Bait for Stillness

by Devana Senanayake
November 1, 2018


DURING PERIODS OF INTENSE EMOTION, I have tried to re-create my family’s tomato and anchovies curry. I long for the saltiness of anchovies, the bite of green chili and the soothing coconut milk that holds it all together. The memory of that dish evokes a feeling of stillness and serenity.

But it’s a complicated recipe; it just never tastes the same. A thumb long piece of ginger costs a fortune. Green chilies are a rarity. Then there’s the matter of time - I’m just too busy being busy.  I don’t have the luxury to go looking for coconuts, red onions or curry leaves. Or to go to secluded Indian shops for fenugreek seeds, or abandoned Chinese shops for dried anchovies. And, nothing can be a substitute for an absent family.


My grandmother used to crack open a fresh coconut using her bare hands. She seared the coconut flakes into a small pot. Water had been pre-poured into this pot and she mixed the flakes to make a thick coconut concoction.  Over a strainer, she squeezed out the milk and laid the used flakes to dry. She then rolled the flakes in salt, lime, and chili to make the accompaniment: coconut sambol.

Later that night, I remember looking out of my room into the dark. Gunshots had disturbed my sleep. I could see golden trail of bullets in the dark and helicopters, loud and cantankerous, hovered over the sky above us. This had, unfortunately, become the norm. I turned to my side, eager to get to sleep because I had much to do the next day—Maths, Physics and P.E.—nothing I was particularly excited about.  

I remember my hands had been stained and smelled strongly of turmeric. We used our hands to eat and the smell clung like a thirsty leech. 

Years later, when I was living in Melbourne, I heard a helicopter, a very insignificant helicopter—perhaps it had been a military drill, perhaps it had been a test drive, perhaps it had been a time-poor politician flying to Canberra.

Almost unconsciously, I returned to my childhood. There had been no time to stop, think, or reflect—it was just a matter of getting through the days, breathlessly. Routine had been an anchor I had clung to as the ethnic tensions spiraled in turmoil around me. I did not remember being scared—I just remembered the emphasis on movement and not being left behind. I had to progress by all means.

Sounds like the helicopter triggered these memories. I experienced them before I consciously realized it.


The next morning, my mother took a hundred grams of dried anchovies and tore their heads off, one by one, a laborious and cumbersome task only visible in countries defined by “being” rather than “doing”. Sri Lanka’s lifestyle is a luxury. No one feels the pressure for a six-figure salary, to have the perfect circle of friends or be the “best version of themselves”. People exist just as they are and that’s enough. My mother relished in the most mundane of tasks. She left the anchovies to soak as she drove me to school.

I remember the lack of car horns, overfilled vans or tuk tuks on the road—a true oddity as roads paused in a noisy stillness during the peak hour. Only five other people had come to class. What happened? Would classes still run?

We had not received the message: a bomb threat had been circulating around Colombo.

I remembered feeling relieved as a day of games, conversation and leisure time unfolded. I roamed through school and returned home to my parents. They had been going through the day, completely undisturbed by the turnout. They had to keep their business running, manage their employees and pay all the bills - no time to stop and process it all. My mother had made a lunch of steamed rice; anchovies curry with just a hint of lime juice running through it; a dahl curry full of mustard seeds and dried chilies; and a cold passionfruit leaf sambol that tasted slightly of crushed aniseeds.


I loved chopping up vegetables. As a teenager, I peeled fresh tomatoes that burst open once I pierced the seams of the skin, red onions that made me cry through their stench and fat green chilies that spat at my eyes as I cut them open.

One evening, my family and I lined up like ants to see Shah Rukh Khan and his troupe of actors dance on stage for the “Temptation 2004” tour. As a family, our sole source of entertainment had been Hindi movies and Hindi songs on TV. The rich colours, the red, greens and blues, the exotic locales and focus on love provided a much-needed escape from the tensions outside.

The event received publicity for months: everyone had been excited, constantly bringing it up in conversation and buying expensive outfits just for the performance.

One of the actors lip-synced to an overplayed song about love. A bomb exploded, a scream resounded and an audience member died.

She had been expecting a child.

We scrambled outside, panicked and disoriented. My dad lost his identity card, a totem of his bad hair as a teenager in the 80s.

Several monks penned a letter to Khan and blamed the event on extremism. The bomber and the reason for the bomb were never found.

When I go to festivals these days, I never feel comfortable as people pulse around me; lost in substances, in the music, in each other, and in themselves. I can never surrender to the atmosphere. Unconsciously, I am expecting to hear a bomb. A scream. A scramble of feet. It’s like I am trained to anticipate the panic as the fun evaporates into the air like cigarette smoke.


My childhood neighbour, a Burgher lady called Aunty Lorraine is a chain smoker. She had come to our house on the morning of Boxing Day 2004. She finished half a pack of cigarettes and carried a marble ashtray around—a totem of her younger days as a secretary. Sri Lanka’s coastal regions faced an unprecedented attack that day: a tsunami. I remember all of us gathered around our television as the sea flooded inland and ran through hotels, locally run restaurants and coral reefs. Fourteen years later, the areas still have not completely recovered.

I remember the half-finished plates of rice and curry. We had not even touched the okra cooked in tamarind. Everyone feared that the force of the sea might run inland and reach our homes. As Aunty Lorraine kept nonchalantly smoking, my parents stared at the screen. As the death counts rose, their faces creased in deep anxiety. As the day progressed and the situation exacerbated, flies started circling our food. My mother turned the radio on to listen to some Buddhist chants. People looked for spiritual comfort in times of trouble—except, perhaps Aunty Lorraine—she found comfort in nicotine.

I later learned that an old teacher of mine died that day and her body disappeared into the sea, never to be found.


Sri Lankans do not measure their spices. They touch, they tip, they fling, or they sprinkle. During my teenage years, I remember learning about spices through touch, through taste, through smell. I learned about curry leaves and fenugreek seeds. I used my fingers to snap dried cinnamon bark in half. I learned to crush onion, garlic and ginger to make a paste in a mortar.

I remember the lights going out every night for one year and I did not have the light to finish my readings or set tasks from school. I had to get it done early or stay up until the lights returned, and sometimes they never did. Sometimes, I had to sleep and get up early as the day broke and brought the light in. Other times the evenings had to be spent in complete darkness.

As the year progressed, my family adapted. We lit candles, poured tea into thermos flasks, and had a supply of precooked food ready to be eaten together. We could stop everything except the routine meal of dinner. War never impaired our ability to continue our lives but the electricity cuts brought my entire family to a frustrated standstill.

I later learned that severe drought had caused these prolonged electricity cuts.


Other years, it rained too much. Thunder, lightning, and rain fell on the roads like over ripe fruit falling from the stem. Our streets flooded; sometimes the floods licked our doorsteps and slipped inside. Our roofs leaked and my family placed buckets to stop them filling into our house. Sometimes, the electricity stopped.

While the rains raged outside, my grandmother gathered the cleaned anchovies, chopped the vegetables, strained the coconut milk, and set them all on boil. She cleaned the rice three times. She then finely sliced gotukola leaves and added red onion, salt, pepper, lime juice, and the left over coconut flakes to make gotukola sambol. The curry popped, slipped, and splayed all around the kitchen—a spectacle of comfort for everyone present.

To this day, I love the taste of anchovies—it is reassuring, a constancy as the environment rages outside, be it for man-made or natural reasons. The saltiness of the anchovies centered our minds and brought us to the present. We used the simple means of our togetherness to counter the situations outside the walls of our home. It had been a sure respite in time of uncertainty—a respite that I cannot recreate alone. ❖


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