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Challenges for Celebrating Onam in the time of COVID-19

By Bhumika Bansal



In pandemic and agitation with Natural calamities— Onam is being pronounced under the shadow of all these developments, and at a time when the local economy is struggling.


For the people of Kerala, across the world, Onam is a festival that is deeply entrenched in their DNA. Onam is a unique festival, that transcends caste and religion, and brings together the entire population marked by activities such as Puli kali (a folk art where people dance wearing tiger masks and paint their bodies), Vallam Kali (boat race), pookkalam (floral arrangement on the ground) topped by a sadya (feast) on a banana leaf accompanied by no less than 26 dishes.


Recently, however, specifically from 2018 onwards, Onam has been marked by holocausts such as floods and landslides, and the same pattern continues this year with the attack of COVID-19, on top of a landslide in Munnar and flight tragedy in Kozhikode in the starting of the month. While floods did not wreak destruction across the state as feared, COVID-19 cases continue to spike and are expected to go peak in September.


The Left Front government, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, won universal glory for Kerala’s preparedness and its initial success in containing COVID-19, has been struggling with rising cases. Worse is the political tension in the wake of the gold-smuggling swindle, with Vijayan’s former principal secretary emerging as a key figure, has a bigger challenge to tackle for the government.


Kerala faces political turmoil took a turn for the worse the other day when it appeared that some files in the state secretariat caught fire in an unusual accident, a day after the opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) brought a vote of no confidence against the government in the assembly in the wake of the serious statement in the government’s flagship ‘Life Mission’ housing project.


Thus, Onam 2020 is being marked under the outline of all these developments, and with the local economy struggling to cope COVID-19 situation. A lot of businesses have gone under or have been struggling to sustain, and people have taken to roadside hawk massively, even as markets see inactive sales. The tourism and hotel industry is also badly hit, despite the slew of norms announced to tackle the crisis in the industry.


The state government has distributed salaries and pensions to its employees well before the 10-day festival kicked off which is expected to raise the market sentiment. However, Onam will practically be limited to a four-day affair in a year, or shorter, with the prevalent social distancing norms preventing huge gathering.


There is a lack of flowers coming from the neighbouring states of Tamil Nadu and Karnataka this year, and people are expected to origin it locally as it used to be in the old days. The ongoing COVID-19 crisis, the recent explosion of floods, other virus outbreaks, etc. have made the Kerala people more sensitive towards preserving the environment. The pragmatic response towards ‘Subhiksha Keralam’, a scheme to locally produce paddy, fruits and vegetables is proof of it.


In the forthcoming, consumption is set to pick up, and will, in all probability, bring some rest for the reeling farmers who can expect fair prices for their produce. With local produce flooding markets, the barb in the prices of essentials items will not be replicated this year.


In the trade capital of Kochi, the reopening of the Chambakkara fish market and therefore the Aluva market aside from the most market within the city has brought back a way of routine. However, the state capital Thiruvananthapuram is still suffering the outbreak and has reported the most number of daily cases for more than a month, even after the severe restrictions have been alleviated.


This year, the Onam celebrations might be sombre and controlled: the meal might be missing, the many Onam-related games, and so on. Women ornament in traditional Kerala handloom sarees will go with matching masks, the new normal. However, despite all the norms, the Malayali won’t compromise on the Onam sadya — because, as the saying goes, Kaanam Vittum Onam unnanam (one must have Onam lunch even if they are forced to sell property). The sadhya is flexible.


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