The woman with the pottu

Pottu I by Anushiya Sundaralingam, courtesy Queen Street Studios

She had a broad forehead, a broader smile and a large red pottu. Her teeth gleamed as she picked me up, and I remember hints of red, dotting the white, randomly. I remember her as large, but this was from a perspective low to the ground. This is one of my first vivid memories. I was six. I do not remember her face as a whole. I know she carried me a lot whenever Archchi and I took walks around the neighborhood. I know I liked being carried by her. I still remember her smell which I couldn’t escape when cradled against neck or on her bosom, which I later came to know (and really hate) as Goya Jasmine. Back then, it was just a familiar scent that meant the woman with the pottu who Archchi also liked was around the corner waiting to carry me.

I remember seeing her house later on. She wasn’t there. There was that smell though – that during the Bheeshana Yugaya I came to more fully appreciate. At the time, someone – I can’t remember who – just covered my nose and then my eyes. And I remember being rocked as someone took me away, but not before I had seen something that looked like black chess figures on the floor of a burnt house. It was the first time I had seen anything on that scale, burnt. I remember strange things – the way the soot had created these lovely patterns outside window frames and ventilation ducts near where the ceiling once was. I remember the debris around the house and a table fan, that looked really new on the garden outside even as everything around it was black. There was white, grey, shades of red. It was all very brief, but those few seconds of seeing that burnt house, with those black chess figures near the entrance, is something I just cannot forget.

I had come to see the house on the 24th of July. A day before, I had walked back to Ratmalana from S. Thomas’ College in Mount Lavinia with Archchi. The world wide web wouldn’t be invented for another six years, so the news of the violence had only come to school by telex. Archchi bought me two Star toffees from Kaati, the school’s resident purveyor of all things good, sticky and sweet. I remember that one of them was my favorite – the malt, in the red -wrapper. The other was green. I sucked on them as Archchi and I walked home. We passed vans that were stopped, and I remember being confused as to why so many people who seemed angry had stopped in front of various shops in Ratmalana. Just before Maliban Junction, a shop was on fire. As we turned, I saw a van ablaze. A Toyota Hiace. Archchi said something sternly at me in Sinhala, and asked me if I wanted more toffees. But she also increased her pace and did something with her handbag to cover my fixation with the burning van. Like at the neighbourhood house, I recall seeing black chess pieces in the van in contorted, snug, frozen poses that seemed most unusual. Again, there was a mix of pure white, jet black, ash, grey and varying shades of red, with the darkest congealed around window frame and ground.

I was annoyed that Archchi picked up her pace, so I just ate the second green Star toffee.

It was during the insurrection of the late 80’s that I saw what Archchi and others had protected me from in 1983. The black curtains and the trail bikes. The spikes. The tire chains. The bodies in ditches. The smell I woke up to. The grades of ash – some heavier than other, settling in different ways, so in time one could tell whether its source was once animate.

But it was as a six year old that I first glimpsed violence. I recall Thaththa in a bath of sweat after he brought home Akka from St. Bridgets. I recall Amma crying but all the while trying not to show me she was. I remember thinking she was awful at pretending, but I didn’t say anything. I didn’t really feel anything either – everyone I knew and loved was around me, and that was all that mattered. Even as our home, and sky above it in Ratmalana got progressively darker during the middle of the day, I wasn’t crying, scared, upset or sad.

I do however recall missing the lady with the pottu. I don’t think I ever told anyone that, because I didn’t understand why she was there and then suddenly, not there. I just missed her, her smell, and the feeling I had when she carried me. I also miss Star toffees to this day. I can recall everything about its wrapper, the indentations of the logo on the toffee itself, the texture of the toffee, and its taste. I wonder why I remember more about a toffee than anything else from that time. Our neighborhood smelt different for a while. And then, morphed into something different to what it once was.

I now pass the house that was once burnt almost every day. Two or three years ago, a surprise visit from people I didn’t know, all the way from Australia, who had miraculously traced back our home from the stories their parents had told them, made me realise my family had done more than they ever told me to help however they could. Amma and Thaththa still don’t talk about the 23rd. I don’t ask either, because in a way, I am scared I will find out what really happened to that woman with the pottu, who loved to carry me, and I loved being carried by.

I just want to remember her as I experienced her thirty four years ago. Smiling. Smelling of eau de cologne. A wide smile. And a warm embrace.

23 July 2017.