Bhoot Chaturdashi, the Bengali Avatar of Halloween

It took me weeks of planning and hours of watching DIY videos to prepare my six-year-old daughter’s outfit for her very first Halloween party.

As she pranced around in her blood red dress and pointed witch hat that glowed in the dark, I couldn’t help but admire my handiwork (I am talking about the hat, not the brat). She was living every word of Julia Donaldson’s Room on The Broom in which a sweet little witch goes on a wild adventure with a rag-tag bunch of creatures. Her grandmother looked on, dumbfounded.

For the soft-spoken, God-fearing 75-year-old, witches were best confined to our imagination or the pages of a book of Bengali folk tales, such as Dakshinaranjan Mitra Majumder’s Thakurmar Jhuli.

It has been a while since the idea of an Indianised Halloween kiddie celebration first started doing fashionable rounds of Mumbai’s upscale mommy WhatsApp groups. Even as the American import keeps gaining traction in smaller towns and other metros, some of us find it hard to acquire a taste for it. Take me for instance. I am still in love with the mayhem of Bhoot Chaturdashi, the night when the stronghold of demons and spirits are at their most potent.

Celebrated on the 14th day of Krishna Paksha, that is the phase of the waning moon, and the night before Kali Pujo, Bhoot Chaturdashi falls on the night before Diwali. It is when Bengalis light 14 earthen lamps in the darkest nooks and corners of their house to appease the spirits of 14 generations of their forefathers. To ward off mischievous spooks from possessing our bodies, we also eat 14 different kinds of leafy greens. It is our very own version of Halloween, minus the freak show costumes and overrated pumpkin latte.

In fact, the pantheon of Bengali spooks and spirits is fascinating in itself. For instance, generations of Bengali writers, storytellers, and grandmothers have deep-dived into this universe and even classified the indigenous ghosts according to their caste, class, gender, and religion. There are the Brahmin ghosts (Brahmodatyi), Mohammedan or Muslim ghosts (Mamdo Bhoot), and the terrifying  Shankhchunni – a female shape-shifter, the spirit of a married woman who wears the traditional red and white bangles. There is also the Meccho Bhoot, who loves to eat fish, the Daini, who is the Bengali equivalent of a witch, Rakhhosh or demons, and their smaller, younger selves – the Khokhosh or Khoka Rakhhosh. These spooky friends formed our essential education and the ideal Bengali kid was as much about porashona (education), gaan baajna (music and arts) as they were about knowing their Pishach (flesh-eating demons) from her Gechho Bhoot (spirits that lived in the trees).

Thakurmar Jhuli, our favourite collection of gory tales, replete with detailed black and white illustrations, made no concessions for the faint-hearted. One of the most popular stories revolves around two princes, Neelkamal and Lalkamal. Trouble starts when a Rakkhoshi (demoness), disguised as the royal Queen to the world, is driven mad with the desire to eat the younger prince, who is also her stepson. One opportune night, she does just that, in the process, summoning an army of demons that wipes out the entire town and leaves only bones behind. In another story, a young girl is left alone in a room with a python in a casket which she mistakes for a treasure chest that contains a handsome prince. In a chilling end to this story about greed, the python takes its time to devour her, one body part at a time.  

In a way, this abiding love for spirits and spooks sits well with our overriding passion for the past. In a culture that is all about celebrating nostalgia and romanticising death, the legend of Bhoot Chaturdashi continues to cast a spell over our consciousness until this day. It also explains why haunted city walks that take you around cemeteries, abandoned mansions, and Raj Era buildings continue to be a top draw among visitors. The spirits generously crowd our pop-culture also. For instance, Satyajit Ray’s Goopy Gyne Bagha Byne, a seminal satire comedy, is about a King of Ghosts who grants three life-changing boons to the film’s two endearing protagonists.

I suppose, my disinterest in Halloween stems from its lack of drama; its bodily horrors are too in-your-face. Bhoot Chaturdashi on the other hand, has the kind of suspense that played with your mind. I remember lighting earthen lamps and peering into the dark fearfully, wondering whether we were being watched and thinking twice about making that trip to the bathroom on my own, lest a spirit held my body hostage. 

As I watch my daughter excitedly shriek “I am a witch!”, a sobering realisation dawns on me: My kid may never be able to stomach the chilling immediacy of Bhoot Chaturdashi. Her pretend play, manufactured in an American suburb, has neither the fang nor the bite of this homegrown celebration of horrors.

ABOUT THE WRITER

Chandrima Pal is a journalist, columnist, career insomniac and caffeine snob. Loves food. Does travel. Author of A Song for I (Amaryllis) and At Home in Mumbai (Harper Collins).

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