Comrades in anger

Sudha G Tilak | Updated on June 13, 2014

Life goes on: Farmers transplant paddy at a village near Thanjavur, not far from where 44 Dalits were killed by upper-caste landlords in 1968.   -  The Hindu

The Gypsy Goddess, Meena Kandasamy, HarperCollins, Fourth Estate, Fiction, Price: ₹499

Meena Kandasamy swipes her literary sickle against systemic oppression in her debut novel

Meena Kandasamy has been doggedly voicing her protest against caste, patriarchy and class. Her feminist works, Ambedkarite support and her Left liberal stance have lent her voice, rich in social militancy, with a contemporary bite, be it her protest against Hindutva, caste or misogyny. Outrage at social injustices has been the leitmotif in her two poetry collections and her translations of Dalit works from Tamil to English.

Kandasamy once said she was disconnected from Indian writing in English, and the smugness of bourgeois angst where characters go out to “drink coffee”. Her debut novel, The Gypsy Goddess is certainly removed from this comfort zone, which she scoffs at. She insists she will not play the exotic village card for effect. The story is a fictionalised account of a real incident. On Christmas day in 1968, in the village of Kilvenmani in Thanjavur district, 44 Dalit farmers, including women and children, were killed by upper-caste landlords, while a fumbling band of Communists failed to help. The novel recreates the horrific incident in an imagined manner with a postmodern touch.

Forty-five years later, Kandasamy’s fiction revisits the brutality of how the 44 were locked in a hut and burnt alive to teach the rest a lesson; to ensure that they did not protest or ask for a Dickensian extra fistful of rice or wages. She is naturally worried about the business of storytelling in this day of Facebook statuses: “And how can I go ahead with the story when the first line itself has not instantly received a hundred thousand Likes?”

Like you will, with a little patience if you go past the first chapter where she plays provocateur telling the reader that the mechanics of State, men in power and capitalists have continued to lessen their grip on what they hold dear — power, caste, hierarchy and gender — which Kandasamy in her activist’s role continues to incessantly challenge.

Kandasamy is also not intent on pleasing her reader readily, given her rants against language being a construct of oppression. The novel’s form belies convention and besides being self-indulgent at times, includes a narrative that avoids the linear. However, the narrative recollection of the events is nuanced with enough eloquence to heighten the horror. The story moves forward with information coming in the form of a published pamphlet or a public notice. At times an investigative authorial voice pops up to lend an appropriate tenor, which she junks to write in a way that brings the brutality and the indifference of violence and neglect with a telling force. The varying forms of narratives add layered angles to the storytelling from different groups of people involved in the incident, such as the Paddy Owners’ Association, the Marxists and their leaflets, court retellings and the author’s as she tries to unearth the story decades later. The characters float as groups through the book, with the only real flesh-and-blood feel emerging with the villain of the piece, Gopalakrishna Naidu. There are no individual voices of angst or protest, only collective rage as Kandasamy recounts events with a dispassionate candour that seems to bring back the terrible injustice of it all.

Kandasamy’s spirit suffuses the telling with a nod to the unconventional, often stoking the ire of her contemporaries, be it the White man writing Indian fiction in English, matinee heroes or TED talks. The activist in Kandasamy is also unsparing of those complicit in the horrors of caste violence. Retelling the social demographics of Thanjavur in the 1960s, she recounts how the landlords held sway, while the distant government offices in faraway Madras seem indifferent and so do the local Brahmins who have evacuated from their quarters to bigger cities. The political leaders of Tamil Nadu’s Dravidian parties come in for snub as do the oppressive capitalists.

In retelling the tale of terrible injustice and oppression, Kandasamy’s foreboding indication seems to be that while murder, vengeance and the establishment’s indifference silenced a massacre more than 40 years ago, a contemporary State and people with much more mechanisms for recording and documenting seem to continue to commit the same offences of violence and brutality even today, and consign them to forgetfulness. The dead men are numbers and the women, deities or village goddesses whose pain has been simply fossilised into stone.

Kandasamy’s literary sickle takes an angry swipe at class enemies and cultural idols with the same tenacity in this novel as it does in her poems and activism.

(Sudha G Tilak is a Delhi-based independent journalist)

Published on June 13, 2014

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