Writing an article around Valentine’s Day invariably leads to the celebration of love and such stuff. With the advent of Spring comes Saraswati Pujo, technically on the fifth day of the season, called Basant Panchami. Saraswati, the goddess of Arts and Education is worshipped diligently across my part of the world. From miniature clay idols at home to medium sized idols at various schools and finally the larger versions at the barowari (public) pujo, the goddess is more revered than actually loved. I’ve often perceived Saraswati as the lonelier, geeky goddess among others, akin to the bespectacled girl in school, bypassed for prettier ones (like Lakshmi). My loyalties have been and will remain for the ivory goddess, who I believe has lent me the few words that I can write. Retracing to Valentine’s Day bit of the story – Saraswati Pujo is termed aptly as Bengali Valentine’s Day for the past half-a-century. I think it’s barely been 50 years that Saraswati Pujo began to be celebrated in schools around Bengal. The stern iron gates of each mono-gender school would be open to everyone only on this day, creating leeways for teenagers. Each teenage boy, clad in pressed and clean white or yellow Panjabi-Pajama would peer around Girls’ schools in the neighbourhood for saree clad beauties. Thus began an era of seeing each other, diligently asking for prasad, going out for a date in a group and stealing furtive glances.
But, hold your reins, this isn’t about Valentine’s Day. It’s rather about love for a festival obsessed around food, again. Saraswati Pujo normally takes place before noon and I’ve always kept a fast till the rituals and pushpanjali are done. It’s not a big deal, actually, though it used to be when I was a kid. Cutting and prepping fruits for the prasad, arranging paayesh and sweets for bhog would make me invariably hungry. As you can notice in the image, there are certain sweet condiments made purely of sugar (kodma, birkhondi, moth) that are mandatory to be offered to the goddess. I’d wait eagerly to get my hands on these while I was a child.
The day’s food fiesta (vegetarian) begins with these right after the rituals have ended. A plate full of fruits, sweets, soaked mung daal and rice would surely fill you up before breakfast. And immediately follows a hearty breakfast of luchi-alur dom and more sweets. It is these days of pujo when there’s no restrictions on sweets and they are served with every meal of the day. In almost every household in Bengal, Khichuri is a must during lunch on this occasion. My parents prefer Beguni and Phulkopir Dalna to accompany the Khichuri, while it’s more of Begun bhaja and Bandhakopir Chochhori at M’s place. The dessert is inadvertently Paayesh with jaggery and Gobindobhog rice at both households. We normally eat Khichuri quite frequently during all winter but there’s something about Khichuri cooked during a festival like this. The flavour deepens, there’s festivity in the air and everything tastes better. Since it’s the Bengali Valentine’s Day, going for a date in the evening wearing a saree and having Phuchka or Egg roll have been a norm in my time.
The best part of Saraswati Pujo that I look forward to each year is the Gota Seddho that follows the next day. Since the pujo is on Basant Panchami, the next day is a Shosthi that mothers celebrate for well being of their children. Gota Seddho is cooking all vegetables intact, without chopping them up. Adding a handful of Mah-ki-daal (Black Urad daal), mustard oil, salt and a paste of ginger and fennel, the vegetables are boiled in a pot on a slow flame until they soak all the water and get cooked. Vegetables like whole potato, sweet potato, green peas, eggplant, tomatoes, carrots lend am organic flavour and taste without tampering the nutrients. It is my all time favourite, to be had with a little mustard oil and steamed rice.
It isn’t unique that all our festivals are about celebrating with food, each of its own kind and had for a reason. Saraswati Pujo is one of my favourites despite lacking the non vegetarian umami in the food all day. Now you know why. #BanglaKhabar