Come August / September, there is a smile in every Malayali's face and heart. It is the official excuse for us to eat, sing and be merry. Why, you ask us? Its because it is Onam - Kerala's own festival of Harvest!
There are things that we want very well defined - like the color and the feel of our clothes, like the dimensions of our house; and there are some things which are never defined - like our festivals. It simply means has its own unique meanings to everyone. And conveniently, we all take it to mean what we want it to mean!
For foodies (like me :) ), it is an excuse - and an official one at that - to eat more ( lovingly refered to as Ona Sadya ), for kids - it is an excuse not to study and to expect new clothes, for the new city bred middle class - it is a formal excuse to splurge at an exquisite restaurant ( and not the same one that they went all week, anyways :) ), and for those menfolk, nay, married menfolk, whose better halves control their reach to their favorite bitter liquids, it is an official excuse to bring out those bottles and enjoy them with their friends!
I have lots of fond memories (and quite so many almost withered photographs) of my own Onam celebrations. The first thing to think of during Onam are the pookkalams - the design made by colorful flowers. In those times, entrepreneurs hadn't commercialized our lives as much, so, for us short kids in shorts, it was nothing short of an expedition in the early morning to get ( pick, jump and pick, jump and steal :) ) as many flowers as we could get ( and get them before other kids get them or the neighbor wakes up to safeguard his little garden :) ). Once the collection is over, you hand it over to the experts - the parents, the uncles and aunts who would then use all their imagination to make pretty designs on the floor with them. Some geometrical, some color patterned - but there was one thing that was always there - they were always pretty and beautiful!
Almost in all the Onams that i can remember, i got the Onakkodi - the new clothes! My face would lighten up at the sight of those new clothes and i would try to be in them in no time flat. There were no brands, no fancy labels, but the just the fact that you are wearing something new was more than any other joy! There was only one more joy, that could overpower this one - the one that is caused by the lifting smell of the OnaSadya!
More than the varieties of food ( and the pappadoms - oh the pappadoms! - the crispy crispy fried wafers! ) it was the variety of people around that used to make me happy - All the uncles, the aunts, the parents, the grand parents - it was an occasion when the whole big house would turn into a big home by the loud conversations, the laughter and the happiness. Those few days, everyone would forget all the trouble of the day to day life - the togetherness would cover all that.
After the Sadya, after everyone has cleaned up, slowly one by one everyone would try to catch up few winks of sleep. The entire family would be in the same room, lying on the cold red oxide floors or on bamboo mats, chitchatting with each others, the voices slowly, lazily transitioning into silence or light snores.
You know how these politicians spoil everything for you? :) They had my parents convinced (like pretty much all the other parents, i guess ) that good education is a must have for all growing kids. It was already bad enough with the milk and vegetables, now education too ? :( Anyways, my parents were convinced and they took me off to Ranchi, where my father was employed, to make me join a bigger school and continue my studies. But then, to their credit, they did keep the tradition of Onam live, in our hearts and in our home!
Onam was still the day to expect good food and new clothes. It was just that the North Indian School mgmt found no reasons to give a week of holidays to the kids for some king visiting the Southern State of Kerala. ( Don't know legend? Look here! ) We might have moved physically away, miles up north, from the family in Kerala - from all those uncles, aunts, grand parents, but we had found our family here too. The colony where we lived had a very healthy group of malayalees an Onam was a reason for the dearest friends to come together, cook and eat the Sadya together. I still remember all the fun, laughter and cheer that the crowd would have at our house, people crowding to cut vegetables, to cook - the only difference, for me , was to convince my father that Onam was reason enough not to study ( I think the above said politicians had influenced by father much more than my grandparents - so it was as much more difficult to convince )
Those were the days the telephone numbers still 3 digits or at best 4, the TVs had antennas and the only network signal strength that we were all worried about were the Doordarshan TV strength! So the Onam was also the time write many letters - to all the family and near and dear friends, not a real substitute for the chitchatter while sliding to sleep in the cold red oxide floor, but it would convey all the happiness, all the cheer and the closeness that we felt with the same strength!
"Onam weekend" also made its official entry - the weekend when the Malayalee Association would hold the Onam festivities in the community center - cultural activities that included a Pookkalam competition, a very elaborate OnaSadya and a screening of a Malayalam film ( which almost always turned into a fashion show to showcase who had the best looking clothes :) )
Education or no education, it was not stopping me from growing up. towards my college time, the Indian govt, gracefully accepted my father's request for a transfer and relocated us to Chennai - In south India, neighboring our home state, Kerala. Time might have changed a lot of things, our address, our outlook, our clothes and shoes - but Onam still held a very special place in my hart. Along with the faded jeans, the graphic t shirts and Michael Jackson the city life had brought along its own influences - and so did it bring compromises on the Onam celebrations. The Pookkalams were restricted to the "live telecast of the Pookkalam competition from our studios". It was no more "cool" to wear shiny new clothes.. :). But one thing remained - The OnaSadya ( with the pappadums, oh those crispy fried pappadums ). Since it would have been such a drag to prepare the elaborate Sadya for just the three of us in the family, my friends were usually invited for the lunch. Some of them, throughly enjoyed it, but for some others, it used to be a refresher course in "100 different ways to use coconut in food items!" :) With my father being the eager host that he is, he would always ensure that the "guests" always eat to his, which usually was much more than their, fill :) After the fulfilling food, all of us would just crash out on the couch, and my mother would walk in with the small bowls of Payasam!! How much ever full we were, we would all invite this with smiles!
After the heavy Sadya and the payasam, my friends and I would chitchat about girls, about classes and making plans of catching up in the evening. The evening was to be my "treat" in any of the local chaat shops. The official Onam weekend still remained, but transitioned to a eve of Onam festivals at our college hostel. More of cooking, more of fun, more of festivities. I still remember one Tug of War competition which was between the lecturers and the admin staff of the college - and in the middle, the rope just gave way. As the lecturers piled on one another, there was a rush from the "organizing committee" to the kitchen!!! :)
As much as i was growing, so was technology and so were the digits in the phone numbers - they had increased to 7 digits from those 3 and 4 digits. One of those 7 digits also adorned our wooden cabinet. The long letters were now replaced by the long set of digits that we had to dial to speak to each of our friends and family. As much as the Inland Letter would limit the words in the letter, the fear of a huge telephone bill would ensure short wishes and small conversations! The only letter that still remained was the long distance aerogramme which would carry our wishes through the letter to our relatives living across the seas. making an overseas call would have tremendous impact on the telephone bills and were as yet forbidden acts at home! Along with these 7 digit wonders, some more things had changed, Doordarshan had given way to the Stars and the MTVs of the world. So as my parents and i cleaned up after the lunch, and lied down in the cold concrete floor of our flat, we would turn to the TV to watch the "Onam Special Malayalam Movie" !! Slowly, the conversations in the movie would transition to our light snores! :)
the nuclear family slowly gave way to the family of friends - and that was really a big group once i completed my education and moved on employment. Onam pookkalams moved back into my real life from those telecasted in the TV's - but there were slight differences though. Those homely events were now called "Corporate Motivational Events" and moved to the tiled and marbled floors of our offices. The search for the bright colorful flowers in the misty chilly mornings with friends were replaced by vroom filled motorcycle trips in the previous night to the crowded hot dusty flower bazaars. The fear of getting caught while nipping flowers from our neighbors Garden were replaced by the fear of not getting enough budget from our bosses to buy them! The simple eloquent color patterns were replaced by complex designs, downloaded from the Internet. The child's simple and wide-eyed "oooh - look at our neighbors designs, that is so pretty" were replaced the youth's competitive ' Look at them, their design has more colors, lets also get some more colors! - Lets google for more designs!!!!"
The thrill of wearing new dresses had transitioned to a fancy dress show aptly titled, Traditional dress days by our employers! This bought the comical melange of traditional "Mundu" being worn by very un-traditional youngsters so used to the jeans and baggies! So mundu's usually would be accompanied by a tightly worn leather belt around the waist to ensure no mishaps! :) And there would definitely be one of those jokers, who would conveniently forget that bright colored underpants would show up through the simple attire :). Colorful Saris and Salwars fought for attention among shiny silk Kurtas in the office space that would usually witness a flurry of light blue and white shirts! Even the OnaSadya had its own transition. The lovely aromas of home cooked food were replaced by wide eyes of those beautiful Sadya photos in the restaurant websites. The happy crowding around the dining table by the family was replaced by the still happy crowding at the local restaurant among thousand other folks!
Along with the wallets ( that would pay for the elaborate OnaSadya ) that would be artfully placed at some place in the mundu, shirt pocket or the belt,every person was also adorned with one more weapon - that of the mobile phones!. The short conversations after the long list of digits got changed to cryptic text messages sent as bulk to 523 names in the address book. The joy of hearing the family's voice in the phone was replaced by the joy of hearing the continuous "beep-beeps" as more and more friends and family sent the same messages to your phone!
Times changed, practices changed - and yet the festival keep coming back to us year after year.
Here i am now, sitting in a foreign country, looking at a blinking monitor as mails keep dropping in. It's just another work day here. Cars ply carrying their coffee drinking drivers to offices, people walk past each other engrossed in their BlackBerrys. A bowl of steamy Oats cereal sits on my table as i rewind my fond memories in my head. Feels very funny to look out and not see even a small sign of a festival. In India, irrespective of where you are, you could always look out nd see some sign of a regional festival - a corner temple having too many sandals outside, a sweet shop having a crowded stall, a child walking gleefully in new shiny dress holding her father's hands, loud conversation snips carried by the wind talking with laughter and carrying the wishes - there would be something that infect you with the pleasantness and cheer of the festival.
As i turn my gaze from the window, i can hear my wife in the other room, using the latest technology of internet based calling to wish all our family and friends a Happy Onam. No worry of a huge bills, no cryptic messages - the same long winded talks that you would have had if the family was sitting next to each other.I Can hear small snips of her conversations - wishing families happy Onam - inquiring about the Sadya - and i am suddenly drawn into a feeling of goodwill and cheer. Drawn to the togetherness that has somehow traveled across the globe from our family to wrap its warm hands around us.
It lasts a fleeting instant to be destroyed by the continuous "beeps" of new emails buzzing in. But it is enough - it makes my day and fills my face with a smile, as i alt-tab to my email window and start my day.. "Thanks for the mail - but i am not sure....."
Happy Onam Folks!!!!