There are some times in the lives of most Malayalis (people who hail from the Indian state of Kerala) when despite their best efforts at being glitzy and jet setting, the call of their roots becomes impossible to ignore and even the most hardened global citizens among them long for their share of slurpy curries and tapioca or jackfruit in their many delicious versions.
Come Onam and the nostalgia factor rises quite a few decibels. Onam is the harvest festival of Kerala. The festival lasts for ten days and marks the first ten days of the month of Chingam- technically, it is the Malayalam New Year. In the past years, Onam in the state would reach fever pitch with news channels beaming visuals of crowds thronging shops for last minute purchases- especially on the eve of Onam- which is called Uthrada Paachil (or frenzy on Uthradam day). The crowds would be out in full force on the streets and the State government organizes special programmes for all the ten days, the inaugural and closing ceremonies compete with each other in terms of grandeur. The festival attracts tourists and the famous snakeboat races happen around this time. There are food fests, stalls selling everything from spoons to safety pins to anti-acne cream and ant repellent chalk (sure, they are available on non-Onam days too, but this time, they can be purchased in the same breath and the fact that you purchased it during Onam makes it exciting- there is that magic in the air that makes these odd acts strangely appealing)
The major cities are decked up, government offices are lit up with fairy lights, there are fairs on most public grounds, gaanamelas– concerts featuring film or popular songs- (which are interestingly called light music- as opposed to all the other by contrast, heavy music? Trust me, one has to be Malayali to understand. And must have witnessed at least one University Youth Festival). These gaanamelas are free- held on open grounds or on improvised stages in the parking lots of government offices. The singers, accompanied by an orchestra belt out number after number- sometimes they are very good, sometimes, birds drop dead from their perches. But there is always an audience. I don’t know if it is because of the festive spirit or because the Malayali can never pass up anything free being handed out.
There is more to Onam than being just a harvest festival or a way for what is an acknowledged consumer state to consume more and more. There is a story and as always, there is more to that story than what meets the eye. And like all good stories, there is a King, a rival and the general public who as usual have no say in anything that matters. Sounds very contemporary? Any association is purely in the mind of the reader. And thereby hangs a tale.
It did not feel right in my mind- a ten year old mind- when I first heard the story of Maha Bali, Vamanan and Onam. Brought up for the first nine years of my life in a state of literally no cultural awareness thanks to a badminton game-like existence between Bombay and a small village on the border between Kerala and Tamil Nadu, I placed a strong faith in the Ramayan and the Mahabharat in the era of Doordarshan. I trusted Christ, Sri Ram and them gods and goddesses of the pantheon with equal fervour and knew only what Doordarshan and Amar Chitra Katha taught me. Subsequent researchers have told me what a grave mistake that had been.
It was when I went off to Oman to lead the next leg of my cosmopolitan life that I began to have questions. My first formal introduction to Onam was at age ten. My father being the Malayali that he is, would insist on preparing the Onasadya every year. To those who do not know what that is, it is an extremely tedious, but, admittedly delicious lunch that involves cooking curries of varying degrees of complexity, there are courses of the meal, right from the crispy sweet and salted banana chips to the pickles and chutneys, to the mounds of rice that have a main curry poured over it, then you can mix and match it with an assistant curry of your choice, this is repeated at least thrice in the course of the meal, there are infinite kinds of desserts (payasam) that follow…sorry flow onto your banana leaf (the sadya is eaten on this leaf) sometimes as ordinary as semiya payasam or ada payasam or sometimes, soy bean, quinoa, beetroot, bitter gourd (yes…again yes…) payasam all this can be mashed with a banana- which is also part of the feast. Then there will be the obligatory rice and curry routine- this time curd based or sour- to balance the palate. And then digestives.
The sadya is thus eaten. And then its time for a siesta. Dinner is more of the same and so are all subsequent days till the curries are over. The great thing about this sadya in my house was that my father would do it all with minimal involvement from my mother. I was his hapless assistant and would be given all sorts of tasks like chopping the cashews, keeping watch on things set to boil, fetch and carry…and one year, while the vegetables were cooking and the ghee was ready in the uruli for the payasam, he told me the story of the Asura (Demon)King, Maha Bali who conquered the netherworld and the Earth and had set his sights on Heaven and how Maha Vishnu, the great preserver of the cosmos, came to him in the form of a Brahmin dwarf by the name of Vamanan and asked for three steps of land. The king readily agreed as he was in the midst of a Yagna for his final victory- over the heavens- and so could not refuse the Brahmin. Upon being granted permission to measure and claim his three steps of land, Vamanan grew to his actual cosmic size and in one step covered the heavens and in the next, the earth and raised his foot and asked the king where he should place it because there was no place left. The outwitted king offered his head. Vamanan placed his foot on the king’s head and pushed him into the underworld where he ruled. He accepted the terms and agreed to stay there and asked to visit his people once a year. So, on Onam, it is believed that Maha Bali comes visiting his subjects and they cook whatever they have harvested to offer up a feast and welcome him.
Applying a child’s logic to all this, I found it odd that a demon king behaved in the most un-demon like manner and let a god trick him into submission. And if restoring righteousness was the main objective behind tricking and defeating demons (as countless similar stories of conflicts between asuras and devas taught us), then why is this demon king asking to see his people once a year? And why were these people lining up to welcome him?
But in the general swirl of curries and payasams and my father’s nostalgia, these doubts sank. Years later, as the only resident of the college hostel who did not go home to her local guardians for the ten-day Onam vacations, I was invariably invited to saunter down to the kitchens and eat what I liked. On Onam, I would request the nuns to let me stir the payasam because that’s what I would have done had I been home. In my mind, like my father, I too was in a state of exile.
Onam is, in a way, the signature festival of Kerala, though in parts of Northern Kerala, Vishu (the Equinox festival) is what is celebrated on an epic scale. Onam is the social barometer of Kerala as the ways the state reads itself and the directions it wants to take is reflected in the scale and nature of the celebrations and the ways these patterns are interpreted. The laments over increasing commercialization of the festival, the shrillness of competing television channels airing the latest hit films, the exhortations to buy more and more and more and the sometimes mind numbing cultural patterns of behaviour in terms of what to wear, what to eat, what one is doing, all point to a people in a state of anxiety. The fetishizing of the Non Resident Malayali, the Non Resident Malayali in turn romanticizing Onam and the various ponds, rivers, lakes where friends would go swimming after the lunch-(strangely I have not heard women’s narratives of going swimming after the Onam lunch) – all seem to be private conversations a people are having with themselves in terms of who they really are and where they want to be placed.
In recent times, the optics of the festival underwent a change through the figure of Maha Bali, who was till then pictured as a jolly, rotund, pot bellied man with a huge moustache- a sort of Malayali Santa Claus if you will. Maha Bali is an obligatory presence at all Onam celebrations across the state- schools, colleges, residents’ associations, offices, street performances, shopping malls- you name it. Dressed regally as the kings of yore, he would welcome people for the ultimate shopping experience- well why not. Vaamanan is generally absent.
In time, when mainstream, complacent politics had to make way for insistent and urgent subaltern voices, this very picturization came in for interrogation. The caricatured portrayal was called out and soon posters depicting a dark, muscular Maha Bali began doing the rounds. And in a way, it stands to reason that a King who conquered all that there was there to be conquered would be less- chubby? And not the avuncular figure we imagine him to be? I don’t know. Body shaming is really not my thing. Matters were not helped when a certain politician from another part of the country tweeted Happy Vaman Jayanthi on the occasion of Onam. The accompanying image showed the fair skinned Vaman’s foot on the head of a worshipful…(or was it defeated?- apparently the two look the same) dark hued, strong looking Maha Bali. Any associations are purely in the minds of the reader. I suppose having potbellied surprised looking Vamanan pushed to Sutala- (that part of the Underworld where refined people go unlike Patala where…others go) would have looked sort of bad- and sympathy would come into play where pride and faith should. This debate over iconography shifted to another gear when the compulsive vegetarianism associated with Onam began to be questioned by students from Kerala studying in Universities outside the state. Soon, Onam sadyas with meat began to be served in these places and with it the subaltern heritage of the festival.
During the floods that wreaked havoc on the state in the last two years, celebrating the festival became the symbolic of the resilient Malayali. There were sadyas being prepared in relief camps and the true spirit of community was witnessed there. Celebrations were muted across the state by the government as a cost cutting measure, but with the fragrance of food that rose from these camps and floral carpets were laid out with flowers from the neighbourhood, we felt invincible and hopeful.
For those who are wondering why Maha Vishnu went to stop Maha Bali in the first place, it is another roller coaster ride through mythology. It is believed that looking at the rising power of Maha Bali, Indra, the ruler of the heavens retreated to the forests. Indra’s mother, Aditi, feeling sorry for her son, appealed to Lord Vishnu for help. He asked that he be born to her and this child is the fifth of the ten avatars of Vishnu. By being born to Aditi, he was fulfilling a promise he had made about being born thrice to incarnations of Prsni and Sutapa across various Yugas. He did so because they wanted a son like him, and because no one could be like the Lord himself, he promised to be born thrice to them. After being born to Prsni and Sutapa, he was born yet again to Aditi and Kashyapa as Vamana (or Upendra- one who helps Indra) and finally to Devaki and Vasudeva as Krishna. Vamanan set out to defeat Maha Bali- not kill him as Maha Bali was the descendant of Prahlad, the greatest devotee of Vishnu, who had once asked of the Lord that he not kill any other member of his family (do refer to the story of Narasimha- the deity. Beware, there is a film in Malayalam by the same name. You have been warned.) There are wheels within wheels in just this one story…but that I leave to you to find out.
At the Yagna, when Vamanan made his strange request, the teacher of the Asuras, recognizing the trap warned him against agreeing to Vamanan. But Maha Bali would not go back on his word. It is said that Maha Vishnu was so impressed by Maha Bali’s piety and sense of duty that he himself stood guard outside Maha Bali’s palace in Sutala. Apparently, this is a reward. I do not understand how it is that when you thwart a man’s ambitions for no good reason and offer him a consolation prize by giving him something that you think is great, it can be seen as a reward. And through Aditi, I comprehend and salute the spirit and determination of the Indian mother.
These are testing times for the entire world. Our readings of our myths and legends reflect what we seek at crucial points in our collective existences. The story of Maha Bali today can been seen as a man making the best of his circumstances. Bound by his commitment, he chooses to do what he can, going away, till he can return that one time a year. You might know someone like that from the scattered Malayali diaspora. It might even be you, living in Kerala during the pandemic, finding ways to get by. It might be all of us trying to fervently believe that there is a land where people were equal. Equally happy, equally prosperous. For the song goes, Maaveli naadu vaanidum kalam, maanusharellarum onnu poley (When Maaveli-(Maha Bali) ruled these lands, people were all equal).
Then again, at the end of it all, as my friend Kukku Xavier once pointed out, it might just be an allegory for sowing a seed by pushing it into the soil, the seed is guarded by the farmer who relentlessly protects the plant and one day it is ready for harvest. The land celebrates the end of hunger. The end of poverty. All shall dine tonight. All are equal tonight. Maanusharellarum onnu poley. Hunger is a great leveller.
You will find bits and pieces of this story in the poems of this edition of SamyuktaPoetry. The harvests, the anxiety, the pandemic, the past, the present. Time is cyclical. And I feel that while this site carries poems across cultures, languages, belief systems, it is good to come home to some payasam. So, like me, like my father, like someone you know, like possibly you, like Maha Bali, SamyuktaPoetry too has come home this Onam.
Sonya J. Nair
The past and the present
Fit in –
Flowers of different hue
In the floral carpet
That adorn the floor
Afloat on the waters of the floods.
In bright ethnic wear,
Returns and homecomings
Get- together and feasts,
Royals and the bourgeoisie
Jostle with poverty
The ideal past
And a dreary present
The utopic and dystopic
Suthalam and Camelot
Merge in a whorl
Bought and felt….
Hema Nair R retired as Principal Mahatma Gandhi College, Trivandrum. She taught English in NSS College for Women, Trivandrum. She was Assistant and later Associate Editor of Samyukta: A Journal of Women’s Studies from 2001 to 2014. She continues to associate herself with Team Samyukta in a crucial way.
Those four days of Onam, the elders stretched
their afternoon game of cards into the night,
as the monsoon suspended its play.
We cousins, thirteen of us, dampened
by what low-voltage does to a Siemens VCR,
missed the load-shedding of the early days—
when we became such blacksmiths of light,
as our palms practised magic, moving on
well-oiled joints, shifting, conjuring up
antelopes, bears, dogs, cats, and whales—
enchanting a lantern light to do our bidding,
making younger ones squeal in delight,
even as monsoon held back its applause,
afraid that clapping its wet hands
would be some sort of an ill-omen.
Soni Somarajan is a poet, copywriter, editor, and content consultant. His poetry and writings have featured in anthologies, magazines, and newspapers including Muse India, North East Review, Kitaab, The Bangalore Review, New Indian Express, Marie Claire, The Four Quarters Magazine, and is forthcoming in The Alipore Post, Bengaluru Review, and The Bombay Literary Magazine. Soni is the Creative Head at The Quarantine Train, a poetry collective. First Contact, his debut collection of poetry, will be published by Red River in 2020. He lives in Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala.
Hook, on-line and sinker
Throw this plastic banana leaf over there
Where the broken swing and rotten jasmine lie
Here is some fast sticking magic glue for your eyes
A big man on the small screen is singing off key
Most of the payasam is left over, too bland
Take it to the neighbours, bring back the vessels
we should not waste food, good or bad
People are starving in some other states
Keep the mobile charged, screen unlocked
Grandparents might drop in, uninvited
Feed the dogs, the cats and the love birds
No need to feed the domestic help
She has COVID and thank God
The good government is feeding her well
It is a good idea to block all the images
The screen is bulging out a little
With starched cotton obesity
You may remove the Pookkalam now
Wash it, wrap it up and store it
It is a good thing Onam is here once a year
And that it is here only once a year
Hello, I will surely call you back
Today itself, BTW, how are you?
Sreekumar K, born at Punalur, Kollam, Kerala, now living in Trivandrum, after three decades of teaching in several schools across India, took to writing after retirement. He has tried every genre in both English and Malayalam. He coaches creative writing and spends most of his time translating works into and from Malayalam. He runs a YouTube channel for storytelling and an FB group for critiquing. He can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org
When September Comes
The chempaka 1-scented night tousles the rainbow
tresses of Onam with marble-cool fingers. Greenery
edging into crevices of blue and brown; soaring high
from the mango tree, revelry whoops in a dusty courtyard of memories.
Creamy kasavu 2 clinging to moist midriffs like a skin of milk,
bodies jostling for breath in an overflowing bus.
Nostalgia curdles overnight into politics on a campus
unfringed with coconut palms—beef and olan 3
defiantly locking stares on green banana leaves
procured for ten rupees apiece. Gurer roshogolla 4
crumbling in paalpayasam5 that I cup
in my hand and teach you how to drink off the leaf,
pursing your lips, an invitation to kiss: Ami tomake bhalobashi6
melding into Enikku ninne ishtamaanu7 on an eve
emblazoned with peacock calls.
You pump up your heart and gift it to him, a pulsating
red balloon, along with a pin—Here, it’s complimentary!
Why do you do that? asks my friend.*
Why, indeed? Why do we do the things we do
when we know they’ll end up the way they will?
Why Onam arrives on Spring’s arm, and why Spring sprints into autumn,**
who knows why? I sweep dead leaves into crackling pyres in a corner of the courtyard.
1 – golden champak, a fragrant flowering tree commonly found all over India
2 – a soft, off-white or cream-coloured handloom cotton sari with gold-threaded borders traditionally worn by Malayali women on Onam
3 – a light and mild curry with flavours of coconut milk, curry leaves and cowpeas exclusive to Kerala cuisine
4 – a traditional Bengali sweet made with fresh curd cheese and date palm jaggery
5 – rice kheer, a popular dessert in Kerala
6 – Translates to “I love you” in Bengali
7 – Translates to “I love you” in Malayalam
* Idea originally inspired by a conversation with my friend Shravan.
** The time and the sequence of the seasons are described as experienced in Kerala.
Jinju S. is an academic, poet and dreamer from Thiruvananthapuram, Kerala. When she isn’t juggling teaching, research, reading and writing with the most demanding and yet most rewarding journey of mothering a little human tornado, she indulges in dolce far niente, her most favourite pastime of all. Inspired by everyday life and the world around her, writing poetry is for her cathartic as well as a way to reach out to people.
Dr. Arya Gopi
As I peel off memory, time sketches monoliths of an elapsed childhood.
Pinched up yellow mukkutti**, traces homecoming journey of migratory souls.
Harvest of remembrances fills the granaries of the days of festal yore.
I cook delicacies of tears of joy, spices of gathering and pickle laughs.
Snake boats rush cutting the waves of fabled Lethe, to kind mindfulness.
The tale of three- feet of earth, buries the reign of shadowless egoistic towers.
A jovial swing decorated with the ancestral flowers of love oscillates.
A consecrated legendary king, more human than human, revisits.
On the eve of the carnival, an uncertain reverie of unblemished gentleness refill veins.
The resurrection of transferable warmth unfurls from a sumptuous lunch.
*The celebrations mark the Malayalam New Year, are spread over ten days, and conclude with Thiruvonam. The ten days are sequentially known as Atham, Chithira, Chodhi, Vishakam, Anizham, Thriketa, Moolam, Pooradam, Uthradam and Thiruvonam
** the most common flower for Onam Pookalam is Mukkuthi. The dark yellow colour makes the floral Rangoli look more vibrant.
Arya Gopi is a bi-lingual poet works in English and Malayalam with half a dozen published books including four Malayalam poetry collections. Her first English title Sob of Strings was published in 2011. A contributor to major journals, she has won several awards which includes the Kerala Sahitya Akadami Kanakasree Award. A Phd Holder in English literature, she teaches literature at the Calicut University.
Dr. Tiny Nair
(Worldwide Breaking News – ‘God sent morphed ‘Vamana’ the dwarf dupe King Mahabali to submission’)
Coffee sipping Lady at the ‘Cafe-de-Paris’
‘Hilary mythe’ (Hilarious story), she giggled
Munching ‘hot-dog’ at the 7th Avenue intersection, the NewYorker laughed
‘Cool guy, this Vamana’.
Beer mug in hand at the Munich ‘Biergarten’
‘Komisch marchen’ (funny fable) grinned the German.
They all had a hearty laugh
Time zones apart.
The short diminutive Vamana sneaked in
‘Slithered ‘past the immigration at JFK,
‘Camouflaged’ through the French security at Charle-de-Gaulle
‘Invisible’ to the sharp eyes of German ‘polezei’
Hidden inside the ‘lungs’ of the tourists
And then it spread.
‘Just a ‘diminutive’ flu’ thought the benevolent king
His powerful army stood by
Watching the sky for missiles
And the seas for warships
While, the morphed Vamana, the COVID seeped
Through the porous health system.
Desolate Paris cafe,
Abandoned food cart in New York
Deserted parks in Munich
Overflowing bodies and understaffed mortuary.
The diminutive ‘Vaman’ had won.
Lord Vishnu had the last laugh.
The King’s last wish
‘Allow me to visit my colourful land once a year’ was granted
A prayer for a vaccine still remain unanswered.
Dr. Tiny Nair is the Head of the Dept of Cardiology at PRS Hospital, Trivandrum. Apart from poetry, he also writes creative features as well as op-ed columns for various national dailies.