The cows look dazzling. They have bells on their horns and garlands around their necks. Proud milkmen and women parade their herds on the streets. South India is ablaze with the sounds and smells of Pongal, also called Sankranti. Urbanization and technology have muted the verdant ethos of this harvest festival, but vestiges still remain. Green sugar-cane stalks wave from street corners. Tiny streets are covered with rangoli. Mud pots filled with sweet rice pongal bubble away—in huts and modular kitchens. A well-made pongal remains one of the most satisfying and simple breakfast dishes for a south Indian.
Festive colours: The harvest festival of Pongal is celebrated with gusto in Tamil Nadu. Dinodia
The cantonment on my street celebrates Pongal in style. They buy their daily milk from about 10 cows and on Pongal day, the bovines are feted. The washed and turmeric-laden cows and Kangeyam bulls stand in line, their limpid eyes patient, as ladies take turns feeding them with bananas and fresh grass. The priest does an aarti. Everyone stands with folded hands. Then we eat.
I chew sugar cane and shoot the breeze with the herd-owner, Lakshmi. She is looking for brides for her sons and is distressed because the boys want an urban-type and she is worried about whether she can get along with such a daughter-in-law. “So many nice girls in my village, but what’s the use?” Lakshmi laments.
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I promise to look for a suitable urban but ruralish girl for her son. Apropos of nothing, she suddenly asks, “Aama (okay), rejolution-na enna (what does resolution mean)?”
Apparently, all her sons’ cellphone conversations are peppered with this word post-New Year and Lakshmi, in the manner of parents everywhere, wants to know what the heck her kids are talking about.
I am glad you asked, I reply, for I’ve been researching this very topic. Resolve is an interesting word, I say, after spitting out some sugar cane. From 1374, when the word was first recorded, it clung to its Latin root, resolvere, which has nothing to do with the New Year resolutions that your boys are talking about. Resolvere means “to loosen, undo, settle”, as in loosening a mathematical problem into parts or undoing a knotty issue. Only in 1592 did the word come to mean determination. That’s what your sons are saying on the cellphone. They are making a plan, a determination for the year, which could be dieting, exercising, learning a foreign language, something like that. “Or getting married,” Lakshmi says hopefully. A cow urinates. She yells at her boy-Friday who hurriedly places a bucket near its rear. “Cow dung is like gold during Pongal,” she mutters. “Everyone wants it to clean their courtyards.”
The young priest drapes his cloth over his bare chest and prepares to leave. Lakshmi treats him with a deference that galls me. Here I am, trying to explain the meaning of resolution to her and all she cares about is attending to a urinating cow. The priest says goodbye and all of a sudden, she is bowing and scraping. The Sanskrit word for resolve is sankalpa, I say, trying to one-up the priest. Before a priest begins a havan or puja, he will recite the sankalpa or what he intends for the puja to deliver. The typical sankalpa is a beautiful vocalic alliteration that wishes for ayur (longevity), arogya (health), aishwarya (wealth), abhivruthyartham (great growth), along with vijaya (victory), virya (bravery), and other good stuff. Lakshmi stares at me. Finally, she gets it. I smile. Is there anything for increasing cow’s milk, she asks.
Go eat some more pongal, I reply sourly. Our discussion degenerates into how many milk tokens I owe her.
“Don’t you have resolutions?” I ask, trying the interactive approach.
“Yes, I wish that my customers would give me the milk tokens that they owe me.” She glares.
The easiest way to bring a resolution to fruition is to say it aloud, I say approvingly. The venerable Latin monks who came up with the meaning for resolvere were no slouches either. Another useful way to make and keep a resolution is to “loosen” it into parts. Rather than cursing your reneging customers, you could ask your boy-Friday to approach them individually. “Dai, inga vaa da (Boy, come here),” she yells and impishly asks him to collect tokens from her most errant customer: me.
Enough about Lakshmi. She doesn’t care a jot for resolutions anyway. A resolution that I am toying with is to reduce the personal anecdotes that I reveal in each column, not because I’ve suddenly become coy and private, or because I don’t want to, but because memoirish prose comes easy to me. Resolutions usually involve challenging yourself into doing things that are uncomfortable, such as going to the gym every day. Mine would be in the same spirit.
I began with a severely ambitious resolution: I would never use the word “I” in my writings, I told myself. Writing this very sentence negated that approach. Then, I decided the more forgiving “resolvere” approach of breaking it down into manageable parts. How about fewer than five “I”s per column? That seemed doable.
So, here is my sankalpa. From next week, there will be fewer anecdotes and less than five “I”s in my column. Let’s see how long this resolution lasts.
Shoba Narayan gave Lakshmi the three one-litre tokens that were owed her in exchange for which Lakshmi gave Shoba a bucket of cow urine. Write to her at email@example.com