This year Wife decided to follow the pookalam ritual during Onam, creating flower-carpets for ten straight days. Every day there was a new layer, appended not to the previous day’s carpet but to a new one laid out with fresh flowers, and on the final day she ended with a ten-ringed pattern. I was assigned the role of petal-plucker: each morning I removed petals from different flowers (whose names I still do not know) and this practice acquired a meditative quality as I went around a flower, detaching the petals, observing for the first time their intricate curls and perfect symmetries, and it led me to believe that one could spend a lifetime observing the beauty of these forms. The petals, collected in bowls, were then picked up by Wife and arranged in circles at our doorstep to welcome, as tradition had it, the king Mahabali.
This simple ritual, repeated for ten days, left Wife feeling bright and chirpy in the mornings. Unlike me she is religious, and when time and circumstance permit she follows customs she learned from her parents. Such rituals, then, are connections to one’s past, one’s childhood; they are also connections to our communities, family and friends, and these days communities have moved online. So the ritual was extended: a photo of the pookalam was taken each day and posted on Facebook; some left generous comments, others were inspired to begin a similar routine.
On 9th September, the Saturday following the tenth day, we celebrated Onam at home. The festival, which is a major anniversary in Kerala, has for me an unfamiliar quality, notwithstanding twelve years with a Keralaite. Perhaps one needs childhood memories to truly assimilate such a celebration, and mine are all from festivals celebrated in Karnataka: Ganesha chaturthi, Deepavali, Bheemana-Amavasya, Sankranthi. My only childhood image of Onam is of a grainy boat race photograph in my geography textbook.
Boat races are important public events during Onam in Kerala, but our celebration in small-town Germany was a small, private affair. The four families that gathered for the occasion displayed varying degrees of compliance to tradition: two ladies wore the traditional off-white saree with a golden border; the men wore kurtas, two of them over jeans; the children, decked in silk-wear designed for such occasions, scored highest. There were outsiders too: there was J, a Christian from Kerala (he insisted he had come only for the food); J’s wife, an American (she insisted she was in love with Kerala); and I, neither from Kerala nor a believer (and nothing, I realized, to insist upon). There were other compromises: instead of sitting on the floor in front of plantain leaves, we sat at a dining table and ate out of ceramic plates. But the mood was festive and the food – a potluck spread of eleven dishes with exotic names like Ulli Theeyal and Puliinji – was inviting. Over lunch we talked about the festival’s mythological background, the story of Mahabali being tricked by Vishnu (as Vamana) to give up all his possessions and driven to paatala, the underground world from which he emerged each year to visit Kerala, where his people celebrated on this day to show the king that all is well in the prosperous kingdom he once ruled over.
Looking back at my own childhood, our recent celebration seems a shadow of what I saw at festivals in those days, events that my mother spent weeks preparing for, events that now seem more rich in the decorations, the rituals, the food, the gifts, and the atmosphere. But this feeling of cultural dilution is something even my parents felt at that time, in comparison to their past: they weren’t following the customs and rituals as rigorously as their parents had done, they said. So this interpretation has a psychological basis – our picture of the past is rosier than it actually was, which colours our perception of the present – but it also hints at a refinement, a redefinition that comes with time: we take what we have received from the previous generation, mould it to suit our needs and environments, and these re-invented practices are carried forward by the next generation. Over time, our notions of purity and originality change, and we adapt our narratives.
The payasams for desert turned out the most popular among all dishes. We were full to the brim after the sumptuous lunch, but the payasams found their way in, like celebrities who find an easy way through a dense crowd of commoners. Late in the afternoon, before the last guests left, the kids decided to visit the garden below. They ran about on the grass with the same abandon they had displayed in the apartment upstairs, and soon their interest turned to the quince tree in the corner; it was full of fruit, and they wanted to pluck a few. The tree belongs to the owner, who gets the fruits plucked each autumn for a delicious preparation of home-made jam; I explained this to the kids and asked them to pick some berries instead. They persisted, like children always do, but when one of them agreed and ran to the bushes the others followed. They gathered boysenberries from the bushes lining the perimeter, screaming with delight when anyone spotted a large bunch. Then they left, with berries for the weekend, and memories for later in life.