Happy Pongal

fabulous-rangoli-designsBefore there were blogs, I spent a quarter studying sustainable development in southern India. I maintained an email distribution list of friends who wanted updates on my travels. Many nights involved entertainments of the herbal or alcoholic kind; there were roof-top full-moon parties and midnight swims in the ocean (the garbage floating there was harder to see in the moonlight); some evenings were spent on planting plans and composting toilet design. But occasionally, I sat down at a computer and wrote about my adventures. This is one of those stories.

Last week was Pongal, the Tamil combination harvest festival and New Year. The celebrations begin one month in advance. During this month most of the year’s marriages take place. Every morning at four o’clock, the temples blast music over loudspeakers in the villages. From my bedroom, I can hear the music from three villages.

When the local women hear the music in the morning, they get up and paint elaborate designs in colored flour in front of their houses before starting their regular morning work. Pongal itself lasts for three days. Workers get big bonuses and usually take all three days off work. Each day of Pongal is associated with a particular type of meal and set of traditions. The name Pongal itself is a reference to the frothy boiling over of a pot of rice, and there is a semisweet rice pudding called pongal that is only served during this time.

We might never have learned any more than this about Pongal than that if it were not for Ravi. Ravi was our rickshaw driver the Friday night that we went into Pondi and met Ananda. Usually a taxi will take you into town, park, and wait until you come back to drive you home. But Ravi actually drove us around town and helped us find the kinds of shops we wanted. He showed us the cheapest liquor store in town (Pondi is the only place in Tamil Nadu where it is legal to sell alcohol). Ravi’s English is very good, so while we were running around town, we had a lot of time to talk.

It turns out that our cabby is a 31 year old family man, with two small children. He is paying off his rickshaw, which he will own outright by the time his son starts school. His wife is 24. Ravi invited us to his house for Pongal, and we accepted, not actually expecting to see him again.  But a couple days later he found us at the visitor’s center restaurant and confirmed a time to pick us up.

On the second day of Pongal, he picked us up in his rickshaw and drove us to his house. It was an apartment in a concrete building at the dead end of a street in a fairly clean suburban village called Karuvadikuppam. His apartment opened on to the street, and children pressed against the metal gate from inside, shouting excitedly in Tamil.  Ravi told us that they were shouting, “Welcome”.

We stepped inside a room the size of a large dining table. Like the outside of the building, its walls were cement, painted turquoise. Ravi introduced us to his four-year-old daughter Swasankarai and his two year old son Jagadesh. His wife came out from the kitchen dressed in a sari that matched the walls, and spread a sisal mat on the floor. This was where we would eat dinner.

We sat on the mat and talked while the children shyly watched us from the bedroom door.  Sometimes, for variety, they would run through the room and stare at us from the front door. Ravi apologized, saying that they were not used to seeing foreigners.

Soon his wife, Saraswathy, returned from the kitchen with a brass tray.  It contained two small piles of powder, and a fire burned on top of it. We all followed her into a tiny front room off of the entry,in which a small altar had been set up. Silently, she performed a brief puja, and then she and Ravi marked our foreheads with red and white powder.

Now we could eat. It was clear that they had pulled out all the stops for us.  Ravi had bought a bottle of beer. (One beer costs the daily salary of most female workers.) They offered us forks, which they do not use themselves, and when the beer was gone, they served bottled water.

We sat on the mat while Saraswathy brought out sweet rice-flour balls and curried chicken pieces. These were followed by rice patties, some soupy stuff with lamb in it and another something with fish. Then Saraswathy brought out rice and a sauce that was supposed to be good for digestion. Ravi explained that it was usually served with chilis, but he didn’t think we would like them, so today they left them out.

The children ate in the bedroom doorway, always watching us. By this time the oldest one was performing, and managed to trip on her own dinner plate, kicking it into the next room. Her mother rapped her on the forehead with her knuckles. Swasankarai defiantly pummeled her mother’s leg until she saw me looking at her. Then she got embarrassed and started bawling. Her mother carried her off to the kitchen, where she remained hidden for some time.

All during dinner, people had hovered around a door in the back of the kitchen. Once we finished eating, they descended. We met the owner of the building, Ravi’s neighbor, and most of the children in the building. Babies were placed in our laps and little girls grinned shyly at us from behind their parents.

Ravi and his wife showed us all of their family pictures. They had an entire album dedicated to their wedding. Ravi informed us that he is still paying off the 70,000 rupee celebration. Then we pulled out our cameras and took photos of everyone, especially the children, who were hanging off of us by this time. Finally we thanked our hosts and prepared to leave.

They packed up the leftover Pongal sweets and offered us weekly dinners and trips to the cinema. We promised to call and send copies of the pictures. Then we loaded into the rickshaw and Ravi drove us back to Auroville. On the way, he stopped to show us the bulls. On the first two nights of Pongal, people go cruising with their bullock carts. They load up a cart with as many
people as will fit, then whip the bullocks and let them run where they will. They only use the reins when a collision is imminent, and spend the rest of the ride waving and shouting “Pongala Pongal, Happy Pongal” to everyone on the street.

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