Today’s Onam. Thiru Onam to Malayalis across the globe. It’s the state festival of Kerala, a festival that crosses the religious divide in the south Indian state.
Onam sneaked in on us this year. There wasn’t the usual buzz in the lead up to the festival. I nearly missed Chingam 1, the New Year’s Day in the Malayalam calendar. That fell on August 17 and was lost in the chaos wrought by the coronavirus. Atham, which marks the beginning of the 10-day festival, was marked by the greetings that arrived on social media.
What’s Onam? It’s a festival that celebrates the return of King Mahabali to his subjects. This year, the memes told us that Mahabali was in quarantine and will be in Kerala in time for Onam. Well, you can have a laugh, but it reflects the bleak times we live in.
COVID-19 has dampened all festivities and pilgrimages around us. Onam is no exception. When more than 25 million people are infected, and when more than 800,000 people have died, how can you celebrate?
Understandably, Onam celebrations have been muted. In Kerala, the government had repeatedly asked people to avoid gatherings to prevent superspreading. An Onam without gatherings is no Onam.
Onam of yore
Years ago, attired in new clothes, we used to gather under the big tree from which the swing dangled. We waited patiently for our turn at the swing. And finally, when we clambered on to the swing, friends would push the swing and the breeze would wash over our faces. Then there were ball games. As we grew older, card games replaced ball games.
The feast was another gathering, of family and friends. I miss the feast swiped off the banana leaves. I wouldn’t be celebrating Onam this year, having lost two of my loved ones in the same Malayalam year (Kolla Varsham). There won’t be a feast. No new clothes either. The pain lingers.
The thoroughfare in the city would be illuminated by a multitude of coloured bulbs dangling from the roadside trees. All the major buildings will be lit up. There will be a veritable cultural feast on offer.
In the UAE, Onam is celebrated in full grandeur by social organisations. COVID-19 had put a damper on most festivities. Job loss was another fallout from the pandemic. You have to sell the land and celebrate Onam, that’s how the old saying goes. That’s not a wise thing to do now. Not when a virus has spread so much fear and uncertainty.
A cousin in Dubai who lost his job told me that he bought clothes only for children. “We’re having a feast, a minor one. Just for the sake of kids,” he said.
Another friend in Dubai told me that she’s thrilled that her husband is working from home, and children have opted for distance learning. “Our family will be together for the Onam Sadhya,” she gushed.
Over the last 10 years or more, the Malayalam television channels have driven the Onam celebrations. Most of them bring in celebrities who reminisce about Onam in their childhood, besides airing an array of movies.
Onam is nostalgia too. We always think that the best Onams were celebrated in our childhood. But come to think of it, every Onam had its charm. And each of them has been different.
How Kerala celebrates
But my mind always goes back to Thiruvananthapuram, the capital of Kerala. The streets would be bathed in a flood of lights. The thoroughfare in the city would be illuminated by a multitude of coloured bulbs dangling from the roadside trees. All the major buildings will be lit up. There will be a veritable cultural feast on offer, where traditional art forms jostle for attention. Concerts are always a major draw.
Every evening, people spill on to the roads, where traffic is banned until midnight. People just walk from one venue to another. It’s hot and humid, but it doesn’t matter. There’s a kind of euphoria in the air.
That’s the Onam I remember.
Thiruvananthapuram has gone quiet this year. Silenced by the coronavirus. Sideswiped by a second wave of infections, Kerala has been struggling to contain the spread of the virus. Inter-district travel allowed many to spend Onam with their families, although it’s fraught with risk. But there won’t be any gathering of friends and relatives. That would be risky and foolish.
The Onam parade, with floats and tableaus, won’t the there in Thiruvananthapuram. The cheering crowds that line the streets will be missing. But the spirit of Onam will be in the air.