When Secularism is No Longer Served at the Onam Sadhya

When Secularism is No Longer Served at the Onam Sadhya

Onam has always had a reputation for being a secular festival. Shahnaz Habib writes about her experience as a Malayali Muslim celebrating Onam.

Even as child, I disliked semiya payasam. On birthdays and Eid, when my mother served us steel tumblers of semiya payasam, I fished out the fried cashew nuts and crunched them in my mouth, but I was not a fan of the rest – the slimy layer of cream on top of the milk, the hairy strands of vermicelli, the cloying sweetness

Then one day, soon after we had moved to a new house, the neighbour who lived across our dead-end street stopped by with some payasam in her steel container. It was Onam, a festival that my urban Muslim family did not really know how to celebrate. Our brand new house did not have much of a yard to make pookkalams in, and the yard we did not have did not have a garden to pluck flowers out of. What we did on Onam was turn on the TV and watch people on TV make pookkalams.

Our neighbor was a teacher, and immediately she was anointed by the name of her trade. To this day my parents don’t refer to her by her real name. She is Teacher, as in “Go ask Teacher if she can lend us her idiyappam achu” or during a power-cut that might also be a short-circuit situation, “Go see if Teacher has power” or more recently, “We will be in Dubai when you come. Teacher will give you the keys.”

Teacher has a set of our keys. She waters my mother’s bougainvilleas when they are traveling and guards over her mango blossoms. She gave my daughter her first kasavu pavada.

So suffice it to say, that day when Teacher came in swinging her little steel container, fresh from the temple, the swipe of chandanam on her forehead matching the gold border of her Kerala sari, it was the beginning of a long friendship. For me, it was also another kind of beginning.

Teacher’s payasam was completely different from the clammy semiya payasam that I had grown up with. I had known vaguely that there were many different kinds of paayasams. But having turned up my nose at semiya payasam, I had not deigned to investigate the other kinds. What teacher brought that day was ada pradhaman, a payasam made with tender rice flakes and coconut milk and jaggery.

I am going off on a tangent here, but pretty much everything in life is improved by jaggery. My morning coffee now is sweetened with jaggery, and if coffee, which is already perfect, can be improved by jaggery, imagine what it can do to lesser foods. If jaggery stood for elections, I would vote for jaggery. And if you have ever had the good fortune of eating a slice of tender coconut with a sprinkling of jaggery, you know that coconut and jaggery are meant to be BFFs. Drinking ada pradhaman is basically like drinking a coconut-flavored liquid caramel, with rice flakes giving it heft and chewiness and complexity.

And thus that Onam, I became a payasam person, thanks to Teacher. Teacher gave my mother some cuttings from her rose bush and bougainvilleas and we started a garden. During Ramadan, we sent over unnakkayas; during mango season, my mother would part with the finest mangoes for Teacher and her family. And teacher in turn would return the favor with ripe nattumanga curry. During Onam, we saw how she made space for a small pookkalam on her verandah, and in blind imitation, we, too, cleared a space in our garage and decorated it with flowers.

This story should end here. But it does not.

I was visiting my parents this summer and eating some delicious ada pradhaman that Teacher had brought over when my father asked jokingly, “So how do you like the RSS flavor in your payasam?”


My father told me that Teacher’s husband had joined the local RSS branch. Both he and Teacher had started attending RSS meetings. Over the past few years, the virulent Hindu nationalist organization has made huge inroads in Kerala. Earlier this year, for the first time ever in the history of Kerala, the BJP won a seat in the State Assembly. A huge poster warning Hindus about the Muslim Love Jihad had appeared outside the Durbar Hall grounds where we went for evening walks. There were rumors floating around of radicalized Kerala Muslims joining ISIS. 

All during my childhood, Kerala had been a safe refuge for secularism. Even when communal turmoil rocked the rest of the country, as for instance in the days after Babri-Masjid was demolished or after the Gujarat riots, Kerala had remained the one place where Hindus and Muslims did not fear each other.

Or did we? I wonder now if we had all been sleeping. Did we all just wake up from a sweet  dream about a slice of green coast, on the shore of the Arabian Sea, where people celebrated each other’s festivals and guarded the keys to each other’s homes? What had possessed our friend and neighbor, the man we children call Uncle, to join a radical organization that advocates putting Muslims in place? I don’t ask this in anger. I ask this in sadness, because what I am really wondering is -- How did we, his Muslim neighbors, fail him? What could we have done to reassure him that the radicalized young men and the Muslim clerics shouting themselves hoarse about kafirs were as much our problem as his?

I know that times have changed. The Kerala I grew up in no longer exists. I should be less nostalgic, more suspicious. I am deeply afraid that we have only seen the beginning of this wave of hatred that both Hindu and Muslim fundamentalists have fanned into being. But somehow when I think of that ada pradhaman, I also feel tremendous hope. Our foods do not just fill our bellies, they teach us to trust each other. And so I trust. I trust and respect Teacher and Uncle. When push comes to shove, I hope they will remember those steel tiffin boxes that have passed, back and forth, between our homes, for years.

Shahnaz Habib is a freelance writer whose work has been published in The New Yorker and The Guardian amongst others. She is also the founding editor of the literary magazine, Laundry.

Illustration by Parul Kanodia.