By Kavita Nair-Fondekar
One of the significant facets of living in the Gulf for any Malayali is the overwhelming feeling of being closer to Kerala than possibly in any other part of India. There is a lot of truth in the proclamations of no Malayali family being truly authentic unless at least one member was in the Gelf paving the way for others in the family (and eventually the entire native town) to follow suit. What I had laughed at as a standard Mallu joke assumed startling proportions when I met more of my brethren here than I did in any Indian state I’ve lived in. The Malayali Gulf connection is an experience that no hearsay does justice to. You cannot travel more than a couple of steps without bumping into a fellow Malayali. If you do bump into something/one and take a tumble, you go to the clinic only to bump into a Mallu attendant, a Mallu nurse and a Mallu Doctor. Once your injury is expertly attended to, collect your prescription and walk into a pharmacy where a Mallu chemist will give you the medication while conversing in Malayalam with the three other customers. That is when hunger pangs hit you and you walk into a coffee shop where a Mallu waiter will pass on your order to a Mallu cook and have a Mallu cashier prepare your bill. Eighty percent of the tables will be occupied by Mallus too. It is no wonder then that Onam is almost like a national celebration in this part of the world.
I have always been glad of the fact that this is a festival which is celebrated by all those inhabiting King Mahabali’s land, irrespective of religion, region or caste. Onam in Muscat is celebrated with full Malayali fervour with a lot of non-Keralites joining in.
Onam starts on the day of the attam nakshatram and goes on for ten days. The highlight of Onam for any Malayali is the joy of sharing and partaking the elaborate and fondly put together Thiruona Onasadya for family and friends on the tenth day. The scrumptious sadya, which means banquet, is typically a vegetarian spread of 26-28 items served on a plantain leaf. Shopping malls and hypermarkets ensure brisk sales with arrays of vegetables required to prepare the sadya and flowers needed for a pookalam - an elaborate floral decoration heralding the festival. “This is the time of the year when we recreate the magic of our homeland far away from Kerala,” smiles Rajendran as he picks out fresh vegetables at a Lulu hypermarket in Bausher. “We have been inviting our non-Malayali friends every year for the last 16 years and of late, they invite themselves over. We dare not think of being away for Onam,” he adds.
The variety of promotions and campaigns run by malls and restaurants appears to be increasing over the years (the number of Mallu feet stepping off the airplanes probably aid the cause). Payasam-making competitions are annual affairs which are enjoyed by people of various nationalities. A Lebanese friend has been participating in them only because she enjoys tasting the varieties of payasams and learning new recipes to try out for her family who loves Indian cuisine. K. M. Hypermarket at Al-Khuwair has a ‘Selfie with Nirapara’ contest with prizes to be won from the assortment of products of the Nirapara brand which are preferred for their masalas and pickles. K.M. has more than 30 outlets in the UAE with four in Oman and Onam shopping entails some of the busiest days for them.
“The atmosphere at the hypermarket on the Uthradam day is amazing with people thronging to it for fresh vegetables and flowers. We record more than 100 per cent sales that day,” beams the store Manager Ziauddin.
The options for those who do not have the time or inclination to cook up the sadya from scratch are bountiful. The number of restaurants offering south Indian cuisine and the Onasadya in particular, in Muscat, is enormous. One is seriously spoilt for choice. The Ananthapuri restaurant in Darsait is one of the premier restaurants for Keralite cuisine.
Here, one can relish a meal in a setting which has glimpses of the rich tradition with various arts, artefacts and cooking aides used in Kerala. “We typically have orders for over 1200 Onasadya parcels and around 800 sit-down customers for Onam between two of our restaurants,” says Bijoy Joseph, Operations Manager at Ananthapuri. Between such restaurants, coffee shops, families and friends, quite certainly no Malayali goes without an Onasadya in Muscat.
This year Onam falls in the middle of the Eid Al-Adha holidays and a lot of people have grabbed the chance to make a trip back home to Kerala. The sights I encountered in the tastefully decorated alleys of the hypermarkets as people were shopping for new clothes and materials for the Onasadya left me in awe of our sheer numbers. One of the hallmarks for me is the enthusiastic participation of non-Malayali friends who wait for Onam each year to share in our festivities. Each Onam in Oman is more close to Kerala than one could have imagined as after all the M in the Middle East is made up of Malayalis.