Overseas, Onam Sadhya Enfolds New Mores, & Nostalgia For Old
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EVERY YEAR, Dubai-based Dr Jyotish George looks forward to hosting his non-Indian friends for Onam sadhya at his home. Watching them eat the meal with their hands — even the rasam and payasam — is a source of merriment all around. Yet the stains and laughs notwithstanding, his guests always expect an invitation for sadhya in the upcoming year.

Across the ocean, in Johannesburg, Arun George Varghese too often ends up chuckling while watching the youngsters eat the sadhya with their hands. This practice is so alien to those accustomed to eating with a knife and fork that spills are par for course, followed by laughter. 

It is moments like these that make Onam celebrations memorable for the Malayali diaspora. Nostalgic about how it used to be celebrated in their hometowns, many have recreated mini versions of it in the parts of the world that they now call home. 

Among the diaspora, the actual celebration is typically reserved for the Saturday following the actual Thiruvonam date. Dedicated to welcoming King Mahabali, the annual harvest festival sees women creating elaborate pookalam (flower arrangements) and performing the gently undulating Thiruvathira dance while dressed in the traditional white and gold Kasavu sarees.  

The highlight of the day is the sadhya, which traditionally has over 26 dishes, served on banana or plantain leaves. It includes pappadam, upperi, parippu, sambhar, pulisserry, rasam, avial, inji curry, kaalan, thoran, pachadi, olan, chor, sharkara varatti and different varieties of payasam. And of course, oodles of togetherness.

Finding Family

Reji Mathew’s childhood memories of Onam are of a long holiday, exchanging gifts with visiting relatives in her ancestral house in Alleppey, dressing up in a half sari, and sneaking snacks that her Ammoomma (grandmother) was preparing. She would gather with her friends and cousins by the riverbanks to watch the adrenalin-fuelled boat race and rush to the village square to watch the pulikali (make-believe tiger dance). While the youngsters were making merry, the womenfolk of the house would be busy preparing an array of dishes, which the entire family would enjoy together.

Today, she longs for those days of simple fun, which she misses in New York, where she works as a tech analyst with a startup. “It was a simple festival, celebrated without the high decibel fanfare associated with other commercially influenced ones like Diwali or Christmas. Onam was all about being with the family and community and enjoying a nice sadhya together,” she states.

To avoid this homesickness, most Keralites seek a local Malayali association after migrating to other countries. Arun is part of the Gauteng Malayali Association in Johannesburg, where Onam is a grand celebration. 

“When we initially moved to South Africa, sadhya was organised more like a potluck meal where each family was assigned one curry preparation, which they would then bring to the community hall for a communal meal. Sometimes the same curry would be allocated to different families due to confusion about the number of participants. It was fun to come across the same dish with different colours and taste depending on the part of Kerala that a particular family had migrated from!” he laughs. 

Today, the association has outsourced the meal preparation to a local restaurant with Malayali chefs. However, the members still continue with the tradition of serving the meals to everyone, as an act of respect. 

San Francisco-based Sumood Abraham reveals that there are two Malayali organisations in Los Angeles: the Kerala Association of Los Angeles (KALA) and ORUMA. Both cater to Malayali festivals and activities, among which Onam celebrations stand out with a stellar sadhya spread. Even non-members can enjoy the sadhya by paying a small fee, which allows them to enjoy the tradition and meet other Malayalis.

Sumood reveals that many Malayalis, including his family, grow their own vegetables, be it padval (bitter gourd), tomato, cucumber or kovakka (tindora). Hence, getting supplies to prepare the sadhya is not a daunting task. “Most Mallu families will have a plantain tree from which they can obtain the leaves,” he adds. This becomes the setting for the final meal, which is a constant source of wonder for those who are not from the subcontinent. 

It also helps that the growing Malayali diaspora has resulted in the presence of several shops that stock Indian products including coconut milk, drumsticks and even banana leaves. Malayali matriarchs can be seen picking up their spices and vegetables, while catching up on the latest news about their respective hometowns. 

Cultural Crossroads

Every community has its set of rituals and traditions. While Gen X was fortunate enough to witness how Onam was celebrated firsthand, with their families in their country of origin, the next generation has not been as lucky. 

Most of these millennials were either born in their adopted country or moved there when they were very young. Hence, they don’t always share the same over-the-top love that their elders profess for something like sadhya

For instance, Liverpool-based Rashmi Philip has not cooked sadhya herself, something her mother would do when she was in Trivandrum, and rues that her children are not acutely aware of this tradition. To stay grounded to it herself, Philip tries attending the Onam celebrations at Malayali associations in England. “At times, I have gone to a sit-down sadhya in a restaurant in London with friends, if I am travelling,” she adds.

Arun feels that since Onam is normally a one-day affair overseas, unlike the 10-day long festivities in Kerala, most children look forward to it. They perform routines set to Bollywood or English songs for the cultural part of the celebration. They also know that sadhya means eating all their vegetables — even if that’s anathema on other days!

“Since it is a day of catching up with the community once a year, the kids know they have no option but to eat the vegetarian lunch. Some still try their luck by asking their parents to buy something from KFC to add as a side dish to the sadhya! But this is all in jest as they know that’s not going to happen,” Arun notes, and laughs. 

Sumood has learnt to take the middle path to ensure that Onam is associated with fun and happiness, rather than tears and remonstrations. So the men sportingly wear mundu and the sadhya meal also includes some non-vegetarian fare. 

“The sadhya starts with the women serving the men and then the roles are reversed, followed by some games and songs. We have sometimes done hiking as a group after eating to burn off the extra carbs,” he adds, while talking about putting fun into festivities. 

Staying away from home means making an extra effort to retain the memories of one’s origins. For the Malayali diaspora, during Onam, it is all about holding fastidiously on to traditions — one sadhya at a time.

(Photos, from top: Sumood Abraham's Onam get-together in San Francisco; Onam spread courtesy Arun George Varghese; Dr Jyotish George's Onam celebration and sadhya.)