As the 10 days of festivities in Kerala culminate in a grand Thiruvonam on Monday, 74-year-old Nirmala Nair will wash the steps of the small Chottanikkara Amma Temple in Intkheri, Madhya Pradesh. She will perform the pooja for Lord Mahabali and then watch her grandsons play football with grandchildren of her neighbours who once considered her a cannibal.
Ms. Nair is one of the last survivors among the 173 Malayalee families resettled in four villages of Raisen district -- Intkheri, Uradmao, Imaliya and Majoos Kalan -- in the erstwhile Bhopal state in 1955. They were brought here to work in a Central Mechanised Farming project, which wound up after Bhopal, Vindhya Pradesh and Madhya Bharat amalgamated to form Madhya Pradesh in 1956.
“We did not know Hindi and we had only cultivated paddy. Our wheat crops failed and we became very poor. No one helped us because they were scared that we would eat them. But see, we still survived and done well and we built this temple 15 years back,” says Nirmala who came here as a 16-year-old from Changanassery in Kerala.
Nirmala has been performing pujas to Chhottanikkara, another name for the popular Kerala deity Bhagwati or Durga, and conducting Onam rituals since 1970. She has been the priestess of the temple since it was built in 1998. Everyday, she is joined by 101-year-old N.K. Shankaran Nair, the oldest resident of Intkheri. Mr. Nair, has lost most of his memory of Madhya Pradesh, but remembers the names of friends and places in his birthplace Kottayam.
His son-in-law Gokulan Nair says, “He longs to go back but we have nothing left in Kerala. We still visit the homeland for weddings but MP is now our home.”
Residents have petitioned successive governments in the state and centre since 1970 to grant them pattas for their land. Politically active Keralites, like Purushottam Nair -- a BJP worker -- have been able to get pattas for a few residents. Most of them have documents for their fields, but not their homes. This, in the recent past, has created land disputes in Majoos Kalan.
“When our parents came here, they strongly lobbied for schools to be set up. All families here have atleast one member in a government job,” says Purushottam who retired from the forest department. Now a grocer, he stocks his shop with Onam delicacies like upperi and sarkara varatti.
“Onam used to be a large community celebration. But most of the families migrated for work to other parts of India. Now Onam is a one-day affair and is largely confined to individual homes,” he explains. Purushottam complains of politics causing the decline of Onam festivities. “Petty jealousies,” he adds, “Not the dirty and violent politics of Kerala.”
His friend P.K. Lakshmanan served four different police forces, finally retiring from the Border Security Force. “We have included local deities like Ganesha in our Onam celebrations. Earlier, locals would break their earthen pots if we drank from them. Now they speak a few Malayalam sentences. There have even been a few marriages with them,” he says.
Saurabh Nair is among the third generation of Malayalees here. While he speaks Malayalam, often including a few words of Hindi, he regrets not being able to read and write the language. “We watch see how grand Onam really is on Malayalam TV channels. But the truth is we don’t know how to celebrate it like it is in Kerala. What I wait for every Onam is the sadhya (lunch),” he says.
Saurabh and his friends, however, have inherited one of Kerala’s passions -- football. The annual Onam football match here is as much a tradition here as the athapoo flower arrangement.