Perhaps it was the picture in the newspaper of kites flying against the rain-washed skies over Milpitas—that the writer had duly reported as “Makar Sankranti,” which celebrates the shift of the sun from the southern to the northern hemisphere—or perhaps it was the storm clouds canopied over fresh green hills that made me think of the tumultuous monsoons of Bengal.
My thoughts flew to my childhood of crisp winter mornings, when the firm-textured mildly sweet taste of narikel kool, a berry-like fruit, piqued a child’s tongue. There was another kind of kool, too. That one was called tapa kool, and was small and brown with a skin that always seemed wrinkled and was sour to the taste. It was good for achars(pickles), they said, so mashed up, blended with spices and sun-dried, it made a nice condiment to set on the table. The tapa kool, because of its sour taste was not a favorite of mine, and being sun-dried and mashed and stored in pickle jars seemed a suitable fate for that berry.
As children we abjured kool until the day of Saraswati Puja. It was something you gave up so that you could be blessed with brains from the Goddess Saraswati’s infinite store of wisdom. The fruit that I loved was narikel kool that, today, some farmers markets sell as “Chinese dates.” The skin is a soft, pale green and at times you will find blotches of brown spread over the surface.
As the sunlight streamed into our rooms, we would wake up pleased that the day was a holiday and that it was also Saraswati Puja. As a puja it is celebrated in homes with smaller images of the goddess, and in public with large, statuesque images of Saraswati. Small or large, all the images are fashioned from the alluvial clay of Bengal by craftsmen whose skills flow through generations. The clay images had the folds of the sari beautifully sculpted, and all were painted white; the saris were white too, with a trimming of gold. In some instances where the goddess was adorned in a real sari, the sari was invariably silk, and always a shade of yellow ranging from the palest lemon to golden yellow. At times Saraswati sat with meditative eyes, eyes that were half-closed contemplating the universe; at other times, she would gaze out at all assembled, her eyes large, dark, and serene. At all times she held a veena (stringed musical instrument), cradling it when seated or holding it lightly by her side when standing. A swan invariably frolicked by her foot, an elegant white bird its neck arched.
My aunt next door presided over Saraswati Puja each year, to which all her nieces and nephews as well as the extended clan were invited. As children we made sure ahead of time that our textbooks were placed by the goddess, particularly the books in those subjects where we experienced the most difficulty.
Yellow, which mirrors the morning sun and marigolds, is viewed as the color ofbasant or spring. So, after bathing, we dressed in that color and sat in readiness for our aunt’s call, making sure that we avoided breakfast, and refraining from even a sip of water. When my aunt sent word that it was time for puja, we scampered over and gathered before the goddess. A shining brass platter heaped with petals, some leaves and whole flowers, mostly marigolds and sweet-smelling white flowers, was passed around; each of us eagerly took a fistful. After chanting the mantras, we flung the flowers at the feet of the goddess; this was repeated three times, so by the end of the puja, Saraswati sat in divine splendor in a sea of orange, yellow, white, and pink petals.
Arrayed before the goddess on the polished, washed floor were large brass platters of sliced banana, diced apples, grapes, and smooth, whole, green narikel kool, the Chinese dates. Only after the floral offerings, called anjali, to the goddess were we given small plates ofprasad, which included the cut fruit. Then, and only then, did we bite into the firm-fleshed kool. After all the festivities were over, each of us took a handful of petals and flowers that had been blessed by Saraswati and placed them between the pages of our textbooks, so that wisdom might shower on us throughout the year.
Through a burst of nostalgia so many years later, I found myself making floral offerings to the goddess in a rented room at the Indian Community Center in Milpitas. I refrained from all food and drink prior to the puja, but after the festivities were over and the prasad distributed, nowhere could I find the elusivekool.
Apala G. Egan is a teacher, translator and writer.