jackfruit flesh, followed shortly by the short lengths of long beans and moringa pods, odial flour paste and then the quartered crabs and shelled prawns. A squeeze of tamarind followed and a measure of salt and finally the fish-head pieces that only needed the final boil of the broth to cook them through.
The house was soon encased in a steaming cloud of aromas.
The voices in the hall, fuelled by beer and stout became increasingly rambunctious.
Joseph’s voice was the loudest. Being the oldest, gave him some license to admonish.
“Don’t be stupid James! Don’t waste money on the house there. Who is going to live there in a few years? Everybody is leaving the village.”
“Who knows? When we retire it would be nice to go back.”
“Crazy fellow! My doctors are here. This is Singapore. The best facilities. You want to go to Mathagal in your old age? What doctors are there? The village medicine man? Not even in Jaffna town. Maybe Lily will want to go back. Her whole family is there.”
“Well,” said Francis, “my family and my house are there. I will definitely have to go back. My CPF savings will buy me nothing in Singapore but at least it converts to more in Jaffna.”
“Yes! Yes! You of course have to go back,” insisted Joseph. “What are you going to do here? You have nobody here and I may be dead soon.”
“Chi! chi!” protested Francis. “Don’t talk like a madman. You are not dying yet.”
“What do you know? I’ve had so many surgeries I could have died anytime. But God is good. I lived and I can still work… Lily! Is the kool ready? It is one o’ clock and I am hungry.”
“It’s all done,” replied Doris as she set bowls and spoons on the dining room table for the adults and on the kitchen table for the children.
The men adjourned to the food as the women served out bowlfuls of the steaming, colourful broth — turmeric yellow splashed with the green of the vegetables, the gold of jackfruit flesh, the red of cooked crab shells and the pink of prawns and the white of fish.
Joseph slurped his kool loudly, sucked at the cut lengths of moringa pods with gusto and picked at the crab pieces with his fingers. “Doris. This is very nice kool. Very tasty.”
“But Lily cooked it.” protested Doris.
“I know. But you helped and you are the guest so I must pay you the compliment.”
Lily hmphed but graciously acknowledged, “Doris did most of the work.”
Francis did his bit. “Very nice ladies. But you must admit, nothing like the Mathagal fish and crabs. From the ocean into the pot. Nothing beats that.”
They perspired profusely and their noses were running from the heat of the chilli but it did not deter them from relishing the tasty treat — spicy but tempered by the sweet taste of the seafood. They returned with renewed enthusiasm to the topic of returning to Jaffna. The women scoffed at James’ pipe dreams. Did he think the children would agree? Lily refused her husband’s offer that she should return there when he died. Her sisters were complaining of hardship in every letter they wrote. Why would she want to go there in old age while her children stayed in Singapore?
Yet the politics of Sri Lanka ran strong in their blood and mingled with the kool of Jaffna. They talked of memories and relatives, rogue leaders and footholds gained and lost by the rebels in all the little hamlets, villages and towns of the Jaffna Peninsula as they sat drinking kool and longing for their homeland which would soon bleed almost to death and which they would never see again.
*Kool is a speciality from Sri Lanka. It is drunk from bowls and is considered a broth or soup, similar to the Creole gumbo or French bouillabaisse. Made from local vegetables and fresh seafood, it uses odial flour as a mild thickener.
A. Jessie Michael is a retired Associate Professor of English from Malaysia and a writer of short stories and poems. She has written winning short stories for local magazines and newspaper competitions since the 1980’s and received honourable mentions in the Asiaweek Short Story Competitions. She has worked with writers groups in Melbourne, Australia and Suzhou, China. Her stories have also appeared in The Gombak Review, 22 Asian Short Stories (2015) She has published an anthology of short stories Snapshots, with two other writers and most recently her own anthology The Madman and Other Stories (2016).
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