I think every region has that festival which overlooks religion, caste and creed. In the land where I come from, its Onam. Onam is that time of the year when the whole state celebrates the festival irrespective of which religion one belongs to. In just a sentence, Onam is celebrated as the homecoming of the mythical king Mahabali who Malayalees consider as their king.
On any other year, today would be filled with the excitement of the festival, the homecoming of the family, the flower patterns and of course the onakodee- the new dresses or sarees gifted. But this Onam, I am swept away in a totally different direction. For most years, I have been in Kerala during this time of the year. The memories I have of Onam in my formative years and the recent ones are very different. I was looking through some old photographs and realised that about 20 years ago there were no photos taken during onam, but the image in my mind is very fresh. Today there would be atleast thousands of selfies of “mundu and set saree” cladded ladies n gentlemen n another hundreds of albums dedicated to the festival and its festivities. However, I still recall the Onam that was, all those years ago even without an album or photo. By “all those years ago”,I only mean about 2 decades ago. I am not as old as you think I am.
The earliest memory I have of Onam is at my house. At about 8 years of age, I remember making a small floral arrangement called “pookalam” and then helping(read:watching)my grandmother make the quintessential “sadhya” , which is a feast with 11 plus varities of curries,sweet dishes, pickles and more. Another memory from years later is that of waiting in turn at my paternal house for a sadhya, wearing the “onakodi”. Us children would then finish the meal and go about playing every game possible within the limited tine5we had together. In school the memories are that of the onam competitions held every year between the houses. Dance, music and the likes. I can still hum a few onam songs and a song or two from the music store nearby sparks memories. The onam festivities in college werr mostly to do with making sure you were dresses well so that the boys would take a second look at you. It was probably the first time girls wore the traditional attire.
For the past few years now, a lot has changed. Am not sure if the changes were a turn around one year or a result of a gradually evolving society.The traditional way of celebrating the festival have been replaced with modern ways dominated by new rituals. The high priests of the new rituals are traders of different shades, ranging from the unavoidable supermarket to the redundant jeweller, from the film industry to the television channels. Onam is no more about equality and fraternity, goodness and generosity. It is about shopping and entertainment.
The original rituals of Onam reinforced relationships among people as well as nature. Children were sent around to gather flowers from wherever it could be plucked. In the process they merged into the nature. They also met and spoke to the owners of the lands from where they collected the flowers. These days the flowers come in a packet that is priced high and the pookalams are mostly visible in the rural areas and outskirts. Flowers bought from the market arent used for making the traditional floral carpet for Maveli but for participating in competitions. Entertainments are brought home by the TV channels; or at best the family makes it to the nearest mall where people ineluctably remain strangers.
The sadhyas have now become takeaways and buffets. The picture of our mothers and grandmothers running around the kitchen to make sure the sadhya is prepared to a t remains a fast fading memory. It is being replaced by plastic containers with sambhar and olan n payasam. Till last year,every shop irrespective of wjat religion the owner belonged to would out up cutouts of maveli on their doors and walls. These days I havent seen tooo many mavelis beinf put up. In earlier times, one would wait eagerly for the onakodi because that was one of the few dresses we would get all througj the year. These days its more of an obligation to buy relatives a new dress for Onam because everyone seems to buy dresses all through the year. What remains is the nostalgia conjured up by the traditional songs and dances telecast on the channels. The nostalgia gives us a longing for the good old days. But we know they won’t return. We don’t want them to return, really. It is impossible to give up our gadgets and luxury. It is impossible to be generous to the needy neighbour. It is impossible to be good.
And me? I envy those who are fortunate to still celebrate the festival with near and dear ones, making the pookkalam, feasting on the homemade sadhya and watching yet another onam pass by. I wonder if my child will ever experience onam in its real sense. Will she, one day be able to look back at the time she spent with her extended family, looking at the onakodi and savoring the sadhya. Will she ever know the happiness that comes from feeding a hungry stomach on onam and making sure atleast one poor man on the street wears a brand new outfit that day. Will she celebrate onam at all?
Happy onam! Enjoy it while it lasts.