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Every festival has a story, a legend attached to it, and so does Onam. Today morning I was attempting a retelling of the legend for a dear friend when it struck me I might as well do it on my blog. After all today is Thiruvonam, the most important day of the festive season for us Mallus, a day when we of Gods Own Country, also known as Kerala, replete with Onasadya (the vegetarian feast served on banana leaves) that we have hogged, make merry indolently sit in front of television sets and catch the Mallu movies on offer. I am kidding, we do a lot more than that. But actually, if I didn’t say that someone might kill me. I am kidding again. Seriously, since I am quite unlikely to stop kidding in my lifetime, I might be, for all I know.

Anyways…. The legend and its retelling, and a lot of unnecessary chatter, by yours truly follows. There are many of them out there, and none of them are true except mine. There, what did I tell you? I am kidding again. Before I fall into the same old groove and go on like a broken record about just kidding, let me begin the retelling.

Long, long ago, in a beautiful verdant land enclosed by mountains on one said and the blue caressing sea on the other, there lived a benevolent king called Mahabelly. Ooops. Sorry. That’s the name of a restaurant in Delhi, not the king. It is true that the king had a potbelly, a sure sign of prosperity, as portrayed in pictorial representations of him. But his name was not Mahabelly, but Mahabali, meaning ‘of great power'(not to be confused with Bahubali which is the name of a recent top-grossing Telugu movie)

Mahabali came from a line of Asura kings. Asura stands for demon, but desist from falling into the trap set by those of yore, about this great divide between ‘asuras’, the bad guys and ‘devas’, the good guys. Asuras were merely people of the south whom their conquerors portrayed as demons and hence evil. That’s what victors do, rewrite everything from their perspective and insist it is the only truth. The truth is, there are many truths, one of them being victors anywhere always call themselves the good guys and everyone believes them, including those who lost. 

Mahabali was the great great grandson of a brahmin sage Kashyapa, great grandson of Hiranyakshipu, the grand son of Prahlada and son of Vairochana. Phew. Quite a line up that. Eh? His great-grandfather Hiranyakashipu was the one who had a run-in with one of the ‘devas’ and got himself killed as a result. These ‘devas’ are a dangerous lot. They have all the superior technology and don’t hesitate to use it on others.

Mahabali himself was not the belligerent kind like his great-grandfather. He didn’t go about threatening and attacking ‘devas’. He minded his own business, ruled his kingdom extremely well, looked after the welfare of his people. It is said of his reign, ‘Kallavum illa, chathiyum illa, ellolam illa poli vachanam‘ (no lies, cheating, no false promises, not even as much as a tiny sesame seed) His praja were a happy lot. In fact, Keralam was a veritable paradise under him, which no successive governments to date have been able to replicate, in spite of the many election promises.

Whenever ‘asura’ kings of yore got powerful, ‘devas’ became worse than scaredy cats. Mahabali was not conquering or annexing, still, just the fact that he was a ruler loved by his people was enough to make the ‘devas’ insecure. They did what they always do in such situations, went wailing to their chief ‘deva’ Vishnu. Help us Lord, they bawled.

Relax, smiled Vishnu, looking around at the nervous group assembled around him. I’ll think of something. The ‘devas’ went back satisfied. And soon enough, Vishnu hit upon just the idea. Accordingly, he took the form of a dwarf and went to Mahabali’s kingdom. At the sacrificial rite being performed in Mahabali’s kingdom, Vamana the brahmin boy was accorded all respect and courtesies due him. Point to be noted Mi’lord. Mahabali did his duty as any good king.

The generous King Mahabali, as was the custom, then asked Vamana what gift he desired. Vamana smiled and said, “Nothing yaar, I need only three paces of land!” Warning bells rang in Mahabali’s head at this unusual request, but a word given is a word to be upheld. Point to be noted Mi’lord. Mahabali was not only a generous king but also an upright one.

As soon as Mahabali gave the go ahead, Vamana grew in size. This is anyay (injustice) Mi’lord. There was nothing about changing size, shape or form in the oral contract. But no one was buying that line of argument. The judge and jury being all from the ‘deva’ camp quashed that point as irrelevant. Objection overruled.

Vamana measured all the three worlds (I think I heard Science groan just now. Three worlds???!!) in two paces and asked Mahabali in a bored tone,

Ab ye pair kaha rakhoon Raajan?” (Where shall I keep my feet now?) Yes, in Hindi. Vamana didn’t know Malayalam.

Mere sar pe!” (On my head!) responded the King smiling serenely, but gritting his teeth inwardly. I brought this upon myself by outshining the jealous ‘devas’. Sigh. Now he was being deported to God knew what godforsaken place. Double sigh. I am going to miss my loving people. I did so enjoy their adoration. Triple sigh. But sighing was not going to help. Vamana  was waiting, gleefully preparing to complete the last step of his Mission Banish Just King From His Kingdom For No Reason.

Mahabali cleared his throat. It was now or never. I have a last request, he said. Vamana was immediately alert. This could still go wrong. The people could revolt and reinstate Mahabali and send him packing.

Mahabali was too good for the likes of envious ‘devas’. All he said was,

“I’d like to come back and visit my subjects once every year!” Point to be noted Mi’Lord. He was such a good King. None of the jealous ‘devas’ can hold a candle to him, or even an oil lamp for that matter.  No one was listening. They were busy waiting to watch Mahabali being escorted out, to be deported to the dark land of Pataal somewhere down under.

Vamana was relieved when he heard the request, the fool king had asked for nothing much.

“So be it!” he said magnanimously.

The poor foolish people of Keralam believed their king would be really allowed to come and visit them. But once a perceived threat has been successfully removed like a thorn, will it ever be allowed to make a comeback and pierce again?

Still, innocent Mallus full of hope believe Mahabali will visit them, at least in disguise. May be with a french beard and an ola kuda (leaf umbrella). They celebrate Onam every year, trying to recreate the old times of prosperity under King Mahabali, by spending all the bonus they get during the festive season from their employers, borrowing heavily and spending that too at the Beverages Corporation to drink and put themselves into a stupor so that they can forget how for the rest of the year they’ll be working hard to pay off loans and then splurge all over again the next Onam, ad infinitum.

So you see, Onam is about Mahabali. Don’t let anyone else tell you otherwise. Also know that my tongue is lodged firmly in my cheek.

©Shail Mohan 2016

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