It was a peep at first.
To see if Sherine was cooking. To see what Sherine was cooking. You always wondered if they ate the same things you did because they spoke a different language. It was a part of your daily routine to go to Sherine’s Facebook page from your daughter’s mobile and scroll up and down for no reason. Given her posts which often carried the word ‘independent’, whatever that meant, along with big complicated words like ‘stereotyping’, ‘feminism’, ‘discrimination’, which you never understood, you always wanted to believe that she was one of those women who refused to cook. When it made a part of you proud of the responsible, hardworking mother that you were, it also made a part of you always wonder what they ate, Sherine and her husband. You only had to come to the fence and pretend to pluck curry leaves to get a glimpse of what Sherine was chopping in her kitchen. But you could not; a window with a half-opened pane could only show so much. But you were glad you lived six feet above; to know you could always peep and have a look at the mysterious house below, was quite comforting.
You remember the last time you were at their place. A New Year, about ten years ago. They served you a very light tea with no sugar and a few biscuits. The biscuits were very tasty and had little pieces of chocolate in them, and instead of the word biscuits, they used the word ‘cookies’ for some reason. The word sounded very childish, but also like something you could never afford. You could not picture yourself walking to the village boutique nearby and asking Malini Nenda if they had cookies. But you admired the teacups. Your teacups were of the same shape. You remember Sherine’s sister who was almost thirty, with no kids, and who still had not given up studying, asking if the tea was ‘orange pekoe’. You were sure it wasn’t orange, it was just tea. You wanted to burst out laughing because, despite all her post-graduate degrees, she seemed to be very, very stupid. But you did not, because it did not sound hilarious to anyone else. On the way home, you remember laughing at them with Lalitha, discussing the unbelievable heights of their stinginess, to have brewed the tea leaves with too much water just because they wanted to save some sugar. Milk was out of the question. That was the last time you were there. It was a strange house – very silent, and too many books, paintings and paintbrushes everywhere. There was almost no movement inside the house, except when they had visitors who often walked in the garden, taking pictures, sometimes of a very ugly hibiscus, sometimes of a common wathusudda flower. You were, however, proud when one of them took a picture of your betel creeper that had fallen down to their land along the wall.
But now that everyone had to stay indoors until the government lifted the curfew, you were glad. You could see more of Sherine and what she did when she was at home. You started a small gotukola patch under the kochchi plants so that you could look at the land down there without arousing suspicion. One day, as you were watering the gotukola patch, you suddenly remembered you had not washed the dishes. You yelled out the name of your eldest daughter, asking her to throw away all the leftover food into the garbage pit. You did that facing Sherine’s house; you liked calling out your children’s names aloud just because you had children and you could. At the same time, you wondered how come the house down there produced not much garbage, hardly any leftover food. That is one reason you wanted to know what they ate. As you were about to give up trying to figure out the house down there for the day, you saw peels of wetakolu in their compost barrel. It was quite comforting. An electric current of contentment ran through your stomach. Although you were really tired after the day’s chores, you went through all the trouble and made string hoppers for your family that day.
They ate wetakolu, just like you – Sherine and her husband.
But as you went to bed that night, it occurred to you that it could not be the same wetakolu curry with the milk of coconut, turmeric and Maldive fish that you cooked – instead, it could have been on a pizza or that food with the name of an underwater vehicle, which was very confusing for you to understand.
And you were sad, again.
The next day, when a vegetable lorry came to your area, your neighbours shouted your name and gave you the news. Everyone was quite excited. Lalitha, who had come to pluck some curry leaves from your tree, knocked on the open kitchen door so hard that its rusted iron hook shook and almost fell down. You ran to the lorry with them and picked fresh tomatoes, brinjols, kekiri, beetroot and a good piece of pumpkin. When you saw wetakolu, you remembered Sherine. You wondered whether she wanted wetakolu. You wondered whether she had enough vegetables to cook. But since you believed she did not cook, you thought she should be alright. You however felt sorry for Sherine’s man, as you took the balance money staying one meter away from the vendor who was not wearing a mask. You sneaked a peek at their house as you walked inside yours with the huge bag of vegetables. But the house was still silent, closed, and very still.
That evening when Sherine opened the kitchen window wide, you saw her blending a watermelon. It was April and the heat was starting to become unbearable. It must be very difficult for them who had got used to staying in air-conditioned offices the whole day, you thought. As Sherine went outside to put the dark green peels of watermelon into the compost barrel, she looked up, and your eyes met hers. She smiled and went back inside. You were delighted. In her pair of shorts and oversized white t-shirt with a few paint stokes – a green stroke on her neck as well, and with a messy hair bun on top of her head, she looked like a homeless child. You felt sorry you did not tell her about the wetakolu. In their ten perch land, they did not have seven coconut trees or a very prosperous jack-fruit tree, or kochchi, or lime, or curry leaves. They had to buy everything.
You waited until the next day to work on the gotukola patch at the same time. You even wore the beautiful blue floral blouse which you had worn only once, on New Year’s morning. But the kitchen window was closed tight. You were waiting and waiting but Sherine never showed up. You were very, very sad. And angry too. So when the milkman came and rang the bicycle bell the next morning, and a few women came running with money, you did not bother to decide whether to tell Sherine or not. She didn’t put milk in her tea anyway.
Two days later you were walking towards the well with the rice pot to scrub it with coconut coir because too much rice stuck in the pot is not easy to wash off, when you saw Sherine looking up, at your tall tree of curry leaves. Even before you thought of what to say, your mouth stepped in and asked if she wanted curry leaves, “karapincha ooneda?”
She shook her head to say no and said “thank you”. When she saw your hopeless smile, she said in Sinhala, that she would tell you if she runs out of curry leaves. You were glad her Sinhala was good. You quickly kept the rice pot down, pulled the hair strands from all around your head and tucked them behind your ears and asked if she cooked rice for lunch.
“Ow” she said, nodding her head. She also added that she made kiri hodi, and that there were frozen wetakolu and pol sambol from yesterday. She smiled so innocently that you did not want to tell her you had kiri kos, dried fish fried in coconut oil, dambala curry, kang kung and papadam, apart from pol smabol with too much Maldive fish. You however confirmed Sherine’s favourite food was wetakolu. You were glad it wasn’t a food you did not know how to pronounce.
So you said “yannan” and walked towards the well.
Still looking up, she added, “it’s lovely, your gotukola patch” and went inside her house.
You considered that day, the happiest day of your life. Sherine cooked wetakolu as a curry; did not have it on pizza or in that vehicle-named bun, because she ate it with rice. Sherine scraped coconut; because you can’t make a sambol without scraping coconut. Sherine said ‘lovely’ to your gotukola patch, your gotukola patch, the one you had made all by yourself. It was a word your daughter’s Elocution teacher used when she was extremely happy about something. You felt happier than the day you won first place for pal kavi singing at the village avurudu uthsavaya, about seven years ago. You felt contentment in your heart which you could not put into words. At some level, you felt a connection between you and Sherine, although you were very, very different. Since it was something feminine, you thought it was delicate, and therefore very fragile, and you did not want to break it. You felt the way you usually felt as you listened to patriotic songs on Independence Day. It was liberating. You felt as if you had done something important – that pulling out jackfruit pieces without getting koholla in your hand, was not the only thing you were good at, as your husband said, every time you calculated the tuition fees of your children wrong. And you wondered if that is what the word ‘independent’ in Sherine’s Facebook posts meant because it sure felt like the sound of that word.
Next day, when Lalitha shouted from her house that the vegetable lorry had turned to your area from the Maara Gaha junction, you ran with a full heart towards the gotukola patch.
Ciara Mandulee Mendis is a writer from Sri Lanka. She holds an M.A. in English Studies and is employed as Assistant Director (Literature & Publications) at the Department of Cultural Affairs, Sri Lanka.
Her debut short story collection ‘The Red Brick Wall’ was shortlisted for Gratiaen Prize 2020, the most coveted award given for Sri Lankan writing in English.