The Writing Life: Onam, Kerala, and The Season of Festivals and Fun

This is a long season of auspicious happenings, among them Islam's Eid al-Adha, and Onam, Kerala's harvest festival.

In a few weeks, there will be Diwali, which Hindus mark as the return from exile to his north Indian kingdom of Lord Rama and his wife Sita, who had been kidnapped by the Lankan king, Ravana. Read the late C. Rajagopalachari's version of "The Ramayana" for sheer literary enjoyment of this mythological story.

And there will be Thanksgiving, which Americans and Canadians traditionally observe in November. Wikipedia notes that Thanksgiving was originally celebrated as a day of giving thanks for the blessing of the harvest. Thanksgiving has historical roots in religious and cultural traditions, and it's an occasion for families to gather from near and afar. One highlight of Thanksgiving is the consumption of turkey. I still remember my first Thanksgiving meal in New York in 1970, at the home of my late friends, Judge Bruce Gould and his wife Karolyn, a prominent social worker.

That one meal filled my stomach for a week. In New York, Macy's - the big retail store - organizes the Thanksgiving Day Parade. It so happened that the big balloons of Walt Disney and other characters were filled with helium on Manhattan's West 77th Street, where the Goulds lived. So on the night before Thanksgiving, hundreds gathered to observe the fun. I still don't know how Karolyn managed to put together her elaborate meal, which, besides the turkey, consisted of cranberry sauce, pumpkin pie, and other delicacies; I still recall that the Gould family and their friends were at the Thanksgiving table for several hours, and despite our voracious eating the oak table continued to groan under the weight of the food that remained.

In Judaism, there's Hanukkah - the Jewish Festival of Lights - which commemorates the re-dedication of the second Jewish Temple in Jerusalem. (According to Wikipedia, this happened in the 160s BCE/BC, before Jesus was born; Hanukkah is the Hebrew word for "dedication"; it lasts for eight days and starts on the 25th of Kislev, the month in the Jewish calendar that occurs at about the same time as December. Because the Jewish calendar is lunar, Kislev can happen from late November to late December. In 2016, Hanukkah is from in the evening of Saturday, December 24 until the evening of Sunday, January 1.)

Just as Christmas has its "Santa Claus," Hanukkah has its "Hanukkah Harry" - both mythological gift givers to children and adults alike. Of course, children are seldom told that the gifts really come from adults -- but kids are savvy enough to guess the source of the benevolence.

I'm relying a lot here on published literature, such as Wikipedia entries, various tomes and conversations with friends, particularly from Kerala.

Take Onam, for example: The legend of King Mahabali is the most popular and the most fascinating of all legends behind Onam. Onam celebrates the visit of King Mahabali to the southern Indian state of Kerala every year. The festival is celebrated with fervour as King Mahabali is greatly respected by his subjects. King Mahabali is also popularly called Maveli and Onathappan.

"The story goes that the beautiful state of Kerala was once ruled by an Asura (demon) king, Mahabali. The King was greatly respected in his kingdom and was considered to be wise, judicious and extremely generous. "It is said that Kerala witnessed its golden era in the reign of King Mahabali. Everybody was happy in the kingdom, there was no discrimination on the basis of caste or class. Rich and poor were equally treated. There was neither crime, nor corruption. People did not even lock their doors, as there were no thieves in that kingdom. There was no poverty, sorrow or disease in the reign of King Mahabali and everybody was happy and content," says a book on Kerala that was given to me many years ago by the late Capt. C. P. Krishnan Nair, one of Kerala's most successful sons who was born in the northern town of Kannur on the Malabar Coast of the state.

(Disclosure: HarperCollins will publish my biography of Captain Nair, tentatively titled "The Captain's Journey.")

The book that Captain Nair gave me continues: "His bravery and strength of character earned him the title of 'Mahabali Chakravathy' or Mahabali - the King of Kings. It was said Mahabali was very generous and charitable. Whenever anybody approached him for help or requested for anything he always granted. To test the King, Lord Vishnu disguised himself as a dwarf and a poor Brahmin called Vamana. He came to the Kingdom of Mahabali, just after Mahabali performed his morning prayers and was preparing to grant boons to Brahmins.

"Disguised as Vamana, Vishnu said he was a poor Brahmin and asked for a piece of land. The generous King said, he could have as much land as he wanted. The Brahmin said that he just wanted as much land as could be covered by his three steps. The King was surprised to hear but agreed.

"A learned adviser of the King, Shukracharya, sensed that Vamana was not an ordinary person and warned the King against making the promise. But, the generous King replied that it would be a sin for a King to back on his words and asked the Brahmin to take the land. The King could not imagine that the dwarf Brahmin was Lord Vishnu himself.

"Just as King Mahabali agreed to grant the land, Vamana began to expand and eventually increased himself to the size of cosmic proportions. With his first step the Brahmin boy covered the whole of earth and with the other step he covered the whole of the skies. He then asked King Mahabali where was the space for him to keep his third foot.

"The King realized that he was no ordinary Brahmin and his third step would destroy the earth. Mahabali, with folded hands, bowed before Vamana and asked him to place his last step on his head so that he could keep the promise. The Brahmin placed his foot on the head of the King, which pushed him to patala, the nether world.

"There the King requested the Brahmin to reveal his true identity. Lord Vishnu then appeared before the King in his person. The Lord told the King that he came to test him and the King won the test. King Mahabali was pleased to see his lord. Lord Vishnu also granted a boon to the King.

"The King was so much attached to his Kingdom and people that he requested that he be allowed to visit Kerala once in a year. Lord Vishnu was moved by the King's nobility and was pleased to grant the wish. He also blessed the King and said even after losing all his worldly possessions, the King would always be loved by Lord Vishnu and his people.

"It is the day of the visit of King Mahabali to Kerala that is celebrated as Onam every year. The festival is celebrated as a tribute to the sacrifice of King Mahabali. Every year people make elaborate preparations to welcome their King whom they affectionately call Onathappan. They wish to please the spirit of their King by depicting that his people are happy and wish him well.

"The second day, Thiruvonam is the biggest and the most important day of this festival. It is believed that King Mahabali visits his people on the second day."

Captain Nair told me that the legend is artistically depicted at the Suchindram Temple in Kanyakumari district of Tamil Nadu, a neighboring state.

So let's all savor this season of fests and festivals and fun. They offer salutary relief from the vicissitudes of everyday life.