Friday, January 15, 2010

Happy Pongal

Happy Pongal!

Everyone seemed to be up at 4:30 a.m., and now (10 a.m.) everyone is sleeping! Even Krishnammal, when her cell phone isn’t ringing. I made up a tale to go with. On Pongal, Shiva and Parvati ate a very sweet food made with the pure water of the Cauvery River, and immediately went to take a long nap. And on that day, no destruction in the world took place. (Of course, this state of affairs couldn’t last forever: without death, the world would be a very crowded place, and destruction is the root of all creation.)

Pongal is actually four days, with this being the third – “Surya Pongal” – the celebration of the sun. It is kind of a New Year’s commemoration and celebration of the harvest all rolled into one. Houses are cleaned, and decorated with sugar cane (which is also eaten), and a very sweet porridge called “pongal” is eaten for breakfast, together with other sweet foods (most of which I resist, reminding folks that a beggar shouldn’t be too fat.) Magnificent kolam (chalk) designs adorn the ground in front of the house. Lamps are lit – and Ramalinga’s prayers of compassion and the Inner Light are recited. Later, Jaganathanji asks Sathya and Krishnammal to recite the Shiva Purana.

Gifts of clothes are distributed. I receive a new khadi (handspun) dhoti (wraparound; I brought my old dhoti from 30 years ago with me) from Jaganathanji – long gone are the days when he would spin the cotton for the cloth himself. I get new clothes for my new nephew – jeans and shirt, with chains and zippers, but which is the fashion among the kids. We take lots of photographs. Sathya worked at the hospital yesterday from 9:30 in the morning til 1:30 at night, and she is fast asleep. The breeze today is delightful; I imagine the temperature is around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, and all is well with the world, though I pray for the people of Haiti.

Four of Nagaraj’s friends among the neighbors come in to be fed. This is a sentinel event. Apparently, when he first moved in, the neighbor children were forbidden to play with him, because he was poor and an outcaste. But those barriers seem to have broken down. Nagaraj wields a machete and cuts a sugar cane shoot into five pieces and gives one to each of his friends and keeps one for himself. (That an 8-year-old uses a machete isn’t thought in the least bit odd here; I have seen them used safely by children as young as 2 ½.)

This is Nagaraj’s first Pongal with his new family. Krishnammal asks him if it was celebrated where he came from. No, he says, most of the people in the slum are day laborers, when they can get work at all, and Pongal, being a holiday, could simply mean there is no food to be had. People will, however, get up later, as there is no need to look for work (there is none), and no one in town to beg from.

The phone keeps ringing, with happy Pongal greetings, and also congratulations to Krishnammal on the Ambedkbar Award; it is front or second-page news in all the papers. A cameraman came from Tamil Nadu’s largest weekly to take her picture (I’m in some of them, too, which would be highly curious if I were to appear – I am introduced as the English “author” of The Color of Freedom, which was serialized to 1.3 million readers and republished as a book in Tamil by this same magazine. I don’t even try to correct the discrepancies – that would be a hopeless battle.

And she is being invited to weddings! Oh, so many! To begin with, she has more than 400 grandnephews and nieces, and they keep multiplying. (She seems to know all their birthdays, too.) Then there are all the people she has worked with for the past 60 years, their children and their children’s children. And then there are those who simply want her around for show, she likely being Tamil Nadu’s most famous non-politician, non-cinema or sports-star citizen. I suggest (seriously) that she “rent” herself out for weddings (like Sarah Palin for tea-partyers) charging one house (or at least one Nano) for an appearance. Periyar, the greatest of all Tamil statesmen, used to do so. So does the current one. She actually is desperately in need of a booking agent, and one who can protect her calendar. (She currently keeps absolutely everything in her head, which is not a good strategy.) I doubt she would ever agree; it is against her nature, even if she could be convinced it would make her begging more efficient. I will write more about begging later. Every wedding invitation seems to come with a sari for her, which is fine, as she will redistribute them in her meta-economy of things. I jest that she should come to my house and take anything she likes: we now have three cars for two people (Meera being away at school), and that if she doesn’t take enough stuff, I will have to hire a thief (which causes quite a bit of laughter.)

An old (?) man has appeared on our doorstep, being accompanied by Nagaraj. He is dressed in rags, and, I am told, he works in the fields nearby. Nagaraj welcomes him to his house. He is very proud to be feeding the poor. I serve him a banana leaf with pongal and a white rice preparation on it. Krishnammal gives him ten rupees (which, she says, he will likely use for alcohol – I remind her that alcoholics likely face dangerous withdrawal without it, so that he needs alcohol as much as food until he is ready to kick the habit, and, unlike so many, he is working.) For Nagaraj, he is living the Indian version of a Dickens novel. Krishnammal’s life, however, is bigger than any Dickens novel – may I be blessed someday with the opportunity to write it.

Krishnammal is reading a book about 30 saints of Tamil Nadu. I ask whether there is a chapter devoted to her. No, she says, she is just an ordinary person. Hm. Then she laughs, and remembers I gave her a certificate from the Universal Life Church some 30 years ago, declaring her one. She says she couldn’t be a saint, because they use to sit all day and night and pray. I reply that is true that the 18 siddhas (the revered Tamil saints) used to sit, but the 19th (Krishnammal) runs around.

Twenty members of LAFTI’s staff will arrive tonight from Kuthur. The Award is as much theirs as hers. Krishnammal had to convince them that they shouldn’t be working on Pongal, and she gave each of them an additional 100 rupees (a little over $2) to use on the celebratory trip. I will break out the dried cherries when they arrive.


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