Pongalo Pongal

It is six o clock in the morning. A freezing morning in New Delhi. I don’t want to wake up, much less walk out to the terrace, shivering in my bare feet and crouch down next to a turmeric leaf. Then as my mother coaxes me with a very unmaternal glare in her eyes, I chant ‘Kakapudi vechhai, Kannu pudi vecchai, Kakai kon kuruvi kon kalyanam’ in a loop as I place small scoops of rice in various different hues on the leaf. As my feet start to soak in the cold – or the cold floor starts to drain my heat – I hop from foot to foot and the chanting gets faster. As soon as I am done, I run indoors. My mother follows looking dissatisfied.

I must have been a very unsatisfactory sort of child. But this is my most vivid memory of Pongal from my childhood.

I woke up today to a different Pongal. I have always celebrated Pongal though in a quiet sort of way but I have never involved the kids in it. Perhaps because of my own traumatic memories of the bitter cold only partly assuaged by the delicious chakarai pongal. Anyway, the kids were never involved in Pongal – till today. Today, I woke them up and sat in bed with them and forced them to give me their undivided attention for ten minutes. I told them Pongal stories, asked them Pongal questions and managed to interest them mildly till they left to play badminton with their dad. They are not back yet but our Pongal cooking and prayers are done. I hope they enjoy the food once they are home but I thought it would be nice to tell a few of those stories here.

So Pongal is celebrated over four days. The first is Bhogi and we have never done much on that day. People in North India celebrate the day as Lohri. The custom is pretty much the same – it is the day on which we discard and burn anything that can no longer be used. Clean up and make a fresh start. The bonfire also represents a spiritual cleansing-  destroy all vice and start anew.

Today is Thai Pongal – the first harvest of the year. Unlike people like me who draw a salary month on month, farmers work all year and twice only – the first time being on Thai Pongal – reap the fruits of their labour. It is a time to celebrate, hopefully with a rich and overflowing bounty. It is marked by cooking rice and lentils and allowing them to flow over. The flowing over is what we call Pongal. We cook pongal in sweet and savoury varieties and share with everyone who comes home to visit. It is also a time to visit friends and family and share meals.

Years ago, my mother moved from Madras in South India, to the far north of New Delhi. A young bride of twenty one. After being encouraged to study and never allowed to venture into the kitchen, in a sudden about turn my grandfather decided not to be tardy with his duties any longer and married off his first born, sending her off to new domestic pastures armed only with the trusty ‘Samaithu Paar’ by Meenakshi Ammal. A bit about Meenakshi Ammal. She was born in the early twentieth century and married in her teens as was the norm in those days. As was also common, she was widowed at a young age and left with small children. Not one to bow down to misfortune, she turned her one skill to her advantage and wrote a cookbook. It was not a time when cookbooks were very common. What was especially uncommon was a cookbook that had not fancy, restaurant style recipes but a how-to of everyday fare. A sort of tamil style cooking for dummies. It was just what new housewives like my mother, or young bachelors moving to new shores but desperately craving home food needed. I have a copy with me as well. Much thumbed and dog eared. Not compared to my mother’s tattered old tamil volume of course. It is my most trusted companion in the kitchen. I’m digressing here but only for the purpose of showing the special festival section from the book where Ammal tells her desperate housewives the whats and hows of special day menus.

On Maatu Pongal, farmers thank their best friends – their cattle. There has been a lot of controversy this year over the bull taming ritual of Jallikattu. I must admit the only time I ever saw Jallikattu, I was horrified and called everyone from police to media in an unsuccessful bid to stop what was happening. The Indian Supreme Court has now banned Jallikattu, which is a traditionally carried out on Maatu Pongal but there is little local support and much outrage. People who have practised Jallikattu for generations say that it is how strong bulls are identified. These are the ones that are used for breeding to ensure a strong line of native cows. The rest are used for ploughing the fields and other farm work. This practice keeps our native breeds alive and the hybrid jersey cow out. They might have a point, I don’t know. However, I was chatting with an office colleague who is a first generation city dweller whose dad still farms actively and his maatu pongal stories were much nicer. In his village, this day is when the cattle are allowed to rest. Children go from home to home to visit and feed cattle. Hay is fed and the cows and bulls and especially littles calves pampered like children with much love.

Today the work done by these old friends of men has been taken over by tractors. The leftover of last seasons crops is simply waste to be burnt, and we are left with debilitating pollution and smog.

The last day of Pongal is the Kannu Pongal. Along with leftover pongal, differently coloured rice is made using coconut, turmeric, tomatoes and placed on turmeric leaves for birds to eat. After being warded away all year round, on Pongal, even the birds get their share.

Sharing is a big feature of Pongal. My colleague told me that in his village the pongal cooked by well-to-do families was never eaten by them. Instead, it was sun dried and packed into sealed containers and distributed among the poor who would cook it in water and eat for months to follow.

I am not a farmer but I love harvest festivals. They are the only way for us city people to find our place in the circle of life and the rhythms of nature. Keep us from getting totally lost in the artificialities of our digital world. They may have different names and customs in different parts of India and even the world but they are bound by similar notions of gratitude and sharing of bounty.

Do you have a harvest festival story to share? I would love to hear it!


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