Friday, July 15, 2011

Curry and Superstition

“Where did you meet your wife?” John asked Zacky, our driver for a trip through the South of Sri Lanka. He took a long draw on the straw poking its head out of his glass bottled Sprite and a sparkle came to his slightly crooked eyes.

“We met over the phone”, he said. Zacky had been trying to reach a friend whose phone was not working. The friend had given him the number of a neighbor to call when Zacky needed to reach him. The neighbor was Zacky’s future wife.

The three of us sat at a table in a single story guesthouse and restaurant, the Bay Inn Weligama. A relic of colonial days, the fan drifted lazily in circles as we sunk our teeth into bowls of curry and our hearts into Zacky’s story.

After a nine month “love affair” Zacky decided that she was the one and went to introduce his future wife to the family. In Sri Lanka we have been told, much in matters of the heart are dictated by the stars. At birth, an astrological chart is drawn up for a child. When that child decides to marry the charts of the lovers are presented to paid astrologers in the community who compare the signs and make a judgment as to whether or not it would be a favorable marriage.

We spooned up a dish of macaroni and cashews stewed with Sri Lankan cinnamon, cracked our teeth against chip-like poppadum, and heaped rice onto the plate in anticipation of curry.

In order for Zacky and his future wife to be considered compatible, 17 out of 21 signs in his chart and his wife’s must be a match. The results came back and only 13 lined up. According to the charts, some divination of star alignment, theirs was not a marriage that would be good.

The curries came out. Deviled chicken, dry and coated in smoky, spicy chilies and melting onions filled one silver bowl. Potatoes in a mild, yellow coconut milk curry soothed the burn from the meat. Balls of shredded fish and spice fried and served room temperature filled our mouths while the heat dissipated. Zacky continued.

As a result of the bad astrological reading, Zacky’s parents, whom he still lived with, would not give their consent to this marriage. If he proceeded to marry the girl he loved, they would cut him out of their lives forever and he would be on the street immediately.

Around that time, there had been a spate of suicides, Zacky told us, by girls in Sri Lanka who had been spurned by their lovers after wedding promises were made thanks to the unfavorable readings of astrological signs. Zacky decided that he could not live with himself if he caused the suicide of another. He could not let down this woman he loved after promising himself to her. He would defy his parents and astrology if that meant following his heart.

Rapt, we almost didn’t notice the arrival of our final dish, a tuna like fish cubed and simmered in a curry sauce so spicy that it took several spoonfuls of rice, mouthfuls of dal, and a generous portion of shredded coconut for the flavors to all meld together in a pleasing array of spices, heat, legumes, and meat.

So Zacky left his childhood home saying goodbye to his parents, sister and brother. A sympathetic cousin lent him money to buy a small plot of land riddled with snakes and leeches. They removed the offensive creatures and Zacky built his new family a house, mixing the concrete to form bricks that he laid down with his own two hands.

Joining Zacky in a cooling Sprite, the pain of chilies began to subside. He had been married for 14 years. His wife is a good and capable woman. They are raising three children between the ages of 7 and 13 who are all well-behaved and good students. Zacky has not spoken to his family since the day he left to marry his wife.

We pushed back our chairs and stood to leave. My belly was filled with delicious food, my soul brimmed in admiration for this man of courage and conviction, and I was relieved- for me the stars are no more than a beautiful and wondrous addition to the night sky.

*The name of the driver has been changed to protect his privacy.

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