On Halloween, Our Very Bengali Shoutout — Bhoot Chaturdashi!
The day before of Kali Pujo, I buy a big, fat, ripened pumpkin from the sabzi mandi. The plan is to make a small hole in its bottom and pull out its guts until only a husk of the fruit is left.
Then, I carve a pair of eyes and a mouth on it. Not just any eyes and mouth — the eyes have to be evil, and the mouth must be halfway stuck in a gaping scream.
When done, I stick a candle in it and set it on the balustrade of my terrace, on the perfect spot where the kids celebrating Diwali downstairs would be able to see it in its eerily glowing, monstrous glory.
Once the Jack-O-Lantern is ready and doing its job (of scaring some little children), I get the fourteen shaks (leafy greens) out of my fridge. My Christian half has initiated Halloween in my small, bachelorette apartment. Now, it’s time for my Bengali half to get going with Bhoot Chaturdashi.
Wondering what Bhoot Chaturdashi is? But why, it’s Halloween’s machhe-bhaate Bangali, long lost cousin!
In rural Bengal, grandmothers would tell their little ones stories of a lazy Brahmin from many moons ago, who littered and never bothered to clean after himself, until, one day, he ran into a spectre chilling in a pile of garbage in his house. The man learned his lesson, grandma would say, and so, he cleaned his house and purified it with water sprinkled from fourteen different kinds of leafy greens — hence, starting the custom of Bhoot Chaturdashi.
There would be more such folktales, perhaps even some inspired by real events, about tantriks who would kidnap children the night before Kali Pujo — or the fourteenth day of Krishna Paksha — and sacrifice them for dark magic powers.
Today, in the homes that still hold Bengali customs dear, the belief that drives Bhoot Chaturdashi is that on this day, spirits of our fourteen forefathers, aka our 'choddo purush', stop by to visit and bless their living descendants.
And so, in their honour, we cook fourteen kinds of leafy greens and light fourteen oil lamps in the darkest corners of our homes to light their way from the afterlife.
As I light the last of the fourteenth lamps around the corner of my front door, I’m suddenly reminded of the movie Coco — how the Mexican holiday of Día de Muertos, or the Day of the Dead, is so much similar to Bhoot Chaturdashi.
Just as the the Celtic ritual of Samhain, or Halloween, as some call it; or All Hallow’s Eve — the anglicised day of commemoration that falls on the eve before All Saints' day; or All Souls' Day on 2 November, when Christians head to the cemeteries to pray and remember their deceased.
And they say, Halloween is too “western” for India. *eye roll*
On the night of Halloween, legend has it that the ‘wall’ between the world of the living and the afterlife is whisper-thin. A few nights before that, we Bengalis open our doors to the dead with oil lamps, folktales and the thing we know best — food.
So, as I sit down to enjoy a nice horror film with my heaped plate of rice and fourteen different kinds of leafy greens, I think of my grandma and wish to myself,
“O Stree, aaj aana...”