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Taking back Onam

Taking back Onam

By Suresh Pattali

Published: Fri 20 Sep 2019, 12:00 AM

Last updated: Fri 20 Sep 2019, 2:00 AM

In life, you win some, you lose some. In other words, life is a summation of hits and misses. High on the list of misses, in my case, are culture, traditions and heritage. In the continuum between a young parent and an old warhorse, it's natural to shed a few habits. At times, change comes like a fait accompli. And often, it's voluntary acceptance for the sake of holding our little world together.
Just last week, yet another Onam, the harvest festival of Kerala, where I belong, came and went. It's a 10-day fanfare that engages people of all communities. WhatsApp buzzed round the clock with 'Happy Onam' messages. Social media was flooded with photos of friends, clad in their traditional best, feasting on Onasadya, a mind-blowing spread of over two dozen dishes on a banana leaf.
I was there, yet I wasn't, except that I rummaged through half-a-dozen-boxes and cupboards to find my old kurtas to bring about a semblance of nostalgia. Kinda tribute to my mother. As I sneezed my way to the office due to the stench of the past rising from the kurta, I thought back to years when my mother let her only son lead the poojas on such occasions when I assumed a serene demeanour and felt like a demigod.
At the crack of dawn, I'd lead a gaggle of boys and girls to pluck flowers from river banks, roadside shrubberies, paddy fields, and the infinite green vistas under coconut groves. We took hours to petal-paint exotic patterns in the Onappokkalam (floral carpet) in the courtyard. We wrecked our feet walking kilometres to the tailor who never stitched our Onakkodi (Onam dress) on time. We smuggled sarkkaravaratti (sweetened banana fry) out of the home to steal the hearts of our neighbourhood damsels. Those were the days!
Cut to the 1990s. Onam in Singapore was largely an alcoholic affair. Big parties at my place or elsewhere made an attempt to animate the Onam ambiance within four walls. Everything and everyone from the mythical king Mahabali, to the flowers, the sadya, the pookkalam, and to the Onakkodi smelled of alcohol and cigarettes. Some even enacted the Onathallu, the ritual of fist-fighting practised as part of the Onam festivities. We lost the innocence of Onam.
I was at the forefront of the entire ruckus. With a drink in one hand and a stick of tobacco in the other, I'd float around entertaining the crowds. My family took notice. "You are a joking flirt," wifey creased her lips.
"Dad, don't mix drinks and arguments. They are highly inflammable," said son, one of the Mr Cleans an American missionary school in Singapore mass-produced.
"Dad, your smoking is sickening. Have some concern for us," said daughter.
After many nights of wrangling, I gave up. I changed. I skipped parties. It has been years, maybe more than two decades, since the family got together for Onam. We worked every festival day. On the last Onam day, I called my daughter in Bangalore.
"Vava, go to some Kerala restaurant and have a feast."
"It's Onam today?"
"I am not game, dad. Feasts in restaurants are so expensive. It's a big racket."
I was restless on the third day of Onam last weekend. "Let's eat sadya in a restaurant," I told wifey.
"Are you mad? Look through the window. It's sizzling hot. If you are particular, order on the phone."
"No, I want to eat with people."
We checked out half-a-dozen places. There was no way we could slither in. The crowd of customers representing different religions and regions spilled onto the pavements around the eateries. Watching a few couples taking away feast parcels, wifey said, "They are the winners."
"No, they are the losers," I shot back.
We spent an hour in the open, air-fried by the humidity, waiting our turn. Sharing a table with us was a young couple. As young as our children, who feel kismet has wrenched them from traditions.
The banana leaf was laid, curries in various hues and tastes were served, payasams (dessert) in different shades of gray were delivered in cups. It's almost get, set, go. We looked at the couple across the table. The girl seems to know where to begin. She kicked it off with ghee served with plain dal curry, and ended with a little rice and curd after the dessert. The boy wasn't a good eater. I pushed rasam to his side, like I always did when my son was around. No one talked, like our family always behaved at the table.
Tossing the last piece of banana fry into her mouth, the girl got up, smiled, and disappeared beyond the waiting crowd outside.
"Thank you for making my day," I whispered, a prayer on my lips.

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