From Colombo we headed south along the coast. Z drove. I sat next to him. Amma was in the back seat. As we approached Moratuwa, where Amma grew up, the regular traffic of three-wheelers, women under umbrellas, school children, motorcycles carrying families of four, sedans, lorries, and timber trucks with men balanced on top, bicycles, cows, dogs, tricycle lottery ticket vendors and old men in sarongs driving bullock carts, grew to include gangs of fishermen holding their net on their shoulders, in one long quarter-mile train, the net dipping between them like the icing on the edge of a cake.
To our right was a row of huts and shacks, a crucifix three times as tall as them, more nets, a railroad track, and the long flat blue Indian Ocean.
We passed a row of small fish laid out to dry on the side of the road. The sun shone off of them like mirrors. “Did you hear what Lalitha said about the miris maalu and the onions?” Zilla asked.
I shook my head.
“She said if you don’t put onions then the chills are enough to preserve the fish several days without refrigeration.”
“Long years ago my grandmother used to make a dry kind of miris maalu with sprats and send it to us in the mail,” Amma said.
“How long did it take to get to you?”
“Oh, a day or two. Early on, before the postal service was good, maybe three. We used to take them when we went on pilgrimages this way to Kataragama. We’d build a little fire at night and boil rice and eat them together. It was quite exciting.”
“And it didn’t spoil?” I asked.
“No,” Amma replied. “They do all sorts of things to keep the fish here. They also make a terrible sauce in this area with the heads and guts. It’s fermented like.”
“Did your mother make that when you were a girl?”
“No, no, the fish vendor would come round with his basket of fish and then if Amma decided to buy she came out with the pot and he would clean the fish and put it right in. When that man cleaned the fish he just scraped the guts right onto the ground.”
“It must have smelled terrible.”
“Oh, no,” Amma said. “Invariably a cat appeared out of nowhere and the mess was just gone.”
As she says this it is easier to imagine her as a girl of 6 or 7 rather than 67.