A very interesting part of Saraswati Puja was the hijacking of brahmin priests, almost to the point of kidnapping. Now Saraswati Puja is a simple one without too much parapharnelia and generally finished by the morning. Till the puja is done, the devotee household keep a fast. So it is in the interest of everybody to have a quick Puja. But on this day there is an explosion of religious fervour amongst the Hindu Bengalis. Almost every household has one. Not to speak of Housing societies, Paras (Mohalla), school , colleges, clubs and even hospitals. So the demand for the mantra chanting brahmin priests is huge for the window between 6 a.m. to 12 noon. In this scenario , it is natural that the priests are bodily lifted from one place to another. Often the priests get delayed for households with lesser physical resources because they get waylaid by the young brigade of various clubs and colleges. And the priests too, riose admirably to the occasion with a superfast rendition of the mantras in an incogitable version.
After the winter, Vasant Panchami heralds the spring season which culminates at Holi. The guardians used to let their wards have a little fun and frolic on this day and looked the other way on the detachment from the textbooks, Kids had their first experience as organizers by arranging for Saraswati Pujas at every available nook and corner and collecting donations for that. Different clubs were formed, disbanded, merged and broken during this time. These clubs were formed with great ideas but ultimately lasted for a week or even less than that, generally.
Collection spree by these mushrooming clubs was a pestering activity for families, no doubt but looking back now, from such a distance, I have only an indulgent smile on my face as I recollect my association with such clubs as also my indignant reaction to their demands as a family man. The best example which I still remember was my experience at Jalpaiguri, perhaps in 1990. within 250 meters on either side of the house, I stayed, there were two Saraswati pujas organized by youngsters. One was named "Five Stars" and the other "Seven Bullets". Each demanded a donation of Rs 51 and hinted repercussions if I didn't support their noble cause. The style was to write a receipt and give it to the householder. Eventually, after a lot of heated arguments (twice) and protracted negotiations, I donated Rs 11 each to their funds. But I also advised them to merge and name the new club as "Dirty Dozen". The irony was somewhat lost on the kids as Hollywood Ingrezi films were not so popular in those days, as they are now.
It is now an eagerly awaited day for the teenagers as the equivalent of Valentine's day. Because most cases of first crush and love affairs germinate on this day in tender hearts. Girls perhaps wear their first sarees on this day and each of these teenaged girls radiate like a blooming rose with a flush on their cheeks. At least I always felt so. Sometimes the change is so drastic that you are unable to recognize even the neighbour's daughter whom you have always seen in a frock or skirts. The guys wear long kurtas, leery look and an insecure countenance at this sudden transformation of larva worms to veritable butterflies.
Schools and Colleges also used to hold this Puja with cultural functions which showcased the talents of the students, teachers, sub-staffs and even some guardians. Even strict teachers used to smile at the most naughty student indulgently. Such was the charm of life. Girls schools and Colleges were opened for unrestricted public access and boys used to throng there.
The other important part, as predictable with any Bengali festival was the connection with food. The Bhog Khichdi garnished with seasonal green peas and cauliflower served with fried Brinjals (Begun bhaja) were a de-riguer for lunch, accompanied with Papad bhaja and sweet Tomato Chutney. Generally this day was one of those rare vegetarian days in households. A picnic sort of atmosphere pervaded all around. Immediately after the puja was done, we, as kids, ran out to eat kool.
All this probably have changed a lot now. But some of it perhaps still remain with the new kids. I will not comment whether the changes are good or bad because every generation has its own way of life. But sometimes, this wave of nostalgia takes you to your roots. Thankfully, there is a Saraswati Puja being organized bang across the road where I live by a local Bengali association. We don't have a holiday here. So will visit the pandal in the evening, after I return home. I also have invitations for eating Bhog at two other Puja pandals. Life is not so bad, after all.