Festival of the Ancestors by Endapalli Bharathi

Translated by V.B. Sowmya

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“Annampoddu festival is here. Every woman in the village should now get ready for a day of backbreaking work!” – I sighed, as I sat to rest after whitewashing the house, cleaning the floor and drawing muggu1.

“Why do you sound so vexed, amma (mother)?” my daughter asked, walking towards me.

“What can I say? There is an endless list of tasks and there is no respite. Tomorrow is the festival day. I have to wake up before sunrise and perform poli around the whitewashed house.”

“What is that?”

“We apply cow dung paste in a circle around the house, to protect it from bad air. This is called poli”, I explained.

“What else do we do for this festival tomorrow, amma?”

“Tomorrow’s festival has three names Papa (child). Trees bloom in this season and cold weather starts giving way to warmer days. It will start getting hot (uga in Telugu) from now. Hence, this festival is called “Ugadi”. We have to complete poli before daybreak on this day. We buy new clothes for our dead ancestors and cook something they liked on this day. Since we remember our elders, it is also called Festival of the Ancestors. As part of our tradition, we buy a new pot from the potter and a new cheta (winnowing basket) from the medari (basket maker caste) for the festival. The pot is filled with water and decorated with naamam2 on its front. We sew banyan leaves to make five plates and arrange all the prepared food on these. New clothes are arranged next to them – we call this whole arrangement a nilupu. We then place any available pictures of our ancestors on nilupu and pay our respects to them.

We spread a green leaf over the newly bought sieve and prepare a mix of freshly plucked and trimmed neem flowers and smoothly ground jaggery. We put this in front of god as an offering. We finally break a coconut in front of all the gods and photos of our ancestors before annampoddu, that is, before 9 am, when we usually have our first meal. This is why it is called annampoddu festival. Of the five leaf plates, one is for the gods, one for our ancestors, one to leave on our rooftops, one to leave at the burial ground, and the final one for us to eat. We distribute the neem-jaggery mixture we prepare to all other homes in the village.

Even people who don’t get along with you expect to receive this mixture on the festival day. So, people share this mixture even with their arch enemies, to avoid hard feelings that can persist forever. If the elders between two families are not on talking terms, they send their children on this task of sharing the mixture. It has to be completed before noon according to our tradition. The earlier one finishes, the more restless others become. It is like a competition – who finishes first? “Aren’t you done yet?” Men start pestering.

So, women get no breathing space during the festival,” I explained to my daughter.

The festival day arrived. All the women in the village sat in groups on the streets after performing the rituals and enjoying a sumptuous meal. They sat there cutting betel leaf stems, and gossiped about who was the last to distribute the neem-jaggery mixture in the village this time.

“Maarakka’s daughter was the last to distribute this year” – one of them remarked.
“I wonder what kept her occupied for so long!” Another one exclaimed.
I went to my brother’s house to enquire. They were talking about his wife.

My sister-in-law sat there with a long face, leaning against a wall. My brother seemed to have done all the household chores – bathing the children, and performing the prayer rituals. They have two daughters. The younger one was naked and was crying for a new frock. The older one apparently went around to distribute the neem-jaggery mix earlier and was now eating lunch.

“Why is it so gloomy in your house on a festival day?” I asked.

“Look at her, akka (elder sister)! She is angry at me because I bought new clothes in memory of our father, but not her mother.”

“He never bought the bottle of red liquor (a reference to brandy) naayana (father) asked for when he was alive. This man now showers love on our father and bought new clothes for him! Are the dead people going to wear the new clothes we buy? Aren’t we eventually going to wear these new clothes in their name, anyway?!”, I thought to myself. I admonished them for quarrelling over petty issues and returned home.

Meanwhile, my sister-in-law had come from her village. She visited her mother’s remains, offered a saree at the grave, broke a coconut and took them all back with her.

“Vadina (sister-in-law)! I bought this saree for my mother. It costs 1000 rupees. Does it look good?”

“Papa, it is good. But, do you remember the past? When your mother worked hard and saved money to buy a saree for herself, you never let her wear it. You always insisted on wearing her new saree. Did you even offer her a blouse piece when she was alive?! You have now bought her a 1000 rupee saree!” I vented. She hung her face in silence.

This is me. I say things to your face if I don’t like something. When her mother was sick, she asked her daughter to make her favorite poelee3. If she had prepared it for her mother back then, that is a different story. But, no. Now, she wants to offer her poelee, attirasalu4, betel leaves, liquor and what not! Is her dead mother going to return to life to eat all this?! She should have taken good care of her mother in the past! But people perhaps wait for sick elders to die!

Everyone remembers their elders only on this festival day. Their burial spots are surrounded by bushes, giving the place the look of a forest. All these people search for the right spots to pray at the burial ground, and break a coconut there without having a clue where the head or toes of the dead are.

The dasaris come to our house on this day. They go from house to house praising our dead elders in exchange for money or grains. They came to our house today. I gave them a basket full of rice and asked them to praise my mother.

They started singing –
“Gifting generously
your daughter asked us to praise you..
She gave silver coins for a high praise,
She gave copper coins for a loud praise
She gave us clothes –
our blessings will send you to vaikuntam6
Wherever you are, dear Yellamma!
That god, who called you up,
He will protect you there.

You did not come when she had muggu on the front yard
Nor when she welcomed you with flower petals
You never came when she remembered you
Nor did you show up on festival days
God gave you only half a life!

You left your house, you left your children..
Leaving everyone,
You reached God’s abode, Yellamma!
God will take care of you there!

As they sang this song beating their gummiti7, I had tears in my eyes.

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Glossary:
1.Muggu: patterns drawn in front of the house or inside with flour and sometimes, using coloured powder.
2.Naamam: vertical lines drawn with kumkuma – a powder made with turmeric and slaked lime and vibuthi – ash powder, considered sacred and representing God.
3.Poelee: a sweet flatbread made of wheat flour, cooked lentils and jaggery
4.Attirasalu: a sweet dish made of rice flour and jaggery.
5.Dasaris: People belonging to the Dasari caste. One of their traditional occupations is to sing praises of people in return for gifts in cash or kind.
6.Vaikuntam: abode of Lord Vishnu and Goddess Lakshmi
7.Gummiti: A pot like musical instrument for which the open end is closed by hand and the other end is hit like drum, to make a loud noise (an artist performing with this instrument can be seen in this youtube video).

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The Telugu original, సచ్చినోళ్ల గేపకం/Sacchinolla Gepakam, appeared in the author’s Telugu short story collection “Edaari Batukulu” in 2019.
Translator’s note: The story describes the customs surrounding a festival in their village. Although such festivals exist in various cultures within India and in other countries, these traditions described in this story seem specific to this region and village community.

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(Marchi 10, 2022)

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