01 March 2023

I am at Jaga Food, where are you?

I hadn’t heard of Jaga until a few years ago. And even on that day I met him, I didn’t have any idea who he was. My friend Tharindu Amunugama who has made it almost a life-mission of introducing me to landscapes, off-grid archaeological sites, cultural nuances and personalities took me to ‘Jaga Food.’ And, as is often the case, it was all unplann

We just happened to be approaching Polonnaruwa at an hour that was a fair distance from ‘breakfast.’ Someone might have mentioned lunch, I can’t really remember now. He said ‘I have a friend called Jagath, you’ll like him.’  

No questions asked. That’s also not unusual with Tharindu. A call was made, customary greetings and a smile: ‘let’s go.’  D9 Ela, Wel Para, Polonnaruwa. That was the address. A sign, a turn into a nondescript road through lush paddy fields and a carpark. And then passing a well maintained vegetable garden, what could be called an open larder replete with dry rations and firewood, and eventually the restaurant skirted by an irrigation canal looking out into a tract of paddyfields in the light green of that moment in the cultivation cycle.

And Jagath. Jaga. Recognition and a greeting no less warm to that accorded a first-time visitor, as I would soon find out. There followed predictable chit-chat about what brought us to this part of the country and an invitation to partake of the culinary feast that was neatly laid out at one end of the long, open, hall that was the restaurant. The food was in large earthenware pots, each accompanied by a label and the main ingredient. For example, there was a comb of ash plantains on a ledge above the row of pots, lined up adjacent to the ash plantain curry.  

Jaga may have spoken to us in Sinhala, I can’t remember, but he did explain the nutritional attributes of each and every food item. In fact he took the time to repeat all this in English to all the foreign tourists who had come for lunch. Every one of them.

It was one of the best meals ever, this I remember. But I also remember thinking that just being there was enough: the mind and heart would be adequately nourished if nourishment were required just sitting anywhere in that restaurant and just looking around.  

Jaga doesn’t maintain a visitors’ book. No formal facility for complaints, comments and suggestions. Just markers and an open invitation: write what you will, wherever you want. There was graffiti wherever you looked — the walls, parts of the ceiling, chairs, tables, pillars were covered with comments about Sri Lanka, the food, the ambience, Jaga himself, the hospitality and even a few political slogans (‘Free Palestine!’ demanded Elena and Susi from Italy in June 2019).

Among the hundreds of comments there were quite a few in English. All positive. Great food. Nice people. We will be back again. Amazing. Loved (this, that or the other but ‘everything was delicious’). Thanks. It’s all out there. No filters. In multiple languages.

Irrepressible. That’s the word I associate with Jana. He had a story and it is best that you ask him. Suffice to say that although life was unforgiving, but Jaga entertained no rancour. He has the imagination, drive, energy and resilience typical of those who would transform circumstances into residences they prefer to inhabit. Cheerfully.

There were a few kabaragoyas basking in the sun upon the lawn between the restaurant and canal: ‘they have got used to this place and they know there’s always food,’ Jaga explained. It’s not just human beings who partake of ‘Jaga Food,’ clearly.

I can’t remember what we ate. I can’t remember how it tasted except that it was ‘delicious.’ There are flavours that left a trace in my mind and that’s how I can write even this, three years later.

We went to ‘Jaga Food’ in early February 2000. Before Covid-19. Before economic collapse. There were places we wanted to visit during that trip: Kawdagala, Maduru Oya, Dimbulagala, Namal Pokuna, Maara Veediya, Gal Viharaya, Pothgul Viharaya among others. We planned to bathe at the Parakrama Samudraya or wherever there was a reservoir close to where we were when it felt right to take a dip.

Tharindu however is never in a hurry. He’s no box-ticker. Neither were we. We hadn’t heard of Jagath or Jaga Foods. We hadn’t planned to stop for lunch. When we decided it was lunch time, we didn’t think of how much time we would spend. Half an hour, an hour perhaps, might have been a notion in some corner of the mind. It’s been three years since we turned into D9 Ela, Wel Para, Polonnaruwa and I find myself sitting on the cement steps outside the restaurant, watching the kabaragoyas, fanned by breezes that must have stories about toil and stolen harvests from centuries ago, noticing a curve in the time dimension — good enough for a smile. 

['The Morning Inspection' is the title of a column I wrote for the Daily News from 2009 to 2011, one article a day, Monday through Saturday. This is a new series. Links to previous articles in this new series are given below]

Other articles in this series:

On separating the missing from the disappeared

Moments without tenses

And intangible republics will save the day (as they always have)

The world is made of waves


The circuitous logic of Tony Muller

Rohana Kalyanaratne, an unforgettable 'Loku Aiya'

Mowgli, the Greatest Archaeologist

Figures and disfigurement, rocks and roses

Sujith Rathnayake and incarcerations imposed and embraced

Some stories are written on the covers themselves

A poetic enclave in the Republic of Literature

Landcapes of gone-time and going-time 

The best insurance against the loud and repeated lie

So what if the best flutes will not go to the best flautists?

There's dust and words awaiting us at crossroads and crosswords

The books of disquiet

A song of terraced paddy fields

Of ants, bridges and possibilities

From A through Aardvark to Zyzzyva 

World's End

Words, their potency, appropriation and abuse

Street corner stories

Who did not listen, who's not listening still?

The book of layering

If you remember Kobe, visit GOAT Mountain

The world is made for re-colouring

The gift and yoke of bastardy

The 'English Smile'

No 27, Dickman's Road, Colombo 5

Visual cartographers and cartography

Ithaca from a long ago and right now

Lessons written in invisible ink

The amazing quality of 'equal-kindness'

A tea-maker story seldom told

On academic activism

The interchangeability of light and darkness

Back to TRADITIONAL rice

Sisterhood: moments, just moments

Chess is my life and perhaps your too

Reflections on ownership and belonging

The integrity of Nadeesha Rajapaksha

Signatures in the seasons of love

To Maceo Martinet as he flies over rainbows

Sirith, like pirith, persist

Fragrances that will not be bottled 

Colours and textures of living heritage

Countries of the past, present and future

A degree in creative excuses

Books launched and not-yet-launched

The sunrise as viewed from sacred mountains

The ways of the lotus

Isaiah 58: 12-16 and the true meaning of grace

The age of Frederick Algernon Trotteville

Live and tell the tale as you will

Between struggle and cooperation

Of love and other intangibles

Neruda, Sekara and literary dimensions

The universe of smallness

Paul Christopher's heart of many chambers

Calmness gracefully cascades in the Dumbara Hills

Serendipitous amber rules the world

Continents of the heart The allegory of the slow road