All my teachers know the day before that I would be sick the following day. Appa used to call it the first floating holiday of the year. I rush home from school to find Amma drawing mavu kolams all over the front yard. I am given the task of filling them with color podis but I keep running inside the house under some pretext or other. I drag one of the tall chairs from the dining room into the kitchen right next to the shelf which has fresh jaggery and grated coconut. I have a mouthful and run back to help Amma. She looks at my face and smiles and says nothing.
Once Appa gets home, I con him to take me along to the bazaar. We set out on his Bajaj scooter to buy sugarcanes and turmeric. When we get close to the market, we see sugarcanes everywhere - every pedestrain has a couple of them; I see them in handcarts, on roofracks of cars, on scooters and bicycles - it's as if people are buying only sugarcanes.
"Appa", I shout. "Are these sugarcanes safe?"
"What do you mean? Don't you like them?"
"I do. But don't they have snakes?"
"What? Who's been telling you about snakes on sugarcanes."
"R, that kid I met in the village last vacation, he told me. He said they when they harvest sugarcanes, atleast a couple of people die every year because of snakebites. Snakes like sugarcanes."
"No, he's making up stuff. And anyway, no one's harvesting canes here. These are all cut sugarcanes."
"What if the snake's coiled around a sugarcane and no one saw it?"
"Nonsense. There is no snake coiled around any sugarcane here. Come, I will show you."
He parks the scooter and takes me to the nearest handcart. He tells the vendor in Tamil that I am looking for snakes and they both start laughing. The vendor asks me to look for snakes in his cart. I do not find any and I am happy now and start looking at other things. People are buying turmeric, and drumsticks and jaggery and plantain and rice. Everyone seems to be talking animatedly in Tamil. The only other time I have seen the market this crowded is during Onam. We manage to buy turmeric and sugarcanes and get home. I try to con Amma to let me eat some sugarcane but she doesn't oblige. Instead, I am fed dinner and told to go to sleep as I have to wake up early the next day. Cousins will start arriving by 8 and I, apparently, have to get ready before that.
Next morning, I get woken up early and asked to get ready. New pattu pavadai is waiting, so there's no need for any conning. I get ready and come downstairs; Amma's getting the Pongal paanais ready. I help arrange them on the kolams. One for Venn Pongal, one for Paruppu Pongal, one for Sarkarai Pongal. People start arriving soon after. They all bring more paanais, so by now, all the kolams in the yard have paanais on them. Amma and all athais start the fire and put rice and milk and jaggery into the paanais. All the kids watch eagerly for the Pongal to flow out - we start shouting Pongalo Pongal anyways. Once the Pongal actually flows out, we are allowed to have breakfast - idlis and sambar and chutney and vadai and kesari and pongal. Needless to say, the sugarcane fest is just beginning.
Appa gets all the kids together and starts telling us about Pongal in the village - of incense and the smell of fresh-cut paddy, of sugarcanes and jaggery and palms, of Boghi and Pongal and the manji verattu during Mattu Pongal where my grandpa's bull never gets caught. We all listen with rapt attention and ask him to take us there to see all this. We are told we will be taken there some year if we all learn a kural. This is where I get to show off - I have been taught a kural a week, so I know more kurals than all my cousins, so I recite one kural after another. This is also where I get beaten up by the cousins for attempting to show off. Soon we are left to our own devices and we start hogging more sugarcane.
It would be fun, I think, to be back home now. I should have gotten a couple more weeks off. Maybe gotten the boy to experience some of it. Maybe take him to the Tam sangham Pongal vizha in the evening; he would have fun. Or maybe we could have actually gone to the village and seen the real thing. Oh, how I miss home. So I start calling people back home. Junta is all happy I called. All my nephews and nieces say Hi. But no, they don't have any sugarcane stories to tell me, no Pongalo Pongal, no manji verattu either. Instead this is what I hear:
"Athai..how are you? No, I want to be home playing games on my computer and they got me here. Can you believe it?"
"Sugarcane? Yuck. Already I am the fattest girl in my class. You are mad kya?"
"Akka, yeah, I am fine. And listen, I will mail you later. I gotta go now. Sun TV is interviewing my favorite actress."
"Pongal? Yeah, they are showing all the paanais on TV. We ordered some from this really cool restaurant. Its awesome."
"Kolams? The last time I did that was for some school competition. You are so archaic! You actually think people draw kolams nowadays."
And so on.
With every call, I am feeling better. Here, in this alien land, I can easily live in my suspended world of kolams and paanais in our front yard uninterrupted by 24-hour TV programming. I don't have to think of reality. Memories are enough. The last call is to my parents.
"Finally. I was wondering when you were going to call."
"I thought I would call everyone and then call you."
"Okay, okay. First you tell me the new kural you learnt today."
And the eyes start blurring.