So she told my son the story of Nandanar: how the 8th century outcaste farmer wanted to see Shiva at the Chidambaram temple in the month of Margazhi (Dec-Jan); how he was told he couldn’t go until all the work in the field was done; how he managed to go despite all the work and as he stood outside the temple – being a dalit – he could see nothing because of the Nandi blocking his view of the lord.
The story goes that Nandanar was in tears at being unable to see Shiva. In Gopalakrishna Bharati’s Nandanar Charitra Kirtthanai, translated by Lakshmi Holmström, Nandanar says,
Are you not the ever compassionate Lord?
Untouchable as I am, may I not serve you?
To be there to witness your dance of supreme bliss
may I not come to you?
Shiva, touched by the man’s bhakti, asks Nandi to move so that he is visible to his devotee.
The high-born folk are abashed and awed in equal measure, and Nandanar’s fame precedes him everywhere. (I don’t know if this meant that he thereafter had help tilling the field or if those things remained status quo – because stories like these end with the arrival of the god, who invariably remains strong and silent on such matters)**.
To celebrate this, we eat kali and kootu.
I have to say that this story annoys me. Setting aside the politics of turning a story of injustice into one of spirituality, I resent having to eat a dish that is half sweet, half savoury and wholly an ordeal on the palate. For one thing, there’s the taste of gud and coconut in the kali. It isn’t as sweet as sakkaraipongal but it isn’t like regular pongal either. In the kootu, the taste of sweet potatoes battles with the beans and the peas with the pumpkins. Brought together, they make the tongue shiver and produce in me as many conflicting emotions as the story of Nandanar and the Arudra Darsanam at Chidambaram.
Everyone knows that festivals are an excuse to eat things that are seasonal, hard to make and digest and that keep women in the kitchen for most of the day. Usually the things we eat on these occasions are passed off as the favourite food of this or that god: butter, sheedai, kozhakattai and such. Someone please tell me whose favourite food this is: Shiva’s? Nandanar’s? Or Nandi’s?
I have a theory that Thiruvathirai kali and kootu are meant to reflect the complexity of the story. After all, it is not a simple story of faith and reward. Mixed up in it is the question of boundaries, of who is kept out and who does the keeping out; and of who ‘deserves’ the favour of god. Show me a dalit who celebrates Thiruvathirai as a triumph against established order. Depending on where you’re coming from, Nandanar has either circumvented an unjust convention to directly commune with his god or he has been tricked into thinking that the barriers have been removed, when really he’s still standing where he’s been ordered to.
The dish is equally complex and disturbing to the taste. What it produces is not comfort or pleasure. There are too many different tastes and textures, too many conflicting sensations, too many ingredients that don’t get along with each other. It requires a sophistication that I don’t yet have to transform this discomfort into something that I see as not just palatable but enjoyable. It is an uneasy dish that celebrates a disturbing story.
Every year, I try my best to like it and every year I fail better at it. For now, I have decided to live with the taste. In fact, I think I might even experiment with it: I wonder what would happen if, next year, we added karela to the kootu? I think it might add the one taste that was missing.
* I will retain my own titles to these pieces; I'm not too sure about the ones they think up for the paper.
** In Sekizhar's version, the Nandi doesn't move at all. What happens is, Nandanar comes into Chidambaram hesitantly, doubting his own worthiness to see Shiva. Shiva arranges for Nandanar to be 'purified' by a fire and becomes resplendently Brahmin before he gets to be one with his god. See.