I woke up to my father calling me in the morning and informing me with a smile in his voice that today is Saraswati puja. His words brought out a smile of my own, as memories of lal paar shaada saris and Saraswati pujas in school instantly came to mind, memories which were lying untouched in the corner as we grow up and lose ourselves to our jobs and lives in different cities.
While you, like me, must be reminiscing about memories of your own Saraswati Puja days, take a minute to go back to the carefree festive day of Saraswati Puja in Bengal, also cheekily known as Bengali Valentine’s Day, a day of uninhibited freedom from both studies and moral policing on the natural blossoming of ‘prem’.
The day starts crisply with the scent of blossoming flowers carried by the breeze, ushering in spring or Vasant Panchami. While pujo preparations start early in the morning and hands are busy in the kitchen, stirring thick creamy khichudi and preparing prasad, the teenagers are up for a change and carefully decking themselves up in front of the mirror for the day ahead.
As our family wasn’t big on worshiping idols, we as kids were enthusiastically ushered in by neighbours to take off our chappals at the door and come inside to offer pranam to the Goddess sitting primly, clutching her veena and her swan gazing off into the distance. A plethora of food, books, prasad and betel leaves normally surround her as we bow down to her with an eye on the prasad and prayed to her to make us pass in all our subjects.
Pushpanjali and prayers are offered to the triumphant sound of the conch shell and women of the house wonderfully curling their tongue to make the ulu sound, which used to raise the hair on my head and goosebumps on my arms.
Prasad is offered to us kids and I used to promptly pick out the limp shosha (piece of cucumber), before wolfing down the rest of it.
The laal paar shaada saris (white saris with red borders) are out, yellow is the colour of the day as girls carefully adorn themselves in saris and step out. The boys are not to be left behind; they turn up freshly shaven and awkwardly sporting their ‘panjabi‘. Schools hold Saraswati puja and co-ed schools are practically like a fair. The adolescent heart lurches as you spot your crush in the midst of all the coy sari-clad women swishing their hair this way and that and the boys that sneakily scan the room, looking for the one who’s caught their eye.
Hormones are at the peak, sly glances are exchanged and finally, when the moment of meeting and greeting arrives, the heart wobbles incoherently. Prem pervades the air as couples trudge around hand in hand everywhere; in pandals, in schools (with the P.T teacher desperately trying to monitor and curb such outrage), in parks, outside tuition classes and now in gleaming malls as well.
Everyone who hasn’t been on a date before, is on a date and phuchka stalls are thronging with couples taking a break from all the lovey-doveyness with some tangy puchkas. Stern parents who frown on adolescent love practically give free reign to their kids because, “Aajke porte hobe na” and for once the parents approve. Books are piled up in front of Saraswati Ma for her blessings and your work for the day is done.
Studying on Sarwaswati puja is considered a bad omen much to the gleeful luck of the youngsters who are out on bikes whizzing past people with their sari clad lady riding pillion or walking around hand in hand, discovering what it is to be in young love. I’m not sure what the parents think their kids are out doing but they generally self delude themselves into thinking that they’re out harmlessly visiting pandals and invoking the Goddess’ blessings. Or they might know exactly what the kids are up to, cause hey, they were young once too.
It’s not all just love and games though, little kids write their first alphabet on a slate in a ceremony called haathe khori, their initiation to education.
Para drawing contests are held for little kids who invariably produce a drawing of a rural-looking hut flanked by coconut trees with disproportionate birds in ‘v’ shapes and a driveway leading up to the hut. A comfortable meal of khichudi is eaten before the elders retire for their afternoon snooze and you and your lover head to Princep Ghat to end the special day holding hands and dreamily looking at the sunset.
Earlier, the most eagerly awaited festival after pujo, we used to spend hours planning which sari to wear or how to sneak out. Now, as young adults in different cities working at jobs and adulting, we barely notice when days like these sneak past us. But if you’ve spent Saraswati Puja in Bengal, you’ll know what I’m talking about, you’ll take a minute to delve through your memories of Saraswati pujo and smile wistfully.
It was fun to be young and idle once, especially on Saraswati puja in Bengal.