I began my trip to Sri Lanka early so I could experience the New Year celebrations. I had no idea what to expect and was surprised by the way events occurred. As in many Asian countries, there were fireworks, temples and blessings, but done with a precision that no one could explain to me.
My hosts began bustling around outside on the morning of the 13th of April, which I assumed was in preparation for the celebrations and perhaps visitors. I went to join them and found Charley at the fish pond. When pressed to let me do something to help, he asked me to fill a garbage bin with water while he caught the fish and transferred them. The pond then needed a scrub and I was set to painting the surrounding walls with something that I assume reduced mould. We didn’t end up having visitors that day, so it may not have been a special New Year clean after all.
Charley then invited me to make a trip to a not-so-local temple. Normally the visit would occur after 2pm, in the lead up to the actual New Year, but the monks had asked him to donate some money for supplies needed that afternoon. While Charley went to meet the monks, a boy from the attached orphanage grabbed my hand and took me to the dormitory where his friends were playing Carom. In this game remeniscent of Pool played at a card table, a ‘cue disc’ is flicked at other discs in an attempt to push them into corner pockets. They tried to explain it to me, but in the end I just watched the younger ones showing off their karate moves.
Back home, I was dozing under the ceiling fan in my room when a car backfired outside the house, startling me. When a similar bang came from the jungle at the back of the house, I thought it sounded like gunfire or bombs being dropped. Then I noticed that the explosions had begun at exactly 1pm and realised that it must be the sounds of fire crackers. Outside, I found the street full of people lighting short white sticks and throwing them carelessly into the street.
When I came back inside, Indrani was carrying a sheet of corrugated iron, which she laid on the dining room floor. ‘For a fire tonight,’ she told me. Charley called me over to the TV to see some traditional games being played at a festival in Kaluthura. ‘That’s where we’re going tomorrow.’ I watched men try to walk out on a springy tree trunk, hanging over the water, to collect a flag at the end. None made it. Nor did any manage to climb the greasy pole to the flag at the top. I didn’t really understand what was expected of me the following day, but it was sure to be interesting.
At 7:42pm, the fire was lit under a pot containing coconut milk. Smoke soon filled the living area, only slowly filtering out through the slits in the wall. As far as I can tell, 7:42pm began the new year. Why that time? Was the smoke to purify the house? My hosts couldn’t answer my questions. My supervisor at work has since said that the time is chosen by concensus among astrologers in the country as the most auspicious time for the people.
I had to wait until 10:30 to eat dinner and found myself being hand fed some milk rice with chilli sauce on the way to the table, which is apparently a tradition. Aside from the chilli, dinner consisted of sweet pastries and chocolate cake. For the first time, I shared dinner with another member of the household, which made the day even more special.
And after an early start and a full day, Indrani returned to her shop in the evening because her customers wanted to exchange goods / blessings with her in thanks for service / patronage over the past year. She was apparently out until midnight, by which time I was sound asleep.
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