Onam, the word brings back wonderful memories in every Malayali’s heart. As if transported straight out of some coffee table book or a picture postcard, this ten-day festival is that one time when you can see Kerala, aptly named God’s own country, at its very best.
Onam…a time when every Malayali woman eagerly bid adieu to her otherwise preferred western wear to embrace the traditional mundu-neryathu. A time when even the most stubborn of kids willingly give up on their gadgets to have a turn at the wooden swing specially put up for the occasion, help layout the most elaborate Pookalam (an intricate and colorful arrangement of a variety of flowers) and cheerfully run around in the mangroves clad in their fancy traditional wear. A time when even the quintessential malayali men who would rather die of thirst than enter his own kitchen to get a glass of water, develops this special interest in helping out their women prepare the feast in all its grandeur- the Onam sadya.
Growing up, I never understood what the hype was all about. If we really did want to deck ourselves in silk saris and adorn our heads with garlands of flowers, couldn’t we have done it any day? And as far as the feasting was concerned, wasn’t sambar, parippu, thoran, avial and kichdi, anway an integral part of our daily Malayali diet?
For me, Onam was always about seeing my usually health conscious dad, having to eat sadya twice, first at his maternal house and then with us to avoid upsetting either of the two most important women in his life. It was always about seeing my mother and my grandma, slogging for hours and hours in the kitchen to prepare a meal comprising over twenty different types of dishes only to have it all disappear in just a matter of minutes. Or seeing my couch-potato brother suddenly take up this role of the ‘karyasthan’ (household-chief), making sure that the sadya was served at the right time and in the right manner. In short a completely overrated festival, I thought!
But then…I bid adieu to my homeland and moved to Nairobi. I still remember that very first Onam away from home. I had my own family now. My daughter roamed around in her pajamas as usual and my husband sat glued to the tv, lazily skipping through the endless channels. No new clothes were laid out and there was no sound of my mom, telling us that we were running late for the morning prayers at our family temple. There was no smell of fried poppadams, ghee and curry leaves coming from my kitchen and even with the loud noise of the tv and my toddler’s pitter-patter everywhere, my house felt awfully quiet. I stood in my empty kitchen in my PJ’s, eating cold cereal at my kitchen counter top, going through the end number of Facebook pictures my friends had uploaded on Onam day. It showed them all clad in their traditional wear, posing for the camera as they licked the payasam off their hands or crunching on the crispy banana chips, served on the side. It was only then I understood what it was that I was truly missing. And all of a sudden, everything seemed to make sense.
Onam was special to me, like it was to every single Malayali. It brought back fond memories and a strange nostalgia that I rarely felt in my otherwise busy life. After all, it was that one day my otherwise health conscious dad eagerly agreed to eat two sadyas. It was that one day my mom and grandma didn’t mind working for hours and hours to put together a sadya, like no other, just to see the happiness on our faces as we devoured each and every morsel till nothing was left. It was that one day when their was no sound of television in my house, but the sound of my amma telling us to get ready to go to the temple as she laid out our brand new Onam kodis (new clothes specially bought for the occasion), my grandma calling out to the crows (she believed to be our ancestors) to come have the first bite of the elaborate feast and my brother trying to teach me how exactly to lay out a sadya, educating me about its particular placement on the plantain leaf and its significance.
I was miles and miles away from Kerala but it was Onam and I still had my home right here in front of me…One sat watching some Bruce WIllis movie for the umpteenth time and the other one was walking around with my scarf pinned to her curls, pretending to be Rapunzel.
‘Veda,’ I said. ‘Today is Onam dear and we have to get ready and while you are at it, I am going to tell you a story of a great king called Mahabali*.’ ‘And Vikram...,’I turned to my husband, ‘I think your movie will have to wait. We have some serious veggie and flower shopping to do.’
It has been 9 long years since that day, our very first Onam away from India. But no matter where we are, our little festivities have followed us: to Nairobi, DC and now all the way to Yangon. This year too was no different, as we celebrated this special day with a few of our friends, with my version of a mini-sadya…our little way of bringing a taste of home, away from home to our current home …that is Yangon.
Happy Onam everyone.
*(Please read story of Mahabali: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Mahabali)