Oru American (Cor)Onam!

Sometimes, I feel bad that we Malayalees have only two major festivals (Vishu and Onam), when compared to the rest of India. But there are times when I am glad there are only two: that much less cooking, dressing up etc. required. Lesser the festivals, the more exclusive the celebrations can be, right?

Lord Vishnu as Vamanan pushing King Mahabali into patala
Vamanan & Mahabali

For those who aren’t familiar with Onam, it is the harvest festival celebrated in the South Indian state of Kerala aka God’s Own Country. Onam commemorates the return of the legendary king Mahabali or Maveli, who was a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu. It is said that the land now known as Kerala was once ruled by Mahabali, an asura (demon) king. He was known for his just ways and under him the land and its natives knew no sorrows. The gods became jealous of his flourishing reign and approached Vishnu with an idea of waging war against Mahabali. Vishnu did not approve of war but decided to take the matter into his own hands. He disguised himself as a brahmin β€” a dwarf named Vamanan β€” and visited Mahabali. Being a generous king, he asked the brahmin what he wanted. Vamanan asked for land, measured by three of his own footsteps. Mahabali found the request to be silly but decided to humor the dwarf. Vamanan transformed into a gigantic version of himself and took one step to measure the entire earth, another to envelop the sky and had nowhere to place his third step. King Mahabali offered his head and Vishnu is said to have pushed him into patala, the nether world. He then presented himself in his original grandiose form (vishwaroopam) and granted Mahabali a boon, allowing him to return to earth once a year. Mahabali, who wished to see his land and his citizens, is believed to return to his beloved people on the tenth day of Onam. That is why we decorate our door steps with floral patterns (pookalams), anticipating the king’s return. To learn more about traditional festivities during Onam, head to my friend’s fantastic post Onam in God’s Own Country

I still remember our first Onam in the US. We were brand new here and I was a total novice in the kitchen (unlike today ;-)). My husband’s cousin called in the morning to wish us and asked me what all I was going to make for the sadhya (feast) and I babbled something. He coolly said, “Make lunch for us too, we’ll be there in some time.” I remember the phone call but I barely remember anything else…what all I cooked or how the sadhya turned out (I am hoping it was decent). Over the years, though, I am sure that I have more than compensated for the mediocre sadhya that I made on my first Onam.

Festivals like Onam and Vishu, I believe, are one way in which we expatriates stay connected to our roots. After being away from home for so long, Onam, Diwali, Navarathri and Pongal are simply nostalgic. They give us opportunities to relive our memories and make new ones in our new homes, with friends who are now like an extended family (they also give us girls a chance to dress up, now that we don’t get as many occasions as in India). For the past few years, we have been calling our friends over for a sadhya. We skipped it last year because it was just a few months after my husband’s surgery; we did, however, distribute some goodies to our friends (some that I cooked and some that my parents sent from India). Just a couple of days back my mother was telling me how she had parceled plantain chips, pappadam and some other things to some friends and relatives in Chennai. As soon as I got off the phone, I told Mr. P that we can expect one too…I just had that gut feeling that something was on its way. I was taking a nap yesterday, when lo and behold, that gut feeling turned into reality. My husband came into the room with a carton, from India. To tell you the truth, I was thrilled but I will of course take on a stern tone and put on my poker face (that’s going to be difficult) when I address my folks about it… Why? Because, we keep telling them to not send us anything and they never listen!!!

6 days of Onam Pookalam (flower arrangements)

This year’s scenario is entirely unfathomable: we have (Cor)Onam! Get it? Corona + Onam? Neither have we had any friends over since the beginning of the pandemic and nor have we stepped out for any social gatherings. We will be skipping a gathering this Onam too but will not allow that to dampen our spirits. We won’t be depriving our friends of their share of festivities too. Being the only Mallus in the gang, it is on us to make sure that Onam is given its due attention. Our friends have decided to do a potluck lunch on Sunday and we will be supplying a few key elements including the coveted vazha ela (banana leaf), from our garden to complete the sadhya ensemble.

As the mallus around the world are gearing up for Onam, we are also going to do our bit to make this Cor(onam) as special as possible for us and all who will be celebrating with us.

P.S. Check out my food blog, Square Meals, for some delectable Onam recipes:

  1. Onam and an Exciting Start to a Long Weekend
  2. Onam Special
  3. Dates Pradhaman and a Delectable Onam

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