Onam, the grandest festival of Kerala, is a festival of nostalgia and longing. It celebrates the annual visit of a king, Mahabali – or Maveli, as he is more affectionately called – to his erstwhile kingdom. Maveli was the most just and honest king one can find in the legends of Kerala. During his reign Kerala was nothing short of a utopia. There was prosperity everywhere. People possessed all the good qualities that could be expected of people. The gods became jealous and so one of them came and tricked Maveli sending him to the netherworld. However, the god was generous enough to grant Maveli’s request to let him come back once a year and visit his people. Onam celebrates that visit.
Onam celebrates a people’s longing for a better world, a world where there is a prevalence of goodness.
The celebration of Onam makes it quite different from the other festivals I have seen in India. Festivals such as Diwali and Holi, celebrated mostly in North India, send shivers down my spine with the ear-splitting noises or lung-choking dust they involve. I dread both these festivals and would hide myself if possible in a closed room to escape the fumes generated by the Diwali fireworks and the Holi dust. But Onam would bring me out from any room. Onam is a festival of beautiful flowers, music and dances. Onam is a feast to the eyes and the mind. No assaults on the human body that is already threatened with the umpteen pollutions of an industrialised, scientific and technological civilisation.
Onam celebrations have already got under way in Kerala. Maveli will get a very colourful welcome on fragrant floral carpets. There will be all the traditional music and dances. There are boat races and other enthralling competitions. People will wear new dresses. There will be the traditional vegetarian meal with at least eight dishes. There will be all the signs of joy and prosperity.
But will Maveli be really thrilled?
The noisiest controversy that commands the front pages of Kerala’s newspapers these days is the murder of a business tycoon, Paul M George, allegedly by a group of professional goons. The real issue is not one of a single murder case but the predominance of professional thugs in the socio-political milieu of Kerala. God’s own country (as Kerala advertises itself in its tourism brochures) has become Goons’ own country. Politicians and businessmen and film stars and anyone of some influence make use of professional thugs to achieve their various goals. High-ranking police officers are accused of sheltering the thugs who killed Paul George. There are even allegations that the Home Minister’s own son is involved with the thugs. [The Home Minister has denied the allegations, of course; but as I watched him on the TV I noticed that his denial lacked the usual power of his rhetoric.] The names of more and more politicians and police officers associated with thugs are coming up slowly.
Will Maveli, the just and honest king, be thrilled to see his kingdom being ruled by professional thugs?
Kerala is also suffering from innumerable diseases. Swine flu that has taken its due toll on the state has only been the latest malady to befall the state. Chikunguniya has been extracting a heavy price from the state for the last many years. Apart from these are the many mysterious diseases such as tomato flu that keep on visiting the state every monsoon. The diseases of the affluent such as cancer, diabetes and high blood pressure became an integral part of the regular life in the state many years ago. Kerala was once projected as an example of ideal progress with its remarkable achievements in education, health, sanitation, women’s employment, and eradication of poverty. But today Kerala stands as a sick society – both physically and socially.
Will Maveli be fooled by the fragrance of flowers and roll of drums?
Perhaps Maveli can take a lesson from the comedy shows on Malayalam TV channels. The Malayalee knows to laugh even in the times of the severest adversity. The laughter is usually tinged with cynicism. Cynicism is an integral part of the Malayalee psyche.
M T Vasudevan Nair (celebrated Malayalam novelist and script writer of movies) tells a poignant story to illustrate the cynicism of Malayalees. Pasha is a great magician. He meets Houdini once and the two engage in a contest to prove each one’s excellence. Houdini is convinced that Pasha is superior to him and gives him the due honour. Pasha continues to travel across the world marvelling people with his magic. Finally he reaches a land where the people are not marvelled by his magic at all. When he performs his great vanishing tricks the people merely say that it is some cheap trick. When Pasha makes someone fly in the air, cuts a woman into pieces, or saves himself from a box locked with a dozen locks before being thrown into a blazing fire, the people remain listless. Frustrated, Pasha takes a knife, cuts open his breast, takes out his heart and holds it in front of the people. The people refuse to be fooled by what they claim is a plastic heart. Collapsing, succumbing to his inevitable end, Pasha asks in despair, “Which land is this, my dear people? Which land?” The people say with pride, “It’s Kerala, it’s Kerala.”
But Maveli need not fear any such fate. He is the best-selling icon of Kerala. Kerala needs him just as much as an ordinary man needs dreams, or at least as a trader needs a logo.