the beginning of the ceremony for Saraswati Puja, the goddess of learning
in front of the alter with marigold petals to make an offering
At another school alter for Saraswati Puja
I am awake, have my makeup on and am dressed only in my petticoat and blouz, waiting for the girls to come help with the sari. the task seems daunting, I cannot fathom how these young girls and women dress so quickly in this endless ribbon of pattern and amazing color. to me it’s like putting a giant origami on oneself, not an easy task.
7:30 on the dot knock on the door, it is Taniele with all of her things, we are to dress in my room. Then another knock, actually several, and we have 21 girls in my tiny room, equipped with jewelry, nail polish, bindi – the decoration worn between the eyes (little paste on jewels), safety pins and extra makeup. The girls are ecstatic and ready to dress us. I feel like a giant Barbie doll, playing dress up with these dorm friends. They stand on my bed, all of them, dressing Taniele and me in tandem. There is some argument as to who is correct in their pleating of the saris, I just hope that whatever happens it doesn’t fall off. the air is full of giddy excitement as we begin to emerge as Indian princesses. The girls are checking me out, insisting I put on more eye makeup and lipstick, very critical of which color I choose. Then the search for jewelry is on, they like my earrings but insist I must wear a necklace and a million bangles. Bothe of us look in the mirror and are shocked to see ourselves outfitted as though we were truly Indian woman. Hair is combed and re combed, pins and sparkles added then removed then an upsweep of the hair and finally down again with a matching pink clip in my hair.
Now the room is filled with about 50 girls, and the housemother who comes to make sure we won’t end up unraveling as we walk. She makes a few adjustments and then takes a picture.
The girls are now dressed in their colorful saris, and we start a processional to the dining hall to have breakfast before the ceremony begins. The headmasters and the boys do a double take at this parade of beauties. They smile shyly as they see us, the “aunties‘ all dressed up. Everyone is saying “beautiful, beautiful!” in Bengali, we wave and continue towards the alter. A colorful and ornate statue of Saraswati, covered with garlands of marigolds and other flowers has been mounted on an alter of bamboo and sticks, there are plates of food, fruit, incense is burning and clay pots contain more incense to wave as the priest says his prayers. Marigold petals are handed out to each of us, Taniele and I seem to have more than the others. We are ushered ahead to the front so that we may have a great view of the ceremony. Bells are ringing, gongs are banged and we recite the prayer to this goddess of learning. Books have been put into the alter as a symbol of learning and offerings are piled up as well. It is gorgeous and colorful, complete with saris of every color of the rainbow and girls looking like beautiful dolls.
Father Stevens arrives and the service begins, we recite the blessings and then there is a pause while we all throw the first of three batches of marigolds into the alter. We are covered with flower petals. Taniele is asked to wave the incense around all of our heads, and am given the bell to ring while walking around the alter and children. It is a blessing. Lastly, we are sprinkled with water from the Ganges River as a blessing for the year of learning. It is a remarkable service and I am taken with the seriousness of these boys and girls. Learning to them is a blessing and they are thankful to God for this opportunity to expand their horizons.
Now for the good stuff…Taniele and I are to walk through the village with this pageant of 50 girls to go to each of their schools for a special meal and to show off all of our clothes. As we pass through our local village, the people stare, wave and yell comments about how we look. Men stare as do teenage boys, the girls warn me to not look them in the eye – “they are very rude auntie, very bad”. Even the women of the village look at us with wide eyes, it’s as though we are from another planet, maybe we are. The girls are also very proud of their aunties, dressed beautifully thanks to their expertise. They introduce us to teachers and friends who stare and ask to have their pictures taken with us. We are asked a million questions – where are we from, how many children do I have, everyone is touching the bracelets and my hair and the sari, which is neon magenta and stands out like a huge flower. We have a wonderful meal and soon it is time to leave for the next school. We now we have about 75 girls in our group, friends and others having joined our entourage. As we head for another school (some are Hindi, some Bengali) we run into some of the Udayan boys who join us with their friends. We are 100 strong and I think we must be a site to be seen. The boys’ friends ask if they may take my picture, and of course I say yes, though I am a little embarrassed. Arriving at the next school we are once again surrounded with young girls, so gorgeous with their hair, jewels and best saris with many of the same greetings and questions. I take pictures and are photographed as well. We are then ushered into another dining hall to meet the teachers and have a meal. I am stuffed but may not say no as it is impolite to refuse food. We eat with our right hand, no utensils are used, we must eat the traditional way which I am learning fast. Once again, goodbyes are said and we go to yet another school, another meal – you get the picture. We have more than 120 students in our conga line at this point and as we pass another school which no one is attending, we are urged to come in and see the facilities, and again asked or forced to sit down to another meal. I look at Taniele and our eyes meet saying silently that we are going to burst! Then, Saddam, one of my art students and a great guy asks us to see his school. we have been walking now for about 5 hours, but everyone says yes, so off we go. ANOTHER MEAL. I don’t know what to say. I’m just grateful that the sari hides many things – like a bulging stomach.
We are finally heading back through the winding streets of Barrackpore to Udayan. Children with kites are everywhere. I take a picture while walking backwards to just get the enormity of the group across in a photo. Once again we pass at least 50 Saraswati figures and alters and multicolored ribbons hanging from grass alters and huts to worship this goddess. Men are still shouting from the rooftops, at this point I am wilting so I don’t care. I just would like to sit down and wash my feet!
our group is getting larger here at the second school
As we enter the gates of our school, more children are waiting to see us, and we say good evening then hurry back to the room to undress as quickly as possible. the hell with traditional dress, I put on a pair of jeans and shirt, tie my hair up and feel one hundred pounds lighter. It is dinner time, I have no intention of eating another thing for at least 2 days. The boys have started playing some dance music and are whooping it up , so I stay to watch. Pretty soon I am asked to dance and end up dancing like a maniac, trying to follow the dance steps of these boys who happen to be the best dancers I’ve seen in a while. American boys, watch out! These guys know how to party. I run off to get my computer from the room, I have a movie function and then video tape them as we all dance. 50 minutes later, the battery dies and I’ve got an hour of movies of our dance fest on record. I will edit it and burn a CD to send to them when I return to the States. The stars are out, it is a clear night, everyone is smiling and laughing, I’ve danced with all the boys, even the little 4 year olds, who can dance up a storm. They would be a big hit on “Dancing with the Stars”. I’ve had the time of my life and will never forget this day.