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It's good doing business with the dead

Halloween may not be an Indian holiday but Mumbai is saying 'trick or treat'. With baccha parties and grown ups buying more gore each year, party planners are raking in the moolah

Swati Mehta and Meet Gangar look like teenagers slacking off after a long day of lectures at college. But at the stroke of midnight, as the streets lie deserted, the two plan to transform into dark creatures of the night.

Clothes splattered with muck, blood smeared on their faces, sharp fangs itching for a nimble neck -- they will head to meet more of their kind. "I hope we remember to take off the price tags, though. That would really kill the horror!" Mehta laughs.



This is hardly the re-make of Michael Jackson's Thriller, although there's a vague resemblance. The 18 year-old students of a college in Matunga are chatting animatedly on a Tuesday afternoon, in one corner of Bandra's party supply store, Party Hunterz. They have dropped by to source scare-worthy costumes for a classmate's birthday party planned tomorrow. And the timing makes it perfect for a Halloween theme. "The birthday girl has requested us to dress up keeping with the theme, and I have no idea what to wear," says a confused Mehta, as she slips on a ghost mask with melting skin.
 
The two plan to turn up in co-ordinated costumes as a vampire couple. Edward and Bella won't like another adolescent pair stealing their moonlight. Gangar swears he isn't a fan of the fantasy romance series. It's difficult to take him seriously though, when you see him pretend to dig a cleaver through his head, while he makes his point. Flipping a Rs 475 price tag that dangles by his ear, he continues, "It's just about keeping up with tradition."

But what exactly is the Halloween tradition? That's when the smiling eyes behind the googly-eyed monster stare at you blankly. "I guess something scary must have happened a long time ago," says Mehta, trying to figure the origin of Halloween.

The clueless couple are among a growing breed of urban youngsters inspired by vampire themes, spending a fortune each October when they let their hair down in the name of Halloween.

The two year-old store is splitting at the seams with Dracula capes, Wolvorine gloves and pumpkin wigs which the frazzled store attendants take pains to shield from  curious children bored of Princess- themed parties.

Last year, nine year-old Zainab Khambatta dressed up as a Corpse Bride for her Halloween-themed birthday party. Her parents approached the Bombay Presidency Radio Club in Colaba to arrange for gory d �cor.

Khambatta's knee-high friends were asked to dress in their haunted best. She ditched pink for black-and-red, and her eyes were done up with smoky make-up, while her crimson lipstick bled from her lips. "All the other themes were done to death," says Nafisa Khambatta, Zainab's mother. "We thought, why not Halloween. The children were very excited. There were a lot of witches, and one little boy dressed up like a mummy, covered in bandages," she remembers.

It's unlikely that the nine year-old or her mother are any more informed about the origins of Halloween or why they are 'celebrating' it than Mehta and Gangar. "Nobody really knows why Halloween is celebrated. They need an excuse to party. Everyone enjoys dressing up, and we give them a reason to," says Raju Punjabi, proprietor of a magic, horror and prank store on Dr Ambedkar Road in Bandra. Punjabi's store, Sparkle has been aiding Mumbai's party hoppers dress up in macabre style for 20 years.

When Punjabi set up shop, he enjoyed a monopoly, and it was mainly foreigners, who would drop in to pick up props. "Popular fiction and television has now made sure everyone from children to aunties drop by in the week leading up to Halloween, to pick up costumes," he says.

Sparkle's USP lies in stocking quirky props at competitive prices, most of them imported from the US and China. In addition to dressing up individuals, Punjabi has been helping Mumbai's nightspots ready themselves for the big night. On Toes, a popular pub chain with outlets in Bandra, Juhu and Malad has been hosting Halloween theme nights for 16 years. "Back then, it was a new concept and people were curious. Today, every club is hosting a Halloween night," admits Debyandu Bindal, manager of On Toes' Malad branch.  

Last night, Renaissance Mumbai Convention Centre Hotel in Powai put its creepy-crawlies on display. Although Halloween falls on October 31, it made sense for its club, Velvet Lounge, to host the party over the weekend, ensuring a rush of guests. Entry was pegged at Rs 1,000 (couples) and Rs 1,500 (stags).  "Our club, The Lounge was decorated in pumpkins and skeletons, and our stewards were dressed as vampires. We were looking at the 16 to 28 year-old group, mainly. The demand for quirky themes has upped but it's largely confined to the metros where guests are willing to experiment," says Hemant Tenneti, Director Food & Beverage. Tenneti's team dished out cocktails named Ghost 52, Human Blood Cosmo, Eaten Head, and Vodka Devil Shot.

The scar fest hasn't spared even the most harmless cupcake service in the city. Online food supplier DeliveryChef.in is serving up cupcakes from the crypt. Cake It Up is putting blood, sweat and guts into their Halloween cupcakes priced at Rs 60 a piece. DeliveryChef.in director Aditi Talreja says this is their first real Halloween, and they are going all out. "A lot of Indian students at foreign universities return home around this time, and look forward to celebrating Halloween. Our vendors have experimented with sugar crafts and innovative designs," she says about her bakers who have been working nights to create cupcakes with dismembered fingers.

Prices for such exclusive and customised services are just as scary as the products. And people in the business can only smile. Sharon Timmins, owner of Party Hunterz, has managed to follow up the launch of the Mumbai store with outlets in Delhi, Kolkata, Lucknow and Bengaluru within a span of two years. A Pune outlet is expected to be functional by December. Timmins lists the Pumpkin Wig (Rs 990), Crooked Nose (Rs 200), the Butcher's Knife (Rs 475) and Bleeding Mask (Rs 500) among the hot-sellers this year. "For us, Halloween is the busiest time of the year, and the season extends right up to December 31. We get our stock a month in advance, and representatives from nightclubs  drop by to select d �cor and costumes."

For the eve of Halloween on Sunday, she plans to dress up her store to resemble a graveyard. "There is a craze for theme parties. I don't understand it, but business is doing well. We have no competition as of now, and we like it that way," smiles Timmins.

New Delhi resident Vishal Lakhwani is a self-confessed party animal, and he decided to make a business of it. Co-founder of Wanna Party, Lakhwani helps you plan a party and provides you with all the supplies you may need.

Lakhwani quit his job at an advertising agency to explore the party management market. "After a lot of ground work, and spending nights partying hard, I realised the demand for theme parties was huge, and Indians in metros had the disposable income to fund them," says Lakhwani.

The Kandivli resident decided to give Mumbai a miss and set up shop in Delhi's Shivalik area with partner Arppit R Maheshwari, although the two cater to clients anywhere in India. Corporate dos, bachelor parties, birthdays and baby showers are Wanna Party's mainstay, and they offer a myriad themes. But for any event scheduled for this time of the year, it's the Halloween theme that's a must.

And Lakhwani's services don't come cheap. India's youngsters have been coughing up Rs 25,000 and over to have Lakhwani plan their do. It's not surprising for the figure to run into lakhs, he admits.

At the Delhi store, temporary scar tattoos, a skeleton trophy meant for the guest with the best costume, cobweb wall hangings and a customised tombstone are fast-selling items. "It's not just youngsters. We have aunties who want to dress up as noorie drop by too," says 25 year-old Lakhwani who plans to set up the store's Mumbai branch in January.

For Mumbai-based spiritual healer and Wiccan third degree qualified high priestess Swati Prakash too, Halloween is peak season. But the Bandra resident says it has less to do with Jack-O'-Lanterns and more with casting spells.

Prakash who belongs to an armyman's family was "called" to Pagan Witchcraft when she was just 11 years old. Spells and magical symbols "came to her", and she was singled out as a child, she tells us. But pursued her Wiccan journey by educating herself, and eventually launched Magick, a Wiccan magic store, two years ago.

"Halloween or Samhain is like Wicca new year. We are all energy forms. Energy transforms from one to another.
Death is hence a celebration because it gives way to new life. Halloween originates from the change in season -- the end of summer means this is a good time to carry out magic, especially calling spirits and communicating with those who have passed on." 

But be careful of what you wish for. According to Prakash, a psychic window is always open, and though this is the best time for witches to be initiated into the faith and spells to be cast successfully, it is also the time of the year when dark forces crawl through easily.

As we sit at her consultation room that stands on the second floor of her Bandra home, Prakash burns tiny scraps of paper, each scribbled with a wish, while she mumbles a prayer.

This is in preparation for Hallow's eve when she will conduct Earth healing spells by dropping crystals into the Arabian Sea at the Gateway of India.

"All those interested in joining the Wiccan philosophy of life will sign up on this auspicious day," she says. Prakash has already seen two batches of students complete a one year and one day-long course that she offers. Personal consultations start at Rs 1,000.

Prakash says she is open to enroll students of any faith, but won't entertain the undead.

Most popular costume
raju punjabi says this year, the most popular costume among the ladies is the devil-angel dress that comes with a pair of horns and a halo, giving you the chance to be a little nice and naughty. Rs 1,800 (adults), Rs 1,600 (kids).

When did it all begin?
There are various versions of the origins of Halloween. Folklore about Halloween can be traced back to the Druids, a Celtic sect in Ireland, Britain and Northern Europe. It bears maximum similarity to the feast of Samhain, celebrated to honour the dead on October 31.

Samhain is a harvest festival that signifies 'summer's end' and the start of winter. Celebrations included huge sacred bonfires, marking the end of the Celtic year and the beginning of a new one.

The Celts believed the souls of the dead roamed the streets and villages at night. Since not all spirits were thought to be friendly, gifts and treats were left out to pacify evil ones to ensure that the following year's crops would be plentiful. This custom evolved into trick-or-treating.

In Christianity, it finds representation as All Soul's Day on November 2. In Japanese Buddhist custom, the festival honouring the departed (deceased) spirits of ancestors is known as Bon Festival. In the Inca religion, the entire month of November is called 'Ayamarca', which translates to Festival of the Dead.

The word Halloween registered in the 16th century and represents a variant of the Scottish greeting All-Hallows-Even ('evening')  used to wish each other on the night before All Hallows Day.

Who's Jack?
A Jack-O-Lantern is typically a carved pumpkin used to celebrate the harvest season. Throughout Ireland and Britain, there is a long tradition of carving lanterns from vegetables, particularly the turnip. But immigrants of North America used the larger native pumpkin, since it was readily available and much larger, making it easier to carve than turnips.

This ghost wants hard candy
Trick-or-treating is a Halloween practice for children that caught on in North America in the late '50s. Children in costumes travel from house to house, asking for candy. They pose the question: "Trick or treat?". The 'trick' is a mischievous threat to perform pranks on the homeowners if no treat is given.

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