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Remembering the string-hopper women of Jaffna and others on May Day

| by Pearl Thevanayagam

(May 01, 2014, Bradford UK, Sri Lanka Guardian ) Sharp at 7.00 am I used to rush to Kaveri’s house to collect two rupees’ worth of string-hoppers and sambal for breakfast before we set off to school. Kaveri was stingy with the sambal but she always gave me a small stool to sit on since the kitchen was made of thatched roof with earthen floor neatly polished in cow-dung. The hearth consisted of three separate firewood burners so she could speed up her cooking.

She would ignore her two nephews who would come for their own breakfast until she catered to me since their father had died of snake-poisoning and the widow depended on her sister’s benevolence.

Three years later in 1966 we moved to Jaffna Town to be closer to Holy Family Convent and I was most distraught since I wondered how I would get my favourite breakfast of string-hoppers. The first thing I asked my mother was could we still have string hoppers for breakfast.

I need not have worried since there were three string-hopper women who walked all the way from Ariyalai – a good two mile trek – balancing the basket full of still-hot string-hoppers and sambal on their head and they arrived at 7.00 am, 7.30 am and 8.00 am respectively so that if you missed one you had two others to depend on.

I would instruct my mother to get the fish monger to give otti fish (I do no not what it is called in English but it is a flat fish with stripes measuring eight inches at the most) and serve me string hoppers for lunch instead of the boring rice which she always did. To this day I would opt for string-hoppers instead of rice.

Unfortunately, these women had no protection from the government such as EPF and ETF and they spent their entire lives slaving over hot hearth inhaling carbon fumes and coughing their lungs out. They were dependent on the mercy of her customers such as my mother who would generously allow them to take home coconuts and dried palm fronds for fuel from our compound.

Then there were these women from Point Pedro who used to come during the afternoon with manioc and ellurandai the size of a tennis ball. These are not just gingelly seeds. These are a concoction of palmyrah jaggery, ulundu and gingelly and my sister who was the netball captain was fortified with this delicacy before a big match and under her captaincy HFC beat Mahamaya for the first time in the sixties.

May this tribe of women who fed us be remembered on this day for workers. They are a silent minority among minorities and while the NPC is focussing on solving the ethnic problem it would bode well if they could focus for a brief moment on the women who sustain Jaffna culture and tradition and give them their dues by way of raising their standard of living through an assured income and pension plan.

(The writer has been a journalist for 25 years and worked in national newspapers as sub-editor, news reporter and news editor. She was Colombo Correspondent for Times of India and has contributed to Wall Street Journal where she was on work experience from The Graduate School of Journalism, UC Berkeley, California. Currently residing in UK she is also co-founder of EJN (Exiled Journalists Network) UK in 2005 the membership of which is 200 from 40 countries. She can be reached at thevanayagampearl@yahoo.co.uk)

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