Onam began at school – with a bucket-full of mud and dirty hands. A bucket-full of mud dug out of the school grounds, set into a big circular cake in the verandah, soon transformed into rows and rows of pookalams.
Onam began at home with Chandrika chechi making a small round circle with cowdung in the frontyard which I and my brother filled every day for the next few days with flowers collected from the backyard and the roadside, using a non-existent imagination.
After a few days of joyously making pookalam and a few more days of grudgingly getting out of bed and making a pookalam and a few more days of telling mom and grandmother to go make the pookalam for themselves, Chandrika chechi would again come by and make for us the maathooru. No one could exactly remember how or why the 3 pyramids of clay came to symbolize Mahabali. Mom would make kolam around the maathooru and try vainly to pass on the skill to me. My indifference notwithstanding, she would write my name and my brother’s with the rice batter.
As a child, I could never get my head around to why Mahabali was given a raw deal or why he sounded like Innocent all the time. You felt sorry for him, our king of good times and angry at Vishnu for being sneaky and conniving. You learn about politics and back-channel power-struggles and about people who are left leaderless.
But slowly you realize, that is what Onam is all about – recognizing the good in an asura king, accepting the fallibility of your deities, a call to color your life, to celebrate the flowers, the rains, the nature and the togetherness. That is why Onam belongs to no religion.
Onam then ended aptly with my mom and my brother’s birthdays – More payasams and more of those sadyas.
Pookalam – a floral decoration
Chechi – Literally elder sister, but used to refer to any lady elder than yourself
Kolam – A drawing made using rice batter
Maathooru – Pyramids of clay made during onam and kept outside the home. They symbolize Mahabali
Mahabali – The asura (technically demon) king who ruled over Kerala.
Payasam – Sweet dish
Sadya – A feast
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