Onam: An Outsiders Experience

Published in the New Indian Express on August 27th 2010

Seven weeks ago I arrived into Calicut’s bustling train station loaded with such an enormous amount of luggage that even a Nepali Sherpa would have looked twice as I stumbled along the platform. My first few days were an attack on the senses and passed in a hazy blur as I was introduced to a plethora of new sights, sounds and smells. After adjusting to the monsoon climate and the persistent mosquitoes for the next couple of days, I began to soak in my surroundings.

The differences between England and my temporary home of Calicut are diverse, stark and at times, difficult to understand. From the tongue-twisting language of Malayalam and the chaotic traffic system to the fiery curries and vibrant colored saris, I feel very far away from England. Indeed, Sting’s hit song ‘I’m a Legal Alien’ acquired a whole new meaning as I began to adapt to Kerala culture with difficulty. However, the arrival of Onam last week made me feel more at home here than ever as the celebrations, fun and feasting occurred and made me consider its similarities to Britain’s preeminent festival, Christmas.

Characterized by a great amount of eating, drinking and all-round merriment, Christmas in the UK is also a loathed and stressful occasion for many, with family arguments reaching their peak at this time. It is also a financial burden for many, due to the commercialized nature of the holiday. With increasing pressure to spend a great deal of money, the religious and cultural aspects have been stripped away and largely replaced with families eating a meal together before sleeping the afternoon away in front of the television.

With this in mind, I approached the growing excitement towards Onam with caution. The fact that this is the only festival in the world that celebrates a demon King is a sign that this festival is somewhat special. My worries were completely unfounded as my experiences were wonderful. As an outsider to Kerala, I was surprised at how much people wanted to involve me and their kindness felt strange in comparison to Christmas, a holiday which is now largely void of all cultural and religious meaning. Whether being taken shopping for saris, being dressed up and lent beautiful jewelry, helping lay the pookalam or being invited to my students homes, I felt overwhelmed by the amount of generosity I was shown. Such hospitality is rare and is not something I have experienced outside my family in the UK.

I was surprised to see that Kerala’s diverse religious population joined together to enjoy ona sadyas, lay floral carpets and take part in the festivities. I initially thought Onam to be one of the many Hindu festivals and as such only celebrated by a proportion of the population. In England, religious segregation means that many Muslim and Hindu communities do not partake in decorating a Christmas tree, enjoying a turkey dinner or exchanging gifts. Unfortunately we do not have an occasion such as Onam where the entire country comes together to celebrate. It was therefore a very pleasant surprise to see my Hindu and Muslim friends sitting together to decorate the floral carpet and sharing a meal together at this special time.

As for me, I enjoyed Thiruonam at a friend’s house where I was further surprised at Kerala hospitality. Along with extraordinary kindness, her mother specially prepared payasam for me using coconut milk in order to make me feel included as I don’t eat dairy products. In comparison to Christmas, my experiences of Onam were relaxed and thoroughly enjoyable. I hope your experiences were as pleasant as mine!



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