It is said that there is a veil between worlds that allows us to believe that we inhabit only one completely, and when that veil thins – or perhaps only flutters lightly, as though stirred by a strange wind – that certainty dissolves. At dawn, at twilight, when the body is creating life or shedding it, in certain seasons – this is when we are in liminal space-time. We can sense or see the gossamer. Some of us know the borders and thresholds better than others, dwell in them, while others cannot believe in their existence. All and none of these things are true and untrue at once. That is the nature of liminality.
This time of year is one such interstice, for some cultures. The ancient Celts had Samhain, when costumed performers known as mummers would enact a play involving wounding and revival. They would be dressed to look like spirits, perhaps to confuse those very same spirits who would be wandering at this time, and for whom offerings would be kept. Many believe this festival contains the origins of the American holiday, Halloween. In Mexico, only days apart, is Dia de los Muertos, when the beloved dead are welcomed back and cherished with feasts, their graves strung with marigolds – that vibrant flower so closely associated with Tamil funerals as well.
There is fierce discourse that demands more depth from those who celebrate Halloween for fun. People’s heritages are not costumes, no matter how attractive their traditional attires are. The occasion’s underlying spiritual and cultural beliefs should not be erased in favour of capitalism, or candy. Such concern should travel wherever Halloween has travelled. Here in Chennai, there are parties for children now, and different parties for adults – no more than another reason to dress up, get a sugar high or a liquor buzz, and revel. This is okay, provided cultural sensitivity is observed. Halloween isn’t quite like Thanksgiving, an occasion that glorifies genocide, and which has bizarrely been refashioned by Indian influencers as a #gratitude moment. But still, there’s something beneath the merriment, an engagement with our mortalities and our pain or curiosity about the same, which for those who dare to pause and hold their breath for a moment will dizzy, disquiet and ultimately teach.
Entering, and being touched by, the liminal is not limited to certain times. Those are only the times when it seems to be easier. Those who misunderstand liminality impose taboos that create fear, and it’s this fear that – when ritualised, whether people like that word or not – becomes a scary costume or a supernatural film. The greatest fear is reversed into comedy (cheesy taglines selling Halloween-centric anything) or catharsis (video games in which we kill zombies and feel the blood-rush of our bodies reminding us of our aliveness).
My grandmother died on a Halloween, many years ago. The experience of losing her was ethereal. It deepened me into belief – whereas before it was as though I had only held strings of words under my tongue and in the crevices of my heart, but did not yet have language. Grief was only a part of it; the other part was illumination.
An edited version appeared in The New Indian Express on October 31st 2019. “The Venus Flytrap” appears in Chennai’s City Express supplement.