Food and Drink 

Feasts for the common beggars

Fittingly for a novel set in the green and dirt world of a poor boy born to a poorer farmer in Ceylon (Sri Lanka) of the 1900s - more so for one with Beggar's Feast as its title and overarching metaphor - food and feasting, satirical, symbolic and otherwise, pop up early and often in Randy Boyagoda's wonderful new book.

Within the first hundred words, Boyagoda, one of the brighter lit-stars at this year's Whistler Readers & Writers Festival (October 14-16), introduces us to a young boy, known only as "the boy" until later nicknamed, humiliated, by his teacher-monk as Squirrel, an eight-year-old version of the protagonist, self-named, self-made Sam Kandy, catching a glimpse of a rare treat clutched in his father's hand to entice him to chase a crow and prove himself - a piece of jaggery, a coarse, hard brown sugar made in South Asia from palm tree sap.

But poor Squirrel doesn't get the jaggery. He fails to frighten away the crow, so the sugar-candy goes to younger brothers. Another failed attempt on this ninth birthday means that year's proffered bowl of white curd and treacle gets dumped on the ground.

By contrast, the village astrologer's husband, in a position of power leavened with the potential of hope as apparent as the lack of same in the lives of the boy and his family, scores when he comes to visit the boy's family at lunchtime, as is his habit.

The lunch is of "rice, a thumb-print of dried fish for his father's plate, dhal, limp long slices of salt-and-peppered papaya and combs of finger-long plantains." The father's plate of food goes to the visitor.

Food and how it's negotiated, desired, ignored lives large and reveals much about power, classicism and plain humanness in this boy's world conjured up in a long ago colonial Ceylon, conquered by the British East India Company, coveted by the Dutch for its cinnamon bark.

Another brilliant new novel by a Canadian author - some say our preeminent one - who also has Sri Lankan blood in his veins, configures the world of another young Ceylonese boy, this one on a 1950s voyage hinged on a metaphor of dining and position.

The cat's table of Michael Ondaatje's finely written The Cat's Table is originally a German expression for that table at the edge of the banquet hall, at the back of the dining room where society's odds and sods, the misfits and outcasts are seated, furthest from the brightest, the prettiest, the star attractions, the most socially powerful and desirable. Today we call them celebrities.

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