Of Saraswati and books

matilda
Matilda (from Roald Dahl’s novel), illustrated by Quentin Blake

It was Saraswati Puja today, which in an ideal world would mean a holiday filled with cups of tea and books. Sadly, the world is not ideal. However, before the day ends, I did want to put up something here because it seems terribly wrong for a books blog to go without a post on a day dedicated to the goddess of bookworms (and knowledge and music).

In the galaxy of Hindu gods, Saraswati is the goddess of learning. I’m not sure if this happens everywhere, but in Bengal, you don’t dispose of the Saraswati idol the way you do the Durga idol, which is immersed once the prayers are done. Saraswati’s a keeper. She comes out, all spruced up, on Basant Panchami and kids would put their textbooks and pencil cases at her feet. At the end of the day, the idol is wrapped up and put away safely. She’ll be brought out again a year later.

My father has never been one for pujas and rituals, but the two pujas he doesn’t mind being done at home are those for Lakshmi and Saraswati. From what I recall of my childhood, his enthusiasm for Lakshmi puja was entirely because the prasad (I’ve a sneaky feeling that if my mother didn’t cook as well as she does, Lakshmi Devi would’ve got a lot less love from our household). Saraswati puja, however, he took seriously. By which I mean we bought and read books on this day, and there would be music playing on the music system. And my mum would make khichudi (a goopy but delicious mix of dal, rice and spices), because what’s the point of food for thought if there isn’t food for the body that’s doing the thinking?

I, not being anywhere near as either efficient or good a cook as my mother, didn’t make khichudi today. Neither did I wear yellow, which is the traditional dress code for Saraswati puja even though the goddess wears white. Making my way through the work day, it struck me that Saraswati is also the goddess of disappearing things. The river named after her no longer exists. The practice of playing the veena, Saraswati’s chosen instrument, is fading away . The book that she holds in her hand is fast turning into an artefact. The dictionary, home of words known and unknown, has disappeared from most homes and we use words so much more casually today, rarely bothering to check for meanings and nuances. At best, the fat dictionary has shrunk down to the size of a button on computer screens.

So I’m going to end this post with a prayer that books don’t disappear, and a quote from a novel that was among my favourites as a kid. Roald Dahl’s Matilda is about a little girl who wants to read but is told to watch TV instead. Matilda learns an inordinate amount of stuff from the books she reads, but general knowledge isn’t the only thing she gets out of reading:

These books gave Matilda a hopeful and comforting message: You are not alone.

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7 thoughts on “Of Saraswati and books

  1. Aww – poor sad author. It must be a dejected, brave heart that gives up the traditional pencil to wield a sterile keyboard to despair about how things have changed from traditions to sterility. How hard it must be to think about leaving mummy’s hand; to leave a room full of chopped trees sprayed with indelible chemicals; to leave the comfort of rituals; of our own styles of speaking, dressing, eating, being. This is not a lament; it’s a battle note from a vanguard soldier, defending the immobile from the ravages of change and evolution. A salute is in order.

    1. I wish I could give you points for your imagination, except these are not only hackneyed points but also unrelated. Just because one feels a pang for books becoming artefacts doesn’t necessarily mean one also wants rainforests to disappear. And how ironic that you bring up rituals given this post is about a puja without rituals in the conventional sense. But that’s ok. You still get five stars for wilful misinterpretation. 🙂 Thank you for reading.

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