When the autumn holidays and the delirious celebrations of the festivals would draw to a close and we would scurry everywhere to collect our school exercise books, pens, maps, atlases and the books and notebooks, bhai phnota would be our only solace of that one more time of gaiety and gathering. The season of festivals start with the Mahalaya and end with bhaiphnota. Grandparents would explain that we start our revelries by tarpan, remembering our ancestors and end it with marking out our brothers as the ancestors of our future generations. Some of my girl cousins would balk at such explanations of only boys being considered as ancestors of the future family and when grandmothers insisted that the women will be remembered by their husband’s families, severe arguments would break out. Aunts intervened invariably to suggest that we enjoy our dalpuris instead of nit picking on meaning of ceremonies and rush us to book advanced shows of latest film releases. Bhai phnota nonetheless remained an important festival, not because each of the nuclear families had brothers but because each nuclear family drew its identity from a larger joint family. Bhai phnota conceals at its core the idea of the Hindu Unidivided Family; if it were only between a brother and a sister, the festival would not have transcended and transformed into a festivity. Families which do not have a larger dynasty to refer to do not and cannot celebrate bhai phnota in a manner of which I knew in my childhood.
I remember the long trains of bedcovers, one following the other to make a large square when brothers in each generation would sit cross legged on the floors with a plate full of savouries, the larger the number of sisters larger the number of items were on the plate . While there could be differences in platter across generations; elders would have made different stuff than what our generation offered, there was no difference among the boys within the same generation. This is because none of us, out of an unwritten code ever discriminated between own siblings, first cousins, second cousins and those who we called as brothers. Servants of the family were not left outside the ambit, even they had their share of the phnota. Neighbours and tenants were converted into “brotherdom”. Bhai phnota’s charm lies not in a family reunion but in the inclusive and exhaustive enumeration of males as being associated with the future of a dynasty. Unlike rakhi, bhai phnota is not about a brother and a sister, but about a ceremony of ancestors, of a recognition of the veins where blood should flow, of major alliances of a family, a network of brotherhood from which one can draw support. Bhaiphnota is an accumulation of social capital.
I have seen bhaiphnota decline and slowly disappear in my family. Mother has lost nearly all her brothers to old age and most of us, in our generation live in other cities and other countries. We have to rationalize our visits back home to coordinate surgeries, illnesses, births and deaths. We have our college and school reunions, we have our various tasks of home renovation, signing of tenancy agreements and many a times club visits with some kind of career pursuits like book launches and seminar presentations. Bhai phnota seems to be the lowest in our list of priority. It seems that this is one festival we would rather like to forget. Even cousins who live in Kolkata treat the festival as only occasions for eating out rather than for the sobriety of the ceremony. Resistance to patriarchy is indeed a possible reason for the loss of popularity of the festival in our kind of families but there is a larger process at work. I think that we have lost our sense of the larger family because we have lost our sense of future.
Bhai phnota is growing in glamour and importance. Servant maids, drivers, and the various other service providers like plumbers, electricians, taxi drivers are closed for business because they are away at the celebrations. It is here that the institution of the family is being discovered anew, perhaps for the first time in the aeons. A section of people who never had known of something like bhai phnota, typically only reserved for the high echelons of the city of Kolkata, tables are turning very steadily and rapidly. It is the proletariat which looks towards organizing and uniting, for they are enjoying a standard of life, levels of consumption as never before. They are the upwardly mobile who are now discovering relatives and kins, finding ties, seeking roots, and in short, slowly, bit by bit building up social capital. While inequalities sit pretty tight, the differences between the elite middle class and the hitherto downtrodden service class, the Shudras of the Bengali bhadralok society are now closing. This closure seems to have sent the upper middle classes into a tizzy of survival when every penny one earns is dedicated towards maintenance of the self into the verisimilitude of one’s inherited class. And assuredly when survival within a class is imperilled, one is struggling to belong to her social class and to keep up with cousins and kins, unsure when at least an equal status will all at once be denied to her, it is difficult to keep up a sense of the family.
Indian sociologists have studied the institution of thefamily generously, noting the changes in the structure of the family from its state of undividedness into nuclearization. They have assigned every class of causes to such a transformation, urbanization, size of family, modernity and individualization, change of occupation from agriculture and business to individual professions. These explanations mark the change in the family from one state to another but do not relate these to the processes within the family, the constant switch between the private and the social investments. When individuals feel the pressure of being downwardly pushed out of her social class, investments are directed at the self and then at the nuclear family. The situation is one of urgency, the immediate concern is to save oneself and one’s nuclear family rather than indulge in the luxury of cultivating the larger civic groups such as the extended family. The danger of loss of social position is then the issue behind the loss of a sense of future and with that of the larger family. Conversely, among those who sense a rise in their relative prosperity and thus acquire a sense of the future move on to the larger social planes of extended families. Bhaiphnota has settled in these quarters after having moved out of our kinds of homes. The rise of the festival among the lower social classes and its imminent dissolution among the upper classes is therefore an indication of the redistribution and reorganization of wealth in the society.
Democracies reflect such changes in politics of anti-incumbency and change, the promise of a Poriborton or the Second Republic of the Hindu Rashtra or any other form of politics which may reflect such a structural upheaval without a visible and apparent or violent revolution.