Haappy Onam, [Kallu] Shaappy Onam!
So Onam is in full-swing in Kerala. I am writing this so that Kafila does not remain an ‘onamkeraamoola’, which in Malayalam literally means a place into which Onam does not enter — a place cut off from civilization, that is, populated by country bumpkins. Onam in Kerala now means many things to many people and I’m listing some of these below:
Number One is shoppy onam.
Onam to many is not happy unless it is shoppy, or better still, shop-hoppy. To those of us who aren’t in this mode of celebration, the days immediately preceding Onam are those of informal curfew, since those not interested in shopping are likely to feel completely trapped and suffocated among the crowds that throng the shops, shopping especially for clothes and household appliances. This has caused much heartburn among commentators who lament how Onam has gone commercial. But, well, the shoppy-happy types are not entirely unjustified in their mad rush to stuff their homes with goodies: Maveli, the mythical asura king of Kerala, who makes his annual visit here, expects to find the land of peace and plenty that he left behind, exiled to the netherworld by Vishnu’s vamana avatar. Therefore in one sense, Onam is an annual exercise in deception, and ideas like ‘peace’ and ‘plenty’, one would admit, haven’t remained the same since the 1970s.
Number Two is weepy Onam, the Onam of those stricken by bouts of nostalgia.
This set regrets the fall of the Tharavad [joint family] and the Ammaavan [the grand uncle] and the decline of the pristine purity of Onam in the present. There is pleasure in nostalgia and in this season of celebration I do not wish to deny the weepy ones their pleasure, or weepy-Onam-inclined TV commentators their punch lines, but would still point out that all of us in the Tharavad did not join in the same way. The burden of cooking the huge feast — the menial labour involved — fell disproportionately on women, especially members of the family who were not that important, often distant relatives who were indigent and dependent — and the credit often went to the more powerful, senior women and the few men who helped to chop vegetables, scrape coconut, or press the coconut milk! So I’m amazed when I see TV representations of Onam and advertisements, with women and men wrapped in brand new off-white and gold packaging lolling about old Malayalee tharavad houses livened up with fresh coats of paint or polish, as if the sadya [feast] was being readied by Siva’s bhootha-ganam or some other such supernatural force! I am not sure if this is closer to Maveli’s utopia, since I don’t know if it was imagined as a world in which nobody would labour! And there are some things that no one seems to be nostalgic about — for instance, the verdant countryside of this season which has mostly disappeared, swallowed up by the tasteless, garrish, absurdly large houses which now threaten to make the whole of Kerala one huge ‘residential colony’. Nostalgia serves an important functional purpose for those of us whose idea of a good life is that of zooming down the consumerist super-highway. It insulates us from the past, blocks historical hindsight, and allows us to pick and choose what suits us best for now. History then becomes nothing but a harmless, and indeed, pretty, frill that decks us up.
Number Three is kallu-shaappy Onam, which I will not call the subaltern Onam because it cuts across all classes.
Now ‘Kallu’ in Malayalam means toddy and ‘Kallu-shaap’ is obviously toddy shop, but the name now applies to shops selling hard liquor of all sorts. The shaap is no doubt a very important place in Kerala. I remember traveling in eastern parts of the state, and the local bus had inevitably three major stops: ‘Pallyppadi’ or ‘Ambalappadi’ (church or temple-gate), ‘Chantappadi’ (market-gate), and ‘Shaapimpadi ‘(toddy-shop gate). Malayalees, it is now famous, do consume some of the largest quantities of liquor in the world, and Onam will have to stop at shaapimpadi! And the local papers have been reporting how the authorities are preparing hard to prevent a hooch tragedy. I’m not a great fan of our local drunkards, but I have to admit that in my experience, the world that assembles at shaapimpadi seem to be far closer to Maveli’s utopia! I mean, the shoppy-Onam types, in their eagerness to seize the latest, often do not care a whit for others, and hence quite nonchalantly push and shove others, step on their toes or elbow them — in other words, are not social, one bit. The weepy types are not really social either, and even if there is a community of weepy-Onam-enthusiasts, they hardly want to do anything more than airing their individual sense of loss.
But the kallu- shaappy Onam types, I find, are the genuinely happy bunch (neither the shoppy nor the weepy can be so. Consumerism renders happiness utterly ephemeral and nostalgia is pleasure-in-pain). People who think that the Anna Hazare crowd was peaceful and friendly would blush in shame if they saw the long, snaking lines of very disciplined men stand eagerly but good-humoredly, patiently, waiting their turn to buy their favourite brands in front of our civil supplies’ liquour outlets! Violence is unthinkable since much greater pleasures of vellamady, drinking that it, await us all, and we are all aware that unruly behaviour would only boomerang on us! As one of the very few women who have tried to be part of that queue, I was most pleasantly surprised. Not only did a new window open just for the women, the number of times I was referred to and addressed as ‘pengal’ (which is far more informal and hence more heart-warming, compared to say, ‘sahodari’) –sister — by both the attendents in the shop and the people gathered there, softened my poor heart long deprived of matrilineal connection to brothers! No doubt they all hoped I would help them buy the stuff they wanted so that they would be spared of standing there in the hot sun, but I wasn’t too unhappy to be conferred the distinction of being a sister-in-vellamadi ( and no questions asked about who was going to drink the liquor I paid for, or whether I consume liquor).
Now, I have more serious reasons for why I am grateful for kallu-shaappy Onam. For one, I’d think that this is one reason why Onam is still not completely sanskritised despite being a Hindu festival. In fact, Onam was actually declared the ‘national festival’ of Kerala only in 1960, and in the decades immediately preceding, we had witnessed an important transformation in its meaning, in what it represented. Onam used to be, in many parts of Kerala, actually more a celebration of Vishnu, rather than Maveli — Mahabali — and domestic rituals associated with Onam celebrated not Mahabali but Vamanamurty. However, a different interpretation of Onam was forged in precisely the decades in which the movement for uniting Malayalam-speaking regions into Kerala gathered force, one in which the left was certainly a hegemonic presence. Brahmanical mythology according to which Kerala was founded by Parasurama the warrior sage was insistently attacked by left-leaning and anti-caste intellectuals — for example, Kuttippuzha Krishna Pillai, who launched a scathing attack against the setting up of a depiction of Parasurama outside the venue of the Aikya Kerala Conference in the 1940s.
Onam came to be reinterpreted as the festival celebrating the benevolent asura king Maveli, his yearly return from exile, and Vamana receded in importance — especially in some of the most brilliant poetry produced in Malayalam in the 1940s and 50s. Maveli and the modern welfare state came to mirror each other. School textbooks have since then spread the story of Maveli and of Onam as the occasion for remembering him, made it part of popular understanding. No doubt, the setting up of Onam as Kerala’s ‘national festival’ and the muting of religious rituals associated with it served to consolidate the powerful communities which had benefitted from the socio-political transformations of the late 19th and early 20th centuries, and to produce secularised cultural capital that secured their power over that of the lower castes. However, this also assured that Onam would be now a public festival, and therefore opening to questioning and revision, and one that may be celebrated in many different ways.
This brings us to Onam No. Four, ‘Sarkaar Onam’, or the government’s Onam.
This involves plenty of cultural programmes organized by the Kerala State government, and the streets brilliantly lit up at night, and thrown open for people to walk about freely. As a child, to me, this was the most wonderful Onam, of walking around the whole of Thiruvananthapuram (which used to be a beautiful town) through colorfully lit-streets till late at night.
I do think that making Onam a public festival has been important in preventing the revival of old-style religious rituals associated with it, despite the fact that there is a large and powerful demand for upper caste cultural capital. Perhaps shoppy Onam isn’t entirely a bad an idea too, for it has indeed turned the latter into saleable products, stuff that can be had at a price. Kallu-shaappy Onam need not be bad too, provided the non-drinkers are not bothered or disadvantaged, since it insists on pleasure and works against solemn devotion.
Weepy onam, however, I do not like, for it is against public onam and not explicitly for pleasure. I however hope that Onam continues to multiply, and we soon have Onam that welcomes the migrant workers from Bengal, Bihar, and other parts of India, or Onam inspired by the Dalit Human Rights Movement in Kerala, one in which each family cooks not for itself but for its neighbours.
Haappy Onam, then, as we Malayalees like to say it!