What does Onam mean to a second generation migrant Malayali who has never celebrated Onam in Kerala?

Let it stand on record: my favourite festival is Vishu, the Christmas of my life. Why? Because of the money coming our way, a bounty we awaited breathlessly, with insane anticipation and excitement!

We celebrated Diwali.

I loved the house-hopping for Golu.

I waited breathlessly for chundal and chakrapayasam of Ganpati in building’s our sarvajanik Ganesh festival with the exhilarating drumming and the dancing at its departure.

I’ve delighted in waterballoons during Holi and, even if we never received gifts, I always hung a long school-sock near my bed, hoping to fool Santa, during Christmas (This year. You never know).

My point? We lived like Mumbaikars. Every festival was ours. Every celebration ours. Any excitement, worthy of being infected with. It was also understood that our ‘real’ festival was Onam and Vishu.

I don’t think I retain many Onam memories from my childhood. Only the fact that from attam—the first day of Onam—onwards flower rangolis were a part of our day. That and the Onam stories my mother regaled us with: the story of Mahabali the generous Asura who ruled his land (Kerala) so wisely and so benevolently that the people didn’t need to pray to God. So much so that the gods were resentful and jealous. If nobody prayed to them, what was the point of their existence? And thus disguised as a poor monk Vishnu descends, intent to crush Mahabali, literally. Or the stories of my mother’s childhood where Onam was competing in picking the best flowers. How they would rise before dawn and run in the woods with baskets or collect flowers in their pawada.

I imagined my mother running in the first pale light of dawn, her hair streaming behind her as she loped in an aubergine cotton skirt, with buttercup-yellow butterflies flitting around her.

Because we never bought flowers, flower picking was something I did feverishly, waiting to plunder any bush or tree with flowers. But put pookalam we did.

Onam in Kerala is like Diwali in Delhi and Mumbai. Hindus, Muslims and Christians celebrated Onam with equal fervour. It is a harvest festival, after all. Spring time. All Keralites rejoice in unison. New clothes, firecrackers, sweetmeats; schools, colleges, offices, shut down; real estate inducements remind you that this is the time to buy property; discount sales abound; it’s also time for bonuses and baksheesh and other politically-correct ways to say thank you. We also have what no state has: magnificent boat races and pookalam competitions.

But because we were born and brought up in Mumbai and especially since Onam took place usually early September we were never in Kerala at that time, never able to immerse ourselves in the infectious excitement of a state festival.

So Onam was pookalam. We put flower-rangolis on the centre of the living room floor and ran to school. Then, three days before the festival my mother would do her Onam-food-shopping—ghee, cardamom, vegetables, jaggery, a cone of koorkal, 1/2 kg of ginger, bitter gourd, white pumpkin, a cone of shallots (baby onions) and ten, large coconuts would be hauled home, in addition to the everyday grocery. I remember waiting for her to return home, peering from my balcony. From a particular angle I would be able to watch her coming five minutes before she touched our building. And whenever I spotted her, this stunning woman—both hands laden with bags overflowing with vegetables—I would fly down to divest her of her wares.

In between preparing everyday meals my mother would allocate chores to us. One of us got the task of grating the ten coconuts. The coconuts would be cracked with an iron sickle kept only for this purpose, the water tasted, rated and each coconut accordingly assigned to sweet and savoury dishes. Then, a fine, pillowy lace of grated coconut would be pile in gentle mini mountains over a steel plate. (This was the only time when we were forbidden from scraping all of the coconut till it’s outer brown skin.)

One of us had the task of peeling shallots for the divine Ulli curry. Don’t go by the simplicity if its name. The Ulli curry my mother made was to die for. Often my dad would say she beat the best ulli-curry-maker in all of Kerala (that was his brother’s wife). And so my mom would fiercely contend for this title.

Once the shallots were skinned every single step of the dish was personally conducted by her: the sautéing of the onions (each shallot had to be translucent pink), browning the coconut, the grinding of the coconut with tamarind and red chillies on the stone, so, so finely that an oily paste emerged. I won’t know more of the recipe because we never saw what she did. When it was cooked in a terracotta pot and then placed on the dining table, your eyes would widen in surprise as soon as a red-gold globule of ulli curry went into your mouth. Her Ingeepulli was equally brilliant as was her Kerala kaipakka curry. Unfreakingbeatable. I have searched for an equivalent, hungering to find it. (and I know that everyone’s mother makes the best food in the world, is a widely used aphorism) and never found anyone coming even close to it.

Preparation for paysaam happened one day before the main day. And again her hands would we wrinkled with grinding and milking coconuts; slowly ghee-roasting the yellow gram and pounding fresh cardamom. The sambhar, the avail, the three pachchadi, the raw banana bhaji and the ripe mango curry, was conjured that morning. Later dozens of Guruvayur (no other would do) papadams would be deep fried. After all, along with the savoury course, papadams would be needed for the papadams-pazham-payasam grand finale.

Everything was laid out on the tenderest banana leaves that my mother would send my father to handpick from Chembur market.

I wish I could tell you that I feasted on the food. I did. But with nonchalance. This was one of the few days in a year my mother cooked only vegetarian. For us carnivores, the magical ulli curry and the two ambrosiac payasaams barely compensated. Without the new clothes and vishukaineetam what was the big deal?

It’s only when I got married to a non-malayali and witnessed the cooking of rice as a small part of a meal (once in a while, and if so with salt and in mostly long-grained basmati) that home-sickness and the malyaliness of this sworn Mumbaikar avalanched on me. In one sweeping stroke, I had swept away all the Onam sadhyas. All the steamed rice on banana leaves with molten Sambhar and coconut-laced curries and bhaji were done. I ached to eat them, wandering from place to place with an alien surname and a permanent craving for my mother’s food.

And thus, every Onam in Mumbai I place a pookalam and sit quietly, never attempting the sadhya; seeking solace in Maggie and the memory of my mother’s magic hands.