The tamarind tree
In the evening, the vibrant village sky is layered in the colours of my artist’s palette. My artist palette is an old saucer with a vegetable drawing printed in it. It was part of the porcelain dinner set my father got as a gift when he left his office on a transfer. I was five. Now 20 years later, I use one saucer in the set as a painter’s palette. I’m not a painter. I’m a hobbyist.
When the golden light flickers through the layered green canopy bordering the fields of paddy, I mix cheap watercolour in the saucer-turned-palette. When I sit down to draw in the many evenings at home, I hear the endless chirping of yellow-billed babblers. Vollyess of babblers retreat on the bare branches of the tamarind tree outside.
It’s probably the last years of the tamarind tree. In its decaying age, the tamarind tree sits by the yards of paddy. For years, it provided shade to weary souls who needed a break from the hard work in the fields. Uncles sat down for a hearty lunch after hours of work under the harsh tropical sun. Middle aged aunties came for harvesting paddy. They brought sugary black tea in large thermo bottles. For years, they retreated under the tamarind tree, engaged in long conversations, often gossiping about the young girl who dropped out of school and enjoyed their supper.
We came here when I was eight. This is my father’s village (located 120 km north of Colombo, the capital of Sri Lanka). It’s where he grew up, where he spent his young days, in the 1960s and 1970s, chasing after the cows. He was the cowherd of his family. In the mornings, he walked past the rice fields to school. He remembers the tamarind tree from a young age. Tamarind grows slow. Some tamarind trees live for about 300 years.
After we came here, this tree became part of the culinary traditions of our family. Tamarind leaves are like tiny acacia. There’s a small pinnate with about 10-12 pairs of leaflets. The fruit comes in slender, long, curved pods with a light brown shell. If the fruit is ripe, the shell breaks easily with a crack sound. There are about 4-6 seeds inside one pod. A yellow-brown pulp covers each seed. What I loved the most about tamarind is this pulp.
It’s sour, but there are notes of sweetness in it. This wonderful sweet-sour combination is a joy in mouth. When I came running home after school, I’d go to the tamarind tree with my schoolmate. She lived in the opposite house. Her name was Wathsala but she’s one year older to me. So she was an akka (an elder sister). Wathsala akka, I called her. In the sunny afternoons during the peak harvesting season, Wathsala akka and I would pick pods of tamarind fallen under the tree. I would eat some. Others, a handful of them, I bring for my father.
My father worked in the irrigation department. He comes home late when the dusk galores and the last layers of the sun remain like a faint thread in the dark sky. During the weekends when he’s free, he would sundry the tamarind I had brought home. Once dried, he removes seeds and uses it for cooking. He adds them to his kekiri (cooking melon) curry. In other words, the best curry he cooked. Other times, he even adds sour, sun dried tamarind pulp into tempered thibbatu (wild eggplant).
They are odd combinations. Thibbatu–or, wild eggplants are round-shaped balls filled with tiny seeds. Thibbatu seeds are bitter. I grew up loving the odd combination of flavours–bitter, sour and a little sweet. It’s like my relationship with my family. Odd. Sometimes bitter. Sometimes sweet. Other times, a little sour.
When I was a young kid, we often spent the weekends at my aunt’s house in Anuradhapura, a town 200 km north of Colombo. My aunt was a head matron at a children’s home. They lived in the office quarters and they had a big garden. In the garden was a large, shady tamarind tree. Under this tree, there was a loner slab of cement. In the afternoon, when everyone’s busy, I sit on the cement slab and hallucinate. In my own world as a kid, I’m me. But I’m also many others. I was my mother. I was my father. I was my friend, my school and everything else. I talked to myself until my aunt apparead with an old ceylon arrack bottle filled with tamarind juice.
I gulped it down and licked the lid for the last bit of joy. My aunt, like my father, sun dried pods of tamarind. She removed their seeds and blended the pulp with water to make tamarind juice.
At 25, I still love the sweet-sourness of tamarind. I keep pulp-coated tamarind seeds on my tongue and slowly suck them until the pulp is no more. When I did this as a kid, I had accidentally swallowed many seeds. Another aunt of mine would fret me by saying that they’d grown into a tamarind tree inside my stomach. Now I’m a grown-up adult who’s old enough to realize tamarind cannot grow inside my stomach. I chew the pulp and toss out the seeds. I repeat the process until the sour acidic pulp makes my tongue sore.
But that’s the thing about tamarind. Your joy has limits. Like with my family.
Featured image by @Sara Rathnayake