When is Onam? I asked wifey. I ain’t sure. When is it? she asked neighbour Dina who, in turn, asked her husband Jose, who then passed the ball to his North Indian friend Aditya, who answered in the wink of an eye when the South Indian festival would be celebrated this year.
“It depends on which part of Kerala you hail from,” Aditya’s addendum surprised me. How does a North Indian from Madpur village in Uttar Pradesh’s Allahabad district know the cultural intricacies of the South Indian harvest festival?
“His wife is a Malayali whose mother is from the central town of Trichur and father from Kollam in the south, Jose explained. The cultural divide between the two places, just five hours apart, stood as impregnable as the Great Wall of China after the couple’s 40 years of turbulent coexistence. Onam fell a day ahead for the husband.
Having worked on most Onam days since my disappearance from Kerala in 1982, the festival has been of no great significance to me. Profession mattered more than the Vaishnava mythology. When reality bites, legends have no business in life. The nine-meal Onam course that consists of 26 dishes, in a land where millions go to bed on an empty stomach, leaves me in a rut of guilt and shame.
Still, a trip to Karama, Dubai’s cultural melting pot, for a second dose of Pfizer last weekend lured me into one of the high-profile resto-bars that sold the traditional Onam sadhya, or feast, packaged with alcohol, a misfit in the legendary menu served on a banana leaf. A more despicable misfit inside the crammed dining hall were two human figures dressed as the mythical King Mahabali, a kind-hearted demon ruler whose popularity shook up the seraphic world; and the Brahmin dwarf Vamana.
They cut a sorry figure, moving around the milling crowd waiting to dine, pausing for selfies with ornately dressed women folk, and occasionally serving liquor when the waiters wilted under more than they could serve. The Covid pathogen seemed to have died many a death in a stampede caused by the non-socially distanced crowd who greeted each other with hugs and kisses, considered an unpardonable sin and a punishable crime in the time of Covid. The demon king and dwarf looked like inseparable twins as they traversed through the revellers.
Wifey and I were ushered into a corner where a pair of seats seemed to be waiting for us. “Please be seated, sir. You will be served soon,” said a damsel in the traditional Onam sari. When the “soon” turned into half an hour, wifey — glancing at my khaki cargo shorts and red tee — whispered: “You cut a sorrier figure than the Vamana mascot in your Hawaiian attire.” I cringed in my seat and looked around. There seemed to be more North Indians in the hall than Malayalis.
“That’s because Onam is more of a food festival than a religious one,” wifey explained as the banana leaves began to get filled with curries of various hues, most of them a far cry from their original flavours.
King Mahabali came around to greet us Happy Onam and nodded his head, shaded by a palm leaf umbrella.
“Sir, another drink?” I shook my head in disbelief. What a benevolent Asura (demon)! No wonder a cabal of envious deities ganged up against him.
The burly Nepali hostess towered over me holding a bowl of rice after serving up the 25th dish. “Sir, barik (plain white rice) or mota (white parboiled rice)?”
She waited to hear from me as I paused to reflect on the culinary racism. Barik versus mota has been symptomatic of the north-south divide existing on the Indian food scene. I love barik, which reminds me of a svelte ballerina. So sweet in looks and feel, while mota reminds me of the Asura character Soorpanaka in the ancient epic Ramayana.
A pile of steaming russet rice stared from the gleaming steel bowl. It’s sad that mota has been the butt of the dinner joke ever since Kerala cafeterias sprouted in the desert land. As a principled practice, I don’t indulge in body shaming, except in the case of Vava, who would then put in an extra effort to become barik. Body shaming with a noble goal!
“Sir, barik or mota?” The damsel’s patience seemed to wear thin.
“Dad, answer,” wifey nudged.
“Barik.” The north Indian crowd at adjacent tables paused their culinary exercise and stared. The little mountains of mota on their banana leaves quivered as my reply was a decimal louder than the prevailing pandemonium. Onam seemed to have pulled the curtain down on their honeymoon with barik.
“Barik for Onam?” The fair lady at the next table whispered to her partner, as if I just pronounced a racial slur or committed treason.
I waited, and waited, while the fragrance of the barik rice steamed out of the cooker.