A Story of Injustice

 

by: Courtesy http://www.thenational.ae

Meena Kandasamy’s debut novel, The Gypsy Goddess, is a bold and original retelling of a massacre that took place in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu on December 25, 1968. Through the sections ‘Background’, ‘Battleground’ and ‘Burial Ground’, Kandasamy describes a dark arc that eventually and unflinchingly reveals how 44 disenfranchised Dalit labourers, including women and children, came to be burned alive by their landlords, and what retribution followed it, “the single biggest caste atrocity in India”.

 

It is Day 2 of the 2014 Edinburgh International Book Festival and Kandasamy is promoting her book as part of a discussion, entitled Modernity and Massacre, with the Iranian author Kader Abdolah. After signings, readings and podcasts, Kandasamy is finally free for interview in a rain-spattered yurt. Fortunately, neither the weather nor the fact she has been talking for hours seems to dampen her spirits: she begins by speaking volubly about her upbringing in Chennai (she was born there in 1984), her PhD in sociolinguistics and her interest in poetry, restlessly bouncing from topic to topic and carefully enumerating her points.

 

The Gypsy Goddess is equally animated, bristling with ideas and powered by black humour and righteous anger. Stylistically, it breaks many rules. The narrative is stubbornly non-linear. Instead of a central character we get an assortment of busy voices. “Well, I’m someone who gets easily bored,” Kandasamy explains. “And so I had to set myself a challenge. Also the story was so sprawling that I didn’t want to limit myself to one person, I wanted to bring in the state machinery, the Communist Party, the workers, eyewitness accounts and police records.”

 

This single-mindedness seems to have been there from the outset. “There are stories your agent wants you to write, stories your publisher wants you to write, that your readers want, but there are some stories that grab you and shock you and you think deserve to be told, they haunt you to the extent that you have to tell them in order to go on with your life. This story was important for me.”

 

One of the standout passages in The Gypsy Goddess is the description of the slaughter that unfolds over five pages in a single unflagging and unpunctuated sentence. We want the ordeal to stop but Kandasamy knows that to convey the full force of the horror means keeping a foot on the pedal and intensifying, not abating.

 

“This was my fight against academic language, a hypocritical language drained of all passion, which makes the people you are writing about inaccessible. You see it in NGO reports on Gaza, Sri Lanka or any genocide, it’s almost as if the blood has been sanitised and cleaned up. What’s the point of it?”

 

Kandasamy wins this “fight” by cataloguing the fate of every victim, especially the children. “The death of children is a huge cultural thing, whether we’re dealing with King Herod or Hitler. Children are never your defined enemy, they are without any views, and so I think the killing of children is a very particular brutality and one has to talk about it. Like the Gujarat genocide, for instance, the most striking image was the children’s bodies being lined up. These are horrors that you just can’t forget.”

 

But Kandasamy’s novel is more than a fictionalised account of a national tragedy. The book’s grimness is tempered by many of the wry narrator’s writer-to-reader asides and “metafictive devices”. When we are told the novel in our hands is “Tamil in taste, English on the tongue, free of all poetry and prosody, dished out in dandy prose”, we question the narrator’s reliability, for offsetting the stark and brutal imagery is an abundance of poetic flourishes.

 

Kandasamy has been labelled a “firebrand poet”. How happy is she with this appellation?

 

“I would actually shy away from all kinds of titles,” she answers. “There’s a certain necessity to box people, which I don’t believe in. I’ve translated at least half a dozen books from Tamil into English but I couldn’t call myself a translator as I haven’t translated anything for the last five or six years. You just have to step out of these boxes. Having said that, I would never relinquish the title ‘poet’.”

 

Or indeed “activist”. A number of Kandasamy’s strident and sardonic essays have focused on topics such as caste annihilation and women’s rights. At the beginning of her novel her unvanquished women are strong fighters; at the end they have been punished for their insubordination.

 

“And this is still happening,” she asserts. “Caste is still happening. Honour killings and dowry deaths. Indian men are still beating up their wives. These men associate violence with disciplinary action. Women are still expected to be submissive, to obey their husbands as if they are lord and master. The violence that takes place in homes is so normalised.”

 

She carries on, warming to her theme. “I come from the Tamil culture where sex is treated as the utmost taboo, especially sexual violence – you just can’t speak about it. Not only did the landlords carry out this massacre, they also sexually exploited many millions of these lower-caste and outcast women. And yet we live in a society where you cannot talk about it, where it’s taken for granted that your landlord has rights over your body. Husbands, too. No one talks about marital rape in India and it happens to women across social strata.”

 

This seems like an opportune moment to bring up the spate of gang-rapes in India. Kandasamy has written many impassioned opinion pieces on the topic. In one essay she rails against what she calls India’s “cultural sanction of rape”. She is keen to gets things in proportion. “It is more prevalent in Cambodia. And look at a country like South Africa where gang-rape is a kind of initiation tool of male bonding.” However, she agrees that not nearly enough is being done in her own country to end the abuses inflicted upon socially marginalised Dalit women by caste-Hindu men.

 

“The state criminalises Dalit people,” she says. “These people, especially the women, have the least recourse to justice. There was this judgment that said a Dalit woman’s rape could not have taken place because a caste-Hindu man would not defile himself by raping an untouchable woman. So you have the judiciary that legitimises rape at every stage.”

 

And the police? Are they like their counterparts in the book, still “puppets of the ruling classes”?

 

“Women are raped in police stations,” she replies, flatly. “There was an incident in my city this year where a man was raped in custody. A five-year-old was raped in Delhi by a couple of men and the doctor said he had never seen anything like that in his life, but when the parents went to file a complaint, the police tried to bribe the parents and told them not to press a complaint.

 

“And recently in this place Badaun, the father of two girls who were later found hanging in a tree after being raped went to the police and told them his daughters were missing but the police wouldn’t file a missing person’s complaint. Afterwards, the same police said in an interview with Al Jazeera that the girls committed suicide.”

 

If there is any silver lining to this rape epidemic it is the number of women who are taking to the streets to protest. “I think this is a very positive development,” she says. “They won’t only bring about a safer society but a more equal one.”

If India’s many iniquities fuel Kandasamy’s ire, one fellow female Indian writer and activist serves as her inspiration. “I salute Arundhati Roy. I like the fact that sometimes she is the conscience of the nation, whether she’s fighting against the dam or talking in support of the Naxalite struggle or against the nuclear tests, which everyone in India thinks is the greatest patriotic thing that has happened to the country. She manages to challenge all this, she challenges [Narendra] Modi and openly says he’s a big business puppet. You need a strong, uncompromising person to say these things.”

 

I wonder if Kandasamy will follow a different path to her role model by giving us a second novel soon.

 

“Well, you do something in your life and people think it’s your career. You teach at a university and people expect you to be there 40 years later. I’m not going to stand up when I’m 60 and read an angry young girl poem,” she adds, laughing. “And I’ve done a novel but I won’t necessarily say I’m in the business now, that I must get a second novel out. I think you have to get out and do new things with your life.”

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