Pongal: Jan. 7th
A journal contribution from Sue while Ashok is in the USA:
Lakhshmi placed the telephone message pad in front of me and said, "PONG-gall". "PONG-gall", she repeated, while pointing to an attractive picture of a garlanded cow on the cover of our telephone message pad. We usually manage to communicate by pointing. This time I wasn’t getting it, so I told her I’d get back to her (which she somehow understood). "So", I asked one of our patient Indian friends later that day, "what’s the correct protocol when your maid points at a picture of a cow and says PONG-gall".
This was my introduction to Pongal, a now favorite Hindu holiday. Pongal is the South Indian harvest festival, and, among other things, it is the one day of the year the cows, bullocks, water buffalo, etc. get a day off from work. I was told the animals were decorated, paraded around the streets, and fed favorite fruits and sweets all day.
Cows are everywhere in Bangalore; on street corners, by your front stoop, in your rubbish bin, and even in the middle of the road. Once we saw two cows going at it merrily in the middle of a major road, with the drivers driving by without a thought.. We have come to recognize and name most of the cows that live in our neighborhood, and we take pleasure in learning each cow’s personality. A festival, which sounded like a huge bovine Halloween parade, was something I had to see.
Lakshmi unexpectedly appeared on Pongal (it was her day off) in her finest sari and special dangling gold earrings to invite me to her father’s home. I happily accepted, and when we arrived, the family’s two water buffalo were standing in the front room. They were so gorgeous they could have entered a beauty competition. Each animal had several opulent garlands of orange and yellow marigolds hung around the necks, horns painted red with jingle bells attached to the tips, a bunch of bananas tied with a string around the foreheads, and a red bindi. Silver anklets jingled daintily as they shifted their weight from one foot to another. Colorful ribbons, ties, and streamers served as accessories to complete the wardrobe. The naturally long eyelashes didn’t need mascara. These animals were stunning.
After I genuinely admired all of the other cows, etc. in the vicinity, a lengthy series of introductions took place. About ten little kids who were learning English in school and who all talk in high pitched stereo, introduced me to Lakshmi's mother, father, cousins, children, babies, assorted miscellaneous relatives, neighbors, neighbor’s children, neighbor’s babies, neighbor’s miscellaneous relatives, etc. The group kept getting bigger because more neighbors and neighbor’s neighbors heard the unprecedented news a white woman with a camera was here for a visit.
My mind began to drift off to our two family animals in California. How would they look with garlands of catnip, goldfish tied around their foreheads, little bird warning anklets on their paws, and red bindis? Of course, these animals haven’t ever worked and would immediately shred the catnip, goldfish, and me.... No, Indian festivals just don’t translate well. They are vivid, joyful, noisy, crowded, totally enveloping and fun. You had to be there.