As Sa-Re-Ga-Ma-Pa USA finalist Rasika Shekar finished singing her rendition of “Munni badnaam hui” and an auditorium full of people stopped their dancing and made a dash for the dining hall to queue up for mutton curry, I reflected on whether this enthusiasm was befitting the festival it was supposed to celebrate. I, as a Bengali, have always considered Saraswati Puja a special day of the year, but most of my Saraswati Pujas had been special in a completely different way.
As anybody growing up in Bengal over the last few decades would say, Saraswati Puja is the Bengali equivalent of Valentine’s Day, for that was one day of the year when the boys got to enter the girls’ schools without fear and vice versa. Now, of course, the boys and girls see too much of each other around the year anyway. But I, for one, never had the good fortune to celebrate the Bengali Valentine’s Day because I left Bengal at the early age of five. All I knew about Saraswati Puja before that is the fact that it was the day when we worship the goddess of learning, and all I remember is that my grandfather used to conduct the puja at our house in Hooghly. Also, one of those years I had had my “first writing ceremony” or haate-khoRi. Maybe I don’t even remember that. I just know that from the photographs.
The Saraswati Pujas that I do remember were at Allahabad. North Indians don’t celebrate this particular festival, but the day was always a holiday in school as hordes of pilgrims thronged the city of Allahabad to take a holy dip in the confluence of Ganga and Yamuna on Vasant Panchami (another name for the day). There were a few Saraswati Pujas organized by Bengalis around the city, and we attended those.
We fasted since the morning as we got dressed in our ethnic best. I usually wore a kurta-pajama and my sister, like most little girls, wore a yellow coloured sari. We accompanied our parents to the nearest Puja and offered anjali (flower offering) to goddess Saraswati before we ate anything. We usually visited a couple of other Puja places too, so our breakfast consisted of fruits and sweets offered to the goddess. We prayed for good marks, and when we felt we had gathered enough blessings to last the year, we returned home.
I almost forgot to mention the most special thing about Saraswati Puja. That was the day when we were not supposed to read anything. No text books. No story books. No newspapers or magazines. Nor was writing allowed, and only a child who had no concern for his exam marks would dare to defy this ban. The good part was that nobody could tell us to study for the entire day. The bad part was that passing the time sometimes became a problem because when I was not studying I was usually hunched over a story book.
But there was only a small amount of time to be passed. There were other events left.
Lunch was khichRi at the Bharat Sevasram Sangha. This is a charitable non-government organization that (among other things) arranges free lunch for people on several days of the year and the food was something that had been offered to the goddess. Somebody who has not had the experience of sitting in rows and eating the scalding hot food can never imagine how delicious such plain vegetarian cooking can taste. We always had our lunch there on Saraswati Puja. Then we walked home in the delightful winter sun. As I sit down to write this, I cannot think of even one Saraswati Puja when the weather was gloomy or rainy. I may be mistaken, because Saraswati Puja is one of those days that are permanently etched in my memory as a sunny and joyful occasion. Gloomy ones may have occurred, but my young mind didn’t store them that way.
In West Bengal, there are usually a lot of cultural activities during the evenings on this day. Dance recitals, elocutions and singing performances by children are held in many schools and colleges. Some schools have exhibitions. In Allahabad, however, we did not have any such cultural celebrations. Some of my father’s colleagues and their families were invited to our house and we ate peas-kachauri and alur dom that my mother made for dinner. We stuck to a vegetarian menu on this day as we did on several other religious festivals, and this was the only menu that seemed appropriate for this night.
Things changed after I moved to college in Kolkata, and then went to work in Hyderabad. Or did they? I can’t seem to remember much about the Saraswati Pujas of my later years. Maybe I am growing old, but somehow the image of the sunny Allahabad Saraswati Puja overshadows every other memory of the event. The only thing that I can remember is that I no longer followed the total ban on reading and writing on this day. My parents moved to Hooghly in 2007 and they restarted the Puja at our house the next year. Soon afterwards, I flew to the other side of the Atlantic to worship the goddess of learning in my own way.
And here I was – wondering whether flashy item numbers were a fitting tribute to the white-sari-clad veena-wielding goddess, and slightly worried whether my eating meat for dinner would somehow delay my graduation date. I explained to myself that although I had offered anjali that morning, it wasn’t really Saraswati Puja but just a convenient weekend close by. Then I realized that I had eaten meat and taught a class on the real Puja day too.
I told myself to grow up and joined the queue. Someday I will get to celebrate Saraswati Puja the old way again, but till then, I have to adapt myself to the American way.