My Uncle, circa the 1970s
At Lunch. My uncle Mubarak, dad, aunt and mom are done. I’m just beginning. My uncle; “so how was Knuckles?” I tell him the story. “There are animals there” he says, “leopards etc. Did you see any snakes?” “No”, I say, “but I hear that it houses some of Sri Lanka’s most poisonous snakes”. “That’s right” he agrees.
Needing no further encouragement, my uncle launches into a series of stories. I serve myself more chicken.
The first concerns a religious student from Ulapone who went home one day and on the way he thought he got bitten by a rat, at home his mother applies some ointment but later he wakes up heaving and vomiting. At the hospital they treat him for a rat bite, but he dies the next day. Turns out he was bitten by a snake.
We marvel at the way things work out. He then launches into something he saw on Discovery. In Thailand a snake was cut in half and its blood was poured into six glasses. It’s heart was taken out and, still beating, munched down and washed down with a swig of snake blood. The host then also partakes of an alcoholic cocktail chiefly composed of, wait for it, snake bile. The bile is cut out and squeezed from gland in the snake’s body. Others ferment dead snakes in glass bottles and drink the juice after a nice few days have passed. Yum.
Meanwhile, my brinjals begin to look like cut up pieces of snake flesh, the soft squishy insides relaying a not-so-pleasant sensation via my fingers.
The conversation comes back to Sri Lanka. Did i know that a couple of con men in Maradana sold chicken kebabs for five rupees each but they were actually crow meat? They would bait pieces of food with fishhooks and wait for the crows to swallow them. Then they catch them, chop their heads off, clean them and fry them. Anything can be made to taste like fried chicken with a bit of ajinomoto. They only invoked suspicion because their kebabs seemed ‘too cheap’.
The chicken on my plate is now looking decidedly dodge. But thankfully he switches to a story about a similar group of tricksters who sold dog meat claiming it was wild boar, this time in Kandy.
Soon we are moving on to monkey meat. Back when Appa (my mom’s dad) was alive and still had his police shotgun (he had to turn it in once the JVP troubles started), he used to shoot the monkeys who invaded his grounds (in Nawalapitiya). You might think it cruel, shooting innocent monkeys. But you haven’t seen them like i have. They would come from the jungle, whole swarms of them; big, wild and fearless. Running amock and destroying everything in their path. Us kids and most of the ladies would retreat indoors while Appa took the double barrel out.
Appa and I, circa 1986
He might not look fierce in the picture, but usually the sight of appa and his gun was enough to scare the hordes, but sometimes it just made them angrier. Once I remember a pissed off big languor, must have been about 4 feet tall perched on a tree only a few feet off the ground, facing down Appa, its face a terrible grimace and its fingers clawing the air threateningly,looking like it was about to pounce on him at any moment. I think it got shot. Because another childhood memory brings me the picture of Appa hefting the dead body of a similarly sized male languor over his shoulder.
Anyway, my uncle tells me that nearby lived a Mr. Cooray. Everytime Mr. Cooray heard appa’s shotgun go off, he would come over ‘Ah, Mr. Hamid!’ he would say “ah yes Mr. Cooray, you can take it and go” Appa would reply. The monkey then met with an appetizing end in the stomachs of Cooray and family.
“Monkey meat was very popular with the veddahs no” I venture. “it’s also very popular in a certain East Asian country” says my uncle. He saw a TV show where they fastened live monkeys in holes in the dinner table so that only their heads over above the surface. The cook would then artfully open their skulls and the diners would pick out choice bits of live, vibrating monkey brain with their chopsticks. A later internet search reveals that this story is probably made up to discredit the Chinese.
I am now hurriedly trying to finish the rest of my lunch, my digestive system is giving me markedly dangerous vibes.
The next story again originates in that same East Asian country. They would take a whole dead buffalo, and stuff it in a concrete box. Worms would attack the carcass and become as big as bread loaves. Then they’d eat the worms. The internet has no record of such goings on.
My uncle is never short of a good story to tell, and he knows how to tell them. Countless hours he has regaled us with one story or another, some of them probably at least marginally apocryphal. Thankfully, by this time I am done and my uncle gets distracted by the prospect of dessert. I politely refuse some but soon change my mind, ice cream is ice cream, snake meat, monkey brains or buffalo worms notwithstanding.