By Udan Fernando –
Food continues to inspire my column. But it’s a different type of food that inspired this week’s column – a contemporary Sinhala play called, Guti Kaemata Niyamithay by Thilak Nandana Hettiarachchi. An insightful review written by my friend Upali Amarasinghe (loosely) translates the title of the play as ‘Destined to be Beaten’ (read Upali’s review here) . The three characters of the play are indeed odd, but refreshingly novel: a beedi kote (a cheap local cigarette), a drop of sweat and a ‘gullaa‘, a weevil. They all exist in a loaf of bread, but face the threat of being baked. As Upali says, “the characters in their inimitable style bring forth to the audience the tragedy of their lives; the tragedy of being imprisoned in a loaf of bread. They want to break free but do not know how”. I leave it to a linguist to tell us why kanawaa or kaema (eating, food) is used in Sinhala to denote getting beaten-up. Anyway in Sinhala parlance, getting beaten up is as just good as having a meal.
A lot had been said, denied and written about a String Hopper Meal in New York where a then High Commissioner was allegedly served a sumptuous portion of string hoppers with seeni-sambal by a Monitoring Minister of the External Affairs Ministry. The latest we heard, which was not surprising news, was that the then High Commissioner was excessively intoxicated to the extent that he collapsed at the party in New York in front of the Monitoring Minister, the Secretary of the External Affairs Ministry, and other guests. Such a matter which involves a top diplomat in a topmost diplomatic posting could have been a humongous scandal to be investigated and drastic action to be taken. A government MP, Hon. Rajiva Wijesinghe, writing an opinion piece to Colombo Telegraph, a few weeks back, lamented that ‘government simply had no one left who could argue a case intelligently and in good English. But now it seems, and according to the above statement from the government, the then High Commissioner who collapsed had no strings (hoppers) attached. So the matter is closed. The Monitor will continue his monitoring work while the former High Commissioner will probably revert to his family business to blend tea. What a fall from a Diplomat to a Chai-wallah!
The trend of serving oneself a meal started with Mohamamed Irshad, a Samurdhi Officer. He was alleged to have tied himself up to a tree by a Doctoral Minister to mete out a form of punishment from the good old days of pre Colonial Ceylon called ‘gas-Bandinawaa’, an arbitrary collective act by villagers when they catch a someone who commits a petty crime. The TV channels went to town with the images of the Samurdhi Officer being tied up to a tree and being subject to embarrassment and humiliation. There was a public outcry at this evidently uncivilized act by the Minister who’s better known for notoriety. But, lo and behold, the Samurdhi Officer made a public statement to say that it was he who tied himself to a tree! So the ‘matter’ was closed. After some time, the Samurdhi Officer, fled the country and gave a moving speech, which is available on Youtube, where he describes his helplessness and desperation during that time. The former Samurdhi Officer vowed, in disgust, that he would never ever visit Sri Lanka for the rest of his life. It seems that it took some time for Mr. Irshad to digest the ‘tree-meal’. His feedback perhaps comes after partaking of a fine liqueur from where he is now domiciled.
Meal time continues.
The latest meal-story we hear is from the Doctoral Minister’s son who follows in his father’s footsteps. His latest choice of dish seems to have been Haggis, the traditional Scottish savory pudding made out of sheep’s heart, liver, lungs and minced with onion, oatmeal, suet, spices and salt mixed with stock and encased in the animal’s stomach and simmered for about three hours. Haggis is traditionally served with “neeps and tatties” (turnip and potatoes), boiled and mashed separately, and a ‘dram’, a glass of Scotch whisky. The Minister’s son seems to be a true connoisseur of good food – kana-bona type as said in Sinhala. However, sadly, there had been some glitch in the delivery of the meal. The son is said to be now nursing a broken nose. Some news reports say that he’s in remand prison. What an unjust world we live in? Why should an innocent boy who just wanted to taste Haggis get his nose mashed like “neeps and tatties” and languish in a remand prison? Perhaps, the people of Scotland will honor the young Lankan boy with some Scottish Regalia for his almost martyrdom for an authentic Scottish delicacy.
But who will admit to having consumed the ‘meal’, in this case, I wonder. Will the Son say that he served himself a dish of Haggis? Or will those Kilt-wearers admit that they served Haggis to the Son? Or will this be construed as another diaspora ploy? I tend to wonder what the eventually would be.. But then again, Guti Kaemata Niyamithayi play gives us wise on how to chew on these issues in Sri Lanka.
Towards the end of the play, the three characters who are imprisoned in a loaf of bread finally find a means to exist despite thier predicament. They tweak the oft-quoted phrase from Descartes from “I think therefore I am or I exist” to “I don’t think therefore I exist”.