Move over Halloween and Diwali: The Bengalis’ little-known ‘night of the ghosts’

by Bulbul Rajagopal

While most of the western world associates the trail end of October with Halloween and its associations with the dead and the macabre, a section of India observes its own day of the dead. West Bengal, and especially, Kolkata, flips the lanterns of Diwali to illuminate another arena of the festivities—celebrations that are local to the land, holding special significance to Bengalis, while the majority of the country is enthralled by the more mainstream concept of the festival of lights.

For Presidency University postgraduate Urvashi Mukherjee, Bhoot Choturdoshi or “the night of the ghosts”, which falls on the day before Kali puja was a long-awaited affair. The night in question is believed to be one where the spirits of the dead return to the mortal world to wreak mischief. “Each household lights 14 lamps to ward off the darkness and these unquiet spirits. I was the one who was always in charge of this when I was younger.

“So, the festival of lights means these two days—including Kali puja—for me,” she informs. The Bengalis’ worship of Kali, herself an unconventional goddess, is apt for precisely this deviation from the Diwali norms that are upheld by the northern states. Kali, that frightful image of the goddess Durga, was created to put an end to a demonic duo who had disturbed the balance between the heavens and the Earth. A hedonistic charm lies in her spectre. She is naked barring a garland of skulls, brandishing both the heads of treacherous men and weapons alike, and her characteristic blood-dripped tongue sticking out in horror for stepping on her superior Shiva, a scene that is mimicked in the offerings provided to Kali’s idol. Preparations of meat and the locally-brewed liquor karan are the staple donations, and sometimes a male goat is slaughtered to honour the goddess.

Understanding celebrations beyond Durga Puja

With the state dealing with the hangover of the completed Durga puja, the honouring of Kali is a salve to their ceased celebrations. Similar to the pandals (the decked up spaces housing the idols of Durga and her brood), but drastically reduced in splendour, Kali pujo pandals fleck the city. Bursting crackers is a light affair, and is only an added and optional bonus to the celebrations of this pujo. Sanchali Pyne, a computer engineer at Cognizant Solutions, associates the event with family reunions and their participation in the bhog–the food offered to the gods. “My grandparents and I visit our neighbourhood’s pandal every year, followed by tucking into the bhog. But it is ‘Bhai Phonta’ which I look forward to the most. Diwali gets lost in all these other festivities,” smiles Sanchali.

Her words ring true for almost the entirety of the state. ‘Bhai Phonta’, the Bengali Hindu equivalent of ‘Bhai Dooj’ arrives earlier in the calendar for Bengalis than for the rest of the nation. The honouring of the bond between brothers and sisters is what keeps the religious carnival in full swing during the period of Diwali. While schools, colleges and some offices provide holidays under the broad banner of Diwali, it is ‘Bhai Phonta’ that is referred to among the people of Bengal. Travel and optimising the number of relatives visited is what many Bengalis look forward to during this time. Prateek Bagchi, an assistant system engineer at Tata Consultancy Services, is one such individual. “We need to cover multiple places in one day during ‘Bhai Phonta’. For me, mornings are set aside for my maternal cousins, and the evenings for paternal cousins. On the day of Diwali, we visit my mamarbari,” he says. The concept of visiting one’s maternal uncle’s house—specifically, the house of the mother’s younger brother—during festive periods is one that is etched into the minds and childhood of every Bengali. Seen as a rite of passage that never really ends, the visit to the mamarbari is prized for its familial ties, all set against the backdrop of every family’s ancestral home.

Bengalis famously go about the celebrations of pujo in different ways depending on their roots. The partition of the state which gave rise to East Bengal, now Bangladesh, coupled with the migration during the Bangladesh War, finally gave rise to two sets of microcosmic communities both of whom have colloquial names: ‘ghoti’ or those native to the land that is now West Bengal, and ‘bangal’ or those migrants from East Bengal and their descendants who have now settled in West Bengal. Prateek, who hails from the latter informs Qrius that it is the ‘bangal’ community who traditionally observes Kali pujo in their own homes. Urvashi, on the other hand, is an “‘Edeshi’” or a ‘ghoti’ whose family conducts Laxmi pujo on the morning that is Diwali elsewhere in the premises of their house. Shayak Mitra, a law student from Sonipat’s O.P. Jindal Global University, is in the same boat as her. “My house has a Laxmi puja during Diwali, so I have never had the chance to go around to see Kali puja pandals like I do during Durga puja. My connection to Diwali, as is celebrated by the rest of the country, is limited to the Amar Chithra Katha books I read as a child, and well, school essays on ‘Festivals in India’”, states Shayak. It is ‘Bhai Phonta’ that he always looks forward to, especially because of the gifts that his “uncountable set of cousins” shower on him. “But I started valuing that one day in the year much more once I left Kolkata to begin college. Now, it has become a time to meet the full family, and spend some quality time with them, and all for something I plan on doing anyway: protecting my sisters!” he laughs.

A changing approach to cultural norms

But this idea of protection is what Shayak’s cousin Nadia Imam has a bone to pick with. “I think ‘Bhai Phonta’ and ‘Bhai Dooj’ in themselves are patriarchal, but then again, most religious traditions are. Didi and I always talk about how we’re going to stop doing this and give ‘Bon [sister] Phota’ next year, but in reality we just keep sticking to the tradition,” says the final year postgraduate student of Jadavpur University. For Nadia, ‘Bhai Phota’ trumps Diwali: “Although I love the bhog that our neighbourhood offers during Kali pujo, it is ‘Bhai Phonta’ that I look forward to because I see it as a day of fun with my cousins. We have certain inside jokes and rituals that take place every year, we take the same photos and tell the same jokes. It is one of those days that I can rely on.”

An issue many Bengalis like Nadia have with Diwali is the effect the crackers have on noise and air pollutions: “I love bursting crackers, but not the noise-producing ones, and I actually hate the loud sounds that are a constant part of Diwali week.” Her frustrations, shared by many others, did not fall on deaf ears. Last year, the West Bengal Pollution Control Board released a statement expressing their confidence in the citizens of Kolkata to adhere to the 90 decibel permissible limit during Kali puja and Diwali. This year too, due to the relative unpopularity of Diwali, the confidence appears to remain unbroken. To the newcomers of Kolkata who are expecting the Diwali atmosphere of carnival similar to what is experienced in the North, they will be disappointed. But this atmosphere does exist, in more private and familial quarters, and their doors are open to almost anyone who is missing a slice of home.

Bulbul Rajagopal is a writing analyst at Qrius