There is a particular aroma that emanates from a washed plantain leaf when steaming hot rice is put on it to be mixed with sambaar, that quintessential south Indian curry. No exquisite china or silverware can replace that feel.
It usually kindles your appetite into a raging fire and alerts your taste-buds.
In an average Malayali like me, though, it also sets off a long train of memories—my grandma serving spicy, sweet, and sour recipes for sadhya—the traditional vegetarian Kerala meal; the fights with cousins over pappadam and delicious payasam; my wedding day; the ritual first full meal that I fed my daughters.
Most Malayalis, or natives of Kerala, wouldn’t exchange that customary feast for anything in the world.
And never does the sadhya fulfill its purpose as much as today (Sept. 14), when most of us—Hindus, Christians, and Muslims of Kerala alike—are celebrating our harvest festival, Onam.
But this time, just as I was settling down for another sumptuous Onam meal, someone threw a fistful of radioactive mud into my sadhya—mud that is a mix of identity politics and religious friction.
Frustrated at not having tasted any major electoral success in Kerala till date, a section of rabid Hindu fanatics—no, there is no reason anymore to use a softer term—has sought to change the very narrative of Onam.
This, I shall never forgive, nor forget.
Kerala is in turmoil. Its society, a bastion of religious harmony for millennia, has in the past few years been unravelling under the pressure of communal extremism. Still, the Malayali identity was left largely unscathed.
But now, Onam, one of the biggest rallying points of that identity, is under attack.
“Everyone in Kerala celebrates Onam. Because there are no religious rituals or deities associated with it. The symbolism of Mahabali also lies in the harvest. You bury seeds in the earth, akin to sending Mahabali into the Patal (netherworld) and reap the harvest every year, which is just Mahabali returning and bringing prosperity,” said M Pradeep Kumar, former secretary of the Kannur-based Kerala Folklore Akademi, an independent centre for cultural affairs.
The festival, usually celebrated at the end of the monsoon rains in August or September every year, is based on the story of our mythical king Mahabali—an asura (divine but evil beings) opposed by the Hindu pantheon of gods.
From what my grandma used to tell me, the silly gods turned wary of the fame and prosperity of Mahabali, a just and generous king revered by us. To get rid of him, they approached lord Vishnu, who incarnated as a Brahmin midget, Vaman, and sought three feet of land from our king.
Despite seeing through Vishnu’s cover, the righteous Mahabali granted him the wish. Vishnu then reverted to his original form and grew up into a giant. He covered the Earth with one foot and the heavens with the second; Mahabali was left with no land for the third, so he humbly offered his own head.
The crooked Vishnu, thus, trampled Mahabali into the netherworld, but not before granting him permission to visit his subjects once a year on Onam day.
Hence, Onam is also the symbolic longing for the righteous reign of our beloved Mahabali.
An asura being idolised is in itself unusual, though not unheard of, in mainstream Hinduism, which dubs them evil as opposed to the virtuous devas (gods). While such differentiation is hardly relevant to Kerala’s other religious groups, the state’s Hindus, too, had rarely given much thought to Mahabali’s asura pedigree.
In the past few weeks, though, rabid Hindutva has sought to change that.
First, the Onam edition of Kesari, a magazine published by the Hindutva fountainhead Rashtriya Swayamsevak Sangh (RSS), called for the worship of Vaman instead of Mahabali during the festival. The flagbearers of Hindu extremism wanted it to be called “Vaman Jayanti” instead of Onam.
Then came the ever-vitriolic K P Sasikala, chief of the rabidly communal group Hindu Aikya Vedi (HAV) or the Hindu United Front of Kerala, who insisted that Vamana ought to be seen as a freedom fighter who delivered Malayalis from the imperial rule of Mahabali.
As Kesari and Sasikala have often been up to such tricks in the past, their comments were construed as yet another attempt to vitiate Kerala’s social atmosphere.
However, on Sept. 13, a day before Onam, it became evident that this wasn’t just another in a series of mischiefs by the Hindutva brigade. For, none less than Amit Shah, the president of the Bharatiya Janata Party (BJP) and a close aide of prime minister Narendra Modi, joined the bandwagon.
Shah tweeted his “heartiest wishes for Vaman Jayanti”.
Now this is significant because Shah’s BJP is part of the larger RSS family called the Sangh Parivar which has its offshoots and branches in various forms across the country. This includes Sasikala’s HAV.
The reaction from Malayalis to Shah’s message was swift: #PoMoneShaji (Go take a hike Amit Shah!) began trending on Twitter and senior political leaders from Kerala lampooned him.
Of course, Shah may have an alibi up his sleeve: some Hindu communities, particularly in northern India, observed Vaman Jayanti Ekadashi on Sept. 13. Indeed today (Sept. 14), on Onam day, Shah sent out a separate Onam message.
While Vaman Jayanti and Onam may share the legend of lord Vishnu and Mahabali, the subtext obviously varies much.
“Historically speaking, it may be true that Onam was originally Vaman Jayanti. But Kerala’s culture broke away from that tradition in rebellion against Brahminism by making Onam about Mahabali not Vaman,” said Kumar, who is also the founder of Folklife Kerala, an organisation dedicated to the conservation of the state’s folk and tribal art forms. “And this could be an attempt to reverse history and North-Indianise Kerala culture.”
And going by precedent, it is unlikely that Shah is unaware of the import of his messages or the ripples it could create.
But however much Shah and his Tweedledees and Tweedledums try to raise a stink, there are a few exquisite aromas that keep us going: that smell of the first monsoon rain, that of fresh toddy, and of course the sadhya.
We Malayalis will remember the awful taste of that toxic mud has left in our Onam feast this year. They have tried to mar the very core of our existence. We shall never forgive. We shall never forget.
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