The Spirit of Onam

It was best to stay away from Malayalam in school because God forbid you had the “Mallu Accent.” Dad spoke just enough English to be understood, wrote with notorious spelling mistakes, and pronounced English words in his own way with a rich Malayalam accent that could make any Linguist blush. Mom also figured it out in practice while working in Dubai. They raised us in an English world so that we wouldn’t have to take anybody’s shit (looking at all the North Indians).

It was great when I became fluent in English. Nobody could put me down, at least not grammatically. Heck, I even have a degree in it now. But you can’t run away from your mother tongue. Sure, you can hide from it amongst different languages, but one day you realize that you need her more than she needs you. Not knowing Malayalam meant burning a bridge to my past, to the circumstances that lead to my existence, to the stories that better explained my parents than any amount of observation could. In short, it cost me dearly.

It meant that I could never have in-depth conversations with a man who had so much wisdom- my father. I could never ask relatives for elaborate discussions of fun stories about my parents to use in my writings. Couldn’t establish Bangalore day’s type relations with cousins because conversations never crossed the surface, and was clueless in the face of peaceful sounding words armed with threatening undertones spewed by greedy uncles.

But mother tongues are loving, if you put effort she will flow into you naturally, instantly make you feel a sense of belonging. She will give you a whole new world if you choose to accept her, love her, embrace her without embarrassment.

This Onam was my first visit to my grandmother where I was able to sustain a conversation. She married at 21 and has two younger sisters (one has passed away) and an older sister(who passed away a few days ago). She studied only till the 3rd form because the school was too far away, and she sees dreams of her late husband. She doesn’t interact with him, she just observes him working in the fields. Sometimes, she even dreams of us.

And that is the spirit of Onam, it is not just Maaveli who comes back to his land on this day, it is all of us. Our essence has been stamped out of existence in a colonial, Brahmanical world. But then Onam comes armed with its food and flowers, ready to take us all back under the reign of Maaveli, who made us all equally bold, equally loved, and equally proud.

A very happy Onam to all of us!


A Savarna House, in a Savarna world.

I live in a pretty big house in Kerala. I am very privileged. This house was bought after years of my fathers slavery in the Gulf. It was bought right before his oldest daughter began hunt for a groom. The biggest bedroom on the top floor of the house and the living room where guests sit have been inspired by Kerala boat houses. This should explain the wooden panels that surround it on all four sides- making it seem like a little wooden box. It also makes the room very dark, but is that the only darkness here?


There is another square building of two floors within the compounds of my house. The ground floor is a store room, and the top floor consists of a bed and an open window. It was made in an assumption that we would be rich enough for a driver. It has been used by many men- a Tamil man who had once come to help in the house, a distant cousin from my father’s village- because it was not appropriate for him to stay where two young unmarried girls live. At the corner of this building, sharing a wall with the walls of the compound, right at the back is a very tiny toilet. This is meant for any outsiders we are not related to and don’t hold in high regard (men especially), or the workers who come to pull out the weed in our garden, or for the help who comes to clean our house to change from her sari into a cleaning nightie, and then from nightie into sari before she leaves the house. The toilet was built initially due to the lack of planning during the house construction, because a spot for a common washroom was not even thought of in the main house.

We have two kitchens, like most houses in Kerala. Both are slapped at the back with terrible ventilation, which increases sweaty irritation in the summer. While one is decorated with white marble tiling and cupboards, the other has wooden cupboards and a granite counter. There are no walls in the second kitchen, except for the black grills that open out into our backyard garden- which has banana trees, coconut trees, mint leaves, tapioca, and other food plants.

The second, outside kitchen is where my mother cuts the meat- fish, beef, chicken- everything. It is also where the separate tea powder, glass with blue flower patterns and sugar is kept for the house help who comes twice a week. She can take the milk powder from the green sliding cabinet inside white marble kitchen. It is kept separate because “if we let them have too much, then they will climb on our heads.”

The workers in the garden do not come to the front door. We don’t need to tell them, they know it. Sometimes, if we don’t hear them calling from the back door, they will come to the front door, only to ask us to come to the back and pour out a glass of water. We will give them water, sometimes even tang, tea in the evenings with snacks….in disposable cups, or glass glasses. “Then you call them in, and sit with them and eat in the house next time, if you have such a big problem with it.”

Opposite our house there exists a tiny shop that has all necessary emergency supplies. Everyone in the area calls it the ‘Nair kada’ (shop) “Now because you are young you feel this way. When you grow up, you will realize, there is a lot of benefit in the name. You can’t say don’t use the name.”

So funny, when you’re a Savarna, you think everyone is mean, everyone is nasty, everyone will jump on your head, because that is exactly what we would do. Sigh.