Because that’s how it’s always done

I’ve seen my share of dictionary definitions, but so far, I haven’t found a single resource that equates traditions with obsessive compulsiveness.

Let’s back up a little.

Today’s a special day where I live. It’s the first day of the Tamil new year, and this means people wake up at 4 am and make “pongal.” It’s a rice-based porridge made in two flavours: savoury and sweet.

Today’s better known as the rice farmer’s festival, because its purpose is to thank the sun god for their year-long kindness to the crops and to wish for the same goodness in the upcoming year.

Farmers and their families celebrate this day with abundant gusto, dedicating today, the first day of the new year, to the sun, and tomorrow, the second day, to the livestock that labour through the fields year round. They deep-clean and decorate their homes, and serve pongal to the gods and cattle as a sign of their appreciation. They then gather round as family, wishing each other a good year ahead, and gobble up pongal all day.

Now that’s a nice picture: Thanksgiving for farmers.

However, it evolved into a generic Tamil festival which led people to adopt the habit of porridge-making in their own homes. What happens when townsfolk and ultra-urban dwellers celebrate Pongal? Well, they wake up early and make both kinds of pongal, serve it to the gods that reside in the kennels they’d built in their houses, and then devour porridge all day.

You could say it’s not too different from what the farmers do—except the underline purpose and the divinity associated with thanking nature for a prosperous crop-yielding year has depreciated altogether.

And so now, every year on this day, we make a big deal of making pongal early in the morning. And if you’re in a village where everyone wakes up at 4 am every day, it’s rather a competition to see who serves porridge to the gods first. If the auspicious time begins at 10:30 am, they try and finish cooking well ahead so they can pray to the gods as soon the time’s right.

That’s just one aspect of the Pongal festival. Another is the custom of making pots-full of both flavours even if it’s too much for a family of three. Farmers live in extended families—they have children, nieces, nephews, and cows to feed.

In the city though, it’s just the parents and a child or two. Since everyone in the neighbourhood also prepares the same pongal, there’s often too much to give around to others.

Regardless of making this mistake every year, and feeling bloated, people repeat it again and again—just because making pongal on this day is a tradition you shouldn’t skip.

Now if that isn’t obsessive compulsiveness, I’m not sure what is.

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