Thursday, October 28, 2010

No Vampires Please, We're Hindu.

In honor of Halloween, which is, as it happens, the day after a rather (ahem) large birthday this year, I thought I would write about vampires.

Or maybe my blog topic is in honor of Edward Cullen, who I recently learned has sparkled his way into the hearts and minds and bookshelves of not just American YA readers, but, international ones.

Be frightened, folks. Be very frightened. Yup, it's true - those morose sparkly vegetarian vampires of Stephanie Meyers' invention have -- (gulp) -- globalized.

I was recently in India, a country where people who can read really like to read. Really, really, really like to read.  In my parents hometown of Kolkata (once Calcutta) the saying goes that even the cabbies can talk Marx and Dostoyevsky with you.  And seriously, I don't doubt it.

So it turns out that my 8year old voracious reader and his 17 year old cousin (who lives in Bengaluru, previously Bangalore) had a whole lot of MG and YA to talk about - opinions on Voldemort, Quiddich, Amy and Dan from the 39 Clues, Septimus Heap, Artemis Fowl, the latest Rick Riordan, the oldest Rick Riordan, when and if Rick Riordan will ever come to a. my son's school in the U.S. b. Bangalore... anyway, you get the drift. On a jaunt to the local (really well stocked) bookstore - I forget if it was an Oxford or a Crosswords - there were row upon row of American MG and YA authors with more than a few Brits thrown in - among them Anthony Horowitz and (a childhood fave of mine) Enid Blyton.  But, more than any other book, what striking black and sparkly cover assaulted my eyes?  Ya.  You guessed it. The Twilight books.

Ok, so Indian teens love Bella and Edward.  I get it, I do.  All that family togetherness (they live in a joint family after all).  All those issues of  personal honor. All that almost requited love (remember, Hindi movie heroes and heroines still don't kiss on the lips - although they do a whole lotta other suggestive things).  [Admittedly, there are a lot of folks saying that the series is a narrative about Mormonism: check out the argument here]

But I've got to admit, on seeing those books, my first reaction was to recall what my own mother once told me back when I was too scared to turn off the bedside light after reading Brahm Stoker's Dracula.  With a look of utter calm, she assured me, "Go to sleep.  We don't have to worry about vampires.  Haven't you seen the movies? They only eat Christians. Relax. We're Hindu."

I admit it, I'm paraphrasing. But my (PhD holding, not very religious) mother's comment has stayed with me these many years.  As a daughter of Indian immigrants, all the Western boogeymen I'd read about and watched in the movies were scary, yes, but also somehow removed from who I was.  What luck. I was (at least technically) Hindu, which apparently made my blood unappetizing to Count Dracky and his nosferatu chums.

Now obviously those of us living in the West, reading and watching vampire stuff aren't all Christians. (I freely admit, at the risk of embarassing myself in front of my academic colleagues - who I pray don't read this blog - that I am a Buffy, True Blood, and now - most shamefully of all - a Vampire Diaries addict) We are Jewish, Muslim, Buddhist, Jain, atheist, agnostic, and.. yes, Hindu.

Yet, clearly there's a cultural context to our sparkly (and not so sparkly) neighborhood bloodsuckers. All those crosses, for one. And the holy water.  And the coffins for goodness sake (clearly vampires, or zombies for that matter, don't come from cultures where they cremate the dead...imagine the complications therin!) Then there's the colonial/crusader read of vampire narratives.  I mean, if vampires are frightened off/rendered powerless by things like crosses and holy water, are they a representation of a non-Christian 'infidel'? In other words, is the vampire potentially Hindu himself?

As a non-vampire-ologist (yes, folks, there are entire academic fields dedicated to pop cultural and other narratives of vampires), I just did some highly unscientific research (Halleluiah for the google) into the notion of the Hindu vampire. What I found, I don't really buy. These websites (example here) seem to contend that cultural figures such as danav (demons), bhoot (ghosts), and rakshas (even worser demons) are, if not vampires, at least vampire-like in their status as un-dead beings, eaters of blood/flesh/bone marrow, and overall scary meanie-ness.

The contention that unsettles me even further is the notion that the tongue-waggling, skull-necklace wearing Ma Kali, the Hindu goddess in her most fearsome aspect, is also somehow vampire-like.  Ok, yes, there was a demon she was fighting who had the ability to reproduce himself thousandfold from every drop of his blood spilt on the ground. So she had to drink that blood, 'natch.  But that doesn't make Kali a cousin - even many times removed - of Dracula. Or, for that matter, of Edward Cullen. No, her identity is firmly culturally bound in South Asia, and to try and understand her outside of that context is absurd and incorrect.

In the end, I guess I'll have to just gracefully accept the fact that the symbol of the vampire is intriguing to folks of all nationalities - as culturally located as it is.  Yet, there's still a part of me that digs reminding myself (and eventually, my kids) that he's not necessarily a universal baddie.  He may have more marketing PR bucks behind his global appeal, but just like bhoot, danav or rakshas, the vampire is a fixedly cultural symbol informed by and constrained by certain narratives of Western Christianity.

 But wouldn't it be cool to see other cultural meanies elbowing Dracky (or zombies, or unicorns, or werewolves) for the spotlight? From Russian Baba Yaga to the Arabian Roc to the Indian petni, this Halloween, I think it's time for some global, egalitarian monstrosity...

(who are your favorite culturally specific monsters?)



  1. I am fond of the Penanggalan. Sparkling guts!

    The Marvel book Tomb of Dracula explored the Christiancentricity of vampires a tiny little bit. Or at least, acknowledges it, sort of. One of the supporting characters was Taj Nital - he was described as a Hindu, and thought.. at least once.. how silly it was that he had to use symbols of a religion he didn't take part in to subdue his (spoiler!) vampire son.

    Actually later a star of David is shown as having the same effect as a cross. I'm not sure where they meant to go with it all

  2. OO just wikipedia-ed penanggalan - hanging down entrails that sprinkle like fireflies below a disembodied head. NICE! Thanks Claire! :)

  3. Of course meant "sparkle" not "sprinkle" - now that would be odd.

  4. I'm cracking up over here about your mom's comment when you were a kid. Somehow I can see her sitting on the edge of your bed saying that (or something close) with a completely straight face... Makes me want a hug from her! :) (Although I'm a little distraught that you weren't afraid of Count D. getting to ME!)

  5. @kari: hah! I have yet to get those Vampire Academy books you recommended. I was thinking of taking one on the plane with that "wet parted lip girl's face" cover was so cheesy I couldn't bear to read it publicly. What's with YA covers these days?

  6. There is an episode of the old 70s show Kolchak, The Night Stalker, that featured as it's "monster of the week" a rakshasa. The elderly Hindu rakshasa hunter is using swasticas to ward it off... which leads to some misunderstanding due to the rakshasa having holed up in a Jewish neighborhood.

    I doubt that the portrayal of the rakshasa was folklorically correct, but then Kolchak routinely got details like that wrong in order to make a more exciting or filmable plot. But it was a nice attempt to be more multicultural than you would normally expect from a show at that time. And the intercultural confusion over the meaning of the swastica was a nice touch.

  7. OO thanks for the rakshasa siting, silver chipmunk! Must look that up!
    thanks for visiting the blog!

  8. Hehe. This was awesome. Gave me the chuckles. Especially your mom's sentence:

    "Go to sleep. We don't have to worry about vampires. Haven't you seen the movies? They only eat Christians. Relax. We're Hindu."

    That's what you call sheer brilliance ;)


  9. thanks brown eyed! i know, sometimes - especially since i've become a parent - i'm amazed at how easy my own parents made it all look. that kind of a response on the fly? awesomeness personified...