The Onam experience


Last week I went through memory lane as I saw signs of the Onam celebrations around me in Dubai Supermarkets, jewellery stores etc. Living in Fiji I never came across this festival and had no clue of its significance until I came to Malaysia to study. My parents, being anxious about me in a country where I didn’t know a single soul at the age of 19 arranged with family friends that I should spend some weekends at their sisters house in Subang Jaya.
The family, who I still love and adore happened to be Malayali or Keralite, a community known to be highly literate, cultural and very warm. I thought at first all Indians were the same, spoke the same language etc but instead was introduced to a whole new world of cuisine, dance, theatre and met specialists in English literature that would leave some of the Harvard Professors gaping in awe.
As a Fijian I am used to being hospitable and having an open house policy to guests but my family friends went way beyond that to the point of making my favourite dishes on weekends, taking me to visit the extended family on trips and dropping me off to University (30 minutes away) when I had early morning classes.
Going back to Onam which is a ten day festival…..one of the things I remember in the nine years I spent in Kuala Lumpur was that every September, we ate a dozen or so dishes off a banana leaf in various family gatherings also known as sadya. My favourite sadya dish was payasam of course which is a dessert cooked in milk.
The community organises dances, numerous theatrical productions during this period and famous singers are called on for performances etc. I can almost smell the string of jasmine flowers in my hair when we set off for a dinner performance or a sadya outstation. Women buy gold during this 10 day period and many wear the traditional cream sari with a gold border (known as the kasavu yarn) that looks so awesome on them. I’m told that historically kasavu sari’s appeared in ancient Jain and Buddhist literature and over the years the material may have changed to suit the fashion trends but the colour and look remains the same.
Onam is over but the memories of yesteryears and my time with the Venugopal family, their extended families and friends in Malaysia still linger. I learnt so much from them that I feel I gained knowledge of an entirely new community from their perspective. Another thing I have to thank my parents for – they certainly guided me into situations that helped me learn and understand what the world is all about outside my comfort circle.

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