It’s 5am, and I am wide awake. But I dare not open my eyes.
Because it’s Vishu, and I am miles from home.
Eyes tightly shut, I do my best to build an image in my mind…yellow flowers and soft mangoes, silver coins and glowing valakkus, ripe jackfruits and golden cucumbers…my vishukani looks beautiful in my head, but I know it’s far from the real deal. My mind reels back to the year before, and to the countless other Vishus back home…
The first thing I remember about Vishu as a child was procuring a purse from my mother. On the day of the festival, I’d carry it around, happily stowing away my “loot” in the safe recesses of the purse: to me, the hero of the day was the one aunt or uncle who would give me the most money. Vishu kainettam, in my opinion, was the best part about Vishu!
Though the novelty of the kainettam never wore off, it was only a few years later that I began to understand and appreciate the other aspects of Vishu. It was in deep indignation that I asked my Ammama why people were picking flowers off our beautiful Kani-Konna tree (Indian Laburnum) on the eve of one particular Vishu. Dotted with showers of yellow flowers, the tree was a sight to behold, especially in the Malayalam month of Medam (March and April), when it was in full bloom.
“For the Vishukani, of course!” my grandmother answered.
“What’s that?” I asked.
I knew it was time for a story — the story of Vishu, the Malayalee New Year. Vishukani is the first sight one sees (or should see) on Vishu. For Malayalees, the festival celebrates the arrival of spring — the very first day of the year, of new life and of new resolutions.
On the eve of Vishu, I’d always see my grandmother putting in an assortment of strange items in an uruli, a large brass vessel: a little bit of raw rice (unakkalari), a fresh white dhoti (kasavu pudava), a bell metal hand mirror (valkannadi), a golden cucumber (kanivellari), a few betel leaves (vettila), areca nut (pazhukkapakku), a yellow mango, a ripe jackfruit, and a coconut cut in half. Ammama would gently wake me up the next day and remind me not to open my eyes. Guided by her, I’d be led to the kani area, where I’d sit and slowly open my eyes. Diyas fashioned out of coconuts, and glowing brass lamps (nilavilakku) illuminated the area — the huge uruli, the smiling picture of Lord Krishna at the back, bits of konna poo (Laburnum flowers) scattered everywhere, and outside the window, outlined against the early morning sky — our splendid Kani-Konna tree.
I was told that this very sight, or the vishukani, would dictate the fortunes of my year, and I made a mental picture of it, so that I’d never forget. Slowly all the members of the family would go for their vishukani. And later, my grandmother and I would go the around the house, revealing the auspicious kani uruli to the plants and animals, under the open skies.
Right after the Vishukani came the kainettam: the kids lined up enthusiastically as the elders would move around blessing us with coins, notes and konna flowers. The silver went right into my purse but I saved my flowers too, which remained pressed between the pages of my favourite books for years after. We would all gather together for the sadya (feast) around 1pm, which was prepared a day in advance. I could never get tired of Vishu sadya — the thorans and the curries, the pickles and the payasam — on each Vishu, it took me at least a minute to process the diversity of aromas and flavours on my plate before I began eating. But I’d always try to give one particular item a miss — the Vishu Kanji, a mushy porridge of rice, coconut milk and spices!
It’s 5:05am, and I am still wide awake.
My cellphone beeps. I dare to open my eyes. I have one new message from my mother. It’s a photograph. A large brass vessel filled with an assortment of strange things: a little bit of raw rice, a fresh white dhoti, a bell metal mirror, a golden cucumber…
The year shall indeed be lucky.
valak : lamps
vishukani : the first auspicious sight on Vishu day
vishu kainettam : small amounts of money given to the children of the family
Ammama : grandmother
Kani-konna tree : Indian Laburnum tree or Amaltas
Medam : the auspicious month which marks the beginning of the new year according to the Malayalee calendar. Around April-May
uruli : a large brass vessel
unakkalari : raw rice
kasavu pudava : a Kerala style dhoti/cloth with gold embroidery
valkannadi : a hand mirror
kanivellari : a yellow cucumber
vettila : betel leaves
pazhukkapakku : areca nut
nilavilakku : brass lamps
sadya : feast
payasam : a sweet rice pudding
thoran : a dry dish made of chopped vegetables, usually eaten with steamed rice
kanji : porridge