A yellow radiance filters through the dew-laden leaves of the sapota tree outside my grandmother’s house in Chennai that morning. Bright patterns of light dance on Thayamma’s skin as she bends down to sweep in front of our home. She sets the broom aside and starts sprinkling water from a metal bucket. After evenly spreading the water on the tar with a broom, she starts to draw an intricate set of dots using powdered rice from a tin cup.
I stand there, holding my mother’s hands, sleepily watching Thayamma. She connects the dots using rice powder, forming a string of eight flowers linked with each other by a chain of leaves and decorative lines. She dabs the edges with a red liquid made of powdered brick, places a yellow pumpkin flower in the middle of the drawing on a blob of cow dung, and steps back to admire her work. Under the shy morning light, her work of art shines brightly.
Tomorrow is Deepavali, the festival of lights. And my family is getting ready to celebrate.
My uncle has strung a garland made of young mango leaves over the front door. My grandmother has ground the wet flour for making steamed rice cakes for breakfast tomorrow. She has also prepared offerings to the Gods lined in the shelf placed outside her kitchen and rallied family and friends together to mark the special day in the Hindu calendar.
The family home built in 1890 stands firm with strong teak rafters and doors and abundant air and light flowing through its rooms and the passageways. It is beginning to fill up with visiting relatives and friendly neighbours coming together to celebrate the spirit of Deepavali. My mother, sister, and I have traveled over 2000 kms from New Delhi in the north to Chennai in the south to join the family. Our journey has taken us three days by train, steered by a coal-powered steam engine. We have spent another day scrubbing the soot off our faces and bodies and shaking the unsteadiness arising from a rickety train ride in a bare compartment.
My sister and I walk around that evening, carefully placing terracotta lamps with oil and wick in the alcoves and door corners. We are clad in colourful long skirts made of silk and gold thread and wear matching necklaces and bangles. Our oiled plaits are adorned with fragrant jasmine flowers. Our aunt walks behind us, lighting the lamps. The sky turns ink blue as we gather to watch our uncles and cousins bursting firecrackers.
Tomorrow we will be up early, have an oil bath, wear new clothes, and burst firecrackers. We will eat fluffy rice cakes (idlis) with coconut chutney for breakfast, and enjoy sweet and savoury snacks prepared by the women in the family. It will be three more days before the house settles into quietness when the relatives leave, and the neighbours get distracted.
I learned, as I grew older, that the rice flour Thayamma used for the drawing (Kolam) was to feed ants that crossed in front of our house. The terracotta lamps (agal vilakku) were lit to chase away negativity, and the fresh breeze blowing through mango (mangai) leaves brought good health into our home.
Thayamma’s Kolam, the agal vilakku, the mangai leaves, silk skirts, jasmine (malligai) flowers, idlis, and the Tamil language.
These are part of my cultural identity.
Tamil culture is unique and vibrant, and the language is classical. The Tamil cuisine draws on a mix of flavours from coconut to coriander, from tamarind to thayir (or yoghurt).
Tamils of yore were seafarers, tradesmen, and erudite rulers. Tamil Kings built intricately carved temples and palaces. They were patrons of arts, poetry, and literature that mirrored the conviviality of Tamil life. They embellished other cultures and traditions by generously sharing theirs, assimilating with the local milieu wherever they went from Java to Jaffna or Malacca to Burma.
Tamils carried their pride with them in the holds of the ships that transported them as indentured labourers to South Africa, Malaysia, Mauritius, and Guyana. They may have lost their original names and identity during the course of their bumpy journeys. But they did not lose their culture or traditions. Durban, Penang, Port Louis, and Singapore display ample examples of the vibrant Tamil way of life to this very day.
I left India for an international career at some point in my adult life. But memories of kolams that adorned our home, the smell of oil blending with the wick as the agal lamps were lit, and the tangy aromas from my grandmother’s kitchen remained. They made celebrating Deepavali that much more special, whether I was in East Timor, Namibia, Kenya, or New York. Friends and colleagues compensated for the absence of family and neighbours and readily joined in marking the festival of lights with me. They helped me draw Kolams, light candles, and lamps and made my home vibrant and warm. The message of togetherness and positivity was also shared alongside. It enriched my life and my identity all the more.
Warmest wishes to everyone, this Deepavali!