The Festive Season: The Pookalam


The Pookalam

“Ammammaaaa! Look how much trouble these kids are with ten days of Onam holidays! How do your teachers manage you in school?” Jothi Cheriyamma put her hands on her cheeks.

“Ay, Remyaaaa,” she twirled as I grabbed her saree mundanai and swung it around her.

Yes!!! Ten days off from school and NO homework either! But you know what the best part was? Meeting all my cousins at my grandparents’ house! MM, there was sensible Sharad,  chatty Charu chechi, drama king Dinesh, Towering Unni, mad cap Mala and naughty Narayan. There are others, but they are all too old to have fun like us. So they don’t count. 😊

Right from the first day, Atham, the seven of us have been making plans for the pookalam competition. Of course, our ideas didn’t always gel together.

“We have to win the prize for the best pookkalam this year, do you hear?” Chatty Charu chechi was on a war footing. She had been upset the most when we lost by two points last year. “Don’t worry. We’ll make you a champion this year, chechi!” Narayanan sent a stone flying in the air. Small streams of orange flowed slowly into the dark grey sky. I swung my basket in the air and skipped as my paavada blew in the wind. “None of your fancy ideas, Narayanan. The pookalam must follow tradition, do you understand?” Dramatic Dinesh wiggled his finger at Narayanan.

“I don’t see why we must use only yellow flowers for the Athapoo! It will look even better with more colours. We’ll surely win the first prize!” Narayanan protested.

“Because it is tradition! The flowers have to be yellow on the first day. We’ve added more colours on the other days, haven’t we?” Sharad chettan was the voice of reason.

Hmmmph!” shrugged Narayanan.

Who says waking up at the crack of dawn is hard? Not me! That is, not if you have others with you. For the past five days, we’ve been beating the sun at its own game and walking all the way to the hills past the village. Because if you are even a little late, the other kids will carry away all the beautiful flowers.

When we got home, we had to shower, for there was no breakfast unless we were cleeean for the day! We three girls got strings of jasmine for our hair. Charu chechi and Mala twined the jasmine strands with their hair. But my hair was short. So I wore it like a band and pinned it beside my ears. The other greeted me with snorts of laughter on the first day, but a few friendly punches here and there sorted it at all out.

My aunt waved me over. “Ay, Remya, ask all the kids to come over to make the Mahadevar.” Soon the six of us were sitting around the mound of wet, gooey clay.

“Hey Narayan! No more water da!” Dinesh yelled.

“Shu, it’s easy to get the stone out with more water!” Mala sided with her younger brother.

“Hey, you’re splattering mud all over my paavadai,” Charu chechi frowned at Dinesh.

“I tell you, there’s too much water!” he shook his hands, raining drops of mud all over us.

“Look what you’ve done!” Charu stood up.

“Look what I’ve done!” Sharad pointed. Three tall pyramids with flattened tops and smooth sides sat before him. “Goody, two shoes! I think I know why you never get into trouble!” Mala teased him. The rest of us got busy and made our Mathevars and left them to dry.

For the rest of the day, we climbed trees, fought over the swing in the garden, and of course, ate!

“Day, this vadai is harder than a diamond.”


“Well, you can break rocks but not diamonds!

“Ha! This rasam is running faster than the ganga!

“So build a dam with your rice, na!”

As you can see, we never stopped. Luckily for us, the adults were so busy cooking, cleaning, and everything else that nobody paid attention to us.

But Sensible Sharad says that was what led to the mischief! That afternoon, it began to rain heavily. When you heard me say that did you think it was raining cats and dogs? Well, think more like raining elephants and sloth bears. It is the Kerala Monsoon, after all! The seven of us were stuck indoors, and it is never a good idea to be forced to stay inside with someone like Naughty Narayanan.

“I’m bored.”

“Read a book.”

“I’ve already read every one of those here. I’m bored.”

“Write a letter.”

“Who writes a letter these days? I’m bored….”

“Then go, find something to interest you!” Charu chechi cried in exasperation

That was it! Narayanan got all huffy and walked out of the room.

The rest of us just lay there listening to the rain pound the roof. What a treat it was just to laze around!

Maybe ten minutes had gone by when the sound of hurried footsteps broke our daydreams. The door squealed to announce Narayanan. His eyes and teeth glittering on his coffee-brown face, he dropped a plastic bag on the floor.

“Look at what Cheriyamma had for us!”

Dinesh was the first on the spot. “Chocolates!” he screamed as he pulled out a fancy wrapper.

The rest of us hurried over. “Dey, dey! These look like foreign chocolates. Are you sure we can eat these?”

“Why? You think we can’t eat foreign chocolates? Of course, they are for us!”

And so began the exciting, enthralling “Who can eat the most chocolates?” game.

We popped the chocolates in our mouths and kept the wrappers for proof of numbers. Maybe they were special chocolates that had to be savoured over time. We didn’t care! They just went in one after the other.

“I had the most. See, I have seven wrappers.” Narayanan held up the colorful plastic bits.

“Ha! I had a huge bar. That’s equal to three of your chocolates. I had the most.” I challenged him. Ultimately, we couldn’t decide on the winner because the chocolates didn’t come in the same shape or size.

Isn’t it funny that you never feel bad when you are gobbling up a ton of chocolates? It is only after some time that the groans and the moans start!

“I’m so full!” the tall Unni was doubled up, his face resting on his knee. “Yennada? Do you want some milk? Or some water?” Mala knelt next to her brother. “Uurrrgh! Don’t even talk about eating or drinking!” he rolled away from her.

I wasn’t feeling too great either, but I didn’t say anything. Somehow, complaining about how I felt would be a betrayal.

That’s when the commotion reached us. The grown ups-they were all talking hurriedly. Was someone shouting? Sharad and Charu chechi went into the courtyard to see what was the matter; And came right back.

“Narayana!” Sharad stood with his hands on his hips.

Chechi whispered, “Narayana! You told us that Cheriyamma gave you the chocolates for all of us!”

“I never said that! I only said, look what Periyammai has for us!”

“Okay, Smart Alec! We know you remember the exact words! But you led us to believe that….”

“Hey, you believed what you wanted to believe. Unni Chetan said we should see who can eat the most, and all of us started eating together.” Narayanan protested.

“Shhhh! They’ll come here soon. What are we going to do?” Mala whispered. Startled by this realisation, we scurried here and there like rabbits, whisking the wrappers off the floor.

“Hide them in your pockets for now. We’ll talk about it later.” Sharad whispered loudly.

“Unni, stay here. If they see you, they’ll know it was us,” Charu chechi ordered.

The six of us went out two at a time. We couldn’t really say no to dinner, but we could pretend to be sleepy. After the shortest meal of our lives, we went to bed. Then the whispers started. “Flush the wrapper,” said one.

No! Bury them under the mango tree.”

After about ten minutes, Sharadh shushed us. “We have an idea. Go to sleep now and get ready to pick flowers early tomorrow.”

Really? Flowers??? I wish I knew what they’d planned. But they were sleeping on the other side of the room.

A shiver of excitement ran through me as I got ready in the morning. What were we going to do?

The seven of us set off with our flower baskets. When we were at a safe distance from the house, I asked, “We’re going to hide the wrappers near the flowering bushes, aren’t we?” Sharad grinned and nodded.

But when we got there, the place was full of other kids. Darn it! What were we going to do now?And the worst part was that those kids tagged behind us wherever we went. We filled our baskets and walked back, feeling a little glum. And then I knew exactly what to do!

I emptied my basket of flowers into Mala’s basket. “Give me all your wrappers, quick!” I whispered. I didn’t want the other kids to know what we were doing. My cousins put the wrappers in my basket. I didn’t have to say anything to them. They knew exactly what to do.

We went home and added our flowers to the pookalam.

Later, after breakfast, the whole house was in an uproar. Where could the chocolates go to? The adults checked every room and every bag. Some guests were coming later that evening to collect the chocolates. Their relatives had sent it from Dubai through Periyammai.

The guests came and went. No one knew what had happened to the chocolates.

We felt guilty, but none of us wanted to be the first to own up. We were in a fix because we knew we had to. Our dilemma was how do we bring it up? A loud shout from the courtyard told us kids that we were needed.


I felt a sense of relief that it was all coming out in the open. We trickled into the courtyard, quiet as the petals falling to the ground. The grown-ups were standing around the pookalam.

My mother turned and saw my face.

“You! You…!” she couldn’t finish.

Wait!!! Was she laughing?

What had we been thinking? We couldn’t pretend that we knew nothing about the chocolates.

The other adults, too, were trying hard to keep a straight face. And then it was too much for all of us. I ran and hugged my mother. Laughter bubbled around the courtyard. There in the pookalam were the wrappers hidden expertly under the flowers.

We almost made it through the day,” Narayanan said triumphantly. “None of you could have found out after we had cleaned the pookalam.”

“And now, it is time for you to write an apology to my friends!” Cheriyamma declared.

We were only too happy. Cheriyammai’s friend received the most remorseful apology ever written by seven kids.

Click here to learn more about pookalam:

Onam Festival

Click here for more episodes on the festivals of India:

Sarayu’s puzzle

The Festive Season: The Pookalam
Speaker: Rama

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