A quiet Onam for Malayalees under locked down Victoria

By Indira Laisram
General Secretary of Malayalee Association of Victoria Madanan Chellappan with family

In a state hit by hard lockdown due to the coronavirus, the famously celebrated festival of Onam for the Malayalee people of Kerala is quiet. And for two consecutive years now. But the many Malayalees in Victoria are not letting the lockdown affect their celebration as they keep up with their tradition in the confines of their homes.

Sheetal Kallada has been cooking since morning for her family of four including her husband and two children. It is unusual to be sharing this feast with just the family as Onam typically signifies sharing food and the festivity with friends and extended families.

Sheetal Kallada with her husband Shynesh Thirumalammal and sons

For the past 14 years that she has been in Melbourne, Kallada has always taken a day off from work and never missed cooking the traditional vegetarian dishes that makes Onam unique. Today she cooked vermicelli payasam (a must sweet dish made of rice, milk, sugar and coconut), cheruvayar payasam (lentils in coconut gravy with cardamom and jaggery), pachadi (a coconut-based gravy with a choice of four to five vegetables) among the other 18 dishes.

Surkeinya Nongmaithern with her husband Dinju Sreeram

This grand feast, known as onam sadya, is of great importance to those celebrating. As Kallada explains, Onam celebrates the homecoming of the legendary king Mahabali, a devotee of Lord Vishnu.  “It is said that when Mahabali visits, he wants to see his people eating a good meal, that’s why even the poor celebrate to show that they are happy and not starving.”

An offering and a prayer. Surkeinya with son Etash

Surkeinya Nongmaithem, a Manipuri who is married to Dinju Sreeram, has mastered the art of cooking traditional Malayalee dishes through years of living in Kerala. In her Melton home, as with every other year, she has cooked more than 12 dishes including red rice ladoo, olan (a curry made with white pumpkin, cowpeas and coconut milk), aviyal (using green bananas, drumsticks, various soft beans and fresh coconut gratings), to name a few.

Nongmaithem says she started the preparations the previous night, clearly an edible demonstration of sentiment for a culture she now adopts as her own. Like Kallada, she believes celebration such as Onam will provide the children with good memories and teach them culture—whether or not they upkeep the tradition later in life.

A glimpse into previous Onam celebration organised by Malayalee Association of Victoria

The onam sadya has regional variations, says Madanan Chellappan, General Secretary of Malayalee Association of Victoria. People from the south of Kerala generally prepare a vegetarian feast, while those in the north add meat and fish to the celebratory feast. The fact remains, food is a major part of the festival.

Unfortunately, this year it is am unusally quiet one for his family because his wife Nisha recently lost her brother to COVID-19 in India.

Chellapan is also a bit disappointed that for two years in a row, the 1000-plus strong Malayalee community are not able to celebrate this great festival. “We have a big cultural celebration every year with artistes from India and here performing. Last year too, we booked a hall but that got cancelled.”

The Malayalee Association of Victoria is a primary organisation with about 1,000 families registered as members, says Chellapan. “We view such celebrations as a good opportunity for the children to learn about their culture and interact with their peer groups. Also, this is a big occasion for our community members to know each other, network and bond.”

Anil Jose, his wife Effi Philip and children

In Bendigo where lockdown was imposed from 1 pm today, Anil Jose and his wife Effi Philip are a bit sad that the celebrations in this regional town had to be cancelled. “Today is the main day and we were supposed to celebrate it in a big way,” he rues, adding, “Once the Melbourne lockdown started, we couldn’t have more than 50 people at a gathering and we have new restriction from today.”

But that has not dampened the spirits. Philip prepared 22 vegetarian traditional dishes which they savoured on banana leaves sitting on the floor. Also, there is some consolation in the hope that the Bendigo Malayalee Association have plans to celebrate together once the lockdown is over.

Typically, Onam celebrations go on for ten days. And for a celebration that involves friends, family and the larger community members, this Onam may be yet another lonely one for Malayalees in Victoria. However, it remains one that still reinvigorates their traditional and religious devotion—pandemic or not!

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