Occupy the Novel: Review of ‘The Gypsy Goddess’ by Meena Kandasamy

There are some rough patches in Meena Kandasamy’s novel The Gypsy Goddess (Atlantic Books, 2014, pp 283) but the author’s spontaneity, coupled with a radiant wit makes this a memorable novel. Beyond the hard-hitting storyline, the variety of experiments with form would keep one engaged, marking out this book as an important debut of the year, says Rajat Chaudhuri.  

Gypsy GoddessThe Wikipedia entry on the Kilvenmani massacre is a mere 800 words long while the Economic and Political Weekly article that pops up in a JSTOR search, at two and half pages, offers a slightly better word count. A couple of documentaries on YouTube, a few stray newspaper reports from the past, is about all that Google manages to throw up about this barbaric killing of poor unarmed Dalit villagers of Kilvenmani in Tamil Nadu, southern India that happened on Christmas day, 1968. Now that someone has written a fictionalised account in English about this half forgotten incident, buried deep in the annals of peoples’ struggles, was reason enough to get hold of a copy of The Gypsy Goddess. Hardbound, with a brilliant crimson cover with gold lettering and wrapped up in a beautifully designed dust jacket, it appeared in my mailbox exuding vintage chic.

The story is about the cold-blooded massacre of forty two people of Kilvenmani village by caste Hindu landlords and their goons just as Kurt Vonnegut’s Slaughterhouse 5 was about the mindless bombing of Dresden by the allied forces. And obviously it is an immensely difficult story to tell because wanton killing doesn’t lend itself well to traditional forms of storytelling.

Why does the Vonnegut reference spring up almost without a warning? It does because a few pages into Kandasamy’s unputdownable novel about the Christmas day massacre, the ghost of Vonnegut seemed to be winking at this reviewer through the paragraph breaks as the author went about offering her brand of what Kundera has called “a combination of frivolous form and serious subject”. And quite soon she writes, “The problem with thinking up a new and original idea within a novel is that you have to make sure that Kurt Vonnegut did not already think of it.

Perhaps acknowledging the difficulties of writing about the enormity of the incident – torching of a house resulting in the deaths of 23 children, 16 women and 3 men – Kandasamy takes the reader through a quirky background chapter titled Notes on Storytelling, where she plays many parts. Sometimes she is a critic chastising the exotic novel with a dash of humour while making it plain that she will resist exoticising impulses. Then she revels in postmodern playfulness while repeatedly attempting to put down the first sentence of the story beginning with “Once upon a time, in one tiny village, there lived an old woman” followed by “Once upon some time, in some village of some size, there lived an old woman” or invoking Nicki Minaj (in a later chapter) and morphing into a rap singer as she talks about the genesis of protests against a landlord.

Now touching upon some legends, she plunges into the history of the Nagapattinam district (where Kilvenmani is located) right from the Greeks with their nomenclatural instincts, next introducing the Danes who set up shop in nearby Tranquebar, on to the usual suspects — the Dutch, the Portuguese and finally the British, before painting the present with snapshots of socio-political history.

This rice-growing region has been at the frontline of conflicts between agricultural labourers (backed by the Communist Party of India (Marxist)) demanding a higher share of crops and rich landlords. And caste is woven into this fabric of strife, with the landless agricultural labourers being mostly Dalits (`untouchables’) and the mirasdars or big landlords all caste Hindus and Brahmins. At this point we are introduced to some of the important characters of her story, among them Maayi the Old Woman and Gopalkrishna Naidu the landlord and brain behind the Kilvenmani massacre.

In the next chapter of the extensive background section, the author introduces us to Kurathi Amman, the Gypsy Goddess after dwelling on the difficulties of naming her novel and pondering if Derrida or Žižek might have been of any help. And to sum up the mood she asks the reader quiet early in the book, “Are you still hunting around for the one-line synopsis and the sixty-second sound bite? Do you want me to compress this tragedy to fit into Twitter? How does one even enter this heart of darkness.”

Literary references and allusions are plenty in Kandasamy’s prose. Here you have a whisper from Conrad, there pops up old Dostoevsky, now you smell the ghost of a Kundera, while the epigraph features a quote from Steinbeck, not to mention the Vonnegutian refrain `so it goes’. It is as if the author is conjuring up spirits of past authors to help her approach the difficult matter at hand. Then when literature serves her no more she switches to cold bullet point lists – as in describing the post mortem reports of the charred corpses, some burnt beyond recognition – or the language of petition and officialese.

meenaWhere does this story begin? As we have already seen it builds up on legends and history, quickly transporting us to the decade of the sixties. Tensions between the Paddy Producers Association headed by the devious Gopalkrishna Naidu of Irinjiyur — leader of mirasdars, and the Communist party, fighting for the rights of agricultural labourers, are at its peak. The labourers of Nagapattinam had been demanding a little more paddy in exchange for their work infuriating the landlords. Violence is being perpetrated on the poor landless workers directly by the landlords’ henchmen or by using the police force. They are also being subject to social boycott and other oppressive tactics.

As the winter harvest season of 1968 draws near, the labourers have gone on strike and imported labour has not been able to fill the gap because the peasant struggle has spread. Meanwhile, to teach the communists a lesson, a politician in collusion with Gopalkrishna Naidu gets local communist leader Sikkal Pakkirisamy murdered. This is the 15th of November. Huge demonstrations are held to pay homage to the slain grassroots leader following which the villagers of Kilvenmani continue with the strike while being fined by the landlords for these actions. Then on the night of Christmas, 1968, landlords and goons attack the villagers with guns and other weapons. Forty two people including 16 women and 23 children who had taken shelter from the marauding force in Paappa and Ramayya’s hut are burnt alive.

Here we have arrived at the centre of all the darkness. A place where language falters and police records and bulleted lists have to be pressed into service. In the aftermath of this brutal massacre, justice takes its slow meandering course and finally all the landlords are acquitted. Meanwhile some of the villagers who escaped the fire are accused of murdering a landlord’s agent and thrown into jail. The rest of the book tries to come to grips with the tragedy as it also relates allied developments. The language in one of the closing chapters is brooding, lyrical:

The gods have blackened into death and the camphor only lights up their charred corpses. Women carelessly wind the fire around their hips and across their breasts. Girls carry fire in the ends of their curling hair and they pretend not to notice at all. Men swallow the fire as if their stomachs were stoves. Children catch fire when they run because the wind shaves their skin and sets them alight. The air is full of golden fire-dust. ”

The epilogue employs the persuasive cadence of second person narrative, placing the reader at the centre of the stories of the villagers of Kilvenmani. But the reader hardly needs to be persuaded. The old woman Maayi talks with you, they show you the martyr’s memoir and the ferocious Gypsy Goddess weaves her way back into the story. The villagers offer you rice: “The fields are golden and ripe for harvest, the women entreat you to taste the rice. They pull the ears of paddy, peel the husk, and the grains of rice they give you are milky in the mouth.

Exotic? Not really, though the larding of the text in one chapter with Tamil expressions is quaint. Postmodern? Looks like it though the author’s outrage is evident and taking issue with deconstructionists she exhorts us to occupy the novel. Difficult read? There are some rough patches but the author’s spontaneity, coupled with a radiant wit makes this a memorable novel. Beyond the hard-hitting storyline, the variety of experiments with form would keep one engaged, marking out this book as an important debut of the year. Finally we may ask — does the story offer some sort of closure for the villagers of Kilvenmani? Will the landless labourers finally sigh and whisper `Mudivu kandachu’? Which means `It has been completed’ or `We have seen the end.’ The reader would be intrigued to know, and this is one more reason for picking up Kandasamy’s novel.

Rajat Chaudhuri is the author of the novels,` Hotel Calcutta’ and `Amber Dusk’ and a book of stories in Bengali titled `Calculus’. He is the Charles Wallace Creative Writing Fellow (2014) at the University of Chichester, UK, a Korean Arts Council-InKo Fellow (2013) at Toji, South Korea and a Sangam House resident writer (2010). Web: http://www.rajatchaudhuri.net

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