The most logical and sceptical of people can succumb to the fear of the unknown, the existence of a paranormal world and ghosts. The fourteen earthen lamps were lit, the flames danced in joyous abandon, however, one of them suddenly extinguished and then magically lit up within a couple of seconds. It was the night of “Bhoot Chaturdashi” when we all gathered at my maternal granny’s house, paying tribute to fourteen generations of our ancestors with clay lamps. We waited for one of my cousins to come home. There were no mobile phones then and granny was frantic with worry.
Suddenly we heard the metallic sound of the gates click and faint voices. My cousin trundled in with great difficulty. His head was bandaged, the face was bruised. He had met with an accident; his bike was shattered to pieces. “An elderly gentleman, he said he was Madhav mama, took me to the hospital and helped me to come back home.” He murmured with agony. The auto-rickshaw driver too had said something about an elderly man putting my cousin into the auto.
The description exactly fitted that of granny’s elder brother, who had passed away many years ago and he was addressed as ‘Madhav da’ by one and all. This further reinforced my interest in the world of spirits.
Much before the advent of Halloween in our lives we had been celebrating our version of it, since time immemorial. In West Bengal, India, we call it “Bhoot Chaturdashi”, a moonless night when the evil forces are at their strongest. ‘Bhoot’ means ghost and ‘Chaturdashi’ is the fourteenth night of the moon’s cycle. So instead of the Jack ‘o’ lantern we light fourteen lamps, in a ritual believed to ward off evil spirits and guide our ancestors to our homes to bless us. The treat of the day is a dish cooked with fourteen varieties of green leafy vegetables called “choddo shaak”. Vegetable sellers would have bundles of the chosen fourteen leaves, ready to be chopped and cooked.
As new crops are harvested during this season we would get very fresh vegetables. These leaves are first soaked in water and then the water is sprinkled all over the house in order to spread positive energy. The scientific reason for this being, ‘Bhoot Chaturdashi’ occurs in mid-to-end autumn, just before winter. According to Ayurveda, this is the season when the body is prone to infections, especially those that affect the pancreas. It is a good time to have leafy greens, full of vitamins and minerals that kill the bacteria. Well, it’s a great way of spooking children into eating their greens.
The land of Bengal abounds in ghosts and ghouls and claims to have various forms of these spooky beings as they do Nobel laureates! That could be one reason for my fascination with the supernatural that can be characterised by a brutal intrusion of mystery in the frame of real life. Thus, we break away from the accepted order and embrace Halloween too, that has its roots in the Celtic festival of Samhain. On this day, the boundaries between the worlds of the living and the dead get a little blurry and the dead come back to life, thus we wear masks and costumes to scare them away.
One ritual that I have begun to follow on both the days, that is, on ‘Bhoot Chaturdashi’ and Halloween is to narrate ghost stories to the children who come for creative writing workshops, this seems to be a ‘treat’ for them and I ‘trick’ them later into writing lovely, gripping horror tales of their own. I tell them about the various mythical ghosts from my hometown. They loved the one about the ‘Mechho bhoot’, or Fishy Ghost, who could whine, beg and steal — all for a piece of fish. It’s easy to spot these ghosts: their feet point backwards.
One winter evening, my aunt was frying some fish for dinner, when suddenly she heard a nasal voice, behind her, asking her for a piece of fish. She froze as she looked down behind her, the feet were hairy and pointed backwards. My aunt just took the hot frying pan off the gas, hurled the fish, the boiling oil and the pan at the gory creature and scurried away from there.
My students have told me many facts related to Halloween. According to one such myth, if you wear your clothes inside out and then walk backwards on Halloween, you will definitely see a witch at midnight. Well, I tried it out and … I think I should keep the happenings of this experiment for my next Halloween piece.
— Navanita Varadpande is a writer based in Dubai. Twitter: @navanitavp