Artwork by Asif Hoque
In Sri Lanka, hooniyan, or witchcraft, is a commonly accepted fact of life. Every Bhagya, Kasun and Tharushi has a story about being hexed by a vengeful nemesis, behaving regrettably while under the influence of a love potion, or watching on as a friend or family member writhed in the throes of possession by a spirit trapped in the hell realms. It’s unlikely you’ll find someone willing to admit to being the caster of the spell, unless of course, they were acting in self-defence.
Take my Achi-amma – well, technically she was my mai-achi (great grandma) – but to make it easier we called her Achi.
Amma says that when she was little, Achi would point to the most lavish, sprawling colonial era mansions in Kandy and declare, “I used to live there.” They brushed her off, thinking her pissu, or crazy, until one day my uncle visited the mansion and found that her unlikely story checked out.
Turns out that when Achi was a punci kella (little girl) her family was filthy rich. That is, until her thaatha decided to give evidence in court against a local fellow who had been up to some skulduggery. After that, things went south fast: her thaatha fell ill and lost all of his riches. His nine children, including Achi, had to live in the jungle and hunt wild rats to survive. Turns out the skulduggerist had Achi’s thaatha hexed to get his revenge. How else to explain the sudden demise?
All her life, Achi was obsessed with the Hindu goddess Pathini. When she was 16, her boyfriend got her knocked up. He was at the train station about to leave town like a spineless coward, when a very old lady appeared and demanded he get the hell back to his girlfriend before she killed him. He obliged and over time, grew attached to Achi. A quiet and diligent government worker with, despite that teenage malfunction, a strong sense of duty, he worked hard to provide a humble paycheck each week for the seven children Achi eventually bore. She understood the woman at the train station to be the human embodiment of Pathini, descended from the heavens to protect teenage girls in a bind.
My earliest memories of Sri Lanka center around fancy hotels with elaborate, bountiful buffets that put the Last Supper to shame. Overfed hotel guests imbibe on bottomless, culinary apparitions, while out of view, cheerful hotel staff work tirelessly to replenish stocks. A couple of decades on I can’t say for sure whether those buffets were really that monolithic. It was my first time at the rodeo, after all. Either way, I will always remember the mid to late 90s as a heyday of Sri Lankan buffets that has been unrivalled ever since.
And amidst all that hedonism was Achi carefully wrapping banis (that’s sweet buns for you English speakers following at home) in napkins and stuffing them into her handbag. I guess it’s the Asian equivalent of grandmothers who lived through World War II and have been stockpiling their pantries with canned tomatoes ever since.
Achi also had a habit of cornering my sister and I in a bedroom, opening a window, and pitching said banis out the window, before bursting into peals of maniacal laughter. It was an effective way to bridge the language barrier.
When Achi’s daughter (my grandmother) got divorced, she was very upset. She took to running around the house, wailing and crying out that she had been cursed, and generally carrying on like a pork chop. Everyone just thought she was drunk – she’d developed a penchant for arrack by that stage – and upset on account of her dhuwa bringing shame to the family name.
Years later, after Achi had passed, my grandmother ran into some people who had lived nearby around the time Achi was losing it.
“Oh yes, of course I remember your mother. So terrible how the male shop owners put a hex on her because they didn’t want a woman owning shops. Unbelievable!”
My grandmother was devastated that she’d failed to understand that when Achi said she was cursed, she meant it in the literal hooniyan sense of the word.
Oh well, Achi wasn’t one to let a hex get in the way of a good time. She left this world stealing and pitching her beloved banis out the window until the bitter end, as if to say “curse me if you dare, universe!”