Bhaiyer kopaale dilam phnota,
Jomer duare porlo knaata,
Jomuna deye Jomke phnota
Ami diy aamaar bhaike phnota.
This was the montro that we had to say as we put a phnota of chondon, kaajal and ghee on our brother’s foreheads. If the brother was older then we touched his feet, and if he was younger then he touched our feet. But on all cases, the sister would do a aashirbaad, irrespective of the age of the brother with dhaan and dubbo. Gifts were exchanged often of equal value; Re 1, Rs 2, a chocolate, a comic of Amar Chitra Katha or a ladybird fairy tale. That was all. Gifts were supposed to emerge out of pocket money. When brothers grew up and sisters got married, gifts could be unequal, each according to his or her capability, no competition, no matching up to each other.
My girl cousin, Jhumi used to often feel upset at the way a special ashon was laid for the boys, with food offered to them by the side of a lit oil lamp. Why bhaiphnota and why not bon phnota she would ask? The rest of the girls would nod to her rebellious assertions that sisters too should be pampered but none really questioned the ceremony. The menu of radha ballabhi and aloo dam followed by vegetable chop and mishti were too preoccupying and then we got involved in the opening up gifts to discover all favourite stuff among the simple pencils, pencil boxes, note books, hanky sets and so on. Bhai phnota was the modest, tapered off finale to the Durga pujo vacations for us, preparing us mentally to be at school the following morning.
Bhai phnota is not raakhi. They are rather different festivals. In raakhi, a sister asks the brother to protect her. In the medieval traditions of India, the job of protecting a woman was done by the brother and not the hero, as in the Hindi film formula influenced from the West. In bhai phnota the sister prays for her brother’s life; she prays to Jom (Yama) to spare her brother by asking him to think of Jomuna, his sister. The sister equates herself with Jomuna and appeals to Jom to see her in the same way. Bhai phnota is not the helpless cry of the sister to her brother s as in raakhi. In raakhi, the sister must seek the brother, even if she does not have one, she must look for one. In bhai phnota, quite the contrary happens. It is the brother who must find the sister for she alone can negotiate directly with Jom by citing all kinds of parallels with Jomuna and so on.
The structure of bhai phnota emanates out of Bengal’s tradition of women as saviours. As Behula, she becomes capable of negotiating with Monosha that her newlywed husband, Lokhinder be resurrected. As Khona, she sees far ahead into the future when clouds would seed rain. As Saratchandra’s heroines she feeds the hungry, chaperons the victim of his father’s wrath, and does justice to the wronged. As the heroine of Meghe Dhaka Taara, she pulls her family out of the abyss of dislocation through Partition. Women as mothers and sisters have always been capable of protection; they have the ability to organize the bachelor’s world. Mother’s can organize tiffin, wait outside schools and tuition centres for eternity, then bring the child back feeding him bananas or sandesh on the way back; they are the ones who pray for us to pass in examinations that we have not studied for. Sisters are the ones who seem to be organizing a brother’s life for him, putting his things in place, filling up his forms, getting his papers photocopied, buying his tickets on the net, picking him up from the railways stations, dropping him to the airports, the Bengali sister has done it all. If she happens to be an older sister, then the brother gets the bonus of a mother in her and can drop in anytime for meals, ask her to fetch things for him, to get his income tax papers in order and even talk to her contacts to secure for him some opportunities of employment and self employment. Most of the times, the sister hails a taxi, asks for directions on the road and negotiates with authorities in case of any transgress of law that the brother has done.
The sister as a protector of the brother in the ritual of the bhai phnota is only a formal acknowledgment of her role as her brother’s savior and not the other way round as it is in raakhi. The sister in the rituals of bhai phnota is assumed to be older because she does the aashirbaad irrespective of whether she touches his feet or he touches hers in the end. The sister in raakhi is always essentially younger, irrespective of her order of birth because the brother is her protector. The brother by the fact of his gender is a senior in raakhi; in bhai phnota, the feminine gender is assumed to be the senior. In Manna Dey’s famous song, Shey Amar Chhotobon, the younger sister is portrayed as all round support to a much older brother, whether as a guide to his professional achievements or as his emotional support or as an advisor in matters of everyday life.
The system of the Dayabhaga property in Bengal has perhaps something to do with the power of the sister in the family. In this system, unlike in the Mitakshara followed all through the Northern and central India, the man inherits property as a member of the undivided Hindu family. In Dayabhaga, the man inherits his property as an individual member of the family. This helps a man in Dayabhaga to be more in control of his property and choose his legatees. This is how girls in Bengal have sometimes benefitted through their fathers; the idea of the father’s girls is more common in Bengal than anywhere else. The position of the girl is marginally better here and domestic violence is more possible at her in-laws than within her father’s family, though food deprivation, burden of household chores and care of younger siblings are very much a part of a girl’s unmarried life. Property rights are crucial to gender powers; the crux of cultural differences may well lie in the customs defining the property matters and in Bengal, since laws relating to inheritance are slightly tilted in favour of the girl, she has more power to pray for her male siblings.
Bhai phnota like Deepavali falls in the bleak phase of the moon. The nights are as yet deathly dark and Yama, the God of Death, stalks around looking for his prey. On bhoot chaturdashi, lamps are lit and choddo shaak is consumed like Popeye’s spinach that is supposed to make us immortal. Then on the darkest night we light lamps and make noise through crackers to scare away Yama; sometimes at Kalipuja we catch hold of his vahana, the buffalo, and chop his head off to dislodge its rider. Finally on bhai phnota day the sister emerges, for it is only she who through her powers and prowess can negotiate with Yama and suggests that he seek shelter in Yamuna, his sister, because after all that bursting of crackers, slaying his buffalo and lighting of the lamps of life, sure Yama’s life is in danger. Only with the sister’s fortification can Yama, the Lord of Death, be saved.