Twelve years ago, Shanaka Fernando created Lentil as Anything, a vegetarian restaurant in Melbourne with a unique philosophy: no set prices, instead relying on people’s generosity to survive. Here, he recalls a profound dining experience in the wilds of Sri Lanka, his birthplace, which showed him the true meaning of a life lived simply.
By
Shanaka Fernando

10 May 2013 - 4:29 PM  UPDATED 13 Sep 2013 - 5:21 PM

The weird and wonderful life of the forest unfolded in front of our eyes. The mosquitoes are so large they are an impediment to their own defence. Whack , I got one. Whack, whack. Whack. The sun was surrendering to a cacophony of jungle noises. What a day. Chased by a rogue elephant with ears wildly flapping, trunk raised, like a possessed voodoo dancer, we dive into our car and zoom across a flooded bridge, praying the car is on the right trajectory. Initially, I had waded across the bridge in knee-deep water only to realise that the log floating towards me was a three-metre crocodile. Luckily, the car, with Madonna’s Like a Virgin blaring out of the radio, followed me closely, and scared it away.

As we continued into the forest we saw an errant baby elephant brought back into line by its mother with a few thwacks on its rump from a branch in her trunk; a leopard idling on a tree, and a raven fighting a tarantula. This was the Yala National Park in Sri Lanka – I was showing off my country of birth to my visiting in-laws from Australia.

We arrived at our safari bungalow to the sounds of the Indian Ocean and its thundering waves. The winds were a relief from the intense heat and humidity. I left the family and went for a walk along the beach. It was incredible to feel the wilderness of land and ocean. My imagination frolicked on what events this sand might have hosted: crocodiles doing the dance of Rama; elephants moon-baking to the commentary of the crickets; a leopard wading in the glow of a thousand fireflies.

I looked behind to realise that I was at least a couple of miles away from civilisation. I saw someone walking towards me carrying an umbrella. Not a cloud in the sky! Sri Lankans carry umbrellas when walking in the sun. It is prestigious to have fair skin, protect it and even bleach it.

I was hungry, tired and about to turn around, but something arrested my attention. I noticed a plume of smoke rising into the sky a little inland. There was a beaten track leading to it. Instinctively,
I followed. It ended at a dry-cow-dung walled hut, held together by a bamboo and stick frame. The sweet aroma of chilli, coconut milk and moringa leaves cooking was crippling my senses. “Anybody home?” I called out.

“Come in sir, come in,” a gruff voice came from inside.

Tentatively, I entered, to be greeted by a leathery-skinned, bearded old man hunched over a clay pot. Despite a blazing wood fire under the clay pot, the hut was cool. There was a camp bed in a corner. The floor was bare earth. A kerosene lamp hung off a deer horn on the wall. The entire dwelling was about three metres in width and depth.
The man sat on a log. There was another log opposite him, a naked mannequin leant against the far wall and a Michael Jackson calendar hung off the wall. “Hi sir, my name is Julian, you have to try my crab curry.”

“It smells amazing,” I said. “Where did you get the crabs from?”

“They are river crabs, I caught them this morning. The river is up and there are plenty of crabs around. The only problem is that you have to be careful of the crocodiles.”

“Yes, I know, the bridge was flooded so I crossed it and almost got eaten by one.”

“Yes I know, I saw you,” said Julian. “You were lucky. There are hundreds of crocodiles there…”

By now, the fire had died and the crabs were cooked. I was starving. There was a pot of rice on the ground, steamed to perfection. An old coconut shell was our serving spoon. Julian served me rice onto an old, warped blue-and-white tin plate. I was already eyeing which piece of crab I wanted: a fat, juicy critter dressed in an orange, creamy gravy. I reached for it, spooned some gravy over, and then my fingers plunged into it. Heaven.

We ate in silence for a whole 10 minutes, each mouthful a story to write home about. The blend of spices had destroyed any scope for blandness. Then, he spoke:

“When I was growing up, my father was an alcoholic. He would come home drunk and assault me for no reason. I would run away and hide in the bush until he fell asleep. Then one day, he beat me with a stick. My mum died when I was six. I had to fend for myself and my dad, but that day was too much. So I ran.

“I kept running until the darkness started to set in. Exhausted, I climbed a fig tree and fell asleep on a large branch. When I awoke the next morning, I saw a leopard asleep on the same tree, about five metres away. When I climbed down, as quietly as I could, it opened one eye and closed it again. I knew I was being looked after. Maybe it didn’t like the soap I was using! That morning, I decided to never return home.

“I built this shack and have lived here since. I was 12 at the time. Now I think I’m about 68. I have everything I need. I hunt for my food; the forest has everything I need. There are lots of leaves and fruit I have discovered; people in the village don’t realise that these are edible. Some leaves heal me when I’m sick. This is a special place, sir. The forest is my mother and father. The animals are my brothers and sisters.

“It’s nice to have visitors,” he continued. “I do get a bit lonely sometimes. A couple of times I tried having a woman to share my life. First, it lasted one week. The second time, it lasted three months.
I think the women get spoiled by all the luxury. Having all this furniture to dust and tidy. You never know when the Queen of England might turn up. It’s best to be ready. Don’t you think?”

His face broke into an enormous smile that revealed perfect red teeth. Sri Lankans chew on betel nut leaves as a pastime.

“This is my third wife,” said Julian, pointing to the naked mannequin. “A German tourist gave her to me.”

Gosh, that’s when I realised it was a blow-up doll!

“She doesn’t do the dusting and tidying, but doesn’t complain much either. I don’t put many clothes on her because she gets hot.”

His next words got drowned out by a staccato of gunfire. Ratatat tat. Silence for a few seconds, then again, ratatat tat.

“What’s that?” I said to Julian.

"That’s tigers, sir.”

"Tigers?"

“Yes sir, the Tamil Tigers. They are probably shooting their dinner. Last week, they brought me some wild boar. They are good people, sir. Us Sinhalese have done them great wrong. They are our brothers and sisters, and yet, we didn’t allow them to feel part of the family. Now see what’s happened?”

I must say that I found this a very confronting view of the conflict. As a Sinhalese person exposed to the atrocities by the Tamil Tigers, here was a moment that urged me to look beyond the rage and hatred. If we can bring ourselves to consider the hunger of ‘our enemy’, then there is hope.

Even though we were in the south-east corner of the island, the conflict had spread to these parts, the forest being conducive to guerilla warfare. Suddenly, I realised that it was starting to get dark.
I had been mesmerised by a man who had lived in the forest for 56 years – by his strength, his simplicity and his resourcefulness.

“Sir, before you go, can we listen to the forest for two minutes?”

“Of course,” I said.

After a profoundly entertaining silence, he looked at me, smiled and said, “What do you think?”

“I hope I get to a point when I will stop running too,” I said. “What were you thinking?” I asked him.

He laughed and said, “I think Sri Lanka will win the next cricket World Cup.”

It was 1993.