“How strange and devouring our ways must seem
to those for whom life is enough.”
―Rainer Maria Rilke, “Part Two XIV,” from Sonnets to Orpheus
There is no Fall here in this coastal city I currently call home. There are many failings, many fallings in the wake of Covid but no obvious Fall. At least not visibly. Not even in terms of a temperature differential from whatever monsummer (monsoon and summer) we experience roughly ¾ of the year. That said, there is something that has turned both crispier and more muted at the same time in the movement of air through the fading yellow of silk cotton trees. I know the soft knocking of autumn by how rife my body tends to be with aches and allergies no thanks to an auto-immune disorder that has its own mysterious couplings with different seasons. Online, there is a lot of bustle about a socially-distant Halloween this year with the onset of pumpkin season juxtaposed against ever-growing dystopian visuals of global climate catastrophes and right-wing regimes steaming up the world in a plethora of oppressions. All of this made me revisit stories about the vampire pumpkins from Roma mythology.
Ethnologist Tatomir Vukanović chronicled the Romani folklore of vampire pumpkins and melons during his journeys through Serbia in the mid-late1930s. His observations were collated for the “Journal of Gypsy Lore Society”, founded in England circa 1880s to study the “Gypsy life” — namely the itineracy, culture and stories of Romanichel, Traveller, Roma/Sinti and nomadic peoples. There was a mix of anthropological curiosity and fetishistic interest in Romani lives. There were references to Muslim Roma communities (particularly those residing in the village of Pirani aka Podrima) in the Balkans who believed that any insensate object, left outside on a full moon night can turn into a vampire. This was particularly the case if a melon had been emptied in order to serve as a container or syphon. The legend states that if an aged melon is left outside and “blood” forms on its surface, it has turned rogue. Ironically, people didn’t much fear these possessed gourds since they lacked teeth, nevertheless elaborate rituals were conducted by first boiling the melon to a pulp and then scrubbing of the remains with a broom before setting it afire. In short, all material related to the transmutation was rid of with immaculate precision.
It was believed that these fruit phantasms would go around to people’s homes, stables and disrupt them and belongings in the dead of night. They couldn’t incite more severe havocs but were considered to be an ongoing nuisance which necessitated their rather patient and methodical obliteration. The Roma believed that when a lot of pumpkins were gathered in close quarters, they’d start warring each other with the sound of “brrr brrrr” emerging from them. This was the beginning of a regular melon turning vampiric. If you erased some contexts, this could very well be a description of how certain kinds of blood-sucking bigotry takes shape these days when certain emptied vessels are left together after scooping out their guts.
In a recent episode of brazen sectarianism, a jewellery company in India was recompensed with widespread backlash for portraying a tender celebration of pluralism and interfaith marriage. A pregnant woman from a Hindu family is seen with her Muslim in-laws who have meticulously arranged for a baby shower sort of ceremony customary in Hindu traditions. The length of this ad is roughly 40 seconds or so and yet that was enough to elicit a mass sputter of bile. Most of the rabid vigilantism was under the twitter hashtag “Love Jihad” — a pejorative used to flame divisive sentiment by speculating how Muslim men were strategically marrying Hindu women and converting them to Islam. Nowadays, these types of retributive flares are mostly lit by ultra-nationalist digital troll armies that are both supported and celebrated by right-wing political brass in the country. However, this no longer exists in a vacuum as the brand in question saw its stores attacked and violent messages left against its Muslim employees. This country’s indefinite saurian tail keeps flickering in its repeated whiplash. Strangely, this feels equally familiar and alien to me–a resident of India who was born to parents of different and complex ethnicities.
My mother comes from a so-called lower caste Indian family―landless labourers whose lives were dedicated to being caretakers of other people’s lands and its fecundity. My father was of Romani Spanish or Calé Roma lineage. Their togetherness had the shelf-life of forgotten tea on a winter evening; things brewed quickly between them, reached a boiling point and then turned cold and bitter rather quickly. On both sides of my family exists a delicate filigree of mixed genealogies extending beyond the tidy brackets of singular origin stories. Growing up I witnessed a unique blend of syncretic, agnostic and atheist value systems, cultural practices and amalgams.
My mother’s father had vowed as a teenager to build himself a library the day his penury loosened its death grip on him. This was mostly in retaliation to not being allowed inside the library at this school. He read Walt Whitman, spoke flawless Urdu, hosted the finest of Mushairras, flipped the perfect litti on a coal-fired stove and could have patented the formula for the headiest thandai on Holi. My mother’s eponymous job as a teacher was at a Convent school run by Jesuit priests and teeming with Adivasi nuns who became my first guardians as she tried to walk the tightrope of single parenting after her separation from my father. They were the only non-judgmental people who became pillars of support to her. I have never seen her wail with as much grief as when one of them died after a prolonged illness. I spent several afternoons post school in their quarters and am still glittering with a dozen folk tales about the forests from where they came. My maternal uncle’s wife is a devout Roman Catholic from Goa who pledged novenas when I was a baby and a polio vaccine backfired leading to waist-down paralysis for nearly weeks. Over the years, through some Baynesian exchange, she taught my grandmother how to make Malwani chicken curry and in turn learned the trick behind the perfect jaggery rice pudding (kheer) served during the Bihari festival of Chhath. These are not meant to be vignettes of sugar-syrup utopia, instead these phases, events and people remind me of how little religion should matter when people learn to care about each other in their own mortal, flawed and still abundant ways.
Growing up, religion was a revolving door at best. I suffered abuse at the hands of my stepfather which hollowed out any faith I could have in what I referred to as the fiction of God. I think when you are harmed as a child and your damage is ignored or even blamed back on you, the idea of external rescue tends to get nullified. If there was a God watching over me when I was being hurt then either I didn’t matter enough in its scheme of things or it was too powerless to help me. How do you continue to funnel conviction towards this absent entity whose power and compassion seemed so ambivalent? I didn’t understand what religious anchor could help me steady myself as the caste apartheid inflicted upon my mother and my grandfather ate at their collective dignity. I found it challenging to acknowledge any divine benevolence that was okay with how many horrors had filled my father’s life growing up in a Roma ghetto. Above all, I was too spent on the hamster’s wheel of daily survival to contemplate the significance of devotion or dogma while trying to keep myself floating, head above water, through most of my teen years.
I grew up away from my father. I had to educate myself far away from the community that I could have been raised in if it weren’t for the personal and familial catastrophes that upended both my parents’ lives. All through my life, my relationship with my father was a lot like my relationship with God — improbable, cleaving; a minor eruption of mirages followed by prolonged droughts. It was not until my father’s death that I really was forced to confront both my own inner workings of doubt and my legacy of wounding. In Romani, “mulengi dori” refers to a magic ribbon tied to call upon the spirit of our dead for our protection. This, to me, became a more comforting idea than the vague, shapeless omnipotence of some universal saviour in whose perfect image I’d been cast. In reality, I was cast in someone’s image; my father’s. I have his culinary skills, his warm smile, his exact skin tone, his love of steganography, his quiet adoration of gardening and his treatment-resistant depression. His death, followed by my grandmother’s, brought me face to face with how irreversible is this motion of time. He was gone and everything around me continued without a moment of pause while everything within me was frozen for an eternity. It showed me how little control we have over anything apart from loving something or someone in their brief luminescence till it sparkles in our lives. How inherently brutal it is to then go on wasting this time on hate, either for yourself or others.
Death ended up teaching me more about faith than religion. During moments of stark loneliness that can only be understood by those who have lost a parent, I turned to learning tarot. Partly to honour the inside joke between him and me about the pigeonholing of Roma women as “soothsayers” and partly to find odd bits of breadcrumbs that would keep me connected to him after his departure. In Tarot cards, the major arcana has a death card with its evidently scary imagery of an armoured skeleton mounted on a horse with people bent at its feet. A simplistic interpretation would be to bow down and feel helpless at the feet of death and destruction. To live in its perpetual fear. Yet, the card actually stands for the connectedness of endings and rebirths. The only certainty of life is death but not as an end, instead as a transformation; a renewal.
The other card in the deck that actually holds my caution to a more intense degree is that of The Tower — a human-made edifice burning to ground. If you stare long at the card, it asks you to take stock of your own hubris, the shifting sand of narcissism on which we construct our ego-fuelled hierarchies. It gestures at the truth that no matter how elaborate our construction, it will be pulled down when we fail to build with compassion, inclusivity and vulnerability. What helps the healing is if you look closely, you see tiny leaves sprouting at the base of this devastated monolith; an indication that life grows back if we can just learn to take a step back from the maniacal circuses of our egos.
In “Love’s Work: A Reckoning with Life”, Gillian Rose writes―“There is no democracy in any love relation: only mercy.”
Losing my father and my grandparents was an introduction to mercy. Death taught me mercy through loss. A large portion of this year we have been made to live with death in ways that were previously unheard of, for a lot of people. However, as death stamped its supremacy over our living, so did those parts of life that we have chosen to not confront with any real resolve. The cruel supremacy of racism, casteism, sexism, religious, sexuality and gender-based subjugation. Somewhere, it would seem, we have lost the courage it takes to be merciful. The courage it takes to show mercy to ourselves and others. Mercy that in its original form can mean thanks, kindness, reward, goodwill and sometimes, pity. In these times, we refuse to find the kindness that we must extend to others who sit on a perch different from ours and we also refuse the honest inspection of closely regarding how pitiful, unnecessary and above all, detrimental our prejudices are, so we can finally end cycles of generational trauma.
In Romani, “Is it ok?” is “Ov yilo isi”. Its literal translation, though, is “Is there heart here?”
To ask if you are ok, I must enquire about the state of your heart. That is the root of the root. Our people were devoured by the barbarism of Samudaripen and yet I live to hold close those accounts of holocaust survivors who speak of how the only saving grace in those hell-holes were the occasional music of a Gypsy who played despite and against their own impending fate. Because there was some heart there and it beat its drum loud, every day.
It is the emptiness within that makes us easy targets for corrupt ideologies.
Maybe the gutted pumpkins that were considered unfit for consumption turned into vampires because their insides were missing and therefore became open to something ominous making a home in them.
Maybe in a time of illness and separation, we can finally see clearly how long death is and how little time we have to fill ourselves up with something more nourishing and less parasitic than hate.
Scherezade Siobhan is an award-winning psychologist, writer, educator and a community catalyst who founded and runs The Talking Compass — a therapeutic space dedicated to providing mental counseling services and decolonizing mental health care. Her work is published or forthcoming in Medium, Berfrois, Quint, Vice, HuffPost, Feministing, Jubilat, The London Magazine among others. She is the author of “Bone Tongue” (Thought Catalog Books, 2015), “Father, Husband” (Salopress, 2016) and “The Bluest Kali” ( Lithic Press, 2018). Find her @zaharaesque on twitter. Send her chocolate and puppies — firstname.lastname@example.org. Tweet at her @zaharaesque.