Leela has been a member of my family for the last 32 years, yet I know virtually nothing about her. She has been there through the death of my uncle and the birth of my cousin’s two children. She has been there through richer and poorer, good times and bad, in sickness and in health. She never married, and no one–not even my 80-year old Aunty Dora, her employer–knows exactly how old she is. She has just been there, as permanent a fixture as my aunt’s blood red Peugeot 504 rusting in the garage, but now we have to take her back to her village.
I don’t even think she really wants to go, but my aunt says it’s high time. After all, Leela looks like she could use someone to take care of her now. Her face, wrinkled like a prune, and graying head of hair, pulled back in a konde, or bun, only tell a portion of the story. Her hunched back makes her tiny four-foot frame appear even smaller. Her bunioned feet, with their permanently splayed-out toes resting sideways on the ground, could walk on broken glass and not feel a thing. But ever since she broke her hip a few years ago, she waddles more than walks. The injury was serious enough that my cousin Sam had to actually carry her to the bathroom every time she needed to use it back then. It’s a wonder she ever recovered at all considering the only treatment she received came at the hands of a local Ayurvedic practitioner or wedemahathaya, who applied a daily poultice of foul-smelling herbs (I might add that this same remedy did the trick when I hurt my back earlier during my stay). These days, if there is no breakfast or tea to be made, errands to be run, or sweeping or washing up to be done, Leela can usually be found in her room napping or watching TV.
Servants are hard to come by in Sri Lanka today, says my aunt, and good, loyal, trustworthy ones like Leela are virtually impossible to find. After all, girls from the village can find better paying work as domestics in the Middle East, as long as they can get the necessary papers and an airline ticket. Today overseas employment agencies specialize in this service, and people are lining up to sell themselves into indentured servitude for several years. The TVs and gas cookers and refrigerators that they bring back to their villages make it worth their while.
As the only member of my sizeable clan to have been born and raised in the U.S., I have always felt uncomfortable with the very concept of servants, though they are common in middle-class Colombo households. Even the word itself bothers me. But try as I may to take care of my own needs, Leela has always been there to wash my clothes, cook, run errands, and bring endless cups of iced-coffee. She’s taken care of me when I’ve been sick; spied and reported on me when I’ve been up to mischief; and taught me what little Sinhalese I know as she is the only member of the household who doesn’t speak English. She’s like a second mother, and, except for my aunt, refers to everyone in the family—even my 55-year old cousin Sam—as baba or “baby.”
Leela was supposed to return to her village two years ago, but something always comes up. When the date was finally set for a weekend in April, the monsoons arrived early. “We’ll have to wait until the rains let up,” said Sam’s wife Charmalie. She works full-time in an office so Leela is especially a boon for her, making meals; doing the laundry; and taking care of a multitude of household chores. Leela has always been there. When she leaves my aunt’s family, who has depended on her for all these years, they will have to manage on their own. They found another girl, Iraesha, to come in and cook lunch during the week, but she will not live at the Park Street flat like Leela. Leela’s closet-like quarters off the kitchen will probably be converted into storage space or maybe a bedroom for Sam’s teenage son Shanaka, who currently shares a room with his older sister Shalini. As Leela’s departure kept being put off and put off, I never thought I’d actually see her go. Then, one day, my aunt gave the word, “We are taking Leela back on the last weekend in May.”
Once the announcement was made, preparations slowly came together. There were personal possessions to pack up; fabrics to buy; certain appliances—like a new fan and radio—to procure; even jewelry. Leela wanted a pair of nice gold earrings, and my aunt, the thrifty one, did not think twice about indulging her wishes as she might her own granddaughter. After all, she has known Leela longer than both her deceased husbands combined. Leela, who was previously employed by another one of my aunts, has seen several generations of my family to adulthood. Bent and withered like an old but majestic Bo tree, this little lady is an institution, and her leaving marks the end of an era.
When the appointed day arrived, I joined my aunt, my cousin, his wife and kids, their friend Kapu, and Premadasa the driver to see Leela off. We were taking her to her village outside Chilaw, about 2 1/2 hours north of Colombo, where her younger sister Karuna and her family own a small plot of land, which they farm. I know even less about Leela’s relations though, apparently, they have a river running though their back yard, and a small, spare room waiting for Leela. As PMD stuffed the back of the van to capacity with Leela’s worldly possessions, which filled a motley assortment of bags and boxes, the rest of us gathered in the sitting room, sipping tea and eating fish buns. Despite the task ahead, the mood was light. After all, these city-dwellers rarely go ‘out-station,’ as the vast country outside the capital is commonly referred, so the trip was as much a Saturday outing as it was about retiring Leela.
No one, including myself, had ever been to Chilaw, so that was cause for some excitement as well. This town, on the edge of a huge lagoon, was renowned for it’s seafood—especially humungous crabs, which they made into a fiery crab curry. Chilaw crab curry is as well-known a regional dish in Sri Lanka as gumbo is in New Orleans, and a cancer myself, I could not get enough of my fellow crabs simmering in a thick, spicy gravy, which Leela always prepared especially for me. When I realized that she was really leaving, and that her crab curry might become a lost art, I made sure to personally observe her making it one more time.
We used much smaller sea crabs this time, not the prized lagoon variety, which commanded prices as hefty as their size in places as far away as Singapore. Leela, like most Sri Lankan cooks, never measures, so I stood over her with a handy set of measuring spoons on a ring, and made her empty the contents of her hands into the spoons so I could faithfully capture the correct formula. After splitting the crabs in half (legs on) with her hands, and washing and cleaning the insides, she seasoned them with turmeric, chili powder, and a pinch of allspice. Then she turned her attention to a roasting pan, in which she placed some raw rice, peppercorns, and cumin seed. When these were sufficiently browned she emptied the pan and roasted some freshly shredded coconut until it turned black. I could already tell she was going to use this as the base for the dark gravy for which crab curry is known.
In a pot big enough to hold all the crabs, she heated coconut oil, whose earthy aroma soon filled the small kitchen and, in fact, the whole Park Street flat. As soon as it started sizzling and smoking, she added chopped onions and tomato, curry leaves, a grass called rampe (pandanus), and an ingredient I was sure would not be available in the states, murungu leaves. Crab curry is one of the few dishes that use these small, oval shaped leaves, but my aunt assured me that it could be made without them. When the onions took on a translucent glow, Leela added the crabs and just enough water to cover the bottom of the pot, allowing them to steam with the lid on. Next she gathered the roasted ingredients on the granite grinding stone, which was almost as big as her. This apparent relic of the stone age still proves useful in the modern kitchen, I soon discovered, as she made quick work turning the rice, peppercorns, cumin, coconut and fresh garlic into a dark paste which she added to the pot along with some coconut milk. After soaking some tamarind in a cup of water, she removed the seeds and fiber, leaving a rich juice, which she also added to the pot along with some salt. The crabs were done in no time, and the curry tasted as finger-licking good as it always did, leaving my mouth to burn in pleasure. If I accomplished nothing else on this trip at least I had preserved Leela’s Chilaw crab curry recipe for posterity.
Packed up and ready to go, we piled into the family van, a lime green 9-seater. In lieu of SUVs, vans like these are actually very common on the bustling streets of Colombo as they run on cheaper diesel fuel. Carpooling also seems to be standard practice among adults and children alike here, though it hardly seems to limit the number of vehicles clogging up the roads. My aunt had already decided that the trip was too long for her to make, so we watched as she said goodbye to her trusted right hand, probably the only other person on the planet who had any inkling of what was stashed in her legendary almirahs (and where it was stashed). Leela, who’s eyes appeared as threatening as monsoons all morning, finally let loose a deluge of tears as my aunt sternly reprimanded, “What’s this nonsense?” Aunty Dora has always been one tough cookie, but as the eldest of eight siblings, she’s seen it, done it, and been through it all before, and is as thrifty with her emotions as she is with everything else. She gave Leela a white lace handkerchief to mop up her face, and waved to us as we drove off.
Of course, Sri Lankans can never simply go from point A to point B. Only after making three different stops–for gas, batteries for the camera, and short-eats for the long ride—did we really hit the road. Then after about an hour or so, Shalini started feeling queasy, so we stopped for some roadside refreshments. Leela, adorned in a white cotton sari and spectacles, passively sipped her tea lost in thought. Leaving the family she had known for the last 32 years to rejoin her own blood relations, she must have been experiencing all sorts of bittersweet emotions in that moment, but still she returned my smile.
The dusty two-lane blacktop that took us to Chilaw cut across lush green landscapes, and skirted sandy, palm-studded coastline as it weaved through town after town. The absence of highways here makes any road trip a true adventure–the wind whipping through your hair as you pass an elephant effortlessly hauling timber with it’s serpentine trunk; a herd of grazing water buffalo; or fishermen perched on poles in the surf. Finally, we left the paved road behind for a dirt path that seemed to take us to the middle of the jungle. We had arrived in rural Sri Lanka, or the village, as they call it, a glimpse of which you rarely get within the crowded confines of Colombo. Here trees outnumbered people and buildings, and life flowed with the rhythms of nature. Leela was returning to a simpler, less-complicated life and I, a refugee from the U.S., was envious.
When we pulled up to her sister’s house I was surprised to see a very well maintained plaster and brick dwelling at the end of the short driveway. The word “village” conjured up romantic notions of wood and mud huts in my mind, but Leela’s people were obviously accustomed to far greater comfort. Three adorable brown girls of varying height but identical dress—blue hand-sewn frocks–bounced around barefoot on the veranda beaming brilliant smiles. Though they had not spent much time with their Achi, or great aunt, up till now, they were certainly looking forward to the chance to catch up. Leela’s two grown nieces–the kids’ mothers–and their mother Karuna, who looked even senior to her older sister, greeted their diminutive relation with a flurry of hugs and smiles. Happy to receive visitors as well in their solitary retreat, their smiles never faded over the course of the afternoon.
Hospitality stands as a hallmark of Sri Lankan culture, and no sooner were we out of the van than one of the little girls brought around a tray of cool drinks for everyone–passion fruit cordial, my favorite. Then Sam, Kapu and I helped PMD unload Leela’s belongings into her vacant room, a bright and airy improvement over her former digs (the adjoining bathroom itself was bigger than her old room in Colombo). Shanaka and Shalini went off to play with the little girls, while the women-folk retired to the kitchen at the back of the house where they had been busy preparing lunch.
Their traditional kitchen was actually nothing more than an open hearth whose fire crackled with the dried husks, or fibrous outer-covering, of coconut. A pile of husks in the yard signified that nothing went to waste here: Even coconut shells were made into bowls, spoons or other implements. Over the open flames, a reddish-brown clay pot bubbled with an aromatic curry as Leela’s nieces peeled and cut jackfruit, long beans, onions and green chilies on bamboo mats on the dirt floor. There were no tables, chairs, counters, or even an oven, though a half-sized refrigerator shared space with a small sink in an adjoining annex.
The whole house itself was similarly appointed—three small bedrooms with only straw mats to sleep on and a central living room in which the only furniture consisted of some rattan chairs and a wooden table, on which rested a bulky TV set. Leela had brought a TV for her own room as well, and when the nieces’ husbands arrived they spent the afternoon attaching a huge antennae to the roof of the house. True to its name, the outhouse sat outside the house, behind the kitchen, and consisted of nothing more than a concrete hole in the ground housed in a wooden booth.
I led the city slickers on an exploration of the immense grounds. What had seemed at first like unkempt jungle on closer inspection revealed well-organized plots of cultivation containing every conceivable kind of fruit and vegetable. There were mango, papaya and banana trees; cucumbers, gotu kola, pumpkin, beans, jackfruit, chilies, and coconut. I even saw my first cashew tree and picked and ate a red cashew fruit right from its slender branches. Cashew nuts, as Sam informed me, came from another part of the tree and must be carefully harvested to prevent from being burned by their acid-laced covering. By this time the girls and their white dog Harry had joined the trek, escorting us to the back of the property, where, sure enough, we stumbled upon a slowly meandering river.
Harry needed no invitation to dart into the water followed by the girls, fully clothed and laughing, in what must have been a daily ritual. A bit further downstream, women scrubbed and slapped clothes clean against the rocks as a swarm of young boys played an impromptu game of cricket partly in the shallow river itself. As the midday heat was beginning to claw, the rest of us decided to go for a dip as well. Since it was not very deep, it was better to float on your back or paddle than try to wade through the stony riverbed, which was hard on the feet. Immersed in cool water, beneath blue skies, and surrounded by nature’s fullness, I could not imagine a more idyllic setting. I wondered to myself whether it was the novelty of such a place that I found attractive or if I could really live here, away from the stress, savagery and artificiality of modern life. Hmm—probably the latter.
By the time we emerged from the river, dried off in the sun, and made our way back to the house, lunch was ready. Clay pots containing various curries covered the small living room table. There was chicken curry, coconut sambol, cashew curry, jack, rice, paripoo (lentils) and crispy papadum—most of which had been grown right here on the premises. This wholly organic meal, made from the natural bounty growing around us, tasted beyond amazing, and I would compare it to the best meals I’ve had in Sri Lanka. I washed it down with some fresh coconut toddy that Sam had got from just down the road from a man who climbed the tree right before his eyes to tap it. Toddy is the sap of the coconut flower, which when boiled down yields pani, a sweet, rich syrup. When fermented it makes arrack, the local coconut liquor. Though Chilaw crab curry was not on the menu, I could not be disappointed. At least I had the secret recipe now, and could make it myself. Our hostesses, the epitome of graciousness and hospitality, showed me that you do not need much in the way of material possessions to live well.
An inevitable outpouring of emotion coincided with our time of departure as Charmalie, Shanaka, Shalini, and Leela all broke down upon saying their last goodbyes. I was surprised that Sam, who has known Leela since his early 20s, didn’t shed a tear, but, then again, he is stoic like his mother. These people could and would, of course, visit Leela again. As for me, I didn’t know when I would be coming back. Still, I was very happy for Leela when I said goodbye because I knew she was in good hands, amongst family, and in a peaceful and amazing place. I knew she wouldn’t have to work anymore, but could now enjoy the company of her nieces and grandnieces. Of course, if she insisted on staying active there were plenty of chores to keep her busy. After a lifetime of service to others, I think Leela deserved to begin this new chapter in her life. After crouching down and giving her a big bear hug for the last time, I departed with a smile.
Leela’s Chilaw Crab Curry (Kakuluwo Curry)
Whenever Leela made this dish, I would ask her to spike it with chilies. As not many members of my family can eat food this hot, I usually end up polishing off the entire dish. Of course, for a more moderate version, take it easy on the cayenne pepper. If you don’t own a large granite grinding stone to make the seasoning paste, a food processor will do.
5 large crabs, washed and split (w/ legs on)
1/2 tsp. turmeric
1-2 tbsp. cayenne pepper
1/4 tsp. allspice
salt to taste
1 tbsp. raw rice
1/2 tsp. black peppercorns
1 tsp. cumin seeds
3 tbsp. shredded coconut
5 cloves garlic
2 tbsp. oil
1 onion, chopped
1 sprig curry leaves
1 tomato, chopped
2” piece pandanus (optional)
1 bunch murungu leaves (optional)
1-cup coconut milk
2 tbsp. tamarind
1.) Wash and clean crabs (remove gills and dirt). Split down the middle and crack legs so gravy can penetrate.
2.) Toss crabs with turmeric, cayenne, allspice and salt. Set aside.
3.) Roast rice, peppercorns, and cumin together. Then roast coconut until brown. Grind all ingredients with garlic and set aside.
4.) Heat oil in medium pot. Sauté onions, curry leaves, tomato, pandanus and murungu leaves.
5.) Add crabs and 1/2 cup water. Cover and steam.
6.) Combine rice mixture with coconut milk and add to pot. Stir and simmer for 10 minutes.
7.) Soak tamarind in 1/4 cup water. Strain seeds and add liquid to pot. Simmer and additional 5 minutes until done. The gravy should be dark and rich.
Makes 4-6 servings