Sarath and his family live above the railway line at Heeloya near Bandarawela, their road dug out of the red earth on the railway bank.
Driving up to the house takes skill. The first section is the hardest – especially after the rains – and Sarath sometimes has to make a couple of attempts. He finds his angle, then charges the lane like a bull. Further on, he nurses the car over the uneven ground. It tips and rolls gently before Sarath presses down hard on the accelerator again.
When I dream of Sri Lanka, I dream of Heeloya and the house with the wraparound balcony above the railway line. I still remember the first time I came here; when I’d looked out over the valley to the schoolgirls walking the train track in crisply-ironed white and green; behind them, the watery paddy fields reflecting the hills and the forest beyond.
Sarath’s son, Amila, on that first visit showed me their field of vegetables that drops down to the track, then we walked back up to the house with its veranda displaying a bas-relief in clay of deer and a bird feeding her young in the woodland – the work of Sarath’s wife, an artist.
And I’d felt an affiliation with this place and with this Hill Country family.
As with that first visit, Lakshmi takes us straight to the table on arrival – its surface spread with sweet cakes, savouries and fruit.
“Tea?” Lakshmi asks.
I remember the sweet condensed milk Sri Lankans tend to serve and say: “No milk.”
“No milk?” She looks at me with dark anxious eyes.
She frowns, then straightens her back and smiles.
She looks at me doubtfully.
“No milk? No sugar?”
“No milk. No sugar. Just black tea, please.”
Lakshmi had brought us tea with milk anyway, probably thinking she had misunderstood me: How could anyone drink the bitter plant without sweetening it?
Sri Lankans add three, four, five, even six or seven spoonfuls to their brew.
And for the next few times thereafter, she continues to ask if we would like milk or sugar. It is as if the idea of unsweetened tea was inconceivable.
But she realises after a while that we’re set on the black bitter brew. She watches us pour the hot water from the tall china pot and dip the Lipton’s teabags quickly in and out of our cups and follows our lips as we drink the tea, smiling encouragingly – but I imagine she gives a small shudder inside.
Sarath and Lakshmi’s neighbour further down the earthen road shakes his head at the Sri Lankan’s penchant for sugar. The headmaster looks at us gloomily and says: “White poison.”
In Sri Lanka, diabetes is the biggest killer. We, in the West, have a different set of vices… and killers.