Harvest Time and the Maalu Man – or Fish for Dinner

As I sit in my winter quarters, the little back bedroom I thought would be snug from the morning sun, I’m swathed in top and bottom mohair blankets and my beautiful pulled-wool Indian shawl, frozen fingers and numb toes.  It’s a stretch to remember the weight of August’s air back in my island Paradise.  That it’s almost a year since I left is equally challenging to my feeble mind.  Perhaps a virtual visit will provide a remedy?

We’re on my final farewell trip:  three days with a driver in search of ambalamas.  These simple and ingenious “rest stops” were built for travellers along the paths leading out of the old Kingdom of Kandy, and have long been a passion.  With only a few precious days remaining before that plane whisks me away, an adventure deep into the countryside seems a fitting finale.

Pissarro, The Harvest, 1882

Leaving the city far behind, we head north before bearing right, and almost immediately the clutter of urbanisation gives way to carefully tended fields, shallow rocky streams, rustling patches of forest.  Further and further we go, further from major roads, from towns and villages, back in time.  It is as though my magic carpet has parted the intervening years to land in the Sri Lanka that first captured my heart, into scenes of timeless, location-less, country life.

It’s harvest time.  Once green paddy is golden.  Farmers are joined by their entire families out in the fields.  Everyone knows how to scythe the grain, flip it to lay warming in the hot sun.  Van Gogh and Pissarro spring to mind.

Harvest Time and the Maalu Man 1a It’s late afternoon:  shadows lengthen, the light infused with honey.  Most of today’s harvest has been gathered, threshed and bagged.

Here, by the temple, one last field remains, the grain cushioned on spiky springs of stubble.

The family gathers the warm sheathes to form a rick.

Harvest Time and the Maalu Man 1fFrom behind me, the matriarch appears.  She smiles and shows me her scythe and bag.  At first I don’t understand.

Her job is to go along after the rice has been gathered, to collect and cut anything that’s been left.  In the land of plenty that is tropical Sri Lanka, it’s unthinkable to compare her task with scenes of European peasant women trawling for individual grains hiding in the rubble: yet from one small field she has harvested sufficient for a meal or more, and still left some for the birds.  I am reminded of the verity of frugality.

Toot! toot!, we hear, and turn toward the temple, watching the arrival of the Maalu Man. Here comes the Maalu Man I miss the quiet words of the matriarch, though the girl certainly doesn’t.  Creaking upright, hands on hips, Mukada? (What’s that?), she feints.  Every fibre of her body proclaims how she does not want to be the one to choose the catch of the day, yet still she sets off across the stubble

to begin an arm’s-length negotiation with the old man.  Since she’s only chosen four, it’s my guess maalu isn’t a favourite at this point in her pregnancy (though she seems disposed for a chat, their business concluded).

The family continues their work.  Their movements, slow, methodical, economical – mindful, can’t disguise that it’s hot, itchy work, backbreaking work that nevertheless seems to give them the satisfaction of completion and preparedness.  There is no singing for joy at a bounteous harvest, but there is a palpable sense of achievement and unity, a quiet satisfaction and wish to share, if only by allowing me to stare, through my camera, at the intimacy of their family life.

Harvest Time and the Maalu Man 24

Turning back for one last look before I leave, I notice that already mother and daughter have left the field – an indication, I feel sure , that mother will prepare and cook the fish for dinner.

*  Mae culpa – I failed to copy the attribution before losing where I’d found this painting for which, apologies to the artist and the copyright holder.

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33 thoughts on “Harvest Time and the Maalu Man – or Fish for Dinner

  1. Wonderful post ! – although I’m feeling quite tired as a result of looking at all those people labouring …
    Didn’t seem to be much fish she bought; so I hope it was for only two or three of ’em …

  2. This is a brilliantly photoed and written share… and it did tend to make me feel a little warmer while we experience the cold of winter…

  3. Hot, backbreaking… work, indeed! Your photos and words reflect their quiet satisfaction, especially the last one. Thank you for the beautiful post!

  4. A wonderful insight into this family’s life, Meredith. Your photos and essay really drew me in. Theirs is not an easy life, and I admire their work ethic and frugality, which is rare in today’s modern world. The Pissarro is so similar to your first photo. Beautiful post. 🙂

  5. Does poverty exist, Meredith, or is there plenty to go round? Certainly doesn’t look like any shortage (except, as M-R said, a little skimpy with the fish). The gold is lovely. Hope you could feel the heat. 🙂

  6. “It’s late afternoon: shadows lengthen, the light infused with honey.”
    What a perfect, perfect description for the colors and mood of this beautiful area. I can totally understand why you fell in love with the countryside and people; their faces speak of everything that matters.

  7. Wow I can’t believe it has already been a year since you left. You must miss Sri Lanka terribly. Are you happy being back in Australia? Any desire to go back to Sri Lanka for a visit? Gorgeous photos and story. Thanks as always for sharing. I wonder how the monkeys are doing!

  8. Your heartwarming story made me nostalgic Meredith. The harvest scenes are brilliant, indeed evocative of golden Van Gog canvases! Your title has the song ‘Suranginaka maalu kannava va’ on a loop in my head 😀

  9. Time passes so quickly that sometimes we need to reflect to measure the impact of its passage. How different is what you see and experience a year later. And as bucolic the scene from Sri Lanka is via your words and pictures so is the scene I imagine of you in the sunny back room elegantly and warmly swathed but which we in Australia’s temperate client are not inclined to and mostly live somewhat in denial of the few chilly months…

  10. Gorgeously captured, Meredith, and I do love the comparisons to Pissarro. These intimate moments of harvest are a lovely sight to behold – a family busy at work, the smiling matriarch, and then the arrival of the maalu man in the late afternoon. It makes me think about how so many of us urban dwellers have lost touch with the land; we don’t often appreciate where the food on our dinner table comes from, or the time and effort the whole process involves.

    As usual your posts from Sri Lanka are prodding me ever closer to book that flight and see your beloved island Paradise for myself! Perhaps in September next year… I’m thinking of two weeks although I get the feeling that will be nowhere near enough time.

  11. I love this post It’s so refreshing to see how real people live, and you present it very poetically. I bet it would be an enlightening experience to live with this family for a few weeks and really experience how they live. I look forward to seeing more from you!

  12. You may have left Sri Lanka, but your posts bring us all back there in an instant to share in your experiences again! And I hope some warmer air finds its way to your back room soon.

  13. That really felt like a trip back in time, Meredith. Your descriptions of the land that first captured your heart are glorious, filled with longing and tenderness. What a beautiful photo essay. xxx

  14. You captured the heart and soul of this family during the harvest with beautiful photos but also a poetic description. Van Gogh and Pissarro would be pleased with your comparison.

  15. Great series of photos, started off with a perfect one ~ Enjoyed the write-up, there is something about harvest time that brings a community together and you seems to be so at one with the scene. Great photos and writing transports us there as well, thank you!

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