Why King Mahabali is always welcome in my home

By Dhanusha Gokulan

Onam is usually, always a big deal at home. Growing up, as much as my siblings and I loved the ‘Onam spirit’, my parents tend to go overboard with the festivities. Onam celebrations are not limited to religious borders, so, my folks love showing off ‘our culture’ to friends who are not Malayalees. This means, everyone is invited to have Sadhya, a nine-course vegetarian feast usually involving 22 dishes, at our home.

The entire family has to be involved in every aspect of the celebration. From spring cleaning to scraping the coconuts, everyone must chip-in.

My parents are borderline professional cooks. And to retain ‘authenticity’ in what’s being served, everything from Injipuli (a dark brown sweet-sour and spicy curry) and Kannimanga Achar (tender mango) have to be homemade. “We have to make at least 26 dishes,” insists Amma (mother).

If they could, they would’ve even prepared the Kaya Varthathu (banana chips) at home instead of getting it from Lulu or Nesto Supermarket. See, if Amma said she doesn’t want to cook this year, we would’ve happily walked to the nearest Malayalee restaurant and waited in line to belt the Sadhya. Problem is, Achan (father), can cook really well. So, we’re stuck with at least four days of gruelling toil in the name of ‘preserving our culture’.

It has been decided. We are expecting at least 30 guests. Mum’s colleagues from school, dad’s best friend and his family, the neighbours, and people from dad’s workplace who want to experience Kerala cuisine. “Do you want to call your friends Dhanu?” asks Amma.

“They have plans with their families,”  I reply, I lied of course. I didn’t want to cut and an extra 8 kg of onions to feed those greedy gluttons. Let them eat Sadhya elsewhere.  At least three to four trips to my parent’s favourite shopping destinations are mandatory. Once the shopping is done, the sorting out and cleaning begins. Buying banana leaves is left to the last. If dad is pre-cooking the Puliinji and four varieties of pickles, that makes me the designated driver and ‘chief banana leaf buyer and cleaner’. If these careers existed in real life, I’d be a CEO.

While a delicious aroma of pickles, Kalan, Olan, and Manga Pachadi (mango-yoghurt dish) begins wafting around the house, you’d think they’ll let us have a taste. No chance. All dishes are sealed with masking tape. “We can open it at 1 pm, when the guests arrive,” Achan says.

“What about entertaining the guests, Dhanu? We should organise some traditional games. Search on the Google for Onam games,” Amma suggests. At this point, my brother has abandoned ship. He has gone to play cricket with friends. I try to mumble something about ‘working on an article’, but it falls on deaf ears. My sister and I look at each other while continuing to chop red spinach for Cheera Thoran (Spinach dish).

After almost two days of cutting veggies, cleaning, decorating the house with candles, flowers and lamps, washing the dog so ‘his atrocious stench doesn’t ruin the guest’s appetite’, planning games, and scrapping coconuts, it’s time for the big day, we are ready to welcome King Mahabali, and the guests.

Once everyone arrived, a traditional welcome drink called Sambaharam (spiced buttermilk) was served. Guests got busy taking pictures of the Athapookalam (floral design). The dog, smells like jasmine flowers, turning up in a Kerala silk vest. Selfies become relentless.

A roll of plastic sheet is then laid out on the floor. Plantain leaves are placed on which 26 Sadhya dishes are served. Rice is accompanied  by dal and dollops of ghee. The show stoppers in the dessert section are the two varieties of Payasam. My parents stand beaming as guests commend their cooking skills. Achan even encourages them to applaud. I think they were proud of us. It made me wonder, would I do the same to my kids if I ever chose to have them?

Probably, yes. How else will our culture prevail? King Mahabali will always be welcome in our home!


When Dhanusha is not running behind her six-year-old Labrador, she is attempting her millionth weight loss plan

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