Feast Days

November 19, 2019

Last night, Janaki, one of the protagonists of my latest novel, which is out next year, appeared in my dream.

‘Not long to go now,’ she said, ‘What are you doing to celebrate the launch? Are you having a feast?’

And instantly I was transported to the feast days of my childhood: the air perfumed with caramelised sugar and candy floss; the sun reflecting off the gold adorning people decked in all their finery so they looked as if they were on fire; the Ferris wheel creaking; children screaming, their open mouthed laughter rending the air; old cronies hunched in conspiratorial groups, gossiping; the church yard transformed into a fairground.

Every January, the church I attended as a child held a celebration, called, in Konkani ‘Vodlen Fest’- ‘Big Feast’ to commemorate the Mother of Miracles for whom the church was named. The best part of the feast and what made it so special was that the church compound became a fairground! There was a carousel and a merry-go-round. There were vendors selling all kinds of sweets: sugar coated peanuts, translucent red halwa, syrupy jalebis, and sunny yellow laddoos.

Preparations for the feast would commence weeks in advance. My grandmother would start fattening chickens, stocking up on pork. She would soak the rice and lentils for the sannas and spend half a day grating coconuts. I would try to pinch some and receive a smack on my hand for my efforts. ‘Not the coconut, I need it all,’ my grandmother would sigh, exasperated, but then slip me some jaggery instead.

She spent the day before the feast grinding the rice and lentils to a paste, beads of sweat running down her hair and collecting in the folds of her sari. That evening she would put the ground mixture into a big aluminium pot. Then, she would use some of the mixture to draw the sign of the cross all around the pot. After this, she would wet a thin muslin cloth and pull it tight over the pot, and leave it in a warm place to ferment and rise overnight.

I once asked her, curious, ‘Why do you draw the sign of the cross on the pot?’

‘So Jesus will help the mixture to rise well and that will make soft sannas,’ she replied, her hands busy chopping onions, kneading dough, her mind elsewhere.

The sign of the cross always worked its magic. My grandmother’s sannas were the softest and tastiest in the entire village.

On the day of the feast we woke up nice and early, for once without our mum’s prompting. Our grandmother would be frying crispy dosas on the tava. She rubbed half an onion dipped in oil and speared with a stick all over the smoking hot tawa first and only then did she tip the rice flour in. She swore this was why her dosas were so crispy. She would have already made the chutney to go with the dosas, grinding coriander leaves, green chillies, ginger, onion, chillies and coconut to a crunchy, delicious paste.

We would scoff breakfast, don our best clothes and make our way to the church, along with all the visiting relatives decked out in their finery, the women holding up their gold lined saris so they wouldn’t get stained with mud, their jewellery sparkling bright gold in the sun, their bangles clinking as they walked.

On feast days, I never lagged behind, dragging my feet those last few yards to the church even knowing that the feast mass would be twice as long.

As we neared the church we heard all the sounds of the fair; the creaking of the carousel, the monotonous whirring of the Ferris wheel, the shouts of children, the loud festive and discordant music: hymns blaring from the church competing with the film songs from outside, the odd firecracker; and my heart felt fit to burst with excitement. My legs couldn’t carry me to the church fast enough, and I wanted to urge the relatives along. ‘Hurry Up,’ I wanted to yell, ‘Or we’ll miss something.’

As part of the celebrations, my mum gave my siblings and me money to buy Chocobars: vanilla ice creams with crispy chocolate coating. They cost twelve rupees each, a great deal of money in those days, but well worth it. Buying the ice creams which came wrapped in their own cardboard boxes, then taking that first lick transported me straight to heaven. This was when I most wanted to contradict the priests and nuns. Everybody, good or bad could go to heaven: all they had to do was eat Chocobar ice-cream!

There was only one rule that we had to follow. We had to attend mass first. Sitting in church, squashed five to a bench which could seat three if pressed, the smell of perfume, talcum powder and sweat, happy fairground sounds drifting in from outside, I would clutch my purse tight in my perspiring palms and imagine all the things I would do with my pocket money.

Finally the mass would end, and we would escape outside, in relief and excitement, the money in our pockets just asking to be spent, the Chocobar vans luring.

Afterwards, our tummies full from all the sugary sweets and the Chocobar, we would amble back home.

As we neared the house, I would smell chicken curry and spicy pork (boti) and despite being full just minutes ago, I would hurry up the hill knowing that another culinary spread waited.

After a huge feast of a lunch, with my stomach so full I couldn’t move, I would snooze in the front room with the door open, cool, jasmine scented breeze caressing my face, the snores of the relatives all packed in mats beside me keeping me company.

By Renita D'Silva
Renita D'Silva grew up in Kallianpur, India and now lives in the UK. Her short stories have been published in 'The View from Here', 'Bartleby Snopes', among others and have been nominated for the 'Pushcart' prize and the 'Best of the Net' anthology. She is the author of 'Monsoon Memories', 'The Forgotten Daughter', 'The Stolen Girl', 'A Sister's Promise', 'A Mother's Secret', 'A Daughter's Courage', 'Beneath An Indian Sky', 'The Girl In The Painting'.

Website: http://renitadsilva.com/
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Comment on this article

  • Anthony H Crasta, Granville/Sydney

    Thu, Nov 21 2019

    Interesting article Renita, well narrated. Brought back quite a few olden times memories of my childhood. As you rightly said, Vodlen Fest used to be a great day for us, young and old, and we eagerly looked forward to this annual event in the Parish.

    We, the children, especially looked forward to the visit of our close relatives and friends to our home on the previous evening/night, when we had a grand gathering and celebration. We also speculated and calculated in our minds as to how much pocket money we were going to receive from our guests, for it was almost the norm and rather mandatory during those times for the guests to offer gift in the form of cash to the children, to be spent later at the festival fair.

    And on the morning of the feast, we invariably lined up in front of our guests to receive our monetary gift, before we dashed to the church.

    While the girls mostly spent their cash on eating sweets and ice cream, and also buying apparels like bangles, ribbons and pins, the boys mostly splashed and squandered their bounty on the roulette and hoop-la games.

  • Valerian Baretto, Bantwal - Bangalore Rajajinagar

    Thu, Nov 21 2019

    Good old memories of Vodlen Fest then being celebrated in all the Parishes splash into my mind, after decades, as I am out of Bantwal for over 60 years. Still I remember, Mary Bai, Renitas Grand Mother, Hilda, her Mom and Cyril her Dad. I knew the family for over 75 years, as, my mother belongs to Loretto from which place Renita's Grand Mother also hailed. All the Best Renita. Keep it up

  • Alwyn D Souza, Omzoor/California

    Thu, Nov 21 2019

    Nice write-up Renita. Look forward to reading more articles from you in Daijiworld.com


  • Ivilla Lloyd Monteiro, Urwa/ Abu Dhabi

    Wed, Nov 20 2019

    Good old memories of Vodlem Fest, very nice article Renita, Congratulations! May God bless you.

  • James Rodrigues, Udupi/Bangalore

    Wed, Nov 20 2019

    Good article Renita, Congratulations! May God bless you. My momory went back to the past days when I enjoyed the "Vodlem Fest" years back at Kallianpur.

  • James Rodrigues, Udupi/Bangalore

    Wed, Nov 20 2019

    Good article, Renita. Congratulations! May God bless you.
    My memory went back to the past days when I enjoyed the "Vodlem Fest" years back at Kallianpur.

  • Hilda d Silva, Kallianpur

    Tue, Nov 19 2019

    Great narration Rennu.Its a surprise you remember tiny bits of the celebration.Wedont get Thamde guile in Kallianpur feste.

  • geoffrey, hat hill

    Tue, Nov 19 2019

    Quite an evocative narration of Voden Fest that did strike a nostalgic chord with me, bit confused with 'stocking up on pork' though, as we the pork aficionados of this part of Dakshina Kannada would never settle for anything less than fresh pork on a momentous occasion like this and in rural parts, slaughtering of a pig on the eve of Fest itself was a mini Fest in its own right. Tambde Gule (Red balls ?) missing in the sweets list.

  • Irita Sheryl & Bhavna, Kallianpur

    Tue, Nov 19 2019

    Lovely !! Brought out all the tiny nuances of our vodlen festh

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