“The children are begging me to make some sweet meats for the
New Year. They wait twelve months for this day. How can you refuse
“Huh!” grunted Siman Mudalali and looked at his wife. “What New
Year celebration for the likes of us!”
Siman Mudalali has assets amounting to nearly thirty thousand
rupees. The value of his land and property alone is between ten
and twelve thousand rupees. No one seemed to know how much he
had hidden away in hard cash. Some say that once in six months
he takes out his hoarded cash, and warms ten rupee notes and fifty
rupee notes over the fire, before returning them to a hiding place
in his wardrobe, unknown even to his wife. They claim that his
hoard amounts to five thousand rupees in notes. Others say that
he has a hoard of five thousand one rupee coins. Siman Mudalali
himself would tell those acquaintances who came to him seeking
a small loan of fifty or sixty rupees that ‘he didn’t have even
a copper quarter cent coin to buy a little boiled lime to chew
with his betel leaf.’
Siman Mudalali did not have to buy imported rice. He owned paddy
fields that produced enough rice for his entire household. His
usual simple dress was a sarong with a folded second sarong draped
over his left shoulder. He wore a shirt and a short coat only
when he had to attend the law courts in Galle. As soon as he returned
from his business at the courts he would air the coat, fold it
carefully, and locked it up in the wardrobe. This coat had been
tailored for his wedding at the age of thirty. Siman Mudalali
is now fifty. His coat was one year older than his eldest daughter
Siman Mudalali’s hands were not accustomed to giving. Rather,
like the jaws of a crocodile, they were adept at retaining firmly
whatever they seized. Getting five cents out of him was as difficult
as breaking a chip from granite. Suffering is like a searing drought,
and comfort like soothing rain to most people. But not, it would
seem to Siman Mudalali’s indifferent heart. He lived like a recluse,
isolated like an oyster within its shell.
“ You must undertake meritorious acts, like giving alms,” the
chief priest of the village temple had advised Siman Mudalali.
“ I don’t have to acquire so much merit, as I am not burdened
by a big debt of bad deeds,” Siman Mudalali had responded with
the utmost gravity. There was much truth in this auditing of merit
and demerit by him. Siman Mudalali was not a man who had taken
what did not belong to him. He never took intoxicants. He never
stole from anyone. He never killed an animal.
He had given his eldest daughter in marriage about a year earlier.
But as only a part of the promised dowry had been handed over,
the displeased son-in-law and daughter had visited them only once.
Besides this daughter, he had two sons aged ten and six. The elder
child had two ankle-length shirts that he wore to school and a
couple of old sarongs to wear at home. The younger boy had only
the two ankle length shirts he wore to pre-school. As soon as
the younger boy returned from school, he had get out of his school
clothes. As he had no other clothes, he ran around stark naked.
Many a time, Siman Mudalali’s wife quarreled with her husband
“ This is really shameful. Danny will soon be seven. Why don’t
you get him two shirts to wear at home?”
Whenever Siman Mudalali heard his wife’s angry protests in this
matter, he would shake his head.
“He’s still an innocent little fellow, too small to know what’s
what,” Siman Mudalali would say.
“Why should he need clothes at home? Didn’t you know that I was
past my eighth year before I was given a sarong to wear at home?”
This was an unanswerable argument. It embarrassed Siman Mudalali’s
wife. She would say,
“How could I know such things,” and walk towards the kitchen.
Siman realised with tolerant sympathy that his wife’s would never
understand how extravagant it would be to clothe Danny when he
is at home.
“Even if we don’t celebrate the New Year, we must prepare something
for the little ones. When the neighbours’ children enjoy themselves,
do you expect our children to do nothing but watch? Even though
we don’t observe the customs, we should give the little ones something
special to eat. How will our children feel when the others are
“Hmm… What have children to do with the New Year? What is this
so-called New Year? Stuff and nonsense!”
“The New Year is a day that comes only once in twelve months.
At least on a day like this we must give the children what they
“Is it only the twelfth of April that comes once in twelve months?
Why, today is the seventh of April. That also comes once a year.
You can count from April 7 last year. A day that comes only once
a year!” Siman Mudalali argued with his wife in a voice heavy
with sarcasm. “ Why, every day comes but once a year.”
“I haven’t acquired the learning to answer your arguments. If
you won’t allow me to prepare something for the children to enjoy
themselves even on a special day that comes once in twelve months,
so be it”
“Enjoyment! Huh,” muttered Siman Mudalali. He pitied his foolish
wife who could only think of spending money on celebration at
a time like this, when the high cost of food and clothing was
draining the purse. “This is not the time to enjoy. That time
is long past. What is the price of a measure of rice now? The
price of a yard of white cloth? What about the money to pay the
grocery shop keeper, the vegetable seller, and the fish vendor?
Do you think money can be plucked from trees?” Siman Mudalali
glowered at his wife.
“The days when you could celebrate are long past. What was the
price of a measure of rice when we were young? Just nine cents.
A yard of white cloth? Nine cents. Fourteen cents was enough to
feed a family of four or five. But today’s youngsters use more
than that for their cigars for the day. Those days, even young
women cut cloth for their jackets with the kitchen knife. Today’s
modern lasses cannot manage without a pair of scissors. What is
the world coming to?”
“I don’t know about money growing on trees, but I do know that
in these matters we must observe the customs followed by people
“People all over! Hmm…” Siman Mudalali, lifted the end of the
folded sarong covering his left shoulder, lowered it again, and
tugged at the lower end, whilst glaring at his wife. “What concern
is it of ours, what people in the rest of the world do? What is
this New Year? Do we eat and drink and clothe ourselves only on
the twelfth. of April? New Year indeed. What is it to us!”
The Sinhalese New Year is the biggest festive occasion for the
villagers. Vesak, the thrice blessed day to commemorate the birth,
enlightenment and passing away of the Buddha is the other day
to which villagers look forward, but it is not a day of merry
making. Vesak is for worship at the temple and joy in contemplation.
The occasion to don new clothes, to eat, drink and make merry
is the Sinhalese New Year day, when the entire village takes the
festive appearance of a wedding feast. The children of the rich
man as well as those of the poorest would wear new clothes and
enjoy themselves. A week before New Year’s day, it would be difficult
to find a house without the sound of rice being pounded into flour,
without a wok with hot bubbling oil supported on stones over a
wood fire, and womenfolk busily prepared the traditional rice
flour cakes fried in coconut oil and balls of sweetmeat made of
ground green gram.
A small house, repaired and white washed recently, stood in the
garden adjoining Siman Mudalali’s property. The live fence that
separated the two blocks of land, almost two hundred feet in length,
had broken down in several places. In the rear verandah of the
house, a woman was seated sidewise on the wooden saddle of the
coconut scraper bench. She held a shallow iron spoon with a longh
handle in her right hand and the slender straight twelve-inch
piece of equel from the mid-rib of a coconut leaf in the left.
She leaned forward over a wok with boiling oil, borne on three
stones, over a a wood firet. She poured a spoonful of thick rice
flour batter into the boiling oil in the wok. She then repeatedly
scooped and poured boiling contained in the wok over the batter,
intermittently adding small quantities of the batter.. At the
same time, she stuck the equel she held in her left hand vertically
into the little cake of thickening batter in the boiling oil,
and twirled the equel between her fingers. With the spoon, she
rotated the cake of batter as it cooked in the boiling oil, and
pressed it into the characteristic conical shape of the sweetmeat
kavun.. Selohamy removed the cooked kavun from the wok and looked
up, to see Siman Mudalali’s two sons. She had been so engrossed
in her work that she had not heard them approach.
“What brings the two of you here?”
“To watch kavun being cooked,” replied Siman Mudalali’s elder
boy who was in his ankle-length shirt. The younger boy wore no
“ Aren’t they making any sweet meats in your house?”
“No,” sighed the elder boy. He squatted close to the fireplace
and peeped into the wok. The younger boy sat beside the basket
containing cooked kavun.
“Go to your father, and plead, cry and complain until he gives
money to make sweet meats. Your father has plenty of money.”
“We cried. But father scolded us. All he does is to keep on repeating
‘What New Year for us?’.”
Selohamy looked at the younger boy seated near the kavun basket.
“Danny, go home and get dressed, and then come back. I will allow
you both to roll ground gram pastry into mung sweet meat balls.”
Danny ran home. He returned immediately, dressed in his long shirt.
Selohamy gave a piece of soap and got them to wash their hands
with water from the pot kept in the rear verandah. She led them
into the house, and sat them on a mat. She placed a pot of pastry
before them, and showedthem how to roll portions of the green
gram pastry into mung sweetmeat balls.
After rolling for a while, the elder boy looked around furtively
and popped a little pastry into his mouth. The younger boy caught
him in the act. His lips curled into a knowing, accusing smile.
He turned towards Selohamy.
“See what my elder brother……..!” he began to blurt.
“Little brother, don’t shout!”, the elder brother whispered hastily,
cutting off Danny’s words by covering his mouth with one hand.
“Then I must also eat some pastry!”
“Alright then, take a little and eat it with your mouth closed,
without making any sound,” said the elder brother, whilst looking
anxiously at Selohamy. Selohamy suddenly looked.
“Look out!” said the elder boy, pinching his brother who was in
the act of stuffing a handful of the pastry into his mouth.
Selohamy darted up to the children, and struck the younger boy
on the head with the handle of the spoon.
“So that’s how you are making mung balls!”
Danny nursed his head and started to howl. A dollop of half-munched
pastry mixed with saliva fell from his mouth into the pot containing
the sweet meat pastry mix of ground green gram. The elder boy
ran away. The incensed Selohamy threw out the spoilt pastry mix.
She gripped Danny’s ear and began twisting it. Selohamy’s daughter
Lora who was inside the house stitching a blouse for the New Year
heard the child howling in pain. She threw the blouse aside and
“See, daughter, what this rascal has done. He has spoilt the whole
pot of pastry.”
“ Please mother, leave the little fellow alone. What’s done is
done.” Lora rescued Danny from her mother’s clutches and led him
Siman Mudalali’s wife seated Danny in her lap and massaged his
head where it had been bruised by the blow from Selohamy’s spoon.
Every now and then she glowered alternately at Selohamy’s house
and at her husband.
“That woman’s hands should be struck by a thunderbolt for injuring
this innocent child’s head!” said Siman Mudalali’s wife. She glared
at the wall of Selohamy’s house, as if she were seeing Selohamy
“I haven’t brought up my children to become a punch bag for all
and sundry from all over the country.” Danny’s mother began to
taunt Siman Mudalali with sarcasm and innuendo.
“My pleas were ignored when I said that we should make something
for the little ones on a day like this which comes but once in
twelve months. So they go to the houses of worthless people who
have no standing anywhere. Is it to get beaten, insulted and abused
by such riff raff that I have brought up my children?” Siman Mudalal’s
wife began to weep.
Siman turned his face towards his wife .
“What is it? What is it. What is this you are saying? Who beat
Danny. What has happened?”
“ What has happened? Everything has already happening to the little
ones and to me,” said Danny’s mother in a voice heavy with sarcasm,
and angrily faced away from Siman Mudalali.
“That woman has beaten the little boy with the metal spoon till
his head swelled like a pumpkin. Her hands ought to be struck
by a thunder bolt for what she has done to this innocent little
“What! Selohamy beat the boy on the head without any provocation?”
inquired Siman Mudalali in amazement.
“Of course it was without any provocation . Why, did you expect
a basket load? Just listen to the questions you raise! Even iIf
I and my children were to be murdered, you would be asking what
was the provocation.”
“Tell me, Danny. What did you do at Selohamy’s house?” queried
Siman Mudalali, bemused by his wife’s conundrums.
“There’s nothing that he did. Whilst rolling green gram pastry
mixture into sweetmeat balls, he had tasted a morsel. Who is the
child who wouldn’t do that sort of thing? For this, that woman
had become like a raging she demon, and beaten him up and tried
to uproot his ears.
“Why do we need to go to other people? We must eat and drink within
our means, and learn to be satisfied.”
Siman Mudalali got up from the couch on which he had been seated
and walked into the room. He went near his wardrobe, and looked
round carefully to see if he was being observed. A bunch of keys
hung from a chain at the back of his waist. He carefully brought
it round to the front, and unlocked the wardrobe. He glanced round
once more, and started to open a bag of money. Hearing his wife’s
footsteps, he pushed the bag back into the recesses of the wardrobe,
and pretended to be searching for something on the shelves.
“I had saved a rupee to buy boiled lime and arecanut. That also
seems to be missing,” he said to his wife.
Siman Mudalali’s wife scooped a little lime with the finger, from
the package on the windowsill. She went back to the verandah,
took Danny on her lap, and began to scratch his head.
After his wife left the room, Siman Mudalali opened the bag once
more, took out a rupee and tucked it into his waistband. He tied
up the bag, and hid it carefully in a corner of the wardrobe.
“This is the money I had saved to buy a little lime and arecanut”,
said Siman Mudalali giving the rupee coin to his wife.
“You can buy half a measure of rice, pound it into flour and prepare
something for the children. It’s enough if you make some kavun
and mung-guli. There’s no need for these new fangled fudge and
cordials,” said Siman Mudalali, silently cursing the women who
had introduced these new fangled sweets.
“That was the last rupee I had in the house.” Siman Mudalali seated
himself on the bed once again. “Don’t bring these hordes of idle
women in here to gossip about everybody in the countryside whilst
endlessly chewing betal leaves like monkeys. I won’t have any
money now to buy lime and arecanut.”
Siman Mudalali’s wife was addicted to chewing betal. She needed
a chew at least once every hour. Betal juice had stained her teeth.
Her tongue was covered with an astringent coating as thick as
the edge of a hopper. Her taste buds were not sensitive to ordinary
curries. She could taste only hot curries made of dried or salted
fish, or very sour or bitter vegetables. She loved dry fish, salted
fish, and vegetables like bitter gourd. Siman Mudalali did not
know medicine but he knew how to save money. He wanted his wife
to stop chewing betal not because of the damage it did to her
mouth, tongue and teeth, but because it cost money.
“I don’t chew so much betal. If you can’t afford to let me have
even a chew of betal, I will stop,” said Siman Mudalali’s wife.
“Get out of the way child,” she said, abruptly pushing poor Danny
out of her lap. This was her way of showing her vexation to Siman