The Great Leveller

Last month I was invited to be guest editor on the Onam edition of Times of India. It was my first time doing something like this and with great excitement, Dipal Gala, the Features editor & myself set about getting the writers together. Of late many incidents in Kerala illustrated how divisive things were becoming and the need of the hour seemed to be inclusivity & social consciousness. The team agreed wholeheartedly that the agenda of the edition should be around inclusivity in every sphere.

So much has happened since then. From a divisive space, today Kerala has catapulted itself into an example of a society that is inclusive and socially conscious conquering all biases of gender, caste, religion, age and much else. Water has been the great leveller and its wave has entered all our lives in one way or the other. Never before have we been overcome with such emotion & empathy for our state and our people. Never have we experienced such extent of devastation. Never before have we prayed with such intensity for Kerala. 

Through the rescue we held together and I hope we will hold together through the relief & the rebuilding. Grateful for the wonderful people & support we have with us to tide over this time. This Onam I am wishing that we hold on to this oneness even after the waters have flown away. Sharing here my note on the Onam edition that was written before the floods: 

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The Pookalam

My favourite thing about Onam is the tapestry of flowers, gathered by little fingers from diverse spaces, laid together on the soil – the many colours, textures and shapes that are brought together into a form. Creation of a synergy for beauty but is it beauty alone? Why do we make a pookalam? Why does it represent Onam?

Myth-lovers say it is in welcome of a benevolent ruler who visits once a year the land he once ruled. The legend carries with it touches of good governance, the conquest of ego by wisdom, the values of benevolence and compassion and honour. But rather than see the flower carpet as a mere tribute laid on the floor, I believe there is far more in that pattern that speaks to us about Onam (than it is given credit for) through the experience of making it.

While picking the flowers, patterns start to emerge in our minds about the possibilities. As these ideas grow our search widens, for a particular colour, a particular texture, a particular quantity. Like any creative process we sift through so many to find our precious ingredients. It is a treasure hunt of sorts that takes us beyond our boundaries and frees us from the usual rules of propriety. In seeking those flowers we find our way back to our soil, its texture, the dragonflies, butterflies and the bees. The sense of delicacy in gathering thumba, the sense of wonder that the blue of a shankhupushpam can evoke, or the sense of patience in sorting aripoo, the sense of fluid thinking as the pattern evolves are all the real gifts of Onam. The experiential gifts.

Isn’t it representative of our sense of self & society? This coming together celebrates the unique identity of every flower and yet discovers beauty in its cohesive role among many in the pattern. The flowers at the centre are as important to those at the defining periphery. Most importantly, the Thiruvona pookalam is always round. This radial symmetry represents many things and in the context of multiple components it represents the ultimate state of oneness. How the many are actually part of one.

Today’s flowers types are many – the traditional ones that were cherished earlier but are rare now, the migrant ones that arrived here on a truck from elsewhere, the ordinary local ones that have only recently been allowed into the pookalam. 🙂  As we sort the flowers and arrange them into a pattern, it is with a sense of democracy that every new floral contribution is accommodated into the pattern. The pattern grows beyond one person’s imagination when the contributors are many and is perhaps the first step many of us have taken towards collaborative art.

Our writers for this edition represent as a group and as individuals a growing social consciousness in Kerala that recognizes such patterns and textures within our societal fabric. Many are doers more than writers, enriching our world with their actions and this edition with their words. There are those who are gathering the traditional and conserving them through new world practices. Others who are bringing the marginalized into the circle and restoring their place in the pattern. Some who are pointing out our homegrown harmful weeds and the damage their can cause. One who interprets the deeper meanings of our circular game. And another who tells us how even a statistical majority breathes like a minority in this state. Gender, Age, Caste, Faith…. Bias in any shape or size needs to be recognized and weeded out for they stand in the way of us to being the beautiful, strong tapestry we can be.

This Onam we need eyes that seek- to find the flowers, to see the pattern. What it is & what it can be. We hope you enjoy this pookalam of ours! Wishing everyone a happy and insightful Onam.

*As published in the Onam edition of Times of India 2018

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5 thoughts on “The Great Leveller

  1. Glad to see this from you maam.
    Talking about inclusiveness, I wonder how come a particular upper caste who only forms about 14% of the Keralan population represents more than 80% of Malayalam cinema protagonists.. How come the lower caste who forms vast majority of Keralan population is hardly represented in Malayalam cinema.. Dalits and tribals are consistently shown in ways supporting the upper class/caste views..

    When it comes to Onam, the best thing about Kerala is that, this is arguably the only place were a state’s ‘national’ festival absolutely celebrates an Asura – indigenous – king. All over India, an indigenous king was killed (folk lore mostly describes them as benevolent local rulers about whom Indra became jealous) but the killing is celebrated as yet another victory of the Gods over the evil (and we force even these tribals to celebrate it when in reality they should be mourning the killing of their ancetors). Onam seems to be the only major celebration of the local ruler, inspite of Gods performing the same that they did to local Asura or other tribal rulers elsewhere.

    Keralites, especially the urban middle class and above, seem to say – oh there is hardly any poverty or there are hardly caste issues, but the truth is far beyond. Main stream Kerala media even covered up when Hindutva groups blocked dalits from the vicinity of temple in Ernakulam district.. There are lot of other major and minor incidents as well, which are all covered up by the Brahminised main stream media.

    Anyways, it was heart warming to see the whole state standing together for the floods and especially celebrating the valour of the fishermen, albeit not mentioning their religion/caste..
    Only some die hard BJP and RSS personals were the exception with their moronic comments and accusations.

  2. I am not a regular visitor to this blogger’s page. It is just that I seemed to have been automatically subscribed!

    Anyway, on the subject, this is a beautiful interpretation, insightful writing about the flower carpet that we normally take for granted.

    However, to capitalise on the disaster by showboating use of wordplay and pun is in bad taste.

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