“Now what?” asked our Resident Editor, visibly frowned.
“Ma’am, my leave application,” I said.
“This is not the way, Chandu. You took a leave last December. You can’t go on taking a leave every other month,” she said, without looking into the form to see that I had worked for four weeks without a break for this four-day leave.
“Ma’am, I need this break. I must be there in my town on Tuesday,” I replied.
“When will you be back?”
I walked out of her cabin, relieved that I will not miss the aarattu this time. I had never missed it during the past twenty years.
The Sakthikulangara temple is the biggest and the most prominent one in our locality. The eight-day annual festival held in the temple was a combined effort of all the locality members and authorities of the local temples. And festival concludes with the aaraattu celebrations, a big day for our erstwhile panchayat, the grandest day of the year for many, including me.
The earliest memories about the aaraattu are that of balloons and sugarcanes. I remember listening to the song “Janaki jaane..” from the movie Dhwani, holding to the rails of my window. That was the Pallivetta day, the penultimate day of the festival. I was barely four then; a kindergarten student.
Attendance was the lowest on the aaraattu day in our convent classes. And we had classes only till afternoon on that day, as the road would be blocked for the processions that would flow in from various temples around the panchayat. Back home, a sumptuous lunch would be waiting for me. After that, the battalion of my cousins would come home to watch the set of processions that would pass my roadside home on their way to Sakthikulangara temple 2 km away from home. Several such batches of processions would join at the Sakthikulangara temple grounds.
Then, lead by the elephant carrying the replica of Lord Ayyappa, the deity there, they would all come to the Vallikeezhu temple by dusk. From there, the row of elephants with the one carrying the idol leading, would go to the aaraattu kulam, the pond in which the deity will take a bath. On the journey back, the devotees would set up the para, their offerings ranging from rice to jaggery and bananas ready in front of their homes.
Receiving everything, the deity would ride back to Vallikeezhu temple at around midnight to greet the towering eduppu kuthiras. After a halt there, the procession would move to Sakthikulangara temple and reach there by dawn.
The 1 km walk along with the procession to Sakthikulangara Temple, the heavy dose of sugarcanes, aching gums, midnight games with my cousins to keep us awake till Aarattu, and last but not least, the eduppu kutira. Every year, we try to photograph the humongous 30 metre structures, but lighting in the temple grounds is too low to capture the juggernauts in our point-and-shoot cameras. There will be four such kuthiras, each an initiative of the four cheri (region). The frame will be of wood, and it decorated with clothes and other accessories. Each weigh about a tonne and they are taken from Vallikeezhu to Sakthikulangara and back on the shoulders of the volunteers from the respective cheri. I still wonder how they manage to do that.
The day was more or less the similar every year during my convent days. A change came the year I joined my high school. That year, aaraattu was the third final of the Dhaka Independence Cup. The match was one of the exciting ones seen by me. We all were glued to the TV the day. The target was a tough 314, with Saeed Anwar and Ijaz Ahmed scoring centuries. We were a bit apprehensive about our victory. Then, Ganguly came out with a brilliant 124 and Robin Singh hit 88. Pressure mounted as the last over neared. India needed 9 runs from six balls. Then Kanitkar hit a four at the last over, finishing our score at 316. That was one brilliant victory.
By then, I was allowed to move around on my own. I was no more a kid, but a teenager. Enjoying the festival with friends was more interesting than with the canopy of an elder with you. We, the third generation of the Makkattu family, were developing our personal spaces in the family. Guys preferred to roam around the temple grounds instead of the midnight games, and girls were contented with their chitchat. Grandma, who was always particular about the way the offerings are made every year, was bedridden by then. And with the members setting up their individual homes, the family house was given for rent.
But that didn’t anyway reduce our fervour for the festival. We were particular in setting up the para in front of the Makkatttu house. And during the second year of my college, I took part in my debut concert, my arangettam, at the fourth day of the festival. And grandma would be there, sitting in a chair and praying teary-eyed when the elephant carrying the idol comes. After college, I joined the journalism institute last year, and she departed on the eve of Onam that year. That was the first festival without her, and that was the one when I missed the aarattu.
I am not sure about next year, so I did not want to miss it this year. This time, the day was all the more different. I was employed; I was living on my own (although I still feel uneasy if I don’t get a call from home for two days). I had a present for my newly married distant-cousin-close-friend, tucked in the baggage. He had just migrated to the rank of a family man. There were guests from his in-laws in his home when I walked in. And, for the first time, I waited for him in the hall. Before, I never hesitated to dash into his room, mercilessly breaching his privacy. He is family, but he has a family now. Times change real fast.
I was alone during the walk to Sakthikulangara this time. Elders in my family and the group of relatives were treating me like a man, although I still crave to be the little boy once again. I met several of my classmates in school and college. Employed, studying, business, and some still looking for jobs… I somehow felt that becoming big is becoming alone. And that didn’t deter me from chewing out whole sugarcane, a thing that I never misses during the festival.
Will I make it next year? Hope so.