Friday, January 15, 2016

Thai Pongol, the consistency of milk rice, and what I've learned about Sri Lanka.

The dramatic holiday of Thai Pongol, celebrated by Tamil people around the world, is upon us. Thai Pongol is an agriculture-based holiday that I'm told always falls on January 14th or 15th. The sun is thanked for the energy it provides for farmers (and for all of us-who exist thanks to the food they produce). What an amazingly scientific concept! In agricultural communities farm animals are also commemorated, decorated, and thanked. Thai Pongol starts at dawn with a cooking pot of milk rice that is set to boil over. It's a beautiful thing to see. Later in the day the "Pongol" is prepared with jaggery, cashews, cardamom pods, and other ingredients. 

This morning my dear host and friend Mr. Thavarajah ordered breakfast for me before we took a little trip to Pasakudah Beach with his son Darshan. It was a lovely portion of milk rice and hot spicy  seemi sambol, precursors to the Pongol disn that comes later. 

Milk rice is a delicacy. Rice that has been cooked in coconut milk is rich and aromatic, smooth and delectable. It's like nothing you've ever had, especially if you eat it with your fingers (as we do here). 

I like milk rice everywhere. I've had it in Jaffna and Colombo and in the rural south and in distant Hambantota. But I never had anything like what I was served this morning. The moist sensual consistency, the purity of color, and I have to say the love with which it was prepared set it apart and surprised me. A supremely smooth dish startled me with its adorable softness. 

So what have I learned (or what do I think I've learned) in Sri Lanka? My new friend Lili Herman, a professor at RISD, shared her students with me yesterday. She was also kind enough to share her brilliant, inspired, and idealistic thoughts with me. Her approach to teaching (what she-modestly I think-calls the RISD approach) is a wonderful thing. And I'm happy to say close to the way I run shop with my students--egalitarianism-exploration-abstraction-connection. And her social action project here in Batticaloa is equally compelling. And possibly game-changing. 

But this morning as I tucked into my milk rice (fingers first) I got to wondering. What is Thai Pongol? What is the consistency of this day? Does the milk rice give us a clue? What does it tell us about the way we interact-or can interact-with this deeply complex culture?

You stick your fingers into the milk rice and relish its consistency. You mix it and ball it up and get ready to savor it. But you don't change its consistency or the way it's put together. Maybe Sri Lanka is the same. It's built of an amalgam of ingredients that produce a particular texture-one you can't quite determine, let alone change. We may stick our fingers into this gorgeous milk rice of a country with all our good intentions and ingenious concepts. But it is Sri Lanka, a place of enigmatic and unadulterable consistency, something we from the outside cannot change. 

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