Friday, September 9, 2011

Onam that was!

Yesterday was Onam - a Malayali harvest festival. Onam is a big harvest festival in Kerala. Floral decorations, traditional dresses, and traditional food served with payasam as dessert are common things. It’s basically a vegetarian festival. You are supposed to eat several vegetable curries and fried menus along with rice and sambar. Onam would mean boat races, traditional dances and family gatherings. Onam would mean retelling of the Mahavali myth. But Onam for several diasporic Malayalis mean food, tradtional dress and soppy programmes of dance and music. Like the post Durga puja celebration of Bengalis, I have seen Malayalis celebrating Onam with a variety programme evening that reminds you of middle age pageantry. Everybody has to perform some nonsense in these shows.
King Mahavali. The myth associated with
Onam is related to this King.
But it was Onam yesterday.
In the afternoon my friend Sudip took me to a dingy restaurant at Nampally to have Onam lunch along with two Malayali friends. Well actually there were nine of us from various states of India trying out onam. I did not like the food. I felt it was hideous. 
After the lunch I asked our Malayali friend about the food. He said he liked it because it reminded him of home. Another girl who was with us said it was all nice except that they were not served properly. I realized that they could never be the right judge of onam food. Wearing traditional dresses, remembering family members constantly, physically displaced from Kerala, their judgment of onam food is bound to be nostalgic and in all probability any semblance of onam menu would be nice for them.
At dinner our mess served onam special and it was bad.
Were the onam meals badly prepared? Was it that I lacked the taste to appreciate the food? I guess both. I also heard that what we had in the name of Onam was nothing compared to what Malayalis have back home. i heard that there would be several more curries and vegetable fries. Whatever may it be I am sure most of the vegetables would be prepared in the same vein as those of fried beans and beans with coconut.
Actually, yesterday, I didn’t see the point of celebrating onam.

Harvest days are long gone and personally I am removed from farming so many times that I cannot even count. In Kerala harvesting has taken a new turn. There are very few vegetable farm lands now, most have turned into cash crops and poultry. And yet Onam like all other regional festivals in India is a farmer’s festival. I guess the food served in onam completely lacks meaning for urban Malayalis as well as for me. We celebrate it because it is part of our growing up and nothing else. I cannot appreciate this pre modern food menu of vegetable mishmash because it is completely beyond me. Point is the menu does not answer the question: why am I eating this? The vegetables do not give you any pleasure at all. Neither does the menu challenge your digestive system. I have a thesis for this. When a culture is colonized and recolonized as the Malayalis have been then it is worth holding on to extremely private practices of culture which would not be touched by modernism or colonialism. Onam is that private undercurrent, saved for generations from outside pollutions. So no innovation, no new menu. It is a cultural freeze. It serves the food which has been served in pre modern harvest times. It is without meat, without strong flavor, syrupy and slurpy. I cannot connect to it because it does not question my taste buds like a nice hot kabab or an Aloo Dum.

It also might be that Onam reminds me of the pre modern undercurrent within me. I might hate Onam because it is messy. My experience at the restaurant had been bad because it lacked hygiene. Eating Onam food might be messy in front of several people because you have to literally lick your hands – a connotation which in modern times has become linked to obscenity. Eating Onam, for me, then might be an uncivil behaviour.
Back at the university Anushree, my old friend, was not wearing traditional dresses. She said she did not have anything new to wear. I got it then. Onam if not anything is part of a wide consumer culture that is all around us. A blog post at Kafila told me more. Onam is basically shopping for many Malayalis. We Indians (cheap that we are) have turned every damn festival and every damn religious gathering into a money spinning ritual.  Onam is also about the joint family. It’s the time of the year when you gather around and get close to your family. But with joint families breaking up in Kerala I don’t think Onam holds on to familial relationships beyond your nearest ones: mother, father, sister, brother or if you are married, your wife and children. Otherwise Onam is about friends. In consumerist society often friends are more important than the immediate family. Friends have this weird habit of congratulating you at every step and taking you out on dinner or lunch to celebrate nothing. Together with a friend you can have the freedom to consume anything, anytime anywhere. My junior Upamanyu has made it a habit to tease me at every step with his absurd sense of consumption: “Oh new pen, let’s go and have lunch somewhere!” Oh new bed sheet, let’s go!” His absurdity proves the shallowness of consumer friendship in many ways than one. Onam I believe has become a consumer friendship even though the coating of harvest festival remains.

So that’s how it stands: I may never like Onam food again because it is related to several things I detest and reject.