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.

Hotel Calcutta-bookcoverSushma Joshi reviews Hotel Calcutta for Kitaab.org

I specifically wanted to read “Hotel Calcutta” because the book flap description seemed to imply this book was a little out of the ordinary. I was tired of great narratives, tour de forces, award winning books, and writers who epitomized their generation. A heritage hotel that is under threat of demolition, a monk at the bar,  a wall of stories, a producer of porn flicks, a woman who hears dead soldiers in the corridor? Okay, bring it on!

The book was a satisfying read, and yet it wasn’t, all at the same time. While I enjoyed the sheer quirkiness of it—plus the flow of words from the writer who was clearly well versed—I should say, greatly at ease—with the writing traditions of great writers of the hoary past. At the same time, a certain something was missing from the book. If I was his editor, I’d say the writer needed to do a second and a third edit. Yes, perhaps that’s what was missing—a certain soul-analyzing content edit.

To get back to the book: the Hotel Calcutta is under threat of demolition. A monk shows up at a bar and advises Peter Dutta, manager-cum-bartender, a way to fend off the demons. “Keep telling stories,” he says. “Build a wall of stories around Hotel Calcutta and no one will touch it.”

Rajat ChaudhuriRajat Chaudhuri is the author of two works of fiction — Hotel Calcutta and Amber Dusk. A past Fellow of the Sangam House International Writers Residency, Chaudhuri’s fiction has appeared in Eclectica, Underground Voices, Notes from the Underground, The Statesman, L’Allure des Mots and other snakepits of the international literary underground. He is also a critic and has reviewed fiction for Sahitya Akademi’s (India’s National academy of Letters) Indian Literature journal, The Asian Review of Books, Outlook, The Telegraph and elsewhere. One of his short stories was the winning entry of the Wordweavers Fiction Contest, 2011. Before turning to writing full-time, Chaudhuri has been a consumer rights activist, an economic and political affairs officer with a Japanese Mission and a climate change advocate at the United Nations, New York.

Chaudhuri is currently (2013) writer-in-residence at the Toji Cultural Foundation (South Korea) from where he answered our questions.

Can stories save a hotel? How did the idea of Hotel Calcutta come to you?

For the purpose of mathematics we can assume a weightless elephant sliding down a frictionless hill. Mathematics and literature are twins. No they are brothers separated at birth, Bollywood style.

Reviel Netz has an excellent book discussing the parallels between mathematics and literature. It is called Ludic Proof: Greek Mathematics and the Alexandrian Aesthetic.

The setting came to me while guzzling expensive beer at the Fairlawn hotel in Calcutta which is housed in a two hundred year old building at the heart of the city’s entertainment district. Two other Calcutta hotels – the Astor and the Great Eastern have also influenced the setting.