Another Onam day. And like on every Onam day for the past howevermany years, today too I feel that familiar, lingering sense of sadness. Melancholy, as a thin film of salt water that gathers at the corner of my eyes, blurring my vision ever so slightly.
Why sadness, you might ask.
And I would say, because I miss–
Oh, so many things!
I don’t know. Things… There’s a word for it – there has to be. For this longing for the unnameable; for what’s lost and can never come back… Ah never mind!
But let me tell you this. Very, very long ago, I’d started writing a story.
So what’s new in that, you might ask again.
Nothing at all, I’d say. It’s just one of the million almost-but-not-quite-complete projects that fill the hard drive of my Mac. Only, this one is on Onam. So I remembered it today. Also because I tend to drivel, and today I feel the itch to.
So allow me to share the beginning of my Onam story, Two Onams, a Movie, and Some Dreams. As I have named it, for whatever it is worth.
Maybe I’d shared it here before? I’m not sure. Pardon me if I have. Here goes, then:
Two Onams, a Movie, and Some Dreams
“I love Onam, don’t you!” She finished the sentence with an exclamation mark instead of a question mark, overwrote the ‘love’ and underlined the ‘Onam’, secure in the knowledge that the ‘you’ at the receiving end shared her passionate love for Onam. Malu was writing her diary after all. 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’s the most beautiful festival in the whole world.” Again she underlined and overwrote as required, for proper effect. Her ‘whole world’ began at Thenappilly where she lived, a small town with a radius of roughly six kilometres, to her father’s village – about twenty kilometres away. Her school was somewhere midway.
“Legend says that Kerala had, once upon a time, been ruled by a benevolent asura king, Mahabali. Now, Asuras 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 Devas – the Gods above – did not like the state of affairs in Kerala. They were worried that if this little piece of land became such a heaven, what was going to happen to their own ‘original’ heaven? So they decided that it was time for some subtle political manoeuvres.” Like dethroning the king, sending him to the netherworld, and claiming the land for themselves… The usual stuff.
“So they approached Lord Vishnu, one of the three mightiest gods, the thrimurthis. Vishnu heard them out, and promised to do something.”
At this point, Malu made 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 serious complexes. No, he was too much of a man for that. There had to be a greater, more benevolent, reason! 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.”
That sounded like a reasonable enough explanation.
“So Lord Vishnu took the form of Vamanan, a dwarf Brahmin, and came to Mahabali’s court to ask him for three feet of land. No one refused a Brahmin anything. And Mahabali, who did not refuse anybody anything, told Vamanan to measure out the land he wanted and take it. The prudent men of his court suspected foul play and tried to stop him, but Mahabali, wise as the sages, knew his time was up. So he decided to play along.” After all, it was Lord Vishnu himself who had come for him!
“Vamanan the dwarf then grew so tall that the first foot he measured out covered the earth. The second encompassed the skies, and there was nowhere left to place the third foot. So Mahabali bowed down and asked Vamanan to place it on his head.
“Mahabali was thus sent to the netherworld. He asked for only one thing in return – that he should be allowed to return to his beautiful land once a year to visit his ‘children’. Since then, every year, his subjects welcomed their beloved king in the happiest way possible, regardless of the religion they followed. They made beautiful flower carpets in front of their houses through the ten days of the festival, and on the tenth day made the traditional feast, sadya, in his honour.” Malu was also writing for posterity.
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 join her brothers – though she was an only child, she had plenty of cousins – and a few other children from the neighbourhood to pick flowers from anywhere they could. Roadsides, fences, temples, even other people’s back- and front-yards. Malu firmly refused to call that ‘stealing’ – it was every child’s solemn duty to gather as many flowers as they could on Onam days. The end justified the means, as they say.
So 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 they were never short of flowers.
But now that she was fourteen, her mother refused to let her go with her gang. Added to that was the fact that now this ‘gang’ was almost non-existent – only one of her brothers lived at home; the others had left for big cities in search of jobs. So now she had to make do with the flowers from their own yard, and the supply was limited.
“Oh how I miss the Onams of my childhood!”
She drew a line to indicate that the entry for the day ended there. Then she decorated the margins with flowers and leaves. It was the Onam day entry, after all.
So it goes, my not-so-short story. On and on and on. Like me when I start talking. Do you know that I can talk myself out of anything? Sadness, nostalgia, frustration, anger, broken heart, broken bones… you name it. Ask my family if you don’t believe me. Or my students. In fact, people get worried when I am silent.
And see how I’m already feeling better?
Anyway, here’s wishing you all a very, very soulful Onam. There’s a payasam boiling away on my stove, in case you’re interested.