Grains of Truth
Waking up one humid morning in Colombo, ten months ago, I couldn’t believe I had come this far in pursuit of an audacious dream. Chasing the romance of a life lived constantly on the move, my husband and I had volunteered to sever links – at least temporarily – with Mumbai, the city we had called home for several years, to move to Sri Lanka. I felt daunted and rudderless – our life, once so well-defined, suddenly seemed like putty in our hands. It was a heavy existential soup to be swimming in – but breakfast got in the way.
Surrounded by the sing-song syllables of a language I couldn’t understand or speak, I had been steadily building a vocabulary in a language I found easier to grapple with: food. I relentlessly courted the unfamiliar flavors of Sri Lanka, trying one new dish every day. Today, the breakfast table held kiribath, small, fairly ordinary-looking squares of red (or white) rice cooked with coconut milk and seasoned sparingly with salt. I knew that kiribath enjoyed a special place in Sri Lankan cuisine, cooked to mark the beginning of the new year and routinely as a beloved breakfast dish – but I couldn’t understand what the fuss was about when I first scooped a piece on to my plate. Many other Sri Lankan dishes I had tried seemed more nuanced than this straightforward combination of a couple ingredients.
But looks can be deceptive, because my palate warmed up to kiribath. In the eyes of a rice fiend, the dish could do no wrong. I loved the way the creamy coconut milk plumped up the stubby grains of unpolished rice, and how the mellow flavors unfurled on my tongue. In between bites of the rice cakes, I took brave swipes at the luunu miris, a brick-red condiment that is traditionally served alongside. A searing mixture of chilli flakes, raw red onions, lime juice and flakes of Maldive fish, all pounded together in a mortar and pestle, the luunu miris was the perfect foil to the kiribath. Together, it was a combination that grew on me, rather like Colombo itself.
Eight months after we moved, though, I found myself revisiting existential questions, except of a whole different kind. Despite her admirable resilience, my mother-in-law, with whom I shared a fond closeness, had lost her fight with cancer. Having witnessed her epic battle at close range, I found it hard to deal with the finality of its outcome. Exhausted and rudderless again, our diminished family gathered around the table that morning, silently sating itself with the food that thoughtful friends and neighbors had brought us. Maybe because it felt so soothing at the time, I remember the fact that kiribath was part of the breakfast spread. I remember, too, that I ate it gratefully – grateful for the familiarity of its gentle flavor, grateful for the bonds of family, grateful for the kindness of new friends, grateful for home as I knew it now.