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Ape Gama

Madol Doova

Eve of The New Year

Eve of The New Year

“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 them?”

“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 was.

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 over this:

“ 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 celebrating?”

“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 ask”.

“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 all over.”

“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 clothes.

“ 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 darted out.

“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 out.

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 herself.

“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 boy!”

“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 Mudalali.

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