Suja unlike Piyadasa had a family from the start, though her husband had vanished long before she settled into the household. Ena claimed that, when she first settled down in Alu after returning from the Virgin Islands, Suja was simply a household help who did not know even to boil water. There had been another cook in residence then, but she had obviously been unable to cope with Ena’s style of cooking and entertaining, and before long Suja had taken over. Our first trip down to the Sinharaja, when she improvised lunch on the banks of the Walawe Reservoir, was I believe her first great performance, and from then she never looked back.
She fell in energetically with Ena’s style of mixing things up at will, and though she never quite added passion fruit juice to coffee, as Ena claimed she might well have done in her enthusiasm to try new things, she certainly performed marvels when asked to turn patties into curry or cook ham with marmalade. Ena’s, or rather Suja’s, chutneys and jams were pure joy, made of tart berries and strange spices, and she deep fried to perfection, with an array of exotic leaves and thinly sliced vegetables appearing at intervals in the course of a meal.
At first, we were told, she could not make hoppers, but that too she learnt, with the added bonus that at Ena’s one did not have to eat the whole hopper, it being considered almost a duty to leave the middle and upgrade one’s plate as fresh hot hoppers emerged from the kitchen. It was a duty, Ena explained, firstly to pay tribute to Suja’s energy in keeping the supply going, and secondly so as to feed the pack of dogs she kept, which ate all the leftovers on anyone’s plate.
Less common staples she was adept in from the start, crisp puris and spiced up thosais, in addition to all kinds of pittu and roti and stringhoppers. And there were never less than half a dozen superb dishes to accompany these, even when Ena and I were alone and having what she would describe as a simple meal. Alu chicken was almost always produced at one dinner during each stay, there was a phase when quails’ eggs appeared at every meal, tongue became a staple when Ena claimed her teeth were declining and she had to have something soft, prawns were somehow obtained from whichever seacoast was supplying them at any time. The salads became more sophisticated over the years, raw papaya becoming a regular delicacy after a visit to Thailand, while simple vegetables turned into gourmet delights at Suja’s hands.
Ena claimed to be no good at puddings, and claimed credit only for one dish, which she called Humbug. Nigel and I had been given it on that first visit in 1983, and were delighted to find some appearing at our breakfast before we left, after our long expedition. Piyadasa, it seemed, never allowed anyone to eat anything left over unless Ena specifically authorized it, so when she went away the fridge was jealously guarded, and things like puddings stayed put there until she called for them again.
Humbug was made from cake and cream and fruits and whatever else Ena chose to add, chartreuse on occasion, special jams, ice cream, nuts. It was never the same, and always delicious. In time too, after she had set up K2, the Restaurant at the bottom of the hill, and Nirmali had spent a weekend teaching the ladies there to make puddings, we used to get Watalappam and also Pineapple Upside Down Pudding, which in Ena’s hands turned to pure melted jaggery. She also developed something she called Desiccated Watalappam, a form of fudge that was stupendously rich, and irresistible.
As her repertory increased, so did Suja’s girth. She also developed diabetes, and had to go down to the clinic every day for a shot of insulin. But she continued immensely cheerful, and was delighted when her productions met with appreciation.
I suppose after years of living with Ena, she also developed an enormous sensitivity to nature. Ena said she was the first to notice exotic birds in the garden, or to comment on the beauty of the moon, or the fragrance that blossoms exuded as twilight fell. Interestingly I found that Kithsiri too exhibited similar characteristics, sometimes calling me when the moon was rising so I could look at it across the river, in the refuge I had built for myself, with a house for his family as well, in land he had found. I attribute this affinity with nature to Ena, who used to give him books about birds, which he studied, keenly enough to suddenly point out special species on our travels.
Suja also, according to Ena, had a strong sense of the supernatural, and would claim, when nights at Alu were particularly filled with fragrance, that the gods were passing. Ever so often, too, Ena would decide that her household needed a loaf, and she would take Piyadasa and Suja on a pilgrimage, to sacred places that also allowed them to see elephants. And in the midst of all this, Suja brought up her family without ever being a burden on Ena. We heard stories of her daughters who had married and moved to colonies, and sons in employment all over the country. One who seemed especially backward joined Ena’s Carpentry Training Workshop, and turned out a sensitive artist, able to paint intricate patterns on wood or walls.
The only one who became a problem was perhaps the brightest of all, a smart student at the time of Kusum’s wedding in 1989 who decided to become a soldier. But in the horrors of the war that followed, he lost a leg and deserted, so that Raji I think had to pull out a few stops to get him excused and reabsorbed into the army as a cook. That however seemed to have turned out all right in the end, and he married and settled down, I think in the place where he was finally stationed.
I can see him still though, as he stood straight and tall in 1989, and I wish he had been persuaded instead to go on with his studies instead of joining the army. But I suppose one should accept too that, unless such sacrifices were made, in this case not so hard in comparison with what others went through, we would not have got rid of the terrorism that beset us.