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My bittersweet tryst with Ugadi

As a child, every Ugadi, I’d wake to the sound of a neighbour’s gong. I’d hurry up to oil my body, take a shower and ring the gong at our place. I’d then join my mother in putting up the torana (festoon of mango leaves) over the threshold. I wasn’t much help to her with the rangoli (patterned decorations) though. I was never any good at art. I’d help her light lamps everywhere in the house instead. With that, the celebrations would begin. My grandfather would perform the puja, and my parents and grandmother would sit through it, praying diligently. My sister and I, on the other hand, we’d only be patient for the panchamrita (a consecrated mixture of honey, liquid jaggery, milk, curd, and ghee) given at the end.

My mother would try to keep me and my sister off the panchamrita until we’d eaten a neem leaf with jaggery. Of course, we’d cheat; the two of us would only eat the jaggery and secretly throw away the neem. Once, when I was about 11, my grandfather caught me at it. He didn’t reprimand me though. Instead, he explained why we need to eat the bitter neem leaf. Ugadi marks the beginning of the Hindu new year and we have to remind ourselves that the new year will bring with it not only happiness, but also unhappiness, he told me.

If you think from that year onwards I ate the customary neem, you’d be mistaken. I carried on cheating even as a young adult. I couldn’t take the bitter too well, neither with the neem nor in life. Every Ugadi, I’d set my New Year resolutions with high optimism. And every year, I’d feel let down by all the things that went wrong or didn’t turn out as I’d expected. With time, I began to slowly digest my grandfather’s wisdom: Life is hard; it comes with its ups and downs. Optimism is great, but we need to be prepared for the difficulties that might come our way.

“Despite the variations in festivities across various states, Ugadi brings with it one common lesson: Variety is the spice of life.”

It’s not only the neem that drives this point home, but also the festive food preparations. I have an all-time favourite dish Puliyogare. It’s a kind of tamarind rice that hits almost all taste notes–sweet, spicy, salty, sour, and bitter. I didn’t give it much thought as a child, but now I realise Puliyogare is a tasty amalgamation of the variety of emotions that life takes us through–happy, sad, calm, angry… I remember my Telugu friends used to have similar preparations for this festival in their households as well. They’d invite me over to have some Pachadi, an Andhra specialty, made of neem flowers, raw mango, jaggery, pepper powder, coconut and salt. And likewise, a Marathi aunt of mine too used to prepare Pachadi for Gudi Padwa (Ugadi) in Maharashtra.

Despite the variations in festivities across various states, Ugadi brings with it one common lesson: Variety is the spice of life. Eat too much sweet and your tongue can’t stand it, eat too spicy and your stomach can’t tolerate it. But combine the various flavours and you’ll not only balance them out, but also appreciate and discern each one distinctly.

These flavours kind of reflect life’s ups and downs, I believe. I’ve found that a wave of good times that follow a wave of tough times feel infinitely more heartening than a consistently happy time frame. It’s like the first rains after a long, hot season, that make the grass look greener. For me, Ugadi heralds growth in life and prepares me to welcome all the challenges it brings. So, every Ugadi, I now remind myself to usher the new year in with a dollop of sweet, a dash of spicy, a hint of tangy, and a pinch of salt. As for the neem leaf… Well, I’m yet to get there. Nobody’s perfect. Perhaps, I’ll give it a try this year; see how well I fare with ‘bitter’.


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