Childhood memories of Onam celebrations flooded to my mind when I logged on to my PC to access emails. Bloggers, newspaper notifications and myriad links on the World Wide Web reminded me that Onam celebrations are on in Kerala despite the floods which devoured over three hundred lives. Brought up in Tamilnadu, I was not fortunate enough to have spectated Puli kali or the Tiger Dance, Thiruvathira Kali and boat races as frequently or annually as Keralites. However, I have had Onam sadhya (feast) every year as long as I had lived with my parents. Mum used to treat me to the flavours of Kerala with her mixed vegetables sambaar, avial, pulisherry, injumpulli, kalan and payasams. Malayalees residing in the neighbourhood were not reluctant to share their tasty dishes with us especially payasams such as ada pradhaman. Being a connoisseur of food, I looked forward to these festivals.
I grew up listening to stories of King Mahabali or Maaveli who visited his subjects every year to find out if they lived a carefree and prosperous life. My son who is born and brought up in Sydney is clueless about King Mahabali or Onathappan as he is also known. King Mahabali was a good ruler who brought prosperity to his kingdom. After his morning prayers, Mahabali usually granted boons to brahmins and Lord Vishnu who resented the growing popularity of the King disguised himself as a dwarf and a poor brahmin and called himself Vaaman. He asked the king for as much land as could be covered by his three steps. As he was a dwarf, the King granted his request. Vaaman suddenly grew in size and his first step covered the earth, his second step covered the sky and as he had nowhere to keep his leg he placed it on the king’s head on the latter’s request. The king was crushed and sent to paathal but was granted his request; the request to visit his subjects every year and Keralites celebrate this day as Onam.
I was fascinated by this story so much that whenever I saw my neighbour, who visited his family annually as he was employed in Dubai, I was reminded of Maaveli. He did not have the umbrella or the crown on his head. However, something about his face, expression of contentment and his attire, which comprised of kashavu mundu and kashavu shawl reminded me of the king. Like King Mahabali he was shirtless. His hair matched some of the pictures I had seen of Maaveli. I nicknamed my neighbour Mahabali and I remember the laughs I used to have with my little brother. I shared these stories with my son but I guess one has to be a Keralite to feel the spirit of Onam. Happy Onam to Malayalees all over the world!