Amma’s Memories

It was a quiet and peaceful Tuesday evening; my feet were up on the couch and I was lounging comfortably with a steaming mug of masala tea in my hands. I was only staring idly and half-paying attention to the drone of the television in front of me as I let my mind wander freely. Even from where I sat, I caught the waft of spices permeating the air as my mom prepared chicken curry in the kitchen. I could easily picture her humming to herself and heard the sizzle of green chillies being added to the piping hot oil for the gravy base. I took another whiff of the familiar spices and my mouth watered at the prospect of having the final product for dinner in just a few hours. The fragrant smell took me back to the innumerable nights over the years spent around the dining room table with our plates piled high with the delicious meat and ivory white jasmine rice.

The ease and comfort of that memory starkly contrasted the somber expression on the face of the news anchor on the television screen, describing the details of yet another horrific shooting incident somewhere in downtown Toronto. I heard a tutting come from the kitchen and realized that Amma was listening in to the breaking news with one ear. I looked over at her and noticed that she had stopped stirring the curry and come over by the couch to watch the story unfold. I wondered if this kind of thing had ever happened back where she grew up. I knew that civil unrest had made daily life fairly dangerous – enough for my parents to decide to uproot everything they knew and move to Canada what feels like a lifetime ago.

I turned to the kitchen and watched her expression quietly for another moment before asking her why she had bothered to move to a place that was so foreign and so far.

“Why did you choose to live in a country that makes your joints ache with pains every winter season and tease you with too-brief hot spells every summer?”

Even without a language barrier, one thing to note about my mom is that her English is very impressive. Her parents were very supportive of speaking English around the house and made sure that their children had this as an advantage over the other kids in the neighborhood. It couldn’t have been easy for my mom to be so far from everything she knew, from her friends and home to her mother. I recalled the last time that I had visited my grandmother in Sri Lanka. I was always intrigued by her accent whenever we conversed in English as opposed to her native Tamil. She pronounced her consonants with a hard edge, but caressed the vowels in her melodic voice.

Amma explained that the temperature in Canada barely grazed the heat waves that they faced back home. Sri Lanka rarely had days that fell below 25 degrees Celsius. Their daily average usually sat at a humid 30 degrees. It was incredibly difficult to take a deep breath without feeling like you were choking on the heat radiating off every surface of the country. Still, that was home.

There was a split second of silence before she continued. She would often enlighten me on the lack of opportunities that were faced back home. The fact that I can live in here in Toronto and have easy access to high quality education and equal career opportunities is something that I am truly blessed to have. It is difficult to find the same opportunities back home, where oftentimes other aspects of life come into a higher priority than your education. At the time of the civil war, it was difficult for families to continue to offer the best for their children. Many residents were frightened that they would be caught in the middle of the conflict, and sought to migrate to more peaceful locations to raise their families.

“There are opportunities here that you would never have gotten there. But when you are older, I will go back. Back to my home.”

I often catch her when she stares into her memories of the banana trees that grew in her backyard and the fresh curries that my grandmother would make every day. The smell of cinnamon and nutmeg would float in the air when you take a stroll down the street, the spicy smell wafting from each home to greet your taste buds and prompt your mouth to water. She would describe the smell of the fish market, cods and crabs at every stall to take your pick from when the night’s recipe called for Kool.

I asked Amma if we could have Kool that weekend. She smiled at me and told me to call all our cousins over, after all Kool is a social dish. The rest of the week was spent coordinating with uncles and aunties to see who would bring the tamarind and the crab, who will buy the squid and the crayfish, and who had a stock of jack fruits for dessert. Soon, that weekend, the house filled with family and the smell of prawns, chillies, and cumin. The aunties chopped the beans and ground the spices together as the uncles set up the large pot to hold the broth and shelled the seafood to prepare for cooking. We looked on as the ingredients swam in the pot, the shrimp looking as though they were still alive and attempting to jump out of the heat.

We all sat around the pot, taking turns spooning full ladles into our bowls. The conversation was flowing, only to stop as our mouths were occupied with the soup. It was always here that my cousins and I would talk about memories from our childhoods and have sweat and tears streaming down our faces from the spiciness of the soup. The Kool could feed a small village if enough was made, and it’s the dish that truly reminds us of our homeland, our island.

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