real life

"My most important family treasure..."

My grandmother (aged 85 and in good health) is obsessed with her own death. This is disconcerting for family because obviously we are worried about it too and we don’t want to be reminded regularly by her that it “is about to happen, any day now”.

For example, one of her favourite conversations is asking us which pieces of her jewellery we would like, “after I’m gone”. She has instructed us that immediately upon her death, we are to strip her body of her jewellery, “whilst it’s still warm”. The “it” being her body, not the jewellery. The reason for this urgency is because “you never know what those rascals at the morgue might take”. Clearly morgues in Sri Lanka operated under a different code of ethics to their Australian counterparts, as this troubles my grandmother deeply (and regularly), despite the fact that she has lived in Sydney for the last 30 years.

When our family moved into our new home last year, my grandmother came to perform the traditional Sri Lankan house-blessing. She boiled the first pot of milk for us and as the milk rose and bubbled over, we all prayed that our house would be blessed with abundance – that our milk pot would always runneth over.  As she left, my grandmother said to me:

“You know, you’re very lucky I’ve lived to see you move into your own home. I never thought I would make it.”

To which I replied, “I know, I really thought you’d be dead by now.”

My grandmother helped raise me, so she knows humour is my last line of defence.

A couple of weeks ago we visited my grandparents for Tamil New Year. As she does every year, she had prepared a small shrine which consists of an old steel pot of water, into which a coconut is placed and adorned with mango leaves. The pot is placed on a bed of uncooked rice. My grandmother uses paddy – this is rice that has been harvested but not processed. It is still in its husk. My grandmother’s rice was given to her in 1961 by her own mother, when she moved into her home in Colombo. She lived in that house for 22 years and it was home to five generations and countless members of our family.


In 1983 many of the Tamil suburbs of Colombo were burned to the ground. Families that were lucky enough to survive often left Sri Lanka with nothing but the clothes they were wearing. My grandparents were very fortunate. They lived in a safe suburb and when they were forced to leave their home, they still had time to choose what they would take with them. My grandmother chose the jar of paddy rice (and all the jewellery she could wear). That paddy has crossed oceans and continents, it survived a pogrom and Australian Customs officials.

It has been used in the wedding rituals of her children and grandchildren and it has seen 51 New Years, 22 in Colombo and 29 in Sydney. It is invested with the blessings and aspirations of my great-grandmother, who hoped that her daughter would have a life filled with the riches of health, happiness and children. That rice has some serious ju-ju and of all the heirlooms my grandmother keeps trying to distribute, it is one of the most valuable.

When I saw my grandmother for Tamil New Year, I asked her how she was going. She said: “I’m just ticking on, waiting for the call.”

To which I said: “Hopefully they’ve lost your number.”

She laughed.

Shankari Chandran is a recent returner to Australia after ten years in London. Formerly a social justice lawyer, Shankari chronicles the day-to-day of her family’s return on her blog here.

What is your most valued family heirloom?