It is not just any other day to linger in bed, but my eyes remain stubbornly shut, as I coax them to shed the cobwebs of delicious sleep that cling to them. It is the early hours of dawn when the day is still like a coy maiden, with the first rays of delicate, rosy tinted light streaking her pale cheeks. I scramble out of bed, nudging my sleeping cousins, who crawl deeper into their quilts in response.
The house wears a shroud of serenity, which belies the frenzy of activities that will soon ensue. I sidle next to my paternal grandmother or ‘valliamma’ as we call her, helping myself to the milk biscuits that she religiously has with her morning coffee. I listen to her going over the things planned for the day, as I dunk my biscuit into her glass of milky coffee and savour the sweet mush. The preparations and the festive air that precedes the festival, excites me more than the actual festival itself.
When a little girl has her brand new silk skirt, the colour of a ripe pomegranate, trimmed with gold brocade, matching glass bangles that tinkle every time she moves her hands and little jhumkas (earrings) to complete the outfit; she wants nothing more from life- for that day. My cousins and I gather around our grandmother, dressed in our festive finery, which have been carefully chosen by her. She inspects each of us and adds her little touches; a smear of’ kajal’, a touch of talcum powder, smoothing out a ruffled pleat of a skirt. Her apparent joy in seeing us dolled up makes us silently vow, not to spoil our clothes or mess up our hair.
We troop out into the courtyard to help out with the flower carpet preparations, presided over by my grandmother. It is an ambitious project, but then, my grandmother is not known to do anything on a small scale. A talented artist bordering on genius, she has drawn an enormous picture of a little Krishna leaning against an ivory colored calf, a golden flute on his lips, under an arbour of multi colored flowers and creepers . Aunts, uncles, house helps, are all engrossed in various stages of preparations. There is a certain invisible hierarchy that is in play. The minions fetch the flowers and the leaves, sort it according to color and shred it to tiny bits, so that it looks like a smooth carpet when it is done. The more ‘talented assistants’ follow instructions and slowly use the flowers to add life to the picture, sometimes mixing two or three flowers to get that perfect shade. In the center of it all, sits my grandmother orchestrating this symphony of flowers.
It is almost noon and the great dining hall has been cleared of all furniture, cleaned and lined with straw coloured reed mats on the ebony coloured floor. Fresh banana leaves are placed in front of the mats and from a distance it looks like the room is framed with borders of beige and green. The center of the room is lined with a plethora of dishes in gleaming steel and brass utensils. There is steaming hot, fluffy rice to be doused with ghee and salted dal, the colour of daffodils. Sambar the quintessential lentil stew, tangy rasam ; avial, the medley of vegetables in a coconut paste, thorans, crisp, flavourful vegetable stir-fry spiked with shallots and a dash of freshly grated coconut, crunchy papadams and an assortment of chips, pickles, relishes and almost all the sidekicks that make up a malayalee sadhya. For dessert there are payasams; at least two kinds. The entire family sits down to partake of this festive meal, like generations before us. The dishes remain the same over the years, the people sitting down to eat change; some new faces gets added some fade away.
Towards late afternoon, as the gluttony induced coma slowly ebbs, we race upstairs to the ‘unjal muri’ or the ‘swing room’ to claim the best seats on the swing. It is a huge rectangular shaped room, fringed on all sides with windows painted a mint green, bare except for a huge swing which hangs in the middle. The swing itself is gigantic and can easily hold six of us , painted to echo the same mint green colour of the windows. Most of the paint has peeled away revealing how popular it is with the inmates of the house. A room exclusively allotted to enjoy the pleasures that only a swing can provide. Some days we swing higher and higher till our feet almost touches the ceiling and everything around us blurs and for those deliciously agonizing moments, it is just us, the wind in our hair and our heaving insides. On other days we lounge on its broad surface, devouring a good book or simply day dreaming, as it gently rocks us to and fro.
After we are sufficiently dizzy and nauseous, but miraculously ravenous enough to ponder on the snacks that will be served with tea; we ambush the harried cook, who is yet to recover from the lunch fiasco. There is pazhampori, batter coated sweetened bananas; plump ,crisp and golden brown and ‘elayada’ a mixture of honey coloured jaggery and fresh coconut smothered in sugar, sealed in a disc of rice flour dough, wrapped in a piece of banana leaf and steamed till cooked. The filling transforms into a treacle like consistency lending the perfect balance to the bland rice flour coating, and the burst of flavours as I bite into it is nothing short of alchemy.
The day slowly takes its last bow, amidst games, laughter, lively conversations and creating memories to last a life time.
Onam is perhaps one of the rare festivals that celebrate a demon king and his triumph over the gods. As the legendary king Mahabali who was banished to the netherworld, returns back for a day of revelry with his beloved subjects, how delightful it would be, to bring back our inner child, from the deepest recesses of our mind and spend a day filled with good food, family, laughter, games and the simple pleasures of life.