“I love Onam, don’t you!”
Malu finished the sentence with an exclamatory mark instead of a question mark, overwrote the ‘love’ and underlined the ‘Onam’. The ‘you’ at the receiving end certainly shared her passionate love for Onam because Malu was writing her diary. Malu loved everything about Onam – well, almost everything. Though a worldly-wise fourteen, she hadn’t managed to outgrow her fascination for the festival. She loved the rituals and the colours, and more than anything else, she loved the folklore associated with it. “It is the most beautiful festival in the whole world.” Again she underlined and overwrote all the required parts of the sentence. Her ‘whole world’ extended from the village of Thenapplilly that covered an area of roughly 6 square kilometers, to her father’s village of about the same size that was 20 kilometers away, with her school somewhere midway.
Onam, originally the harvest festival of Kerala, lasted ten days, and included some interesting traditions. Legend said that Kerala had, once upon a time, been ruled by a benevolent asura king, Mahabali. Now, asuras were demons who were traditionally expected to terrorize humans and loot the land. Mahabali, on the contrary, loved his subjects, and was in turn loved by them. There was enough of everything for everybody in the land, so there was no theft, nor any other crime of any sort. “Kallavumilla chatiyumilla, kallatharangal mattonnumilla…” There was no child who had not heard those lines and marveled at the utopia that Kerala had once been.
However, the Gods above – the devas – did not like this state of affairs in Kerala. They became worried that if this little piece of land became such a heaven, what was going to happen to their own ‘original’ heaven! They felt that it was time to do some subtle political maneuvers, like dethroning the king. They approached Lord Vishnu, one of the three mightiest Gods – Trimurthi – Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva. Lord Vishnu heard them out, and promised that he’d do something.
At this point, Malu made some slight alterations to the story. She did not like to believe that Lord Vishnu, her favourite among all the Gods, would do what he eventually did, just to appease some jealous immortals with their serious complexes. No, he was too much of a man to do that. It had to be something else. So Malu clung to a more acceptable version of the story she had once heard or read somewhere: Mahabali was a great guy, but his sons had not inherited his benevolence. Lord Vishnu feared that after Mahabali’s time, when his sons took over, they would reduce the land to nothing. He had to do something before that, so he intervened. Now, that sounded a reasonable explanation.
So Lord Vishnu took the form of a dwarf Brahmin, Vamana, and came to Mahabali’s court and asked him for three feet of land. No one refused a Brahmin anything, and Mahabali, who did not refuse anybody anything, told Vamana to measure the land and take it. The wise men in his court suspected foul play and tried to stop him, but Mahabali, wise as the sages, knew that his time was up, and decided to play along with Lord Vishnu. Vamana placed one foot and it covered the earth, the second covered the skies, and there was nowhere to take the third foot of land from. Mahabali bent his head and asked Vamana to place his foot on his head.
Mahabali was thus sent to the underworld, but he was allowed to return to his beautiful land once a year to visit his beloved people. So his ‘children’ celebrated Onam to welcome him. For ten days, the people of Kerala, often regardless of the religion they followed, made beautiful flower carpets in front of their houses, and on the tenth day made the traditional feast, sadya, and celebrated the annual visit of their beloved king.
Malu enjoyed preparing the flower bed in front of the old tharavadu – the family house where she lived with her mother and aunt – although growing up had curtailed most of the fun. When she was younger, she used to get up early in the morning and dash out with her brothers – though she was an only child, she had plenty of cousins – and a few neighbourhood children to pick flowers from anywhere they could; from roadside fences, from temples, even from other people’s back and front yards; Malu firmly refused to call that ‘stealing’. They would gather as many flowers as they could, rush back to tharavadu, and share the loot. While sharing, there would be a lot of arguments and fights, but in the end, might was always right. Malu’s brothers had a standing in the group that was unparalleled, so she was never short of flowers.
And so it goes… Or should I say, “To be continued’?