Celebrating Onam at the Other End of the World
A slightly edited version was first published in the Times of India on August 30, 2022.
My 6-year-old daughter plunges her hand into cow manure and squeals in joy as the grassy sludge spurts up through her fingers. Her great-aunt Sudha is teaching her the intricacies of the pookalam: how to spread the dung on the ground, before laying the fresh petals of roses, hibiscus and marigolds on its wet surface. “So they will stick to the cow poop,” Anokha says. For days she runs around the house randomly shouting the phrase Poove poli poove in her American accent — apparently my mother has convinced her it is a necessary soundtrack to the festivities.
Anokha and I had flown down from New York to our farmhouse in Muthalamada, the village where my mother, her father, and his father before him grew up. It was rare that we ever made it home for Onam. But that year the stars aligned and Anokha got to experience it all. Trips to the vegetable garden to pull pumpkins and green chilies off their vines. An auto-rickshaw ride to the Maveli Market four miles away, at speeds unattainable on New York’s streets. The scritch — scritch of coconut being scraped on a wicked — looking serrated blade. The heated debate among my mother and her sisters on the merits and demerits of various payasams, before they settled on the ada prathaman, the muthachan, which is to say, the granddaddy of payasams. On Thiruvonam day, as I watched my mother spoon the dark silky pudding into Anokha’s mouth, my eyes started to tear up. Some miraculous alignment of time and place had brought three generations: my mother, me, and my daughter to celebrate together for the first time in years.
I didn’t grow up in Kerala. My father was a journalist, and his job took us all over the country- from Goa to Chandigarh, Ahmedabad, and Hyderabad. We weren’t rich and often didn’t have the money or the circumstances to go home to Kerala for Onam. Still, even if we didn’t go home to Kerala, my mother never let us forget our connection to the festival and the land it honored.
In the kitchens of my childhood, she told us stories of the many Onams she had spent on the farm. Her father had been a thambran, a landowner. On the morning of the day before Thiruvonam, he would stand in the courtyard, (“tall and fair as a European”) to receive the fresh stalks of rice from the fields brought to him in procession by the farm workers. In the pooja room, my grandmother would light the lamp and offer the harvest to the gods. The workers would receive gifts of new clothes and the new rice would be cooked into a host of dishes. When I got older, I realized that my mother probably told us her stories to make sure we never forgot our roots lay in Kerala. But all those years ago, they made me long for her life. I wanted to be like her, certain of the ground she stood on, sure of where she belonged.
When Anokha was growing up, I did not have stories filled with the smell of ripening fields and the slow creak of the bullock cart carrying the harvest to the market to tell her. But I did what I could. For most of the 24 years I have lived in the US, I have cooked an Onam feast, that immutable order of sambhar, kalan, olan, aviyal, elassery, thoran — from scratch. Well, almost.
So what if the coconut was bought frozen in packets from my local Patel Brothers, and the banana chips were made in Mexico? This was our Onam, made in our image. A few years ago, I discovered in the freezer of a Hispanic store in my neighborhood, banana leaves, cut into perfect rectangles and neatly packaged in thick plastic. They were not perfectly tongue-shaped, and their edges curled up when they thawed out. But ever since I first chanced upon them, we have eaten our feast on them.
Last year was the first year that I asked myself why I put myself through the trouble of making 15 dishes, and cooking for days by myself. I was exhausted from remote work, sick of being stuck at home watching the world come apart at the seams. Why I wondered, should we even bother?
My husband, as ever the more even-keeled one of the two of us, said, “Well, we’ve always done it so she knows who she is.”
Yes, the answer always came back to Anokha: her excitement as a child when she wore her brand new gold-trimmed skirt and blouse on Onam day; the delight she took in teaching our Jewish friend, Josh, how best to hold his fingers so he could eat off the banana leaf with his hands; her love of puliinji; the sambhar and avial she packs to school to share unselfconsciously with her classmates; the ease with which she wears her many identities- American, desi, Keralite, New Yorker, girl-from-Queens.
We live in a world that grows more precarious every day. Perhaps that is why these moments of connection feel even more urgent and necessary. One hopes that despite the distance and the absences, these small celebrations will hold us steady, and remind us of where we belong.