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Flower power

Manjula Padmanabhan | Updated on September 13, 2019 Published on September 13, 2019

“Flowers?!” Bins exclaims. “Neem tree leaves? What’s going on?” I sigh in a theatrical way. “What would you know about colourful ‘tribal customs’, as you like to call them?” I say, as I lower my load onto the floor of the back verandah. It’s a modest load. Mostly marigolds, with tuberoses, neem twigs and one rather tired-looking bunch of pink roses.

Bins strokes his chin in a wise-old-man way. “Oh-ho!” he says. “This wouldn’t happen, by any chance, to be connected to the glorious Kerala harvest festival known and loved the world over as Onam?” Of course he puts a sarcastic spin on it. We both know he doesn’t believe in celebrations. According to him, the world is in such a horrid mess that no one has the right to be cheerful, never mind making flower carpets to celebrate the harvest. In mythological terms, it’s a celebration of the annual return of King Mahabali from the infernal regions, to enjoy being above ground for nine days.

Of course, Bins doesn’t deter me. “Remember I visited Palghat two weeks ago?” I say to him. “So, that took me back to childhood and to some of the fun stuff we used to do.” Including flower carpets. “It was a happy time,” I say. “My mother would really get into it. Even when we weren’t in India and the familiar flowers and leaves weren’t available, we’d still make a carpet.”

Of course, one of the main thrills was to make the Best and Most Beautiful flower carpet in all the world. And for that, it wasn’t any use being thousands of miles away from the homes of our relatives! “The best Onam celebrations in my life,” I say, “were when I was in college in Bombay, but came home to visit my parents. They lived in Madras at the time.” Of course Bins scowls at this: “It is not a Tamil custom,” he says, having grown up in Pondicherry.

I ignore him and continue, while removing petals from the flowers I’ve brought. “My architect cousin used to make the most perfect designs. They were, far and away, the most symmetrical and neat. But she had no sisters, while there were usually at least two of us at home, if not all three.” So, of course, we preferred our own!

A watery mixture made from the juice of mashed up leaves is spread on the floor to prevent the petals from flying off right away. But I’ve forgotten what leaves to use and am too impatient to call anyone to ask. As soon as I’ve stripped all the marigolds of their petals, I lay out a plain orange circle using the floor tiles as a guide. Over the orange I lay a spiral of white tuberose florets, make a green border with the neem leaves and leave the roses out altogether.

“All done!” I declare, standing up to review my handiwork. Bins tugs on his moustache. “Nice carpet,” he says, grudgingly. “Happy Onam.”

Manjula Padmanabhan, author and artist, writes of her life in the fictional town of Elsewhere, US, in this weekly column

Published on September 13, 2019
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