Edited by Muireann Crowley
Artwork by Kelechi Hafstad: Kelechi Anna Photography
“Remember, dear reader, I write from a land where people wrap up newborn babies in clumsy rags and deck the dead in incredible finery.” (Kandasamy 24)
Literature encompasses several paths of inspiration for me and I tread one of them in the Indian author, Meena Kandasamy’s debut novel The Gypsy Goddess (2014). This is a whimsical fictional narrative based on the bloody massacre of 1968 in the Kilvenmani village, located in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, India. Without striving hard for authenticity she inspires me to write dramatically in the right parts while holding reader’s attention. Her pen isn’t afraid of unveiling that which decorum usually hides and carries “the tales of their cunts and their cuntress and their cuntentants . . .” (Kandasamy 67) for she is on a fearless mission.
During 1968 in the southern part of India, Marxism was being preached within groups of disenfranchised Dalits. The rice-paddy farmers were in protest at the murder of an eminent communist leader. With the use of unjust forces such as police brutality, debilitating fines and the ruthless harassment of Dalit women, the landlords tried to force them back to work. This was to no avail as the lowest rung of caste system, the Dalits, kept trying to achieve equality. Resolving to spark fear, the higher authorities sent in a gang of goons who mercilessly stuffed a number of villagers into a hut and brutally set it on fire. The death toll amounted to forty-two. Gypsy Goddess gives gruesome descriptions of how each of them were charred and unrecognizable; this for me as a reader will probably never be erased due to the dark imagery Kandasamy creates. Ironically, the predators were let off leniently while the majority of the villagers not only faced the loss of their loved ones but were sent to rot in jail. India has a long history of discrimination against the marginalized, especially against women and those belonging to minority or disenfranchised groups; I have suffered injustices at the hands of patriarchy as well. Thus, the story struggling to give voice to these oppressed parts of society connected deeply with me.
I studied this post-colonial novel as a part of my undergrad studies for a paper titled ‘Indian Fiction’ in my English Major course. The one subject that has constantly held my interest since secondary school is English literature which was why I chose to study it at the Symbiosis School for Liberal Arts in Pune, India. After being drenched with all the British and American classics, it was really refreshing to delve into Indian texts. This was a compulsory module for which I’m thankful as I was introduced to impactful works such as this, which corrected my previous perception that there weren’t many Indian authors who wrote significant works.
The first thing that caught my attention in the novel was the plight of the women shown by characters such as Thangamma or Maayi, who bravely fights the patriarchal power and connects emotionally with her listeners through narrating her past struggles. There are instances of how they were cruelly treated like this particular woman’s account – “caught her hair, pushed to the ground, stripped naked, beaten up. Scars on her left cheek, a sickle split on the right side of her hip, red welts on the palm from fighting the men . . .” (Kandasamy 206). The character doesn’t stick with me as much as the virtues of communism that follows with her fighting against this by lying stark naked on a mat. As I read the novel, I recollected one of feminist standpoint theory’s main principles: “marginalized groups are socially situated in ways that make it more possible for them to be aware of things and ask questions” (Yudianto 4). This is seen in the novel when women strike for higher wages and punishments for rapists. As the women become knowledgeable about Karl Marx’s division of classes they realise the need to fight for even a fair daily wage.
Gypsy Goddess successfully weaves this heart- wrenching tale through Kandasamy’s clever use of various forms and strategies to create the needed impact. The narrative’s voices imprint on one’s thoughts despite the fact that the novel is not as character-driven as more traditional or conventional novels are. I was really engrossed by how Kandasamy ventures into making this non-linear narrative format as unique as possible. There is a chapter that’s merely a breathless sentence infatuated with gory descriptions – “facial features disappear and flesh now starts splitting and shin bones show and hair singes with a strange smell . . .”(Kandasamy 165) It hauntingly evokes a sense of emptiness at how insensitive and desensitised humans can get. There are chapters in the form of communist pamphlets with denouncements of injustice: letters, such as one from the landlord; survivor interviews; and even a journalist’s account of the tragedy written in second person.
With regards to integration into the university curriculum, the reason I chose this novel, aside from the various aspects already discussed, is the fact that there is a lack of good Indian fiction available in academia. Even in my current Master’s course in Creative Writing, there are no Indian authors – forget Indian authors from marginalized communities – on the reading list. It is therefore crucial to get these powerful voices onto curricula and onto platforms where they can be debated, discussed, ingrained and used positively.
With dark questions sans metaphorical tools, Kandasamy pushes the reader to flit between the perspectives of a sleazy landlord or a half-naked kid counting the stones he throws at a fire to douse it. She makes the event of Kilvemani’s struggle an enduring memory that will infuse every thought I have of the socio-political Dalit struggle, particularly of Dalit women, in India. The text hit me at the most unexpected times and when a narrative is this bleak, one cannot help but ponder on the issues it depicts.
Kandasamy, Meena. The Gypsy Goddess. 1st ed., Atlantic, 2014.
“The Standpoint Theory.” Communication Theory, 2017, http://communicationtheory.org/the-standpoint-theory/. Yudianto, Resa. “Standpoint Theory”. Academia.Edu, 2012, https://www.academia.edu/4652496/Being_that_Standpoint_Theory_focuses_on_marginalized_populations. Accessed 27 Nov 2018.
About the author:
Avidly curious and constantly thirsty for knowledge, Vaishali Bhargava is a passionate writer currently pursuing a Masters Degree in Creative Writing at University of Warwick. She flits between screen and paper, creating worlds or staying stuck in created ones which is what she wants to build her future on.