Amma’s Memories

I asked Amma why she had bothered to move to a place that was so foreign and so far. It wasn’t easy for someone who had lived their entire lives in one place to suddenly be uprooted and move their entire lives to a whole new country. The first thing to note about her is that her English is very impressive. Her parents were big on speaking English around the house and making sure that their children had an edge over the other kids in the neighborhood. I was always intrigued by my grandmother’s accent whenever we conversed in English as opposed to her native Malay tongue. 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 20 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. Staying in my parents’ home country always made me miss mine. As a born and bred Canadian, I craved the winters as much as my mom craved her summers.

So one day, I asked her why she came here.

“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?”

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

I often catch her when she stares into her memories of the jack fruit and 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 fish, and who had a stock of jack fruits for dessert. Soon, the house filled with family and the smell of prawns, chillies, and cumin. The aunties chopped the beans, peeled the jack fruit seeds, 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. Soon, 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 flowing, only to stop as our mouths were occupied with 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.

My Grandmother, The Queen

I’m envious of the people who have the good fortune of being able to live with their grandparents and grow up with that influence in their lives. I’ve only met my own grandparents a handful of times, my grandfathers I’ve seen twice, and my grandmothers three times.

My mom told me about how her parents were supposed to come live with us in Canada. They had all their papers and passports ready for them to immigrate here back when I was a little girl. Unfortunately, they decided last minute to stay in Sri Lanka because they didn’t want to be dependent on us and they were afraid to take the leap and fly across the world. When I think about the decision that they made to stay in Sri Lanka, I wonder how my life would have changed had they been a bigger part of my upbringing.

Out of my grandparents, only my maternal grandmother is still alive. She lives by herself in Jaffna and sometimes a housekeeper or friends and family would stop by to make sure she’s doing okay. She refuses to see a doctor, but we all know the symptoms of Alzheimer’s. I remember when we went to visit her two summers ago, my sister and I would sit with her in the kitchen and she would cut up vegetables and tell us stories of how she migrated to Sri Lanka from Malaysia when she was a girl and how she raised my mom and her siblings. I remember her stories well, she would say them several times in one sitting because she didn’t remember that she already told us the story a few minutes ago. My sister and I would exchange a quick, sad glance and pretend we were hearing her stories for the first time with each telling, our reactions as genuine as we can make them the fifth time around.

In my eyes, my grandmother is a noble woman. She has back problems that causes her to walk hunched over, her body almost at a right angle because she can’t hold herself up straight. My most vivid memory of her from that trip was when I saw her stand up straight for the first time. She held a cane in front of her and slowly stretched out until she was standing at her full height. I was striken by how regal she looked, she was like a queen. I still see her as a queen, the queen of my family. I wish I could see her again, I know that I won’t have many more chances to before she leaves this world to join my grandfather in the next life.

When we left her house to continue our travels, my grandmother’s tears were heartbreaking. I still get emotional sometimes when I think about it. I think deep down she knew that she likely wouldn’t see us again. On some level she knows that she is sick, and when my grandfather passed away a few years ago, she was left to live on her own for the first time in decades. That mental strain is too much for someone who’s never been alone in her life. I wish I could bring my grandmother to Canada and show her all the luxuries that we have here, but her body can’t handle the strain and stress of travelling to a country thats so far and so cold.

People don’t know what they have until it’s gone. In the few moments that I’ve had with my grandparents I’ve noticed how their smiles are always so pure with the joy of seeing the family that they don’t get to see often, but always with a hint of sadness when they realize we have to leave. I adore their eyes, so crinkled with love and dewey with happiness. Their faces aged and wizened by the years under the sun, each wrinkle forming a map that portrays the long life they’ve lived and the trials and tribulations they’ve faced. Grandparents are truly the guardian angels of mankind, I only wish I got to know mine.

Sunsets

There’s something about travelling that really brings people together. Maybe it’s the fact that you’re in a place where you don’t know north from south, or a rupee from a dime, that seems to make your other troubles seem irrelevant. The single most beautiful part of India was the sunsets. Whenever we were fortunate enough to be on the road come dusk, I would gaze out and admire the multitude of colors that adorned the sky. It was all really indescribable, like Michelangelo himself reached from beyond the grave and used his divine skills across the sky. The hot Indian air combined with the frequent cloud-less days showed me baby blues, coral pinks, soft peaches, and millions of other shades of colors shifting in the sky as the sun dipped behind the horizon. Sometimes I felt that the sunset represented my family. We were a beautiful entity at one time, caring and loving and happy as can be, but eventually the bright colors fade away to the darkness that comes with the night. It seemed like, as a family, we found our equilibrium every time we left the comfort of our house.

Home

I don’t know when it started, but when I think back, I remember when I started to notice. There was this ugly red sweater that I had when I was a ten year old, just when I was beginning to become conscious of what the other little girls in school wore. I began to despise this sweater for no reason at all, except for the fact that my mom chose it for me and obviously it was super lame if your mom shops for you. We went grocery shopping one day and despite my mom telling me to put the sweater on I continuously refused to and stormed out of the house without it. For the rest of the day neither of us would speak to each other. Now this was normal for us, I got my stubborn streak from her so we were always having silent fights with each other. But this time it was different. Perhaps it was because I was trying to prove a point, but I absolutely refused to concede like I usually do. Our silent fight was now a war, and neither of us would raise the white flag. It came to the point where my father actually had enough and made me apologize at the end of the day. After I shamefully asked for forgiveness, my mother simply rolled her eyes and told me to put the sweater on the next day. As a ten year old the matter was quickly forgotten, but looking back on it now I wonder if that tiny insignificant issue was a sort of foreshadowing for what followed.

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Conditions For An Arranged Marriage

Whenever I tell my friends that I’ve thought about getting married to a guy that my parents will pick for me, I always get the same response.

“Wait a minute, an arranged marriage!?”

“But why? Aren’t you worried!?”

“Last I checked it’s not the 1900s.”

Etcetera, etcetera.

They’re right, it’s definitely not the 1900s anymore, times are changing and society is moving forward. I can see why it’s such a big deal to other people if I get married to someone I meet for the sole purpose of getting married. Of course, I would not meet my future husband on the day of the actual marriage; just the thought of that particular scenario makes me shiver with fear. Like any other woman, when I was younger I was adamant about being in a love marriage – falling in love and getting married with or without my parents’ approval was the dream, just like in the movies. Of course my parents continuously squashed that idea right out of my head.

I still remember one day a few years ago when we went out for a lovely family dinner like we do every few weeks. Of course I, being the petulant child that I sometimes am, brought up the topic of matrimony and asked my parents outright why they wanted me to have an arranged marriage. That’s right, I came straight out and asked them. Shocker, right? But I can tell you now that this was the most informative conversation I have ever had with my parents in all of my 20-something years of life.

“We just want a happy life for you.” My dad explained to me. I told him that I knew this. Every father dreams of a content life for his children.

“But it’s my life, Appa. I’m the one getting married, so I should decide who I marry.” I argued back. As a born and bred Canadian, the whole concept of an arranged marriage was unsettling to me.

What I did not understand was how much my parents truly worried about my future. They were concerned that maybe in my immaturity I would fall in love with the wrong guy, make bad decisions, and do something stupid that I would regret for the rest of my life.

In the Sri Lankan community, marriage is a big deal. It’s a sacred pact between man, woman, and God that is honoured for many lifetimes. Divorce is rare. Once you’re in it, you’re in it for life, so to speak. In a Hindu marriage, a crucial part of the pact is the parents. A marriage isn’t just the union of a man and a woman – it’s the union of two families. The parents of the couple are just as important as the couple themselves. After realizing this, I understood why my parents would be concerned if I entered into a love marriage where I chose the man I would marry. They were worried that our families would not be compatible. In an arranged marriage, they would be certain that the match would be good for all parties involved. It sounds very much like a contract, doesn’t it? Terms like parties, arrangement, and signatures are plentiful. I couldn’t believe that the sanctity of marriage was torn apart by something like a contract, so I delved into my own research.

The more I learned about the traditions of my culture, the more I realized that our marriages are both a contract and a sacred journey across lifetimes. In an arranged marriage, couples are matched based on their horoscopes and numerology. When you are born, every single element matters: the date of birth, the time of birth, the direction you were facing when you were born, the position of the planets, which stars were the brightest, every tiny detail was recorded. This data, after being organized into a chart, is kept with the family as the child grows and becomes a young man or woman ready to tie the knot. Their charts are then compared with others to be matched, and the best one is always a happy and prosperous union. I believe that these matches are the souls of two lovers from past lifetimes to be reunited again. The Hindu culture believes in reincarnation. So maybe God places us in a certain place at a certain time for us to be able to find our true match again in our current lives.

I thought about the pitfalls of this method. What if the match that my parents found for me wasn’t truly my soulmate? What if the man who is truly my other half isn’t from a family that would be compatible with mine? I argued with my parents for a long time before I realized that they were right in their own way. I have made terrible choices before, so what prevents me from making more in the future? Or perhaps a part of me doubts my abilities to find the “right” guy.

Arranged marriage used to be a huge deal for me until I had this discussion with my parents. That was when I realized that an arranged marriage isn’t the end of the world. So what if I don’t like him? I can just say no if I realize that we’re not well-suited for each other. I’m sure that I would be allowed this freedom, even if our charts were a perfect match.

After a few weeks of chewing the idea over in my mind, I brought the subject up again with my mom.

“If I go with your whole arranged marriage thing, I have a few conditions,” I said to her. Firstly, I wanted plenty of time before the wedding to get to know the guy I would be hitched to for the rest of my life. Secondly, I wanted to at least have a few options, in case one doesn’t work out. Thirdly, I definitely did not want a huge age difference between us – this scenario has happened so often in my family history that I was frightened of it being passed down to me. As I stated these conditions out loud, I realized it made me sound a little shallow – it was like picking the best cow of the lot to make the most delicious burger.

“Of course all of that goes without saying.” My mom replied without even batting an eye. I felt like I had misunderstood them all this time. Whenever I thought of an arranged marriage, I had this grotesque image of me being forced to wed someone who didn’t respect or love me. I thought that my parents were being unfair and stifling. Only then did I realize that I was just being an idiot.

My parents told me that their own marriage was an arranged one, but I know that they have grown to truly love each other overtime. To this day, I sometimes catch them holding hands while taking a walk in the warm summer evenings or snuggling on the couch paying idle attention to a made-for-TV movie. Their marriage has given me hope and their love has given me faith. Now, I wonder if I should completely trust my parents and place my future in their hands. And yet I can’t help but wonder, if I’m ever in the situation where I happen to find my soulmate myself, would they understand and learn to accept him too?

The Trip That Saved My Family

There was a time when I thought that my family was too dysfunctional for me to continue living in the house for longer than the 21 years I’ve been on this planet. There was a time when I thought that the yelling and the arguing was too much to bear, times when I thought that my parents were one more fight away from getting a divorce and leaving my sister and I to choose between them as if we were picking our favourite flavour of ice cream on grocery day. Sometimes I wonder how we ever reached the place where we are now, how we managed to fix every problem from a 25 year marriage over the course of one month in a country on the other side of the planet. India, in its own way, fixed my parent’s marriage and saved my family in ways that I don’t understand, and maybe never will.

You would think that being stuck in a car with the same people for two days would drive you crazy, but for us it really seemed to work. The time that we embarked on a road trip from the city of Chennai in the state of Tamil Nadu to the town of Alleppey in the state of Kerala was certainly a time of family bonding and adventure. As amazing and wondrous as India is, there are some things that absolutely drove me crazy, from the intense heat to the swarm of mosquitos that decide to have a feast while you sleep to the people who immediately sense a tourist and won’t quit trying to sell you their merchandise at frightening prices. Possibly the greatest source of insanity came from the entire bathroom situation that arose while we were on this road trip. I was always baffled by how people are able to use the toilet when it’s literally a hole in the ground, the amount of squatting that they do on a daily basis must give them great legs. Every time we stopped for a bathroom break, we would ensure that there were western style bathrooms with an actual toilet like the ones we were used to. There was one time when I urgently had to use the bathroom and so being the spoiled first-world citizen that I am I demanded that we continue driving until we found a rest stop that had western toilets. After driving for what felt like eternity with the urgency to relieve myself growing stronger and stronger with every passing second, we finally reached a rest house, but alas my prayers for a toilet were not answered. At this point I was too crazed to even consider holding it in any longer and, much to my parent’s amusement, used the bathroom like a real native south Asian. The incident will forever be humorously referred to as the “bathroom incident from India” with my family.

One of the most breathtaking moments of the whole trip was when we reached the border between the two states, in a town called Kanyakumari. The entire Indian sky in general is just otherworldly, there was something about the way that the sun rays streamed down through the clouds while we drove around mountains and through valleys, and the way that the fog painted hidden peaks and filtered the sun light as we finally drove in to the town. We reached Kanyakumari just in time to catch the sunset, which is an event that many travel to the town to witness as it’s rumoured to be one of the most beautiful sights in all of south India. There’s something about the sunsets there that I really cannot do justice by describing. The way that the soft pastel colours lit up the sky as the sun slowly sets, hearing my parents talk about trivial things as they held hands, and the sound of the ocean waves as the soundtrack to a flawless view, all combined to create the perfect moment. We pulled up a seat on some rocks and simply enjoyed the view, sitting in a comfortable silence that was only broken by what was possibly the funniest moment of the trip.

It’s not uncommon for people to mistake me for a north Indian woman, since my skin colour is much fairer than the darker Sri Lankan tones of the rest of my family. My parents found it extremely amusing when a street seller, who was claiming that his particular set of stone necklaces and “holy” bracelets were the only ones in the whole town blessed by God, approached me and started speaking in Hindi (a language that I definitely ­do not understand) trying to convince me to purchase some of his goods. My mother and father were practically rolling on the floor laughing when they saw the confusion and discomfort on my face at this man who was rapidly marketing his items in a foreign language while I kept shaking my head and awkwardly saying “oh no thank you, no please, I’m good” over and over again. After that whole encounter, my parents continually made jokes at my expense, laughing at how I was so baffled by what the man was saying.

My favourite thing about Kerala is that it’s so green, more so than anywhere in the state of Tamil Nadu. All of the flora that lined the roads and grew in the fields were so vibrant and looked incredibly luscious, like someone had used Photoshop and somehow made the colours more vivid and perhaps a little luminous. We had reached Alleppey and rented a boathouse to take us on a tour around a lake for two days and a night, so that we could experience the natural setting of Kerala and enjoy the peace and quiet that comes with a body of water. There was something ethereal about being cut off from the world even further than we already were just by being on the other side of the planet from Canada. When you’re on a boathouse, there’s nothing to distract you but the stillness of the air as the captain navigates the boat around the lake, with the trees hanging over the shore and huts with residents fishing from their porches and bathing in the lake water.

My sister and I were delighted to find a Carrom board in one of the bedrooms while we were exploring the boathouse. Carrom is a very popular game in the South Asian region, and we knew that our father was an expert at the game. Upon finding the board we immediately set up a game on the dining table, put some Tamil music in the background, and just sat down as a family to play the game. We split into teams, with my sister and father being on one team and my mother and I on another, and proceeded to play while sipping on tea (a favourite beverage of the family) and nibbling on cream biscuits. When I say that my father is skilled at the game, I mean that he was the champion in his younger days when the boys in his hostel would hold monthly tournaments. As the game wore on, it got more and more intense until my dad and sister completely threw my mother and me out of the water and triumphed over us. It was certainly a learning moment to never challenge my father to a game of Carrom.

The entire boat ride was incredibly peaceful (apart from the fiercest game of Carrom I have ever played) and it was one of the most memorable moments of silence that I have from the trip. My sister and I were on one side of the boat lounging by the edge, me admiring the great view while my sister read a book with our favourite Tamil songs still softly in the background, setting a comfortable mood for the whole ride. My parents were on the other side of the boat, snuggling together and enjoying the tranquility of the crystal clear lake and the soothing lull of the boat over the waves. There were moments when I would hear my mother’s twinkling laugh or my father’s deep chuckles as they spoke about whatever made them happy.

It was like my parents had somehow mended over twenty years of disagreements in that one conversation, on a boathouse cruising on a lake in India. When I looked over at my parents I saw the smiles on their faces and the way they held onto each other like they were making up for lost time. Maybe the movies were right when they said that the country of India had some sort of healing abilities, after all it did heal my family in ways that I won’t ever truly comprehend. I turned back to the lake and smiled to myself, wondering how it all happened and thankful for the Indian air that breathed a new life into my family.