What is the meaning of Onam? Can we celebrate Onam? are questions heard amongst some of our circles today. When the story of Mahabali, the emperor is only a mythology, I had asked my father too questions similar to this, when I was too young. He told me, Onam for Keralites is a festival after harvest and all agricultural activities, and it did not have any more implications at my home though farming and Onam calendar did not math all the time.
My memory of Onam goes back to when I was lesser than seven years old. Balakrishnan, our regular worker will climb on one of the tall and wide jackfruit tree with newly bought ropes to hang a swing. This was the major fun for us children which we would never get tired of. We were a family of six children and I was the fifth. Except father and mother, every one waited for our turn as per our number to sway long or tall. The smallest, we could put alongside for a flight. It was really thrilling under the full shade of the jackfruit tree. There were times, the sooner we wake up, early in the morning some of us would rush straight to the swing!
Those days our neighbors were all Christians and we had not seen any pookkalam (Onam flower bed) in the neighborhood. I remember seeing once a procession of boys from the neighbourhood who play games with a ‘bear’ dressed up and disguised with banana dry leaves. I don’t remember what all fun and mischief’s they do during that procession.
Mother must be busy cooking lunch with a lot of vegetarian items to serve us. Occasionally there may be some invitees from among those who helped us in the farming. While we were still busy with the swing, we would need to answer the call from the kitchen for the lunch. The lunch will be a typical meal with everything produced at our own farm or kitchen garden. I don’t remember if we had bought anything from the market which was too far away. Father would be collecting banana leaf-tips from the home garden for the lunch to be served. Rice made of double-boiled red rice and a dozen of supplementary dishes and side dishes; all served on the banana leaf (for plates) will be the major event of the day. The left tip of the banana leaf had to be folded down. My father had explained that it was a Syrian Christian custom in Kerala with a reason, that we always observed, provided if it was a leaf tip. We have to taste and eat everything cooked and program our serving carefully. This would continue for three or four days. But at our home we never had bought any new dress in the name of Onam.
When I was seven, our family had moved to the North part of Kerala, almost 300 km away. We have carried our own home Onam to the new place where all our neighbours were Muslims. Our two acre paddy field and farm was a kilo meter way and I had noticed boys and girls coming around that area in search of flowers for the pookkalam. We continued to invite some of our farm workers for the lunch.
Years and decades had rolled away, the trees we used to hung the swing were cut down and new ones grew; farms were sold off to settle and pay off ancestral shares; we began to move away from our remnant home as new families and for finding a workplace. Our children hardly sway on a swing. Paddy and banana are no more grown at home. Provisions from nearby superstores and vegetables from Koyambedu market fill our store and refrigerator. Though we would love to bring fish home from Kasimedu harbour where you can get the fresh most fish fold, there is some goodness of a full vegetarian meal. Today, we bought everything from the market including five banana tip-leaves to serve full a full Kerala meal with boiled red rice and age old varieties of dishes and side dishes and an ada payasam.
As five of us were having our lunch, my son had opened the topic again as I did 46 years ago; “Are we eating to fulfill a culture?” It was my turn to explain, that once up on a time we were farmers and part of an agrarian society and culture; everything eaten was cooked at home and everything cooked was farm-grown. It was a good memorial of our farm life, our parents and our big family; celebration of our childhood.
Eating and food tastes and habits are part of any culture and it is carried through generations. Onam at home is nothing more and nothing less. There is nothing religious about Onam at our home. We don’t worry what fable people believe and what rituals they practice. People observe memorials, or festivals celebrations- let it be wedding, birthdays or anniversaries- differently irrespective of their religious affinity or theological doctrines. Tell me now can we not celebrate Onam our way at least with a typical Kerala, agrarian meal?!
- Philipose Vaidyar
(Images are illustrations collected and used)