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The challenges of celebrating Onam in the time of COVID-19

Natural calamities, a pandemic, and political turmoil — Onam is being marked under the shadow of all these developments, and at a time when the local economy is struggling

August 28, 2020 / 01:09 PM IST

For the people of Kerala, and Keralites across the world, Onam is a festival that is deeply entrenched in their DNA. A unique festival, Onam transcends caste and religion, and brings together the entire populace 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.

Of late, however, specifically from 2018 onwards, Onam has been marred by catastrophes’ such as floods and landslides, and the pattern continues this year with the onslaught of COVID-19, on top of a landslide in Munnar and a flight tragedy in Kozhikode in the beginning of the month. While floods did not wreak havoc across the state as feared, COVID-19 cases continue to spike, and is expected to peak in September.

The Left front government, led by Chief Minister Pinarayi Vijayan, which won universal praise for Kerala’s preparedness and its initial success in containing COVID-19, has been struggling with mounting cases. Worse is the political heat in the wake of the gold-smuggling scam, with Vijayan’s erstwhile principal secretary emerging as a key figure, has been a bigger challenge to tackle for the government.

The political turmoil in Kerala took a turn for the worse the other day when it emerged that some files in the state secretariat caught fire in a freak accident, a day after the opposition Congress-led United Democratic Front (UDF) brought a no-trust motion against the government in the assembly in the wake of serious allegations in the government’s flagship ‘Life Mission’ housing project.

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


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

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

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

In the commercial capital of Kochi, the reopening of the Chambakkara fish market and the Aluva market apart from the main market in the city has brought back a sense of normalcy. However, the state capital Thiruvananthapuram is still in the throes of the outbreak and has reported the most number of daily cases for more than a month, even after the severe restrictions have been eased.

This year, the Onam celebrations might be subdued and controlled: the melas might be missing, the many Onam-related games will be missing, and so on. Women decked up in traditional Kerala handloom sarees will be accompanied by matching masks, the new normal. However, despite all the restrictions, 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 non-negotiable.

Anand Kochukudy is a political commentator. Views are personal.
Anand Kochukudy
first published: Aug 28, 2020 01:09 pm

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