With mandatory social distancing and minimal presence of relatives and friends around, this year, Onam under lockdown was quite different from what it looks like every other year. As we are trying to learn more and more about ourselves and our lives, however, this year’s Onam came with a solid reminder of the fact that, in life, it’s the little things that count.
For Meghna Mathew, child of a Malayali father and a Punjabi mother, Onam has always been a rather perplexing affair – a keen reminder of her one-of-a-kind childhood. Despite being the cultural puzzle that it used to seem to be, to Meghna, Onam has continued to be a symbol of the love and mutual respect her parents share with each other. But this year, unlike the others, when her Punjabi mother, whose childhood was as far from the Malayali culture as it could seemingly have been, took up the task of cooking about 26 dishes for the Onam Sadhya, Onam became even more special for her and her beautiful blended family.
As we look at a fragmented world where love seems to be the only hope for us, the story of Meghna’s childhood and her family’s unique Onam celebrations remains with us like a sweet post-Sadhya aftertaste.
Here’s Meghna’s story, in her own words.
“I’ve always wondered – are festivals special because of events that took place in history, or because we get to spend quality time with our loved ones, surrounded by air filled with waves of laughter and joy?
My mother’s ancestry lies in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa in Northern Pakistan — 2,850 km away from my father’s hometown of Kottayam in South India. Their journey began when they happened to cross paths in a train (yes, just like in Bollywood). Six years later, our family was complete with the addition of me and my elder sister.
My Butter Chicken loving, ‘no-such-thing-as-too-much-ghee’ Punjabi mother was now surrounded by my father’s Mallu preferences and traditions. Growing up, I experienced a weird mix of events and was exposed to completely different traditions. We would have Idli-Sambar for breakfast, followed by Rajma-Chawal for lunch. My parents did not shy away from giving their children a childhood that embraced both their cultures equally. As confusing as it would be for my sister and me, we went with the flow and over two decades later, we are still unable to answer the question ‘So, where are you from?’
Many instances reiterate the nature of my confusing, yet one-of-a-kind childhood and this year’s Onam celebrations top the list. Our usual celebration of the festival is not far from the ordinary — we order Onam Sadhya, lay out large banana leaves, and sequentially serve a dollop of each dish. Sitting around the dining table, we discuss our favourite dishes and bet on how long of a nap we would take after the meal is done. This year, thanks to the Coronavirus pandemic, my mother decided to prepare the Sadhya herself. Yes, my hardcore Punjabi mother decided to cook 26 Onam Sadhya dishes with a little help from her mother-in-law.
Accompanied by Naani (my mother’s mother), Maami (mother’s sister-in-law) and her two daughters, our dining table consisted of five purebred Punjabis, two Malayalis, and two culturally confused beings. As comical as it may seem (and trust me, it was), this strange blend of cultures at the table was accurately representative of how I have spent my childhood. The lines between my ‘North Indian’ and ‘South Indian’ beliefs have always been blurred. All festivals have always held equal importance in the way we celebrate them because most of our excitement remained in the fact that we get to do it together.
“Do you know why Onam is celebrated?” my father asked my younger cousin as she looked down at her banana leaf, figuring where to start eating from. She returned a soft “no” as if she had done something wrong. My father replied, “Onam is our version of Lohri,” and this simple explanation was just enough. As I watched the majority of the people at the dining table struggle to differentiate Rasam from Sambar and Avial from Chutney, I couldn’t help but feel slightly proud that my parents have never turned away from an opportunity to celebrate each other’s cultures in all its glory. I can’t deny that such a childhood was confusing, but when I reached an age where I understood things better, I realised that I wouldn’t change a thing about it even if I could.
For us, therefore, a festival simply remains a festival. It has never just been about the history behind it. Instead, it’s about its significance in today’s world. The region where it hails from does not matter so much anymore, but the message behind it still does. Along the way, we have made our own traditions too— all our pets are served food on banana leaves on Onam. Year after year, our celebrations experience slight tweaks here and there until it feels just right.
This Onam, my mother, once a Mendiratta, now a Mathew, spent hours in the kitchen to put up an outstanding feast for a festival she didn’t care for a couple of decades ago. Her family, unaware of the festival’s purpose gorged on the food like there is no tomorrow and not once did they question it. It’s a feeling my sister and I can’t describe — we’ve got the best of both worlds and with it comes a strange sense of pride.
In all honesty, I am not even a big fan of the Sadhya food, but what I witnessed this Onam was fulfilling enough.”
If you enjoyed this article, we suggest you read: