On February 8th my part of India celebrated Saraswati Puja. I had no idea about it until my mother called me up the night before.
"So where are you?", she asked without the "hello" greeting. My mother seldom followed the norm. She was an exception. I recall her calling her distant aunts after a very long time and as soon as the ringing stopped and someone said "hello", she would come up with the most innovative introductory lines. Like:
"Arrey, have you finished eating yet?", if it was somewhere near lunch or dinner time. When asked with such genuine concern about one's eating habits, one tends to mellow down. They inevitably ended up saying, "Yes, I just did. But who is calling?". Then my mother would divulge her real identity and quickly apologize for being incommunicado for this long.
"Oh ho ! I have been meaning to call you for such a long time dear but my kids give me no respite! (Utter nonsense). But I had to call you today. Just couldn't stop thinking of you Jhumpa di", my mother finally breathed.
Jhumpa di on the other hand would have been rendered speechless at this unbridled affection from a hardly in-touch relation. Jhumpa di would end up saying,
"Arrey...not a problem, no! You are my sister - why would I mind. Tell me what's up?" It was not entirely true that Jhumpa di or similarly placed Bengali women didn't mind. They minded and they minded very much. But they mastered the art of hiding their anger and expressing their love.
After I clarified my geographical location to my mom, she went on to tell me about Saraswati Puja celebrations. There were none. Not in Mumbai, where she lived. But it was a holiday in Kolkata and she knew if she was there, it would be one restful day for her. She reminded me of a long forgotten Saraswati vandana. Her words took me to a time and place, when I was growing up.
Saraswati Devi is the goddess of learning and education. She sits poised like a lady on her pet vehicle - the Swan, carrying a "Veena" or ancient Indian's version of guitar. She looks very pretty and smiles upon all those feverishly praying students on the verge of their exams.
Saraswati Puja is also known as "Basant Panchami" . "Basant" stands for yellow. Most of my friends used to turn up in various shades of yellow and orange on this day.
When I was in Kolkata, my school celebrated Saraswati Puja every year. As girls, we dressed up in Sari and reached the class. That was a day to formally look nice, walk with an affected gait and absorb the admiring gazes of the onlookers. I recall blushing my way to the school bus stop, magnifying my sari-clad beauty manifold. Once in school, I ceased to be as important. There were always prettier looking girls, wearing perfectly wrapped saris. Once all your friends ogled and complimented each other, it was time for Anjaali. (It meant worshipping the Goddess along with the priest and offering flowers at the end of the recital of mantras). Books were submitted to be worshipped too. The subject that I dreaded most was always at the top of my list to place at the feet of the Goddess. I was convinced once her big toe or pinky touched the edges of my book, my lack of understanding would be replaced by profound wisdom.
I chanted my mantras and offered my heart filled love to Goddess Saraswati. Being in Kolkata, I knew that doing well in life only implied doing well in school. Before every exam I would not forget repeating her name, hoping she would magically make my grader lenient or miraculously give me an easier exam. It was all in the mind of the devotee.
Saraswati Puja also meant no studies for one whole day. My mother had warned us that we so much as scribbled anything, we stood a good chance of forgetting all acquired knowledge! It was an awesome deal! It was a fully endorsed break from school work! As children we couldn't ask for more. I have seen the happiest faces in school only on Saraswati Puja!
Evenings were meant to be enjoyed with "khichudi" (dish prepared from boiling rice, lentils and vegetables with spices) and deep fried potatoes. It was easily made meal thoroughly enjoyed by all Bong community on this day.
In BITS, there was a Saraswati temple in campus. It was always crowded on the morning of the comprehensive exams. To avoid rush hours, I paid my homage during the mid terms, hoping she would remember her long time devotee towards the end of the semester as well.
It UCLA there was no Goddess Saraswati but there were exams. And when there are exams, her blessings are a pre-requisite. I recall murmuring her devotional mantras before the start of every three hour paper. I hoped that even if I was in a foreign land, the Goddess could make the journey on her Swan, and patronize me if I remembered her.
Now there are no tests, no assignments no exams. Office life does not demand you to appear for these. When my mother repeated those mantras oh phone, I couldn't help noticing my negligence towards the Goddess of my childhood. She had become my sole faith and belief during my growing years. In the absence of motivation, I had stopped remembering her. Pretty selfish, I thought to myself.
I have managed to salvage a few of the hymns and mantras from my childhood. Just reciting them, makes me feel like a child. A flood of memories sweep through me and I almost yearn to sit down and write a time bound exam. Like many things in life, examinations are the least appreciated gifts. In those hours, they test and better an individual. Failures become pillars for enhancements and successes are appreciated enormously.
This mantra is a dedication to the Goddess who helped me build my career:
Joyo joyo debi
Chora choro shaare
Kucho juggey shoubhito