‘Coming back to school half a century later - Saraswati Pujo, Shyama Prasad Vidyalaya, New Delhi’… by Rekha Karmakar
Visiting my alma mater on Saraswati Puja day after almost half a century - RK
“I recently went to my alma mater “Shyama Prasad Vidyalaya” at Lodi Estate, New Delhi, on the occasion of Saraswati Puja, after almost fifty years. This prompted me to pen down my feelings and emotions as I took a trip down memory lane.
It so happened that I was in Gurgaon in January this year (2012). An unplanned trip. Coincidentally, Saraswati Puja was also held early this year by coincidence. To top it all, it was a Saturday, an off-day for both my younger son Sid and his wife Soy.
It was the chance of a life time. So I decided to go to my alma mater on the day of Saraswati Puja. I was so excited that Sid started teasing me by saying it seemed as if I was going to attend Cannes Film Festival or the Olympic Games. To me, however, the occasion was no less important.
The Saraswati Pujo day finally arrived. The three of us started from Gurgaon by car, for my school in Lodi Estate, New Delhi. Nothing of my school remained the same, after fifty years, expect for its name and the venue.
We did not have much difficulty in finding the school as I had visited the school last year after a gap of fifty years. This school was set up by the displaced Bengali babus of East Pakistan, a few years after independence, so that they could provide decent education to their children. My whole school life was spent in studying in class-rooms, made of coarse pyramid like tents as the school authorities could not afford a brick and cement structure. I had written about my school in a previous post titled ‘Aladin’s Genie messes around with my schools and colleges‘dated 7th December, 2010.( Here’s the Link)
Last year when I went to my school, the present principal gave me an open invitation, along with my family to come to school on Saraswati Puja.
We got down in front of the huge building of the school. On entering, we found out that the Puja was still going on. The school authorities have built a permanent idol of Saraswati (Goddess of learning) in front of the school building. A pandel (shamian/ awning) was put up on the idol to hold the Puja. The last batch of “anjali” (offering Puja with flowers) was still going on. We were very glad and offered “anjali” as we did not want to miss this chance. Nearby, a few teachers were making “ dadhi karma”. It is an essential part of Saraswati Puja, usually made of white rice flakes, yoghurt, bananas and sweets. All the items were mashed together and offered to everyone present there.
After coming out of the pandal, we were thinking about what to do next. Just then a lady called us and asked me if I was an ex-student. I said yes and she gave us three boxes of sweets meant to be “prasad”. I was very moved and asked them if I could give some subscription. They said that it was not mandatory. But we gave a few hundred rupees for which they give us a receipt.
Sid and Soy opened their boxes and started eating. They said that the sweets were of very good quality. I too stealthily opened a box and had a bite of the sweets, when Sid was looking the other way. Sweets are a ‘no no ‘for me.
The box of sweets took me back to my childhoodt- about - 50/60 years back. That was the age before that of plastic bags and paper boxes. ‘Prasad’ used to be given in packets made of dried ‘sal’ leaves. The ‘prasad’ usually consisted of cut pieces of different types of fruits. One fruit was compulsory and that was ‘kul’ or ‘berries’ as they are called in Mumbai and Delhi. We were allowed to eat ‘kul’ only after it was offered to Goddess Saraswati on the day of the Puja. Along with fruits, we also got some sweets. We used to look forward to this packet of ‘prasad’ as we did not eat anything since morning.
The morning of the Puja was full of activities. My mother used to dye my white frock in ‘basanti’/ lemon yellow colour the previous day. As Saraswati Puja also announces the advent of spring/’basant’, we had to wear lemon/basanti coloured dress. However, my next generation of siblings did not have to wear ‘basanti’ coloured dress. They belonged to the modern generation.
After taking bath early in the morning, I used to go to my school. On that day, we did not need any ‘wake up call’. On the way, we used to collect flowers for Puja. Students, living near the school used to collect flowers from the trees that lined the boundaries of the huge bungalows of the Ministers, which surrounded our school. I was very glad to see this time that those boundaries were still laden with trees and flowers. So many times, we used to sit on the parapet of the boundaries for hours.
I still remember one incident relating to Saraswati Puja. Before Puja, groups of students used to go to the nearby bungalows to collect subscription for Puja. In olden days, in ‘Brahmacharya schools’, the disciples used to go to nearby villages to ask for alms for their sustenance. In Buddhist period also the monks used to ask for alms. The whole idea was to teach humility. Taking cue from the old period, our students used to go out to collect subscription. One day, a group of students came back from one of the huge bungalows and produced a few copper coins, which were of no value even at that time, as result of their collection.
The class teacher was a young modern lady of that time and did not believe in teaching humility to the students at the cost of self-respect. She was so annoyed that she vowed that she would not allow any student, at least of her class, to go on a collection spree from the next year. I too feel that if you do not went to subscribe to any cause, you should not. But you should never demean the collector by giving 25/10/50p.
We used to be busy till the morning Puja was over as we had to cut fruits, distribute flowers for anjali to fellow students and finally the packets of Prasad to everyone. All these things taught us community living, sharing and caring.
After that we used to be free till lunch time. This was the best time of the day. We used to play or simply chat for hours. As we grew older, we started wearing saris on the day of the Puja. We were also allowed to keep our hair open on that day. Though it was very difficult to manage our saris, we fell very happy and imagined ourselves to be mini Sophia Lorens in saris.
The boys did not dress up much, though, on that day. At the most, they would put on trousers in place of shorts.
The girls made their own groups and chatted among themselves. Similarly, the boys also made their own groups. It is not that they did not talk to each other but in free-times, they always formed their own groups.
On that day the more adventurous ones would go to nearby Khan Market or Lodi Gardens. While going out also boys and girls made their separate groups. But this was the scene that prevailed more than half a century ago. Later, however, these equations changed.
At this juncture, Sid called me and I came back from the reels memories from the past to the present. We went inside to meet the principal. She was very glad to see us and requested us to have bhog/lunch before we left. We agreed and thanked her for her gesture.
After that, we started walking towards the huge play ground. There we noticed a motley crowd gathering near a long table. A banner was flying high on which it was written ’SPEXSA-Shyama Prasad Ex-Student Association’. Going there, I came to know that a few ex-students were trying to revive our ‘old students’ Association’ after thirty years. I was very glad to know it and enrolled myself after filling a form and giving the requisite fees. A batch of smart young boys (ex-students) was manning the counter. A huge crowd of ex-students had gathered around the counter.
Quite a few ex-students had come with their families. Not only that, many Sikh gentlemen (ex-students) had also come with their wives and children. I also noticed a few elderly ladies who were old enough to be ‘grandmas’ like me.
We did not need any introduction. We just talked to each other as if we had known one another for a long time. We talked about our teachers, our class rooms made of tents and finally how the new building came up. We talked about the white ‘kash’ flowers that used to bloom around our school in Autumn and about the red ‘ladybirds’ that used to come out after rain in our school compound.
I also came to know that the first Indian to go to Antarctica was a student of our school. We all seemed to transcend the present and were in a trance. I was the oldest among all. The first batch of H.S. students had passed out in 1962. I belonged to the second batch. Everyone present there showed me a lot of respect as I was the senior most. I really felt very flattered.
At this time, a young boy (an ex-student) came and gave me three coupons for ‘bhog/lunch’. ‘Bhog’ is the cooked lunch offered to the Goddess and then distributed among all.
As Soy wanted to have lunch in some restaurant at khan market, we decided to take only one plate of ’bhog’ and share. We returned two coupons and went to the counter where they were distributing ‘bhog’. ‘Bhog’ was served in thermocol plates. It consisted of vegetable fried rice, cauliflower curry, paneer curry and a huge ‘gulabjamun’. We went inside and found a desk. I sat down on it and then three of us started sharing food from the same plate as we used to do years ago during tiffin break.
A little away, I could see the students of the school eating ’bhog/lunch’ sitting on the verandah in rows. This again took me back to the past and as if I could see everything as a flashback.
I remembered how years ago we used to look forward to have ’bhog’ as the aroma of the ’khichri’ filled the whole compound. ’Bhog’ usually used to be served in our playground with a pandal on the top to cover the place. We used to sit down on the mats in rows. Almost every year, the ‘bhog’ consisted of light yellow coloured khichri will green peas in it, cauliflower curry, cabbage curry with big chunks of potatoes,papad,chutney and some sweet usually ’budias’/’bode’ .
Bhog was served in round ‘sal’ (leaves) plates. Before starting, we used to chant loudly ‘Jai Saraswati Mai Ki Jai’. After that we used to start eating. We ate and ate and ate. There was no restriction on helpings. Sometimes the cold north-westerly wind would blow with sand in it while we had ’bhog’’/lunch’. With one hand, we used to cover our eyes and with another the ’khichri bhog’.
I cannot, still forget the wonderful taste of the ‘khichri bhog’. Later in my life I have had participated in quite a few banquets, with at least a hundred items in the menu, in foreign countries.But nothing compared to the ‘bhog’ that I had in my school life. I have time and again referred to this Saraswati Puja ‘bhog’ in my writings.
I came back to the present as we finished sharing the plate of ‘bhog’. After that we said ‘good bye’ to the principal and to the other ex-students. As we were about to leave, I asked Sid to wait for a minute and hastily went inside to collect a yellow marigold flower, that was lying near the feet of the idol of Goddess Saraswati, as a memento.
We had lunch in a restaurant at Khan Market. Next we went to the nearby India Gate for a short visit.
At about 3.30 p.m , we started for Gurgaon . My feet were swollen due to the long drive but my heart was full of happiness.
As the car whizzed past the posh localities of New Delhi and later through the stately highways to Gurgaon, I started introspecting about the events of the day in my school.
I kept thinking, what is it that brought me all the way from Kolkata via Mumbai (my eldest son’s work place) to my school in New Delhi after half a century? Not only me, this connection also drew many other ex-students to the school with their families! While assaulting teachers is the rule of the day, why is it that those of our age still fondly remember our teachers?
I wondered if it is because distance lends charm to the past or is it because our teachers dedicated themselves to our school? May be both
Even today, I remember Smt. Kamalini Mitra, the first principal of our school. So many times, she would coach us specially in our free- periods without taking any fees. All she wanted was that we should do well in H.S Exam so that our school stands out as one of the best schools in Delhi. Knowing very well that it would not add a single penny to her pay pocket.
It was she who told us that, in spite of being girls, we could have a fulfilling life and career. Our Economies teacher, Smt. Subhra Ghosh, who became the next principal, carried on the mantle with the same dedication. Thus it is going on and on.
I am very proud of my alma mater and wish it the best in coming future as well
Rekha Karmakar (SPV, 1963 Batch)
Ex-Associate Professor of English
Bijoy Krishna Girls’ College, Howrah
(Affiliated to Calcutta University)