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.
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.
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.
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. 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.
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.