"Can you eat on a banana leaf?" written by maria anne fitzgerald
“Monday is Onam”, my mother informs me as I walk past her at the table. Her unanticipated sentence tripped my thoughts. My immediate reply was, “Do you have off that day?”. She turned 180 degrees to check the calendar behind her, “Isn’t there a lockdown on Monday?” she asks me. “Maybe, I don’t know”, I said. Seconds after checking her mailbox, she tells me “Ah, I will be at home”. A bulb flashed in my head, “Ma, lets cook for Onam”, I suggested.
Onam celebrations at home are simple. They are limited to my mother cooking something customary for the festive occasion. However, this time my statement seemed to have interrupted her thoughts. It’s probably the first time that the suggestion of cooking something traditional came from my end. She continued working on her laptop for a minute, before pausing to look up at me, poker faced. With a novice understanding of the food specially prepared on Onam, I was convinced that I had either said or asked for too much. Ma obviously knew the huge task ahead of her – not just the cooking bit, but the idea of having me around in the kitchen (something she is not very fond of). “What do you want to make?”, she asked, sitting opposite me at the table waiting for my answer. I teleported to another time and place.
“So, maria if you’re like half south Indian and stuff, can you eat on a banana leaf…you know with all the stuff on it?”, he said looking at me, as if eating on a banana leaf was supposed to be my most exotic talent on account of being partly South-Indian. “Yes, I can”, I said hesitantly, confused whether it would be conclusive enough to indicate my ‘southerness’ to him. I recall having this conversation with someone who seemed so perturbed that my name and culture did not match its stereotype. He needed further affirmation, so he asked, “Can you dance too… you know Bharatanatyam and stuff?”. At this point he crossed the threshold of my patience. I looked up at him and smiled, saying to myself – “Someone needs to tell him that he means kathakali not Bharatanatyam”. With a smirk on my face and wanting to add to his dilemma of trying to fit me in a box I said, “No, not Bharatanatyam, but I jive and salsa a bit. Have you tried that?”. His laugh didn’t quite cover the double whammy.
“Will you tell me what you want to eat?”, my mother asked, her voice cutting through distance to bring me back to the present. Unsure of the names of the several food preparations that are a part of the Sadhya – a traditional 24 to 28 course Onam meal, I said “Whatever is usually made”. Trying to impress her with my ‘half-baked’ knowledge I started naming the dishes - rice, papad, pickle, sambhar, ghee, payasam – all three kinds white, yellow and brown (a milk based desert), coconut chutney, curd curry – white and yellow, aviyal (a vegetable dish seasoned with coconut and curry leaves) and ‘three sabzis’ (vegetarian dishes). The last one of ‘three sabzis’ caught my mother’s attention. She was listening. “What sabzis?” she asked. Oh no! There goes my cover! – I thought.
Vaguely remembering the image of the ‘three sabzis’, I had once eaten, I said, “That banana one, then there is one with beans and coconut, and we can make one with aloo?”.
“Aloo? Where did that come from?”, she asks me surprised at my answer.
“I don’t know but we can make and eat, na?”, I said confidently.
Ma laughed. She caught on to my ‘hybrid ideas’ which always tend towards accommodating my cultural binary.
This conversation with ma, particularly the part of identifying the food items that comprised my interpretation of the Sadhya, occupied my mind for much longer than expected. It’s because I had only managed to name the obvious, that too mostly using their anglicized names or description. In fact, I had even caught myself using words from another language to describe what I was trying to explain. The main components such as kutthari (brown rice), rasam (pepper water), thoran (fried dry vegetable), olan (white pumpkin), pulissery (a yogurt preparation) which were missing on my list, were mentioned by ma, after she stopped laughing at the idea of adding aloo. She was quick to retort back with, “You forgot the banana chips!”.
In attempting to describe and prepare the Sadhya, I admit to making a few modifications and perhaps even reducing the numbers of dishes I had chalked out to cook with ma. The idea was not to replicate a traditional Sadhya but to get involved in discovering another aspect of myself – being in-part Malayali and celebrating those influences. As I mentioned earlier, it’s probably the first time I initiated these celebrations. Why? - I hear you ask. Well, it’s because of a conscious choice I live by every day, which is to straddle and get comfortable in my own skin, influenced by Malayali and Anglo-Indian traits. It a creative place which I feel liberates me from pre-conceived stereotypes.
The Sadhya is symbolic of many things in my life – my mother’s roots, which finds a way into my cultural praxis, my ‘southerness’ and the relationship I share with my birthplace, Thiruvalla in Kerala. Being a ‘pseudo mallu’ as most call it, isn’t just about eating on a banana leaf. It entails something much more – something that the prerogative of cultural ambiguity allows me to see – the diversity of place often hidden beneath its stereotypes.
Would love to hear about your experiences of celebrating Onam or anything else that crossed your mind while reading this ! Connect with me at firstname.lastname@example.org