Book Review | The Gypsy Goddess
A viscerally powerful first novel from one of the most outspoken poets in contemporary India
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The Gypsy Goddess | Meena Kandasamy
Filling in the blanks
“Fuck these postmodern writers.”
With this sentence, Meena Kandasamy ends possibly the most frustrating opening chapters you’ll read this year, replete with false starts, long digressions on everything from Ptolemy to Twitter and enough background information to rival a doctoral thesis. Precociously self-aware, preternaturally intelligent, and frequently convoluted, they also pre-empt every single argument that the reader or the reviewer could advance against these 50-odd pages and don’t spare the writer-narrator either.
They tell you what the novel is not (“Just because this is a novel set in rural India, do not expect a herd of buffalo to walk across every page”) and they tell you what the novel is: “Some headlines say the whole story: Madras is Reaping a Bitter Harvest of Rural Terrorism: Rice Growers’ Feud With Field Workers Has Fiery Climax As Labor Seeks Bigger Share of Gain From Crop Innovations. In a way, that is all there is to it. This novel has only to fill in the blanks.”
A more pithy statement of purpose would be hard to find. And nothing could prepare you less for the viscerally powerful prose that follows.
Actually, “novel” may be a bit of an overstatement. The Gypsy Goddess is an imagined narrative of actual incidents, the fictionalized counterpoint, if you must, of the newspaper reports of the massacre of 25 December 1968. On that day, long-simmering tensions between the landlords and labourers in what was then Tanjore district in Tamil Nadu came to a head in a conflagration that saw 44 men, women and children being burnt to death in a locked hut in the village of Kilvenmani.
The last sentence, not to put too fine a point on it, is just the kind of reductive history that Kandasamy seeks to undo with her retelling of the horror (retelling, because it has inspired at least one other book and a couple of films). But this is where the author’s fearlessness asserts itself. It is not just with the content that Kandasamy pushes the literary envelope (a pro-socialist novel in India 2014? come now); it expresses itself in the way she plays with form, bending narrative conventions and offering multiple perspectives. She flits in and out of the story herself, always ironical, always sardonic about the exercise, obviating the fourth wall or, at least, making us question its presence or necessity.
As tiresome as they are to read, the first two chapters of The Gypsy Goddess establish the mythical backdrop of Tanjore district, and its social landscape in the 1960s, when the rise of communism is making the feudal lords uneasy about the threat to the entrenched order. This difficult introductory portion—which also explains the rationale behind the somewhat unconnected title—gives way curiously smoothly to the actual “story”, marking out the principal villain, Gopalakrishna Naidu, as he addresses a gathering of paddy producers. His speech, alternately hectoring and cajoling, draws the lines between “us” and “them”—by turns, the state government in faraway Madras, the upper-caste Brahmins who have fled their agraharams (Brahmin quarters) at the first sign of trouble, but, most of all, the godless communists and the “coolies” under their thumb, who are demanding an extra half-measure of rice. “Nothing we give them will be enough for them, so it is better that they are given nothing,” he thunders.
Perhaps as an indication of the balance of power, Naidu is the most fully realized of the characters in The Gypsy Goddess: insecure, scared, ruthless. The communists are a collective, but for the stray hero who gets himself martyred, while their red flag-waving supporters, with a couple of exceptions, are indistinguishable in their oppressed misery.
As obvious as are the sympathies of Kandasamy the activist, Kandasamy the novelist tries to play fair, as scathing about elected leaders such as M. Karunanidhi and Periyar E.V. Ramasamy Naicker as she is about the nameless local communists who bridge the foot soldiers—terrified for life and limb in a feudal stranglehold—and the city-based generals spouting generic inanities. “The party had morphed itself to enjoy the charms of the parliamentary system, and it consoled its cadre that it was playing by the rules of the new game.”
As the novel progresses and the battle lines are drawn more boldly, the author becomes a whirling shape-shifter—now the quiescent amanuensis, now her own voice, now the omniscient narrator behind the play-safe policeman—till, in the climax, she is “A Minor Witness”, the young boy who raised the alarm about the presence of the landlords’ goons in the village and then hid in the paddy fields with his sister, petrified by the mayhem. “And the hut is fatally bolted for the final time from the outside by the mob leaving the dead the dying and the living dead in the crushed space to face the fire that is a merciless man-eating angry god... but their cries are of no avail and in a matter of minutes the black smoke envelopes them so they can no longer cry because their vocal chords have scorched and closed and suddenly inhalation itself is injury.”
As palpable as a flame, the author’s red-hot rage now morphs into a white-hot incandescence: In a subdued tone that echoes a stupefied funereal silence, she follows the case through the procedural channels of government, police and court, where evidence goes missing or is thrown out because of contradictions in panicked eyewitness accounts, underlining the isolation by the system of the very people it is meant to protect. In a way, this section is even more disturbing than the Machiavellian machinations of the previous chapters, so absolute is the loss of hope, so complete the bitterness.
The book ends with a closure of a sort for Kilvenmani but the story, we know 45 years later, is far from over.
The Gypsy Goddess is out on 15 May.