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How do you celebrate Onam? This question from non-Keralite friends and colleagues often perplexes me. For, I don’t have an answer. Onam, we celebrate. We don’t think about it. We celebrate in ways that came to us naturally. We celebrate much like how our friends, relatives and neighbours celebrate. We never gave it much thought.

So how do I celebrate Onam? Well, my Onam is a far cry from the Onam I celebrate in my home town in Kerala. It can never be the same. The state buzzes with festive fervour, and that’s something that can’t be transplanted or recreated. When Onam's in the air, it lends an inexplicable flavour to the food and ambience.

Floral patterns begin to appear on courtyards 10 days before Thiru Onam (the Second Onam, and the big day). And that signals the beginning of Onam festivities. The mood changes. The usually taciturn Malayali become loquacious, even begin to smile more. There’s more camaraderie all around. Shops, particularly textile shops, do brisk business. The demand for groceries and vegetables goes up. Even the most tightfisted, armed with bonus money, loosen their purse strings.

It's a state festival. So the Kerala government too gets into the act. Roads wear a festive look with coloured bulbs lighting up the trees and buildings. There will be dances, dramas, concerts and cultural programmes during the week.

The preparations at home

For me, Onam brings memories of my mother. Her Onam preparations begin a week ahead as she busies herself making pickles and chips. And on Thiru Onam day she would be up before daybreak, shower and draw Kolam (rangoli or patterns drawn on the floor with rice powder) before she begins to work on the feast.

When we were younger, my sister and I would bathe and get dressed in new clothes and head off into the neighbourhood to play on swings; some children would sing Onam songs while they swayed in the swing. As I grew older, I preferred the traditional ball games with “thala panthu” being a popular one. When I became a collegian, card games replaced ball games. Rummy, 56 and 28 were the preferred card games.

All these are a mere prelude to the feast. Onam Sadya is at the heart of all festivities. And it’s a huge spread, spread out on a plantain leaf. The rice is always the parboiled variety, served with an array of curries that starts with parippu curry (green gram dal); it has to be eaten with crushed pappadams and hot ghee. Sambhar would follow and the rice would be devoured with accompaniments like avial, thoran, pachadi, kichadi, koottu curry, olan and many more.

Sweet interlude

We then pause for the sweet interlude. Dollops of payasam (it’s like kheer or pudding, mostly made of rice, rice flakes or vermicelli) are wolfed down before we resume the curry procession with rasam, pulissery or moru curry (spiced yoghurt) and buttermilk. They go down well with pickles. By then, the leaf would be wiped clean. And the belly full.

Time for a nap. Elders may opt for Kerala style paan (consists of betel leaf and betel nuts; some raw tobacco too, for the adventurous).

My Onam celebrations usually end at a watering hole in town. There might be some major concert or fireworks in the evening to round off the festivities.

That’s Onam in my home town. In the UAE, it takes a different form. Onam begins here in Chingam month of the Malayalam calendar and is celebrated every Friday till December. That’s when expat Christmas celebrations take over.

At my home here, the only celebration is the feast on Thiru Onam day. My wife and I rustle up the Onam Sadya and call some friends over, watch some Malayalam television programmes beamed from Kerala, reminisce about our Onam in Kerala.

That, my friend, is how I celebrate Onam.