Today is the Vishu. A day of new beginnings in Kerala. Vishu may pale in comparison to Onam, but it’s still a festival that rocks the southern Indian state.
In my mind, I can see the Kani konna (the yellow blossoms so intrinsically linked to Vishu). Vegetables stacked on a copper plate in front of an idol of Lord Vishnu. There would be coins and jewellery beside it. The nilavilakku (traditional lamp) would be glowing as incense stick burn, its fragrance wafting all around.
That would be the first sight of the day. My mother would clap my eyes shut and lead me to the pooja table. Vishu kani will be the first sight of the day, as it should be. And that glow stays with you.
My father’s contribution would be kaineettam (money). I look forward to it every year, having planned a purchase much in advance. A much bigger fare awaits later in the day: the sadya, a vegetarian meal with a mélange of curries served on a banana leaf.
Today was different. It is Vishu. My wife led me to the living room where Vishu kani was set. What I saw was a sight I had never seen on any other Vishu day. There was no Kani konna (Cassia fistula). Instead, there were a couple of marigolds from our balcony garden. There were a few vegetables, some bangles and coins. It certainly was a scaled-down version. A Vishu kani in the time of coronavirus.
I wasn’t disheartened. At least we managed this. I still felt good about it. To keep up the mood, I pulled on a mundu (dhoti) and juba (kurta) before I started the day’s work-from-home stint.
COVID-19 did wreak havoc on the festivities. Social distancing meant that shopping was kept to the minimum (once a week). So there was no trip to the florist near King Faisal Road in Sharjah. Banana leaves were sold out in the neighbourhood groceries.
None of this would dampen our enthusiasm. My wife set about making a small sadya.
Vishu is the first day of Medam, the ninth month according to Malayalam solar calendar. It marks the completion of the spring equinox, and the beginning of Meda Rashi (Aries), the first zodiac sign. Vishu, which means equal in Sanskrit, celebrates the vernal equinox when day and night are roughly the same duration.
The celebrations may have been muted, but the feast made up for it. There was no banana leaf. The curries were fewer. Yes, the pickles (mango and ginger) were there. Banana chips too. Well, I went the traditional route. Mixed rice with parippu (dal); crushed a pappadam into it; added a dollop of ghee (forget about cholesterol). It tasted heavenly. How I missed this. Thoran and avial were the accompaniments. Sambhar followed. Ah, the pal payasam (kheer) never tasted better. The sadya may have been truncated, but it felt good.
Nothing like a sadya to put you in the festive mood. But I missed the banana leaf. It makes a huge difference. It’s a totally different feel when you swipe payasam off a banana leaf. I missed that.
Now for a quick nap. No, there’s no chance. There’s still more work to do before I sleep.
Vishu heralds new beginnings. A chance to start all over. It’s a new year. Hope it’s the year when the world flattens the curve.