The splendid incongruity of Onam
August 23, 2010
A version of the following appeared in DNA on 24th August at http://www.dnaindia.com/opinion/report_the-magnificent-incongruity-of-onam-in-declining-kerala_1427765, and the pdf is at:http://epaper.dnaindia.com/epaperpdf/24082010/23main%20edition-pg10-0.pdf
The magnificent incongruity of Onam
Rajeev Srinivasan laments that the festival has been reduced to a travesty of its true self
The ten days of Onam arrived with multifarious splendors: flower arrangements in courtyards, maidens resplendent in off-white, gold-bordered two-piece saris, grand multi-course vegetarian meals served on banana leaves, boat races, sensuous tiruvatira-kali dances, and new clothes, ona-kodi, for all. The skies cleared post-monsoon, the beginning of the Malayalam year with the month of Chingam/Leo and the land is green and fertile, freshly-washed.
On the tenth day, thiruvonam, August 23rd this year, everyone dressed up to greet the legendary King Mahabali, of whose splendid reign the gods themselves became jealous, so that he was consigned to the underworld, whence he visits his beloved subjects on just this one day.
That is the theory. I wish this were still true in Kerala, but this native son is saddened by the reality. Onam is less and less relevant with each passing year. For starters, it is a harvest festival where there is almost no rice cultivation, or harvests.
Secondly, the old gods are eclipsed. Mahabali may have been compelling in a simpler time, but the post-modern denizens of Kerala may find him naïve: who allows himself to be tricked by a dwarf?
Thirdly, the landscape itself is changing. The infinite vistas of paddy fields are gone; once-free-flowing, perennial rivers – the envy of those not so blessed – are now constrained ribbons in the sand in lean times. What looks like untouched wilderness in the High Ranges is a green desert of monoculture: plantation tea or rubber; it is no rainforest storehouse of genetic variation.
Fourth, despite all the talk of the Kerala model – anthropologist and environmentalist Bill McKibben once wrote stirringly about how Kerala mirrors the US in various indices, at one-seventh the income – the quality of life has deteriorated sharply. It now leads in suicides, alcoholism, and almost certainly in hypocrisy and crimes against women. The matrilineal joint family, a masterful social construct, has fragmented into nuclear families.
And almost all of this deterioration is man-made. While one must not, Canute-like, futilely order the waves to retreat, what has happened in Kerala in just a couple of generations is the very opposite of progress.
Let us remember that this is the fabled Spice Coast, whose riches, especially black pepper, caused the Roman senator Pliny the Younger to complain imperial treasuries were being drained. “Quinqueremes of Nineveh” used to sail to the great ports of Ophir and Muziris, modern-day Poovar and Kodungallur.
British surveyors arriving in Kerala in the 1800s were astonished at the clever use of agricultural implements and techniques such as sowing with a drill plough, crop rotation and propagation from cuttings. This tiny state, watered by 41 rivers, has some of the most fertile and well-watered land in the world. Abandoning agriculture there is a tragedy of the highest order.
The reason there is no rice cultivation in Kerala is that, in an example of the principle of unintended consequences, socialists hiked up agricultural wages. They did it to ensure laborers got a decent wage, but farming became inherently loss-making, and large acreage now lies fallow. Ironically, the farm laborers became destitute, as their jobs simply disappeared. Kerala subsists on rice, vegetables and other produce trucked in from neighboring Tamil Nadu.
As for the old gods of the land, they have been superseded by just one: Mammon. Kerala people hold nothing more precious than their wallets. In fact, Kerala is a cargo-cult, like those South Seas islands in the Pacific, which, after World War I,I became so dependent on goods imported from the US that they literally worship the ships bringing them.
Keralites worship Electronic Fund Transfers, because that is what keeps the state afloat. There is no mysterious ‘Kerala model’ of development: it is a money-order economy surviving on remittances from its sons (slaving away in the deserts of West Asia) and its daughters (slaving away as nurses everywhere).
The very flora and fauna are changing, too. The endemic thumba, celebrated symbol of purity and humility in Malayalam literature, has virtually disappeared. Flowering plants like the ixora and hibiscus yield much less; temperatures have risen. Traditional species of fish are disappearing from the catch both in lakes and the sea.
This once magnificent land, proud of its traditions, has changed beyond recognition. A little ditty, originally written about my father’s ancestral village, is appropriate for all of Kerala today:
Annam nasti, jalam pushti
Kerala is a great land,
The origin of untruth.
No rice, lots of water,
Drunkenness is the big festival.
And oh, the tight-fitting cotton two-piece sari, the set-mundu, a delight on shapely local lasses, has lost out to particularly ill-tailored, polyester salwar-kameez. The set-mundu is only trotted out on festive occasions; it, like Onam, and the local culture that gave us kathakali and the Sanskrit koodiyattam, is fast becoming a museum piece.