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Bringing Onam to New Zealand

Bringing Onam to New Zealand

September 18, 2011

Most adaptable people in the world, meet most welcoming country in the world.

I had just about gotten over missing Kerala. It had taken a couple of months, but I'd found a job back here in NZ and settled into something of a routine with my very accommodating brother's family. I'd even rejoiced in snowfall, something I certainly hadn't experienced on the tropical Malabar coast.

But then Onam happened.

I thought it would be no big deal. I wished my friends back in Kerala 'Onaashamsakal' ('Happy Onam') and, after a moment's consideration of the many sadhyas (traditional Onam vegetarian meal) I ate during my years in Varkala and Trivandrum, carried on with the daily grind.

However, a Twitter friend informed me that there exists a Wellington Malayalee Association. Of course there does! Not only that, they would hold an Onam celebration complete with honourable guests, a cultural programme and – yes – a big old sadhya to finish it off. So, last Saturday, I went along to the Indian Cultural Centre in Kilbirnie, expecting perhaps one hundred cheerfully integrated NRI Malayalis for a couple of hours, tops.

Not so. Wellington Malayalee Association may have only existed for three years, but they laid on a 14-part variety show with 50+ performers for more than 1200 people. Among those guests included the city mayor Celia Wade-Brown, her deputy Ian McKinnon, the Minister of Revenue Peter Dunne and even former Leader of the Opposition Don Brash. (I should've known that Malayalis would cultivate powerful government connections upon reaching foreign shores.)

Before the start, I looked around and saw a number of familiar sights. Beautiful saris, all the colours of the rainbow. Crisply starched mundus, some falling loosely around the wearer's feet, others partially bunched in a swaying first. Most pleasing of all, an array of immaculately manicured moustaches dotted the room. Whether a face wore a moustache or not, many wore smiles as they chatted idly.

WMA President Dr Alex Thomas, with his daughter Amy as MC, ushered us through the first part of the celebration. Each of the honoured guests spoke, thanking the WMA for having them and noting all the splendid colour in the room. The format reminded me very much of the many school events I attended in Kerala: formal, without being overly stiff. I later learned from event organiser Roshan Sam that the similarities to proceedings back home didn't stop at the back of the stage; it had been a week of 14-18 hour days and endless practices to get everything to run smoothly, just like it always was back 'home'.

Then followed the cultural programme, and what a programme it was. "Watch this dance carefully, it's a wery ex-plosive one,” said one of the announcers before a particularly exciting Bollywood dance. The programme was not limited to Keralan arts, with acts as diverse as bharatnatyam dance from Tamil Nadu and even a Maori and Pacific Island haka. The Kerala-centred performances were the highlights, though, and for the first time I got to see thiruvathira dance and ottamthullal, which was a particularly humorous and impressive performance.

The show lasted for approximately two and a half hours. For most of that time, children of various ages (and colours) danced with delight in the aisle. Those seated clapped along whenever they had a chance. By the time the finale came, a high-energy Tollywood dance, a group of young Mallu men had joined them and were jumping around whooping and hollering. Back in Kerala, I might have joined them, acting the crazy saip. In this case, I restrained myself to a grin-encrusted jaw and an ever-tapping foot.

It was all so exciting and enjoyable that I almost forgot about the sadhya, which was what I had looked forward to most of all. It was wonderful, of course. They might not have been able to get 1200 banana leaves, settling for green waxed paper instead, but I watched with growing enchantment as each of the curries appeared in front of me. I learned that the woman seated on my right, Mrs Tricia Fountain, went to boarding school in Kerala in the 50s. Her parents had even started a hospital in Thiruvalla, which I'm reliably informed is nowadays known as Saip Hospital. As we tucked into our parippu and sambar, Tricia, husband Ron and I all agreed that we missed Kerala and would like to return there.

Now I find myself somewhat torn between two emotions. On the one hand, I really do miss Kerala terribly. I miss those colourful saris, the coconut palms, the smell of diesel smoke pouring from rickety private buses. I miss the ladies sweeping and then burning the leaves around their home. I miss being welcomed into strangers' homes with tea and smiles. Despite the content of my previous post, I even miss the many wonderful hours spent sharing beers, brandy and gooseberry pickle with great friends. All those feelings came flooding back as soon as I got into that hall at the Indian Cultural Centre, and they only amplified as the evening went on.

At the same time, however, I'm so happy to be a New Zealander. Each of the dignitaries, when giving their address to the crowd, commented on the depth in cultural diversity that sets NZ apart and how events such as WMA Onam contribute greatly to that diversity. It's true. Of the 1200 people present, only 500 were Malayalis. About a third were of white European descent. There were people from other parts of India, and there were Pacific Islanders, Maoris, East Asians too. If Malayalis are the most adaptable people on the planet – which I'd be hard-pressed to argue – I'd have to say that New Zealand is the most welcoming nation I know of.

Malayalis and New Zealand, then, make a fine match. Here's to many more Onams with the Wellington Malayalee Association.


  • Roshan Sam
    Roshan Sam
    21.09.11 06:07 AM
    Since I met Barnaby I have been a regular reader of the-nri and was more than happy to be in touch with him and invite him to the Onam 2011 by Wellington Malayalee Association. It was nice read his article since it is from a non malayalee guest and his observations were really important to us. Most striking comment was
    "If Malayalis are the most adaptable people on the planet – which I’d be hard-pressed to argue – I’d have to say that New Zealand is the most welcoming nation I know of."

    Well said and especially as a mallu living in Wellington for the past 8 years i will have to put my thumbs up for all the Wellingtonians for their understanding of diverse ethnic communities and accepting every culture as it is. It will be hard to find any city in the whole world who is so open hearted and cordial to diverse cultures. Once again Barnaby has done a great work here in identifying it....
  • NNNiiiXXX
    20.09.11 10:52 AM
    Amazing... Superbly written as usual... Thank u for a detailed account... :)
  • Lakshmi VK
    Lakshmi VK
    19.09.11 10:53 AM
  • Anoop
    18.09.11 08:49 AM
    Well, that makes YOU - an eclectic mix of both these cultures quite a highly rated personality. :)
    Thankfully Malayalis have enough celebrations every year to get together and reminisce about their good old land, and that cross cultural exchange that you narrated is what brings out the easence of such festivals, rather than the cliched 'stage shows' one gets to find aplenty during such seasons. As always, well written. And, belated Onaashamsakal. :)

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