I’m staring out the window at the grey sky and the leafless trees. I take a sip of tea to soothe my raspy throat. I have been congested for the past week, but it is just as well that I can steal a few moments before I head into another marathon meeting at work. This is mildly depressing. This used to be my favorite day of the year. This used to be the day I looked forward to the most.
I remember how Saraswati Puja, the day when we all got together to celebrate wisdom, used to be. I remember heading out on a rickshaw with baba to school-bazaar the night before to pick out a painted clay murti of the goddess. The face always used to be covered with newspaper, only to be revealed at the time of worship. One the way back, we would stop at a fruit-seller’s to pick up oranges, bananas, and kul (which we were told not to eat before Saraswati Puja).
The morning of Saraswati Puja, after a bathing, I would wear a dhuti and a panjabi and get ready for the puja. Up until my late teen years, baba used to perform the puja, but armed with a panji and a book of Sanskrit hymns, I took over shortly thereafter. That was one of the appealing aspects of Saraswati Puja. All of us knew the vandana and the arati. Worship of the Goddess of Learning was an unpretentious affair that happened in thousands of households like mine. You did not need to go to a neighborhood puja mandap to offer your respects like you would for Durga Puja or Kali Puja, although you might receive an invitation to attend Saraswati pujas at your own school or college. Indeed, Saraswati was a member of the family who visited every year: her blessings and aspirations in granting us knowledge through books and through music were as genteel and meekly bourgeois like we were.
Every year on the day of the puja, I would place my textbooks at the feet of the goddess and it was the one day in the year when not studying was socially sanctioned (with the convention being that if you studied on Saraswati Puja, you lost whatever little knowledge was in your possession). Of course, you had to be selective about the books that you chose because you couldn’t just dump them all there. After all, the space at the feet of the goddess was prized real-estate and there were other people in the family too. I seem to recall always picking particularly tricky subjects like mathematics and physics, though whatever blessings I got from the goddess helped little during my exams. Perhaps there is wisdom in not doing well in exams? Maybe that was the lesson for me.
Cutting the fruits was a very important job, and one that my grandmother, starting at the crack of dawn, would cheerfully take on each year. After the puja was completed, it was acceptable to consume the prasad of cut fruits. Only after everyone had consumed the prasad, and by that time it was likely late afternoon, could you venture outside to see the other para and public pujas (often with socially relevant tableaus). It was the one day in the year, when all the girls wore saris and some of the foolhardy boys (and you can count me in this group) wore dhuti-panjabis. I remember the eager anticipation on that day of meeting the special person in my life (and there is no real drama or twist to this story, because she is still the special person in my life, only we’re married). Otherwise, we never thought of Saraswati Puja as an equivalent of “Bengali Valentine’s Day,” though I hear it is often marketed as such now.
Ironically, it was after I went abroad to actually gain further my education that I became disconnected from Saraswati Puja altogether. The last time I celebrated in 2000 was special in many ways. It was the last year my extended family was together in the home we lived in to celebrate, and it was just before my grandmother had been diagnosed with cancer.
Ultimately, Saraswati Puja, like all important holidays, is about family. It is worth celebrating, even if you have to make modifications suited to your current life. I can’t celebrate today because I’m about to head to a meeting, but I can defiantly mumble the hymns while I blankly stare at a presentation in a conference room. And the weekend is only a few days away. Maybe this year we will place some of our books in front of an image of the goddess on a tablet acquaint our son with an abbreviated version of the rituals we are familiar with.
(Originally published as a column here)