On Saraswati Puja, recalling a rebel
Today is Saraswati Puja, which in an ideal world would mean a holiday filled with cups of tea and books. Sadly, the world is not ideal, but 2019 gets a few points for making the puja fall on a Sunday. It’s not procrastination if you ignore the groceries and sink into a book or binge on a series based on a novel on Saraswati Puja; it’s just showing the goddess some respect.
I grew up in a household that didn’t care much for rituals, especially if they required an enforced vegetarian diet. However, the two pujas my parents, particularly my father, has encouraged being performed at home are those for Lakshmi and Saraswati. From what I recall of my childhood, his enthusiasm for Lakshmi Puja was entirely because my mother would cook the prasad (I’ve a sneaky feeling that if my mother didn’t cook as well as she does, Lakshmi Devi would’ve got a lot less love from our household). Saraswati Puja, however, he took seriously. By which I mean we bought and read books on the day of the puja, and music would fill every room in the house. And my mum would make that goopy but delicious mix of dal, rice and spices that is khichdi – because what’s the point of food for thought if there isn’t food for the body that’s doing the thinking?
In the galaxy of Hindu gods, Saraswati is the goddess of learning. I’m not sure if this happens everywhere, but in Bengal, you don’t dispose of the Saraswati idol the way you do the Durga idol. While Durga with her brood – which includes Saraswati, incidentally – her lion and her vanquished enemy are immersed in water at the end of the Pujas, Saraswati as a solo act is a keeper.
When she comes with her mum, we grudgingly let her go. On her own, her idol is cherished and kept safe. She comes out, all spruced up, on Basant Panchami and kids would put their textbooks, dictionaries and pencil cases at her feet. At the end of the day, the idol is wrapped up and put away safely. She’ll be brought out again a year later.
It struck me as I found a way through the weekend that Saraswati is also the goddess of disappearing things. The river named after her no longer exists. The practice of playing the veena, Saraswati’s chosen instrument, is fading away. The book that she holds in her hand is fast turning into an artefact. The dictionary, home of words known and unknown, has disappeared from most homes and we use words so much more casually today, rarely bothering to check for meanings and nuances. At best, the fat dictionary has shrunk down to the size of a button on computer screens.
One of my favourite memories of Kolkata is of walking around the little neighbourhood of idol sculptors in south Kolkata, near Kalighat temple. It’s tiny compared to the much-photographed Kumartuli and the idols they make are smaller too. If you go there a few weeks before Saraswati Puja, all along the lane are unfinished Saraswati idols, most of them waiting for faces and features to be drawn in, and the white sari to be wound around them. Somehow, without the detailing, they seem strangely powerful and elemental. An army of Saraswatis – veena and books in hand, swans at their feet; a delicate smile that might be a smirk; strong hands with fingers calloused by hours of veena-playing; unblinking eyes, and perhaps the soft hum of a harmony that’s sweetly menacing.
The right-wing (or at least those who deign to flood Whatsapp with ‘educational’ missives) is noticeably unenthusiastic about Saraswati. This is not surprising. Saraswati has been a thorn in patriarchal Hinduism’s side. In her stories, she challenges Brahma, Vishnu and Shiva in different ways. She seems to be constantly working to pull the rug out from under the male gods. With each successful ploy, she establishes for herself distance and solitude. Not surprising then that the conservative, chauvinist bunch isn’t falling over itself to worship her.
If anyone in the Hindutva brigade genuinely believes in Saraswati, they should be very afraid because this is not a goddess with much of a track record for forgiveness and tolerating stupidity. She’s constantly rebelling against the kind of male-dominated status quo that the conservative right-wing gazes at with hearts in their eyes.
Once upon a time, for reasons no one recorded in myth or history, Saraswati the goddess slipped out of the spotlight. Today is Saraswati Puja. Say a prayer that she may reappear and once again rebel.