There Were Years Before I Knew You
Saraid de Silva
You grow up on rice, char kuey teuw, and guilt.
You’re a good Catholic girl.
You always do your homework. Not because they tell you to, but honestly, just because you like it.
You read a bit too much, and you really like sports but no one really likes you playing them so you stop.
When you are 22, you fall in love.
Sometimes your youngest brother Mark opens the letters Rienzie writes you, or the ones you write him back. He sees the pages all covered with lipstick marks and scented with your perfume. You can’t really be mad though. He’s only ten. He thinks it’s funny. Funny that you went to Chennai for three days, came back and broke off your engagement. Something you’ll feel guilty about for the next 30 years, but Rienzie was worth it.
Rienzi who changed the spelling of his name so that both of yours ended in zi.
Rienzi and Mitzi. Lovers who wait for each other for five years.
"You can’t believe how fast you fall in love
with the de Silvas. Loud, city-dwelling Singhalese,
who make you laugh and teach you how to cook their way"
When you finally get to Sri Lanka it is. Dirty. And crowded. And there is jungle and monitor lizards and people are a lot friendlier than what you’re used to. They hug here? Singapore was easier, it made sense. But now Rienzi is the thing that makes sense so you get on with it. And although they speak a different language, his family are Catholic too.
They think you look like a doll. With your deep voice and long hair and tiny feet, to them, you’re pretty much the best thing anyone could leave the country for, for three days, and bring home five years later.
You can’t believe how fast you fall in love with the de Silvas. Loud, city-dwelling Singhalese, who make you laugh and teach you how to cook their way. Every meal a base of green or red chilli, rampe, garlic, onion and coconut. Always coconut, broken in the kitchen, scraped at the bench into fluffy mounds, then pressed into milk. It takes you a while to learn, but with Rienzi’s terrifying sister Therese next to you, you get it.
Then, after only a few years and a few children, you say goodbye again, pack it all up and head to England. Which is COLD. Cold days, cold nights, cold people. Both you and Rienzi used to think it might be a bit easier there. You have one God, you say prayers in English, you might, a little bit, get them: the English. But you don’t, and they don’t get you, and the kids drop their accents with a speed that is frightening. But Rienzi gets certified as a psychiatrist. Here in these white institutions with their white promises and white paper. You make your way to your real end goal. Aotearoa.
The trip is...long. Three weeks on a boat with three children is no laughing matter but you’re heading somewhere better. Somewhere with trees. And houses that have gardens. And less South Asians so maybe less racism?
You heard something about sheep.
The boat finally docks, you pack the kids, their curly hair and fluttering hands and you all take a look around. It’s not Singapore. That’s for sure. It’s not Colombo. Shit, it’s not even Horowpotana.
The people here aren’t quite like the English but they’re not far off. Sort of... scruffier. Waikouaiti is quiet but it is full of kind people who don’t throw the n-word around like the English did. And it’s warm enough in the summer to wear a sarong, so you put your bags down, push your toes into the soil and start to grow.
Three hungry children, four if you count Rienzi. And not a clove of garlic in sight. You can understand the lack of...tamarind paste, fresh coconuts, good seeni sambal, but garlic? Surely someone has some. You decide to go door-knocking. Tony and Margaret, the couple next door are nice, they’ll have some.
They smile at you blankly and compliment your sari. Garlic? No. They have fresh butter though, and salt? Pepper?
You head to another house. More smiles, shakes of the head.
You decide to write down all the recipes you learnt in Sri Lanka. Unconsciously planning for a time when the tastes you can still remember might be accessible. You also buy every recipe book that even mentions curry.
The women on these books all look so nice. Lynne, Lynette, Linda. They have cropped hair and thick rings on their hands and they seem very confident. And their confidence gives YOU confidence. You make steamed pudding, egg sandwiches, you try out lasagne and creamed spinach and Yorkshire puddings. Honestly the kids go mad for anything that isn’t from your part of the world, so at least it gets them to eat.
"Waikouaiti is quiet but it is full of kind
people who don’t throw the n-word
around like the English did"
Very interesting the way these women make curry.
There’s a lot of sultanas. And apples. Why do they keep trying to put fruit in it? And sausages? You show the books to Rienzi and he’s as confused as you are.
One book, Recipes from Many Races, even has something called ‘Madras Lobster’ which uses curry powder, crayfish, apples AND sultanas. You decide not to try this.
After a few years in this tiny town, Rienzi gets a job at a hospital in the big smoke, Invercargill. You pack it all up again and say goodbye to Margaret and Tony.
Invercargill is different. You really get it for the first time, the stares, the comments, the Where are you froms?, and the Why don’t you go backs?
You have your fourth child, the first in this new country. Somehow she has green eyes which all the doctor’s wives love to point out and make a big deal about. Like it makes her better. She won’t grow up with fresh papaw and limes from the garden, or even kaya and soft eggs. But no one here will ever mispronounce her birthplace and that seems like a victory.
Despite the shock of a new city and its racism, New Zealand in the 80s isn’t a terrible place. The boys sometimes come home with scrapes and bruises they don’t explain, but you’d rather marks you can see than ones you can’t. And the girls seem happy and healthy, they were the ones you were secretly worried about. The Gunasekera boy seems quite interested in Karenza, or Chootie, as you call her around the house, but she only has eyes for white boys. With their singlets and pointed noses, and little veins you can see under the skin. Well, if she wants a white boy let her have a white boy. Your grandchildren will have an easier time in this country than you did.
You still can’t find flat rice noodles, but garlic and curry leaves start to show up. And you see a woman on TV use curry powder on something other than eggs so it’s getting better, slowly.
It changes drastically in 1983. Your quiet, balanced life.
Rienzi and Ravi, your small girl, are out one morning playing tennis. You’re at home, cooking idi appa. They come back, throwing their bags down and talking over top of one another. Rienzi calls out a hello. Then small girl calls out in a way you’ve never heard before and you don’t see or feel your feet move but you get there.
This man you fell for in three days, made five different homes with, and raised four children beside, dies just inside your front door, cheeks still warm from tennis.
And now it is just you and your youngest in this cold city at the bottom of an island at the bottom of the world. The others are at university, filling the void the heart attack left with white boys, and white girls and degrees on white paper and more freedom than you ever had.
"The others are at university, filling
the void the heart attack left with white boys,
and white girls and degrees on white paper"
But still, there is so much to do. Bills to pay, small girl with her strange accent to protect. Other women from your parish step into help, but they need support just as much as you do. Rienzi’s brother comes from Colombo to teach you how to drive. It is these things, these physical tasks which use your body but not too much of your brain, that start to put a bandaid over this amputation.
The neighbours here are so kind to you. They help out as much as they can, watching the children, driving with you before you’re confident, even bringing you a leg of lamb.
The husband presents it to you, wrapped in paper, heavy and grand in his arms. He tells you a roast is just the thing for a chilly night like this one. Why do they always talk about the weather? You smile back at him as big as you can and take it to the kitchen where you only unwrap and
Stare at it.
These people would ‘bang it’ in the oven. Maybe fry off the fat on the sides of it first. Maybe rub salt and pepper into it? Rosemary or something, at a pinch.
On the table like that. Just, heavy.
You and this leg of lamb in this house.
You get the sharp knife. You take onions, garlic, ginger, chillis you’ve grown here, yourself, and cloves. You pound the garlic into a paste with the ginger.
You put the rice on.
You turn this huge, foreign thing into small understandable cubes.
You move around the kitchen slowly and surely. Hands making this smaller, that saltier, this softer and sweeter.
You make lamb biryani, and it tastes like...home.