I am Mahabali who was, long ago, the Chakravarti of Kerala. As another Onam is around the corner, it is time for me to make my annual visit to my former kingdom. I was not a greedy king and I was pushed down to the netherworld because of my bountiful mind. When Vamana, the dwarf incarnation of Lord Vishnu, asked me for three feet of earth as alms, I agreed but the dwarf took His real form and measured the whole earth with one foot, the heaven with the second and there was no place to measure the third and I offered my head and was pushed down to the netherworld. When Vishnu asked me what I wanted as a boon before being pushed down, I asked him only to let me visit my people, my beloved prajas, once in every year, and they started to celebrate the occasion as their national festival — Onam.
In the past, I used to wait eagerly for Onam to visit my people, because I could feel the smell of harvest, I could see plants and trees and flowers, and the dragonflies (onathumbikal) everywhere and I could hear the burring sound of the bees and the music of birds. People in every village gathered together in open places and in every home, they made their own pookkalam (floral design) in front of the house to welcome me. They have had a separate Onam for their cattle; and the environment also joined them in giving me a warm welcome.
The little children collected flowers from the nearby plants and creepers and it was a pleasure to see the designs made with a variety of indigenous flowers. As Onam used to be a collective festival, every class and caste mingled and played together. The market has not had any role in the celebrations. Every household cultivated almost all vegetables needed for onasadya.
But gradually I have noticed my people’s interest in cultivation and their spirit of togetherness disappearing and the market forces engaging the space. They began to celebrate Onam sitting in front of the TV and viewing ads of corporate business. They started to destroy their environment and to run after more and more cash. They forgot the fact that Onam is basically a harvest festival. Their traditional farming-related economy provided them a maximum level of sustainability, but didn’t help them earn more cash.
No paddy, no flowers
Now they earn more money at the cost of their sustainable and environment-friendly lifestyle. They have no flowers to pluck, no vegetables to cook, no paddy to harvest; but have enough money to buy flowers and vegetables and rice. When I see the all-pervasive consumerism, I pine for the lost spirit of Onam — the togetherness of the people and the environment, and the absence of the market.
When I see the large and intricate floral designs which cost enormous amounts of money, I yearn for the simple designs made with the local flowers (thumba, mukkutty, mandhaaram, tulsi, etc.) collected by children from the different plants and creepers.
Now on the eve of Onam, the whole men folk queue up in front of the Beverages Corporation outlets! They are insulting me by celebrating my visit with alcohol. In all the open places where I saw people gathering and playing in the yesteryear, now I see plastic glasses and alcohol bottles littered. No togetherness is seen among the people except the togetherness of four or five to consume liquor wherever they could find a suitable spot.
I have never encouraged alcoholism in my people, even if I could have used it as a revenue generating source. And I wonder why the modern governments use it as a source of income. Why do they prefer ‘income’ to the health and well-being of the people? Your income-oriented development made you a morally deprived people and you lost the beauty and serenity of life. When my people have become financially rich, they have lost the richness of collectivism and togetherness of the past. Actually, they have made themselves poorer.
Women have no space
I have observed the insecurity and fear women and girls feel when they are in the public space. Women are sexually harassed everywhere. My people are too much vigilant about their rights, but miserably negligent about their duties. And all the rights and space are for men. Women and girls have no rights and no space. They can use the public space only if they are ready to suffer silently the almost ubiquitous obscene comments and indecent behaviour of the males!
Where’s the hygiene?
I have seen plastic waste littered everywhere and stinking garbage dumps in every corner. Men smoke and urinate in all public places. I have seen poultry waste-filled plastic bags, dumped alongside the comparatively clean village roads, decaying under the very boards which read “Welcome to Nirmal Village Panchayat.” The very first thing that received me to all the ‘nirmal’ panchayats is the stink! People put domestic wastes in plastic bags and simply throw them on the roadside! How poor is the standard of public hygiene of my once clean people!
Tell me now, do you want me to continue with my annual visit only to have the smell of alchohol and the stench of garbage mounds and to see market-sponsored Onam? I don’t like to see a consumerist population celebrating Onam by buying everything. I don’t want to see an Onam bereft of its real spirit — the spirit of togetherness. I don’t want to participate in an Onam which is controlled by the market.
Yours own Mahabali, the former King of Kerala, from the netherworld.
(The writer’s email is firstname.lastname@example.org)