As I set out the kanu leaves in the backyard on a bitingly cold morning , the rain drops from the trees above dripped onto my back. When one refers to shivers down the spine, I suppose that is a literal enough description. I charged back into the warmth of the kitchen multiple times as I drew out the squiggly lines with rice flour – quick kolams to appease whom or what I did not know. I am not one for following rituals every much, but some how I like this one.
Rains are lashing the Earth, and I am grateful. Last week, we celebrated the Indian version of Thanksgiving, Makara Sankranthi – the beautiful festival thanking Mother Earth for providing us with plentiful food, a nourishing environment, and so much more.
Kanu is typically celebrated by having the daughters in the family set the morning kanu for two reasons: (1) our forbears supposedly come and eat the offerings as crows, (2) the girls pray for the well-being of their brothers, who then give them gifts for their prayers and wishes.
In our feminist household of course, we have long since modified the ritual. It isn’t just the women who set out the kanu for the brothers – we all set the kanu and pray for our siblings’ well-being. We celebrate not just gratitude to Mother Earth for feeding our rather populous brood of humanity with her harvests, but also for the gift of sibling love in this large world.
Coincidentally, I picked up the book, For Small Creatures Such as We, By Sasha Sagan. (The daughter of Carl Sagan and Ann Druyan). After all, her father’s Cosmos book and her parents’ TV show, Cosmos, still has me ringing with the Joy of Existence every time I dip my feet into the “shores of the cosmic ocean“.
Sasha Sagan’s book does not disappoint. She says, and I quote:
“Beneath the specifics of all our beliefs, sacred texts, origin stories, and dogmas, we humans have been celebrating the same two things since the dawn of time: astronomy and biology.”
I sat there savoring that sentence for its simple truth, and elegant choice of words. Festivals and rituals are our ways of making sense of ourselves with respect to the larger cosmos – and her book marvelously outlined rituals and festivals in various parts of the world in different cultures and religions.
Discerning the sentiments behind the rituals is a particularly savory task, partly because I have a healthy skepticism about the Gods, and oscillate between being a secular agnostic and a believer. For those who are Secular in outlook, Sasha Sagan’s book is a marvelous read. It encourages us to come up with our own models for celebrating life in this cosmos.
That cold morning as I set out the kanu, I wondered, not for the first time, why we set out cooked rice pongal for the crows. Is it to acknowledge our evolution as mankind to be where we are? Using fire to cook, was probably the single biggest leap in our journey, followed by becoming agriculturists from the hunter/gatherer mode. How different would everything have been if these two had not happened?
I especially thought of the brilliant poem she had referenced in the book by Vietnamese Zen Master, Thích Nhất Hạnh :
In this plate of food,
I see clearly
the presence of the entire universe
supporting my existence.
Rice – A Poem by Mary Oliver
It grew in the black mud.
It grew under the tiger’s orange paws.
Its stems thicker than candles, and as straight.
Its leaves like the feathers of egrets, but green.
The grains cresting, wanting to burst.
Oh, blood of the tiger.
I don’t want you to just sit at the table.
I don’t want you just to eat, and be content.
I want you to walk into the fields
Where the water is shining, and the rice has risen.
I want you to stand there, far from the white tablecloth.
I want you to fill your hands with mud, like a blessing.
As more and more of us move towards urban hubs for living, the less we realize all that happens to make food available for us to consume. How many of us have seen rice plants, or coffee plants or pepper vines – actually even if we have, how many of us consciously think of the journey from farm to table in its cooked form?
It is truly an enterprise of staggering proportions to realize how much has to happen for smooth functioning of Society, and it is lovely to read a book that is so full of joie-de-vivre
I like the concept of thanking Mother Earth for her bountiful gifts to life (Did I mention this already?). When it starts off with fierce winds ripping branches from your backyard trees, followed by glimpses of sunlight illuminating the clouds during the sunrise, followed by mild rain, and then seeing a glorious double rainbow; what is not there to feel thankful about?