“Anjali ta taratari koroon…kheede peye gechhe” (hurry up with the Anjali, we are hungry)
The plaintive cry of Mr Tapan Mukherjee, one of the founders of the more than fifty years old Vivekananda Club’s Notun Polly Saraswati Pujo, summed up the mood of the morning. For it is only after giving the Anjali can one eat.
It was Saraswati Pujo yesterday. The day of the prayers to the Hindu goddess of Knowledge and learning. Younger daughter of the Goddess Durga…only hope for students who didn’t study all year and hoped to be absolved of this by offering prayers to her… Veena player Goddess Saraswati whose preferred mode of transport is her swan, favourite colour yellow or Bosonto, skin complexion white. One of the most popular goddesses of Bengalis, a community where education and learning is put right up there in order of priorities.
Saraswati Pujo is a holiday for all in West Bengal but it is really a special day for kids. For that’s one day when you put your books to be blessed by the Goddess and you don’t study that day in reverence to her. Even if your exams are knocking round the corner. I never got the logic for that but why complain? Problem was we weren’t allowed to read story books either.
Saraswati Pujo happens in houses, used to happen at my father’s house and it was from him that I learnt about the Goddess when I was still a baby. There is a picture of me in a basket in front of a Saraswati Pujo at England. I was two. The pujo is held at schools and colleges at Calcutta…though not at the Protestant schools I went to…and at neighbourhood paras and at building societies too.
Saraswati Pujo is a festival of spring. Folks to wear traditional clothes. Girls walking around ladylike in yellow saris. Little boys might wear dhotis but as they grow older it is pyjamas and yellow panjabis or kurtas. It is a day for kids to be all self important…it is their puja after all… from collecting chanda or donations, getting the pratima for the puja, decorating the pandal, choosing the music to be played in the P A system (is it chikni chameli in Calcutta this year?), serving food to the devotees, cultural programmes….all in honour of the beloved Goddess Saraswati. All with a fervent hope to get in her good books and get the sort of marks in school which would get ones parents of ones back. For tiny tots this is when ‘haathe khori’ happens…the act of making a baby write words of the Bengali alphabet on a slate to start their journey of education.
The high point of Saraswati Pujo is the pushpanjali…where the priest or thakurmoshai leads the prayers and then those assembled offer flowers (pushpa) to the Goddess…the only hitch…you have to fast till this happens. In good Bengali style the prayer gets over by the morning and then prasad …sweets and fruits blessed by the Goddess…are distributed…
Which is just about as much of religious austerity that we can bear….specially the boys and men…it really is up to the women and girls to help observe the rituals in all seriousness….the boys want to to get over with anjali, have the prasad and get down to the carom boards, cricket matches or just plain adda or chatter…
And that sort of explains Tapan Babu’s cry of hunger. He had come all the way from Vasai.
I,on the other hand, had sneaked in a quick sandwich and coffee at Candies before coming to the Pujo but I am sure that Goddess Saraswati, with her kind and benign smile would understand. She did help me pass some tricky math exams in school after all.
This was my first Saraswati Pujo at Mumbai after more than a decade here. Unlike in Kolkata there is no holiday here. Saraswati Pujos come and go without one even knowing about it. This year was different. I had just got to know the folks at Notunpali after Sam wrote in on a post I wrote on Durga Pujo inviting me over. I met them all at the Laxmi Pujo and connected with this wonderful group of folks from all over Mumbai who come together at Bandra to celebrate various Bengali festivals.
I joined the Notun Polli facebook group and saw that a Saraswati Pujo would be held at the Bandra Hindu Association Hall which is opposite Hangla's at Linking Road. And on a Saturday this time.
I landed up at the Pujo like a homing pigeon. Met the now familiar faces Captain Mon Basu, Sam, Kaushik Saha the food organiser and then rushed in as I saw than anjali was about to start. I looked around and what I saw reminded me of the puja at our building complex at Calcutta. The men sitting in groups and chatting…some running around getting things organised…specially the community lunch…the women in saris near the prayer area helping the thakurmoshai, distributing flowers for the anjali, getting the prasad plates ready.
The sonorous anjali done, shantijal or holy ganga water sprinkled on by the thakurmoshai for the inner peace of all, blessings of the holy fire, the red tikka applied on our foreheads and it was time to get our prasad --- bonde, chal korma, oranges and the kul (Indian berries) …the fruit we had to wait for all winter as elders said that you could have it only after Saraswati Pujo happened. I sat in a corner….and scooped in bites of sweet memories from my makeshift plate.
I joined Kaushik in the cooking area behind. A community lunch would be served to all who came in…free of cost…funded by donations and corporate ads. A part of the food was offered to the Goddess first by the priest while a couple of ladies covered the pandal with a sari so that the goddess could eat in private…her food is then mixed to the community cooking pot so that everyone gets a bit of the ‘bhog’ or food blessed by the Goddess.
The food at the Notun Polly pujo is cooked by Gobindo Babu and his team. Gobindo Babu apparently came to Mumbai years back when actor Mithun Chakraborty got him to work in his house. Eventually Gobindo became the cook at the Notunpalli pujo. As I watched the wizards at work I saw some of the ladies, organisers coming in with tiffin boxes to take some for those at home…reminded me of much rancour which this led to in my building puja…all part of the fun and festivity…for us guys at least
Kaushik is the commander in chief of the food committee. He is rumoured to come to the puja premises at 5 in the morning to wake up his troops. He takes feeding people very seriously.
The afternoon lunch was as traditional a Saraswati Pujo fare as it gets… khichudi, labda, papad, tomato chutney and chaaler payesh. The last swirl of the cauldron done, the last sprinkling of garam masala and ghee into the khichudi, the last adornment of coriander garnish and Kaushik and team his team were ready at the counter. A serpentine queue formed and bhog was served.
I hovered around took photographs then suddenly went to the volunteers and asked if anyone needed a relief. The gentleman at the chutney counter did and I jumped in….I had grown up helping serve food in our community pujo at Calcutta. Rued not being able to do this for years. Here I was finally doing something I had missed for so many years. Carefully pouring out the liquidy chutney in plates after Bonnie at the next counter served the labra. I was quite insistent and made sure that even those who were dieting took some chutney. Those who wanted seconds were my favourites. I was there by the bucket of chutney….much to the surprise of the odd reader who was in the queue and some friends of ours who didn’t expect to see me here.
Food served we volunteers sat down to eat. Kaushik had a special treat for us. Alu bhaaja and begun bhaaja I ditched the plastic spoon and plunged my fingers into the khichudi …it was steaming hot and I smiled as I impatiently waited for the food to cool in my fingers so that I could slowly scoop up the hot khichudi with a bite of the labda.
The khichudi was phenomenal. The Bengali rice and pulses risotto which is central to the Pujas and favoured food during rainy days. The khichudi at the pujo …hot nourishing with the occasional fiery surge of green chilli heat. Our conversation turned to how the khichudi at a puja mandaps taste special. Of how you can never recreate this at home. A conversation which gets repeated every time here. Someone rationalised and said that the sheer volume of khichudi and the inherent heat created magic which made it special. Someone else said that the first lot of khichudi is the best. It is cooked over three to four hours and is topped with the goodness of garam masala and ghee…the second lot ordinary and the third lot the poorest as the cook hastily puts together something depending on how many were left according to his conspiracy theory. Profound matters discussed as we dipped into the ghee filled blessed goodness of the steaming khichdi … this was the loveliest meal ever.
The chutney with papar was a tangy tart taste breaker before one moved onto the ‘milk of human kindness’ payesh or rice pudding which was full of the richness of raisins and cashews…one of the best payeshes that I have had.
It was as if the entire meal was cooked by a grand mom. That’s how much the food tasted tasted of home and of the wonder years.
And then a Hindi film moment happened as I heard someone call out for me. It was a very close friend of mine from my college days. He often used to come to the Saraswati Puja at our building at Calcutta for the community lunch. We lost touch over the years. And hear we were meeting again over a Saraswati Puja lunch.
We broke away after chatting for a while…well fed…happy
I came back to the pandal at night. There was going to be a lucky draw and then dinner too (sixty bucks a plate). I knew this feeling from the Pujos at Calcutta. You just didn’t want the day to end. I guess for some at Notunpali, getting together in the evening for a bit more of adda was in this spirit.
And the food was the centrepiece of course. There was koraishootir kochuri or puris stuffed with peas. People apparently complained in the past that these would become tough so Kaushik tried adding ghee one year. Didn’t help. This year he added curd to the dough. It worked!
Sam and I went to the kitchen and sneaked the odd kochuri while the food was piping hot…bursts of crispy goodness.. and some amazing vegetable (beetroot carrot and potato) chops (croquettes)….the best chops that I had in years. They were so light that they just floated in your mouth.
Gobindo and team did a stellar job. One of his assistants took the name of the blog page so that he could look up the pictures on facebook. He begun tapping his phone while his boss fried the kochuris.
Soon Koushik was out with the food and we queued up. The food tasted amazing once again. Along with the kochuri there was alur dom and a laddoo too.
My plate had more than what one could eat … deep fried, white flour, sweets, binge eating…everything that the doctor would shudder at…but we used good old Bengali logic …it’s the thakur’s proshad…blessed by the goddess…all will be good.
For more pujo pictures with descriptions check out this album on the finely chopped facebook page.
There is a link to a part of the Mumbai street food shot on The Travel Channel page. Unfortunately you can’t open the link from India but apparently can abroad. Here’s the link. Please let me know if you could open it.