Carrying our culture where we go
The morning air is filled with the sweet aroma of burning incense and fresh flowers. The beautiful idol of the goddess stands tall at her altar, with a veena in her hand and a swan by her feet. Our mothers and aunties wear their bright, yellow saris to prepare offerings of fruits and sweets. Someone blows a conch shell to announce the arrival of Ma Saraswati, signaling the start of a day of celebration for the goddess of knowledge and wisdom.
I was in preschool when I moved with my family from Kolkata, India, to California’s Bay Area. My family was fortunate to quickly find a Bengali community in Foster City, with whom we were able to celebrate Bengali holidays and practice Bengali traditions. I was three-and-a-half years old when this community – now called Baybasi – organized its first Saraswati Puja, or pujo as we call it. Being a Bengali immigrant growing up in the Bay Area, celebrating Saraswati Pujo with family and friends was one of the most memorable days of the year.
Saraswati Puja is a Hindu festival honoring the goddess of learning, education and the arts. The tradition of celebrating Saraswati Pujo during spring on Vasant Panchami is more common in eastern India. In the eastern state of West Bengal, where I immigrated from, Saraswati Pujo is one of the major Hindu festivals. It is of great significance especially to children of school-going age, and is celebrated in households and as community events. Immigrants like us have carried these traditions into Bengali communities around the world.
Phenomenal food, clothing and shelter
I remember the excitement building in the weeks leading up to the festival. Our parents would discuss the preparations they were making with other Bengali families in our community. They fussed over the details of the pujo, the food, and the outfits we would all wear.
Choosing our traditional outfits was a notable part of celebrating Saraswati Pujo. My parents would take my sister and me to get new traditional salwar kameezes, and my mother would wear a brand new sari, all in lively shades of yellow to celebrate the goddess and the colors of spring. I always felt grown-up and closer to my culture in my new clothes, and I loved seeing my friends and families coming together dressed in the same traditional clothing.
Another memorable aspect was the food – the diversity of dishes that our moms and aunties would cook to last throughout the day. Early in the day we would enjoy prasad, or offerings of fruits and sweets that were blessed by the goddess. After the religious celebrations were complete, we would enjoy flavorful khichuri, torkari, and beguni. By evening our families would gather for chai and samosas, and at night we would feast with delicious goat curry and rice or maangsho bhaat, and a plethora of Bengali desserts. As much as we enjoyed the food, we enjoyed watching our mothers prepare the dishes. We knew that each recipe was handed down from previous generations, and these traditions were being shared across the table with other families in our community.
Bonding over culture and community
Preparations would begin well in advance for our cultural performances in the evening. In the weeks leading up to the celebration, my sister and I would spend hours after school practicing classical dance, reciting poetry, and learning Bengali music. Saraswati Pujo was an opportunity for all of us to be immersed in our culture. My parents encouraged my sister and I to be involved in as many ways as possible. Throughout the years, we performed Bharatanatyam and Bollywood alike, sang Rabindra Sangeet to contemporary Bengali band-music like Bhoomi, and recited lines from Sukumar Ray’s Abol Tabol and other children’s plays.
On the night of the event, the performances would begin with children, and would continue with our mothers singing and dancing. The grand finale would be a a hilarious natok or play that our fathers performed. We all carved time out of our busy schedules to prepare for this night; this was our chance to celebrate our talents and our culture, together as a community in front of Saraswati thakur.
The most memorable part, however, was the pujo itself. Our fathers and uncles would spend days designing and building the pandel, a theme-based altar for the goddess. Unlike in India, we typically had no professional help; so the men would build it themselves with things they could find around the house. The pandels were so creative, they were works of art in themselves!
At the time of the pujo, the priest would chant loudly as we all gathered around him to pray together. I remember standing for anjali – an offering of prayers and flowers to the goddess – repeating the mantras after the priest, with a sense of belonging. Surrounded by my loved ones, family, friends, faces new and familiar, this moment felt so pure as we all stood together, chanting the same prayers as a community, as one.
Carrying forward my heritage
This Saraswati Pujo marks 23 years of our community in the Bay Area. Many things have changed over the years; children have grown, venues have moved, some families have moved in and others have moved out. But what remains the same is our spirit and devotion as a community. While Saraswati Pujo holds a religious significance for many, for me its importance lies in bringing my community together. I enjoy learning and practicing my family’s traditions, and coming together with other families to share stories, food, art, and culture.
As I grow older and expand my network, I hope to carry these traditions and practices into the new communities I join. Being a Bengali immigrant growing up in the Bay Area, I am proud to share our culture, proud to participate in our community, and proud to be surrounded by my loved ones as we come together again and again to celebrate Saraswati Pujo.