Onam Vannallo

It is that time of the year – joyful frenzy all over ‘God’s own country’ and its diaspora over the globe. Mahabali Thampuran is due to visit every Malayali household today and everyone scampers about to put on their best show as they gear up to receive one of the best rulers of Kerala. Banished to the depths of the earth by a simple touch of the Divine feet, King Mahabali was granted the boon to visit his citizens (or netizens) once a year on this day of Thiruvonam. It is not an easy task, albeit the fact that he is a mighty king, given the presence of Malayalis (fondly called Mallus) in every nook and corner of the world.

Well, back to the present – Pookalams or flower Rangolis cast a fresh welcoming scene at the entrance of every household; An elaborate Onam feast (called the Sadhya replete with Ada pradhamans, chips, and the like served on a fresh green Banana leaf or for the unfortunate NRKs (Non Residential Keralites in case you are wondering) a plastic version of the green Banana leaf); Shimmering Onam Kodis kasavus and the like, (when both young and old shed their jeans and trousers and deck themselves up in the traditional cream and gold bordered Malayali signature attire). All in all, there is a festive frenzy for the past 9 days which is to reach its crescendo today in a few hours as the sun dawns on Thiruvonam day.

This is one side of the story – Let me take you to the other side. When a minister visits a region within his jurisdiction, have you seen the preparations that go before the D-day? Other than the festoons, decorations, preparatory functions, tidying up, security arrangements, etc, there is a department that is involved in cleaning up. I don’t mean the physical clean-up that precedes any VIP visit but the arrangements to ensure that nothing unpleasant catches the eye of the VIP or the troop accompanying the dignitary – a covert operation to cover up all the ‘dirty linen’. I belong to this department and the task before me this year is humungous (gargantuous, staggering, stupendous – Sigh! there is no word to describe the actual enormity of the task before my team).

I decided to vent my frustration here with you my brethren as I sit for a last-minute emergency meeting (of course Online by Zoom) with my team across the globe. All of them wore the same frustrated panicky look. Have we given up? I don’t know.

The Chechi from the Land of Down Under cleared her throat ‘ Ahem, what’s with this silence Chettanmaare and Chechis. We are the first to receive the King and I can already see the first rays of sun streaking the horizon and we are stuck.’

I try to make her calm as she relates events of sporadic racist attacks, climate changes, flash floods. How can I cover this up, she hopefully asks – In a matter of minutes please, she adds! The sarcasm in her voice was not hard to miss.

Are the pookalams and Sadhyas ready? I counter knowing that nothing can be done now to cover this mess up before Mahabali makes his appearance.

The Chinese Malayali representative ‘raised’ his hand and I had to permit him to speak. The screen pulsated for a few minutes, and I took the liberty of enjoying the silence before reminding him to ‘unmute’ himself. I cannot avoid the situation since it was my overall responsibility. As he unmuted himself, he relaunched into an account of the stringent lockdown there wondering whether King Mahabali can safely cruise through to visit every Malayali house in China. I assured him that He would be wearing a mask and follow social norms and of course, we had the special clearance ready from the local government for this visit. He added on about the visa problems, re-entry issues, etc but was not very perturbed since King Mahabali has been updated on the typical Indo-China and Indo-Pak issues for decades now and it would not come in as a surprise. Of course, in the last visit, he was surprised to note that there has been not much progress on both these fronts and confronted his aide saying that such delays in resolving issues were unheard of in his regime. Well, times have changed Sire. Wish we could tell you the actual facts but Sigh!! Protocol decrees that we just cover the issues up and hide them under the carpet as you visit.

I took my eyes off the screen for a second to sip some caffeine to calm my nerves.

Raised Hands and Hands and more Hands welcome me back on screen – All from the Indian Malayalis. It was cacophony as each one tried to outvoice the other in recounting the issues faced in their zone – Corruption, Disease, floods, rains, lack of faciltiies, women and children safety, road safety issues, increasing drug consumption by the young, and on and on and on. I wearily let them all speak – they were just venting out their feelings. Remember we are not to blame for this scenario across the country. We are just trying to cover up. The mess is created by corrupt politicians and not just them but by self-centred individuals who put their personal agenda above the progress of the nation. What can we do? Just vent our frustrations thus!

But the question was how to hide all this in the next few hours. The scene when the King comes in should be of smiling happy Malayalis in their kasavus tucking into steaming rice and pradhamans, posing in front of the pookalams and lighting up their Facebook, Instagram profiles with smiling selfies. Easy to get ‘Likes’ on social media even by those who turn green with envy at the joy of others – Our department does not work that way. Wish we get some ‘likes’ as we finish our covert operation too. I send a note to my secretary to post a few photos of pookalams and sadhyas on our Instagram and Facebook page too – You see – when in Rome one has to be a Roman or in our case when in Kerala one has to be a Malayali.

Simbly stated (yes we have a mallu accent and we are proud of it) we are in a deep mess at this moment. I let the European and American team kickstart their woes on indiscriminate gun usage, and economic crisis at which our Sri Lankan counterpart laughed (oops it is supposed to be LOL) sarcastically reminding us of the situation out there in his region.

How on earth can we cover all this up? I clear my throat and ‘mute’ everyone else. It is time for the ‘Pep’ talk. “Pedikanda (don’t worry)” I say though not very confidently.” We have all done our best and that is what matters. For now, we can rely on our Malayali brethren to keep the King engaged with selfie clicking and group photos that there is still a chance that we may be victorious in portraying the brighter side of the situation. Remember the Covid Lockdown year was a breeze for us since everyone had ample time to deck up their homes and the selfies reached a peak and our Instagram Facebook pages were brimming with posts in which we were tagged. So, all is not lost. The king need not know and why bother him with all this on the one day he gets to step on this soil? He would then have to spend the remaining 364 days worrying about the state of his citizens.

For now, all of you get back to bed and let us leave this matter at the feet of Lord Vishnu and focus on our Onam Sadhya, kasavus, pookalams and flood the social media with selfies.’

I yawn as I longingly look forward to catching a few hours of sleep before King Mahabali appears in India. The Australian chechi had already ‘left the meeting’. I understand – There are miles to go before we sleep. Starting from tomorrow, when we can put this year’s covert operation attempt behind us, let us focus on clearing up issues at the ground level for next year’s Onam. Till then Onashamsagal folks.

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