Today on the occasion of Makara Sankranthi I was reliving the time I wrote an entire chapter in my book “When the Lotus Blooms,” about the festival of Pongal.
Pongal is a harvest festival, very important for farmers. For Tamils, it is a big occasion, with lots of preparation and festivity. Initially a celebration of the winter harvest, for farmers who toiled all year in the fields, Pongal celebrates the bounty of nature with great fanfare.
Many people believe it is Tamil New Year but that comes later in the year. I have very fond memories of Pongal which we thoroughly enjoyed especially if my grandmother Rajam was with us, as she was an outstanding cook. That was the only day in the year my mother allowed us to chew on sugar cane which she bought and washed thoroughly with soap and boiled water before serving us. Even though I grew up in Bombay I was never allowed to drink the notorious, diarrhea inducing sugarcane juice on the streets.
What was even more enjoyable was ‘Kanu” the next day. The colorful rice always attracted me and I loved watching the crows and sparrows vie with each other to get at the banana leaf laden with colored rice balls. I also remember how mad my mother got one time when our dog Raja decided to polish off the food! I didn’t realize we must be selective about our offerings.
The scene in the book shows the family gathered around the pongal pot which boils over, signifying prosperity in the future. Velandi the parayan watches the food being cooked, while hunger pangs in his belly distract him. Celebration in one household becomes the reason for envy in another. The scene exemplifies opposites which continually rule our lives. Hunger and harvest, prosperity and desperation, bounty and death are all juxtaposed, mirroring the duality of perspective. Here is an excerpt from the book.
Nagamma had already put the rice and lentils into the pongal paanai and Sushila added the jaggery. The fire beneath the pot was flaming, burning bright and strong as the men kept adding more firewood so the pongal could boil faster. Balu had his brass plate and spoon ready and waited impatiently for the pongal to boil over. The water simmered as Nagamma added the milk. She turned to the family. “Pray all of you that as this pot of pongal boils over, so does our life boil over with good events and happiness.” She barely finished speaking when Balu noticed the pongal rapidly rising to the top of the clay pot.
“Pongalo pongal!” he yelled gleefully, hammering his spoon against the brass plate. Everyone shouted in unison, “Pongalo pongal!” clapping their hands and shouting as loudly as they could. Rajam stuck her tongue half out of her mouth, rapidly moving it from side to side in a warble louder than Sushila’s. Balu looked at her and tried to mimic her, but no one could hear his soft voice amidst the din. Rapidly removing some sticks of the firewood from under the pot, Nagamma reduced the intensity of the flame. The evil spirits hovering around the house were sure to have been frightened away with the racket they made. Rajam closed her eyes and prayed for all bad events to end and for new happy moments to surround their lives. In her mind she knew she was only praying for that one elusive event to take place.
When the Lotus Blooms has won two awards, one at the Great Southeast Book Festival and the other at the New England Book Festival.