An Onam to remember
Long years ago, my dad used to be a trader. Business then had its seasonal swings. Some months were good and some were best forgotten. One year, the month before Onam (Onam is the harvest festival in my part of the World) had seen no sales movement of goods and there were just piled up stocks of goods. In technical terms, my dad called it a recession… but in my mind it was a great depression. Suddenly, there were pangs of insecurity. Checks bounced. Bankers recalled loans. Mom and dad seemed unsure of the morrow: there were whispers I overheard which had me worried as to how my family could make both ends meet. The list of sundry creditors from whom my dad had borrowed plus the amounts past due seemed ever rising. The black telephone (then only landlines existed and like Ford cars of the 1930s, the telephones were all black…) seemed to be sadistically ringing all the time with people seeking payments. “These rings will stop soon”, my Dad said. “I have not paid the bills, so it will be disconnected!”
As a child, Onam was ingrained in my psyche as the best of all seasons. Onam, was the day our mythical King visited us in our homes and partook meals with us. We were expected to wear new clothes and be in the happiest of elements. If any subject was unhappy, the King would be upset that he had bequeathed an in-egalitarian society . That would make the King melancholic. To avoid any misery to the King, it was expected that all inhabitants celebrate the day of Onam as the richest, happiest day of the year. This was the day of sweets , a plantain leaf full of food, of swings, of flowers, of new clothes…
The downturn in business crumbled my Onam dream that year. There were no swings, no new clothes, no sweets. All we had at home was an abundance of anxiety. My friends in school were celebrating in style days ahead of the event and that added to my torment; . their ‘demonstration effect’ was too much on me.
The day before Onam seemed the longest day. It just would not seem to move. I lay on my mattress and could hear the motors of the last (11.30 p.m. )boat steer past the backwaters. I could hear the slowing down of the boat and then the stillness. Then a restarted motor and the fading sounds of the engine as it receded echoing among the coconut trees. The ripples of the backwater disturbed my soul. Someone had alighted at the wharf close to our house. A few minutes later, I could hear footsteps outside my house. There were knocks on our door; those were knocks on my fear ridden heart. Was it some creditor who had his Onam spoilt because of my dad not repaying his loan? I huddled behind my Mom as my Dad opened the door.
There were two men. Both had loads of things on them in two gunny bags. “Reddiar sent it.” Reddiar was my Dad’s old classmate in Alleppey. He had been as much a successful merchant as one could be; the recession had not hurt him. These two men were his employees ” Onam sales were heavy, so we could not come earlier. Sorry for that. We will stay on till the boat returns at 6.30 a.m. and return.”
The older man then turned towards me and said: “For you, Reddiar sent a special gift.” The box had clothes, sweets and a flute. As my Mom made tea and my Dad spoke to them on mundane things through the night, I had perhaps the shortest wait for the dawn. After they left, my dad told my mom. “Reddiar must have heard of my business flop from market sources. He was always a kind guy even when studying. “
Then as an afterthought, he said, “the joy of life is in giving, is it not?”.
That Onam taught me I had to repay.