A carnage recalled
Sheila Kumar, 10 Aug 2014
The Gypsy Goddess
2014, pp 281
the worst Dalit massacre in TN back in
1968, the reader recognises with a shock that neither people nor times change
Poet-activist Meena Kandasamy’s first novel, The Gypsy Goddess, is a rambunctious read. Now, this is an odd way to talk of a book that is a retelling of one of the worst caste clashes in India, and definitely the worst in Tamil Nadu. It took place back in 1968, on Christmas Day, when the wealthy and invincible landlords of Kilvenmani, outraged by the Communist-influenced protesting peasants, decided it was time the latter were taught a lesson. And so they are, in the most devastating manner ever.
But rambunctious the novel is. Employing an intricately patterned way of presenting the story, Kandasamy makes the reader really work for it. In fact, in her introductory passages, she meanders so much and in so many directions all at once, the reader starts to get impatient, wanting to harness all the strands, and quickly.
However, suddenly,so suddenly the reader gets a jolt, the story moors itself quickly. And the heart-rending tale unfolds in a zigzag fashion even as the linear progression becomes clearly evident.
The Gypsy Goddess is a hard-hitting tale, and even though it sometimes seems driven by the author’s whimsy, it’s a disturbing true story of oppression, atrocity, numbing poverty, class war, caste conflict, brutal rape, pillage, cold-blooded carnage... and of justice both delayed and denied. Chronicles of many deaths examined close up and discomfitingly personal, in fact.
The times are bleak for those who till the land. They know their place under the blistering sun, they know better than to attempt to hope. The landlords are major despots, and their writ is absolute. Yet, Kilvenmani, like that Gaulish village in René Goscinny and Albert Uderzo’s tales, continues to hold out, to gather under the red flag and stand up to ask just why so many atrocities are continually visited on them. This won’t do, after all it is important that the status quo is maintained and our (collective) villain with “rice-white teeth and overtly menacing manner”, acts swiftly.
There is arson, a fire that “spreads with fondness and familiarity”, devouring the impoverished village, there is a pogrom that is chilling in its detail. Once the dust and ashes settle, the loud-mouthed gods and goddesses are seemingly forever silenced; what remains are the ghosts of those who were tortured to death, forever walking abroad, forever lodged in the hearts of those who survived.
Green fields, red flags, black bodies. There is a long-drawn-out court case or two, and then there is an acquittal. The status quo must and does remain. Even though the villain much later gets what’s coming to him in poetic justice fashion, the leaping, marauding fires that consume the village and the screaming villagers stay in the reader’s memory. Until, as Kandasamy remarks in wry fashion, they read of another atrocity in another book. (“They cluck with sympathy but do they do more?”)
Then again, most people are tired of history and also tired of history repeating itself, the author says, explaining why it is that she is constrained to try a new way to tell the story. It is a rural novel, according to the author, yet it seamlessly makes the crossover where the reader is concerned.
This is a book seething with barely banked passion. The author employs a tone in which cynicism is mixed with fury, and to very good use. Here and there the prose soars, taking on distinctly poetical cadences: alliteration under the armpit, algebra around the rhyming feet.
Fickle as the reader’s engagement is anticipated and expected to be, it is imperative that stories such as these be told. Over and over again. Because, as Kandasamy says, the writer and the reader are locked in a joint venture; they do not abandon each other.
Oh, and a word about the jacket. The word would be ‘striking’.