My first sip, the bitter one

In Sri Lanka, Catholics celebrated their local church feasts in grand style. It was a big deal for them. Let me explain what a church feast is. Every church was dedicated to a saint, the likes of St. Anthony, St. Sebastian, and a myriad of 500 odd popular saints. The church feast was celebrated on the closest Sunday to its saint’s birthday.

Being Catholics, the church feasts were a big part of our family’s calendar. These events were bigger than the Christmas celebrations.

The festival attracted large crowds of visitors attending the church services. After the morning mass, most of the visitors called on their relatives, and parishioners of the church and spent the day with them.

After extensive preparations, by noon on the festive Sunday, food was served to visitors in a luscious setting. Just before food, a bottle of arrack, the local brew exchanged hands among the adult males. For them, it was an honour to share a shot with relatives. It was a symbol of their fraternity and long blood connections. It was a ritual for the males.

As a kid, I loved attending church feasts of our relatives with my parents and siblings. It was where we met our cousins, second cousins, aunties, uncles, granduncles, and grand aunties. Even relatives connected from four to five generations ago. Every kid looked forward to these family reunions. While male adults chatted in the verandah, females chatted in the kitchen and the hall. The boys and girls played in the yard, enjoying their freedom.

Now, I was a pubescent boy about twelve years old. We were at the church feast at Mabima Seeya, my grand uncle’s home. He was the patriarch of my mother’s family. It was in his local church my grandparents had married some forty years prior. This particular feast and gathering at the ancestral home of my grandparents, now occupied by my grand uncle was a significant and prominent event in our family’s calendar.

On that day, Mabima Seeya enjoyed being the host, performing as a true patriarch. The lunch was ready and served. Men were having their drink, sharing a bottle of arrack just before their meal. Suddenly, Mabima Seeya called me to his side. I was not surprised by the overture because Mabima Seeya and I had a close relationship from my frequent stays with him during the school holidays. I sat between my father and Mabima Seeya now at the adults’ table. The adults were finishing their drinks of arrack.

Mabima Seeya — an illustration

Then Mama Seeya did the unthinkable. He poured a very small dose of arrack, the local liquor into a small glass. Looking at me, he said, “This is good for your worms”. I had never drunk arrack before and I was surprised. Then, Mabima Seeya looked at my father for his approval. My father nodded giving his approval for me to have my first drink, tapping me on my back. The first thing I felt was a sense of importance, being invited to sit with the adults and now to drink with them.

Then, I hesitated to look at this brown coloured drink in a small glass. It was a very small drink, maybe 10 millilitres. I was stalling yet. My father tapped me again on my shoulder, encouraging me to take a sip. As I approached the pungent liquid nearing my mouth, I inhaled the strong aroma, imagining that I was a grown man, big enough to have a drink on my own.

I was fooling myself. The liquor tasted awful and had a flavour that I had not experienced before. I grimaced and wiped my mouth with a napkin straight after my only sip. Some of the uncles around the table clapped laughing. Was it for my bravery or embarrassment? I was not sure.

My father tapped again on my shoulder, perhaps to reassure me.

I thought to myself why all these men would put themselves at such inconveniences to drink this insipid drink. All I wanted was to wash my mouth, to get rid of that awful taste.

Then my mother came from nowhere, seeing me sitting in the middle of men with their drinks retorted. “Who gave drinks when he is still a boy”, looked at my father, somewhat annoyed. Mabima Seeya quickly diffused the situation with a smile, “We gave the boy a drink to kill his worms”. My mother cooled off, smiling at her favourite uncle, and retreated without looking at me or my father.

I did not take another sip for many years until I was about sixteen years old.

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Artwork illustrations belong to the author.

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About my grand uncle, Mabima Seeya, and his great influence on me

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Lifelong learner, tech enthusiast, photographer, occasional artist, servant leader, avid reader, storyteller and more recently a budding writer

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Denzil Jayasinghe

Denzil Jayasinghe

Lifelong learner, tech enthusiast, photographer, occasional artist, servant leader, avid reader, storyteller and more recently a budding writer