August 31, 2007

Stopping by Hassan's on Onam

In my previous post there is no photograph of Krishnadas, the Keralite coconut vendor, for I never got around to taking his picture. In this post there is one of Hassan, a coconut vendor from Kerala whom I met in Mumbai on Onam earlier in the week while on an errand. Hassan is a Muslim. I was drawn to the pookkalam, flower decoration, that he had put together on the footpath by his cart piled high with tender coconuts from Gujarat, wishing passersby ‘Happy Onam’. On August 27th Onam ushered in Chingam, the first month of the Malayalam calendar (Kollavarsham). Onam is also known as Kerala’s harvest festival.

“Tomorrow I’ll get the new load from Mysore,” he said when I asked him ‘How come you don’t get coconuts from Mysore while others do?’ Like Hassan, most coconut vendors that I meet in Mumbai hail from Kerala, and largely source coconuts from Mysore in Karnataka. Hassan buys tender coconuts from Gujarat and Mysore every alternate day, an unusual arrangement I thought.

I couldn’t quite catch his name the first time he pronounced it. Even a common Muslim name like Hassan sounds different when pronounced by a Malayalee (a Malayalam speaking native of Kerala). He smiled at me and said, “Call me Babu, everyone calls me that.” I knew another Keralite years ago who was nicknamed ‘Babu’. He used to amuse himself by peeling stickers from his new underwear and sticking them to the front door of the rented dwelling he shared with his elder brother and Bijoy. I used to visit Bijoy after school to go cycling. Out of earshot Bijoy and I took to calling him ‘Pintex’ after the brand he wore and whose sticker stared at me each time I knocked on the door to rouse Bijoy from his afternoon nap!

The festival of Onam owes its origins to the legend of the Asura (demon) king Mahabali who ruled Kerala benevolently, and was much loved by his subjects. He was a staunch devotee of Lord Vishnu. However, the Lord was concerned for Mahabali for, King Mahabali was full of ego, believing nothing to be beyond him. To rid his devotee of ego and humble him, Lord Vishnu took the guise of a dwarf Brahmin, Vamana, and approached King Mahabali. Deluded by his abilities and blinded by ego, King Mahabali, oblivious of Vamana’s real self offers Vamana anything he would care to ask for, believing he could grant any wish asked of him. Vamana asks the King for three paces of land, to which King Mahabali agrees.

Vamana measures out his first pace and it spans the skies, his second pace spans the netherworld, covering all. Astounded and realizing that Vamana’s third pace would cover Earth, possibly destroying it and with it his kingdom and his people, King Mahabali offers Vamana his head for the third and final step to save his people. Before banishing the King to the netherworld with his third pace Lord Vishnu grants Mahabali a boon. The King asks to return from exile once a year. It is this homecoming of its beloved king each year that the state of Kerala marks as the beginning of the Malayalam calendar, coinciding with August-September in the Gregorian Solar calendar.

A variation of the legend of the Asura (demon) King Mahabali records the desperation of the Devas (demigods) upon losing control of the world to Mahabali, leading them to seeking Lord Vishnu’s help in defeating the demon King. The part narrating Vamana’s wish for three paces and the consequences it held for Mahabali is common to both.

Onam sees Keralites welcome the king with elaborate flower decorations and festivities that spans several days.

Hassan has placed coconuts around the flower decoration to alert passersby and prevent them from stepping on it. The Hindu festival of Onam derives from a common heritage, predating Islam by hundreds of centuries. Keralites around the world celebrate Onam irrespective of whether they’re Hindu, Muslim, or Christian. Pre-conversion religious heritage binds the population in a rare camaraderie that transcends modern day differences in welcoming the Malayalam New Year on Onam.

I ask Hassan if he misses being home for Onam. “Yes, I do, but what to do,” he replies, flashing a quick smile. Hassan is from Trichur (Thrissur) in Kerala. While I check my camera and fiddle with its settings, a steady stream of vehicles motor along the road adjoining the footpath before bunching up bumper to bumper for the light to turn green. A customer walks up to a makeshift table by his stack of green coconuts to use the PCO. For one rupee you can make a local call. He pays Hassan the rupee and walks off after making a phone call. Hassan turns to face me while I take pictures.

Hassan’s father came to Mumbai (formerly Bombay) from Kerala eighteen years ago to make a living selling tender coconuts. “I used to visit Bombay during my school vacations to be with my father,” Hassan says, pausing in front of the stack to pick a tender coconut for a customer who has walked off the road to Hassan’s. A wooden bin fashioned from planks nailed together serves to hold empty coconuts, discarded kernels and sliced coconut shells.

Hassan places the tender coconut on a narrow wooden plank held up by two short wooden poles nailed to one side of the improvised bin and expertly chops at the coconut to expose the white underside near the top of the coconut. A quick chop across the exposed top half opens the tender coconut, coconut water is visible within. Hassan picks up a orange coloured plastic straw and plants it in the opening before passing it to the customer.

“No, no,” exclaims the customer, exasperated somewhat. “Don’t cut it open. I need to carry it home, just chop at the top half and expose the white underside; I’ll open it back home.” So, Hassan passes me the tender coconut instead and while I drag on the straw, taking in the flavour of fresh coconut water, Hassan picks up another tender coconut from the pile on his cart and placing it on the narrow wooden plank proceeds to repeat the process as sliced shell parts drop into the wooden bin. Experienced coconut vendors use their bare knees for support while slicing coconuts with expert chops; a few others use their open palms. Hassan plays it safe. The choppers are razor sharp.

Hassan left Kerala for Bombay for good after his father died nine years ago to carry on the tender coconut vending business that his father left behind in Bombay. As he speaks the traffic on the street where the footpath ends drowns his voice.

Talking of his native place I’m reminded of my own trip to Kerala with Naguesh years ago. I had carried my camera along, and one photo in particular captured for me the essence of that trip. It was a picture I took by the backwaters off Cherthala near Ernakulum while Naguesh, Manoj, and Rose waited in the distance, a light breeze carrying snatches of their conversation to where I lay on the ground in wait for a candid moment in the open patch facing me. Not far from where I waited, a woman sat patiently by her black cow while it drank water from a metal bucket.

Three coconut trees on the periphery of the open patch rose as if in a Guard of Honour to a village woman walking on a narrow mud path along the backwaters fencing off the open stretch of land. Blue skies stretched across overhead while I lay on my stomach on the ground, struggling to maneuver the camera quickly enough to capture the trio at an angle while the woman walked past. Looking back now I feel that were I to try hard I might actually be able to recollect the smell of earth of that day. Maybe it had to do with the serenity, maybe it was the blue skies, or maybe those three coconut trees had something to do with it. I’ve no way of knowing for sure. Since then I conjure up Kerala in that one picture (above) I took that day.

“Kerala is beautiful,” I tell Hassan, to which he smiles and says, “Khubsoorat hai par kya karey.” (“It’s beautiful, but what to do”.) I suspect that his expression, particularly his wry smile, betrays a latent longing for a home long way down South. He finds Kerala expensive, the one reason that might explain why he made Mumbai his home, at least for now.

“Back home, everything is costly,” he explains. “If one is ill, they need to be carried long distances, and private clinics there charge anywhere up to 400 rupees. Yahan pe sau rupai mein kaam ho jaata hai," (Here, (read Mumbai) it gets done within 100 rupees). Hassan reels of more figures, pausing to attend to customers stopping by his cart while on their way elsewhere, and refreshed by tender coconut I imagine their feet acquiring sufficient spring to negotiate Mumbai streets. More empty coconuts pile up in the wooden bin as the setting Sun breaks through the clouds, casting faint light along the footpath from between former British structures across the street.

I finish drinking the tender coconut and drop the empty shell into the makeshift bin. It has stopped drizzling. I pay Hassan for the tender coconuts and with a small wave of the hand I turn to leave. He waves back, lending his smile to the flavour of the moment before the noise of the traffic lays claim to my thoughts once again.


Bit Hawk said...

Very well written post. Loved the Kerala pictures as well!

Anonymous said...

Reading the post makes me feel I was actually there!

dharmabum said...

as always, u have transported me to the scene. beautiful post!
happy onam to you :)

Anonymous said...

The pookkalam is fascinating. Is this a common thin for the vendor to do?

Anonymous said...

Beautiful pics....and great post!

Anonymous said...

Anil, you always have written well.

I remember those Kerala photos when you showed them to us. You had explained something about the photo with 3 coconut trees and I was quite lost. Written words are eternal whereas spoken words can say much more although they live for the moment.

A thought on a tangent: If Mahabali was such a kind king to his subjects, why on earth did Vishnu sent him to 'patal'. Was it because he belonged to different race?

Anil P said...

Bit Hawk: Thanks.

Mridula: Thank you.

Dharmabum: Thanks. Wish you a Happy Onam too.

Seamus: Oh yes, it is fascinating indeed. Folks create far larger flower decorations on Onam.

It's not a common thing for vendors to do, largely governed by space available around their setups. It adds colour to the footpaths and creates a festive feel to the place.

Krupa: Thank you. Blue skies are unbeatable.

Magan: Thanks. Yes, I remember as well. Spoken words have a face to go with, and that adds greatly to their intensity and hence impact, while written words freeze a moment, its context, and the age for posterity, though their impact at times can and does tend to be influenced by how well the reader can relate to the context, and the scene as in the environment.

A conversation by its very nature usually implies that the 'listener' is drawn from the same cultural and/or geographical milieu as the narrator if they were meet each other in the everyday course of things, making it easy to not only imagine but also relate to what is being said. It helps to understand, not just know, where the narrator comes from to be able to 'catch' nuances in the narration and relate to them. It makes for far richer experience. I believe this to be true most times if not all.

As for Mahabali, maybe he was not welcome beyond his geographical borders. By their criminal deeds the Asuras constituted their own race, eventually their deeds defined their origins. Indian Polity today is home to far more deadlier Asuras (demons) than any from many ages ago, and possibly like their predecessors, the modern Indian Asuras emerge from the same race defined by their Ancestors' deeds which they now continue to define still, honing their criminal bent of mind to surpass the infamy from ages ago :)

Maybe it's time for the Gods to walk the Earth again :)

Inside_left said...

Hey Anil,
Nice piece..loved the narration and the pics. Plays very well into the India that should be projected to the future generations of tomorrow and to the rest of the world.

Kay Cooke said...

Captivating stuff - as always. Great writing - as always. Thank you Anil.

Anil P said...

Jes: Thank you. As for the rest of your comment, well, the future generation has to begin reading about India to start with :)

Chiefbiscuit: Truly a pleasure to know you enjoy my writing. Thank you for reading.

bluemountainmama said...

i think you capture well here the phrase, 'everyone has a story'. the human stories weave into the landscape and are intricately intertwined.

and i can 'feel' what it was like to be in kerala through the way you describe it and your photos. the woman and the coconut trees is possibly one of my favorite of yours thus far......

jessica said...

beautiful flower decoration. especially liked this story since i love coconut water.

Shantanu said...

Haven't seen street vendors do rangoli or pookkalam, mostly because they hardly have space to call their own in most places.

More than tender coconut water, I love the fleshy morsels from within after the water has been drained.

Did know the Mahabali story, but didn't realize he was supposed to have been based in Kerala.

dharmabum said...

hey blogrolled u. hope its ok?

Unknown said...

Better the biography of the common man - than the star! Great read

delhidreams said...

like the narial wala quenching peoples thirst, your posts are a refresher course on life...
here's to many more :)

Anil P said...

Bluemountainmama: True. I like the unhurried feel in the picture as well. It's a wonderful feel to be feeling the breeze sitting out there, by the backwaters waiting for the cow to finish drinking water from the bucket.

Jessica: Thank you.

Shantanu: Hassan was a lucky one actually, to get some space to decorate with, that too in Mumbai!

Dharmabum: Sure, you're welcome.

Smita: Thanks. After all the common man makes the Star :)

Adi: Thank you :)

Lakshmi said...

nice post anil...sometimes stories of men like these make more intersting read than lives of so called achievers ...

Anil P said...

Backpakker: Yes they often do. Thanks.