Decades ago this day, the day of Saraswati Puja – the day of praying to the Goddess of Learning , was one of the best celebrations of the whole year. Not that we were too religious ever, but this was the day when we were officially banned from studying or reading and writing. Can you imagine what fun it was as a child?? All the books, copies, pens/pencils, musical instruments – for us it was the harmonium – anything that is related to knowledge and ‘vidya’ was not to be touched and were offered to the goddess for her to shower loads of blessings on them and we in turn would be blessed. Having studied in a convent school in U.P., unlike my cousins in Kolkata, we did not have holidays for Saraswati Puja; so – and here comes the good part – for years, on our parents instructions we bunked school and had great fun the whole day. We would show off the ritually sanctioned abstinence from studies infront of our classmates who would be going to schools wearing the same old boring uniforms while we adorned new clothes in varying shades of yellow, representing the color of Basant Panchami which marks the onset of Spring Season.
My grandmother would ask me the same question every year – “who comes first( as in who is more important) : Ma Lakshmi or Ma Saraswati?” It was a question that would always puzzle me -” whom to choose?” The goddess who gives financial success and money which helps me to go to school or the goddess who gives us knowledge and enriches our brain which makes us successful enough to do good in life and become richer. It was as puzzling as the age-old dilemma of ‘the chicken or the egg’. Had she been alive today, I might have answered her with a counter question of how life and the universe came into being. And that would have taught her a lesson to never bother me with such disturbing questions.
Getting back to the celebration – The night before the puja, me and my mother would do all the preparations like decorating the goddess and her podium with flowers, paper cuttings, thermocol cuttings and painting the floors with traditional decorative art called ‘alpona‘, arranging the books next to the podium, filling up of ink pots with ‘kacha doodh’ (raw milk) and ‘khager kolom’ (bamboo quills) and washing all the fruits ready to be cut in the morning for presenting to the deity. Making ‘Alpona’ was something that I learned very early from my mother and grandmother. I would steal some chalk pieces from my class so that I could sketch the outline of the alpona on the floor before proceeding to finish it with soaked rice flour using cotton balls. My father would be the priest chanting the mantras while we would wake up early, get showered, and decked up for Pushpanjali (empty stomach, mind it!).
This was also the time we were allowed to have the fruit ‘Kul‘ (‘Jujube’ in English and ‘Ber’ in Hindi). Year long me and my brother would crave for the forbidden fruit, as we were told for reasons unknown to me, it was only to be eaten during Saraswati Puja. The next day morning, before school we would take flowers and ‘bel pata‘ from the goddess’s feet and tuck it inside each book, write some prayers on the Bel leaf with the bamboo quills dipped in raw milk and offer it to Ma Saraswati post which we would expect extremely good results in exams. And that marked the end of the celebrations.
As we grew up the much enjoyed ban on studies were relaxed and in high school there was no option of not studying as this was the time for preparing for Board exams.
In college hostel Basant Panchami was celebrated with lot of fun and galore. After I moved to Kolkata for higher studies I realised that this day is also known as Bengali Valentine’s Day! The streets would be full with girls in yellow sarees and boys in kurta payjama roaming hand in hand as if this was the day of officially ignoring the Indian conservative mindset and giving open permission for romance.
During my MBAs in Kolkata when I was staying at our apartment with my brother and uncle I started the ritual of having Saraswati Puja at home, though my parents could never be with us as they were still in U.P. So I would invite my cousins, friends of mine and my brother’s and everyone would come to our place for Anjali. I had my friends stay over the night before so that they could help me with the decorations; the cook whom we had hired for our daily meals would prepare huge quantities of Khichudi, labra, tomato chutney for all of us. I feel good that by the time I got married my dad had retired and moved to our Kolkata apartment and my mom took over the Puja preparations. Though I am not present there now, they still manage to invite friends and relatives and make a big celebration out of it.
Well, for me – sitting in the US and lacking the motivation of having a Puja done here, I skyped with my family and my inlaws and tried not to feel sad at missing out on all the fun. It was pretty nostalgic to see the ‘P.K.De.Sarkar’ English Grammer book from our school days lying next to the deity just the way it used to be decades ago. I guess somethings never change….
So while there was no Pujo done we celebrated it with food as usual… :-). I made pure veg food (which means not only no non-veg but also no onions/garlic) for yesterday’s dinner- Porotha, Cholar Dal (sweet chana dal) and Aloo Morich (Potatoes with black pepper). Left over Aloo morich with luchi/poori for lunch today.
Here is the recipe for the Aloo Morich which is my Ma-in-law’s recipe. I love it for its simplicty in taste and preparation. You will understand it if you decide to make it. In addition to her recipe I just added some fresh dill leaves that I had got the day before. This is the first time I used dill leaves and just loved the flavor. However it is completely optional.
Ingredients: (Most of them are to taste so adjust accordingly)
- Potatoes – 4-5 small to medium sized, boiled and cubed
- Ghee – 1-2 tbsp. (No cringing please!!! This recipe demands it so be generous, if required go for more)
- Green chillies – 3-4 or to taste, slit lengthwise. If you dont want it too spicy reduce the amount as the black pepper will have a strong flavor.
- Freshly ground black peppercorns – a little less than 1 tbsp or to taste. Note: For the right taste it is required that the pepper be freshly ground and not store bought.
- Fresh Dill Leaves – a handful chopped (optional)
- Salt – to taste
- Water 1 tbsp, if required.
- In a pot boil the potatoes really well so that they can be mashed up easily if required. You do not have to mash them just cube them.
- Heat a wok and add ghee to it.
- Once hot, add the green chillies and freshly crushed black peppercorns and give it a stir.
- Add the boiled and cubed potatoes and chopped dill leaves, salt and mix well. Since the potatoes are well boiled some of them will mash up a little bit as you stir, or you can do that with the back of the spoon. That’s how you want it, not completely mashed but just a little.
- If you want add 1 tbsp of water to it so that everything mixes well and does not stick to the bottom. However remember this is a dry dish. Additionally, if you want, you can add a drop of ghee at the end to garnish.
Serving suggestion – Serve it hot with paratha or puris. I usually make the paratha/puris and then prepare this dish as it dries up when left to cool. Once the potatoes are boiled it takes only couple of minutes to finish it so I prefer making it at the end.