From Tangalle, we spent a day driving north into the hills of Kandy and the next three preparing for the bana (sermon) and the dhane (meal offering) we were here to give on the one year anniversary of Thaththa’s death.
When I try to put them into words I find that last year’s ceremonies are in my mind as images. But then people and places always are.
Last year, Z and I arrived in Sri Lanka only hours before Thaththa passed. There was grief. There was tiredness, acute and chronic, mixed like a bad dream with the energy of pain. There was jet lag and lack of sleep. There were people I had never seen before moving the furniture out of the living room. I had no one to ask. I do not speak the language and Z’s family had not been religious. Neither he nor Amma had experienced this before either.
Thaththa died in the afternoon. In the evening a monk arrived. Z bowed to him. In my head, I have an image of Z, his head at the monk’s feet, orange robes and orange tiles on the floor. The monk chanted. I have an image of the living room cleared out, except a small table and the seat the monk is sitting in. On the table, there is a statue of the Buddha, a bowl of flowers, a glass of water and a clock.
For the dhane, the next morning, I have images of a full, full kitchen, and of fog, and of Ravindra, who was Thaththa’s caregiver, cutting pieces of banana frond into circles to cover the plates. He looked up at me and explained: “We offer the foods Sir liked to eat.” Ravindra always called Thaththa Sir. I remember thinking, Thaththa liked to eat everything.
I went back into the kitchen. Rani, who has been part of the family longer than I have, was cooking. Pots and pans were stacked on every surface: Kiribath, and rice and stringhoppers (steamed rice noodle nests), steaming; smoky sour polos (jackfruit curry), coconut sambol, plates and dishes I didn’t recognize, can’t remember. Besides those, fruit plates and sweets plates for each monk, who, when they arrived, sat along the perimeter of the room, in their orange robes, eating in the begging bowls they brought with them.
I could not explain what was happening, or what the monk said, but I had these images.
This time, I asked Amma if it was okay to take pictures of monks.
“I don’t know,” she said, but I can ask them.
We talked about the menu during the car ride. “I made marshmallows for the sweets plate,” Amma said, “Mahamma said she’s bringing bibikkan, and Kumari will probably send potato sweets.
Bibikkan is one of my favorites. Mahamma brought bibikkan for me and Z the first time I met her. She took Z by the hand and gave him a heavy loaf all wrapped up in layers of newspaper, like she’s done every time I’ve seen her since then. I asked her the ingredients, but I could not understand her accent. Or, as Z likes to point out, she could not understand mine.
When Mahamma arrived for the bana I asked her for the recipe again. “Coconut water, golden syrup, cashew nuts, candied pumpkin, semolina, rosewater…,” she said, folding down fingers as she counted of the ingredients.
On our last visit to her house we caught a man delivering the cakes, the pans still warm. I’d forgotten this until I asked her how long to bake the batter. She shrugged. “I don’t know. My oven is not large. The baker always does it.”
As we left Mahamma’s, the time the baker delivered the cakes, white streamers crisscrossed over her alley.
“Look, a wedding.”
Z shook his head. “No, baby, white is for funerals.”
I finished writing down the recipe and asked Mahamma if I could take her picture. She smiled, but turned her head away.
By six that evening the living room was empty except for the monk’s chair, Z was on his way to the temple, Mahamma was in the kitchen, and Amma had changed into white.
I was sitting in our room, filled with the living room furniture, watching the sun go down. The sky was orange. Geckos chirped. Voices were starting to echo in the empty room downstairs. I tried to take a few pictures, but the light was low.
After the sermon, Z said to me, “I had a nice talk with the monk in the car on the ride home. He wanted to know if you spoke Sinhala.”
Z continued. “He said at first he thought you did, but then he wasn’t sure. I told him you didn’t. He said he would have translated for you if he’d known.”
It seemed funny, the idea of chatting with monk. “What else did you talk about?”
“We just talked. About politics, about the new road.” Z thought for a minute. “Because I don’t know the customs there isn’t that formality.”
“And he’s not offended?” I asked.
“No,” Z said, slowly, as he closed our bedroom door, “I think he likes it.”
Z and I folded our white clothes over the back of the stacked up living room chairs, slept, got up, and put them on again. By five thirty the next morning Z was on his way to get the monks for the dhane and I was taking pictures of Rani making cashew curry in the kitchen. Mahamma began to portion out the bibikkan. Someone rolled out a mat in the middle of the living room floor. I thought of Ravindra and took pictures.
The phone rang. Amma answered it. “They are leaving the temple now.”
The house is laid out it two parts, the living room and kitchen on one side, the bedrooms on the other. The formal front door is in the middle. Except for the dhane last year, I have never seen it used.
Amma stood at the door to the living room. I was just coming down the hall from the bedroom. The head monk was right outside the front door.
“Do you have your camera?” Amma whispered loudly.
I was trying to get it on when the head monk walked down the stairs, and then turned towards me. He held out a book. “This is for you,” he said, gently.
He handed it to me and then walked into the living room. Seven monks followed him. Z bowed to the floor. They sat in their orange robes and ate from their begging bowls. And somehow I didn’t want to take any pictures.