Tuesday, 14 July 2015

The Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy/ Harper Collins India

Reviews, Vol I, Issue IV

In the middle pages of the narrative of the novel, we have a list. A description of the dead bodies who were massacred by a police inspector: burnt alive by the Caste-Hindu Landlords of Kilvenmani. It is a chilling few pages in the novel. Trust me, nothing within the earlier pages where the novelist is preparing us for the story, telling us the impossibility of telling such a story, and also giving us the background of the massacre where both the political ideologies or class/caste ideologies represented with two pamphlets will prepare you for this. Till now, you may have dissected, interpreted, got irritated, got provoked, itching, scratching your head, thinking hard to make sense (as you have no idea about what actually happened), making some sense (of the historical details given) a few times, gasping, yawning (not me), being impressed with the techniques/ anti-techniques, narrative style/anti-narrative style, novel/anti-novel, modernism/postmodernism, political commitment, research, thesis/ anti-thesis and all other things. But trust me, you are not prepared for this graphic detail. An absolutely emotionless detail. You come to know there were 44 of them. You come to know most of them were women and children. You come to know how those bodies, burnt, were sometimes so unrecognizable that their identities (name, sex, house, but not caste or village or specie) get dissolved. As if you’ve been hit with a brick. As if you now start watching things with your eyes wide open(no more yawning in between or doing technical studies of narratives, especially when you've been thinking about writing a review, your first ever review) Here, when are craving for realism, when it’s too real, you won't be able take it.

The next couple of chapters are in reverse, like Gasper Noe’s Irreversible, and yes the facts/images/smells/sounds are even more startling than that skull smashing scene in the beginning of the movie. Next Chapter: Someone, probably someone young, running to save his life (short sentences, breathlessness).  The next one, has the account of the massacre, where 44 people were burnt, locked inside a hut. (no commas, full stops, no time for taking a breath, as if the novelist has a handy cam and she is capturing those images, without a break). And then the trial, the usual denial of justice and a violent ending (Can't tell you everything)

Since it’s a novel (it is hard to describe it as something else, or maybe we can call it a tragedy, an epic tragedy, a novel with tragedy of epic proportion) you are searching for a single micro narrative, an isolated case study, a minute description of what happened to the old woman in the beginning. You’ll be disappointed if you want that story. The judges in the courts in the novel too wanted such a narrative.

“Perhaps he wanted a single story: uniform, end to end to end. The “Once upon a time, there lived an old woman in a tiny village” story. Sadly, we are not able to tell such a story. A story told in many voices seems unreliable.”

How can you tell one story when so many people got affected? And is this just the story of Kilvenamni? Probably not. Although the Kilvenmani story (in the novel at least) is resolved temporarily, but it’s also the story of other such massacres, the Bathani tola’s, the Lakshmanpur Bathe’s or even the Ramabai Colony’s (it’s ironical that we have to use the word story here, even when we are telling you a fact, because when someone narrates a fact, it automatically becomes a story, hence unreliable and the impossibility of telling a factual story stems from that)

What’s also refreshing to see is that the novelist is not shying away from revealing her political commitment to communism, and that commitment is not just reflected in the narrative, but also in the narrative style. ‘We’ is the protagonist of the novel, in this sense we can call it a proletarian narrative. Although there are a few individuals too like Maayi, but it’s not your regular single hero blockbuster. The villain, however, is cinematically represented, and the horror that we are going to deal with in the future pages becomes believable.

The preparation of the reader for the future events, where the novelist is trying to figure out, what is the best way to tell the story, also works as an alienating effect (see, I know Brecht) This alienation stops us from being emotional about the story, to cry, and get purged and forget about it after the reading. That is not going to happen to you. Although you won’t do the things that the novelist suggested, but still, you’ll be disturbed (at least for a while) you’ll try to find out the facts (though there is hardly enough material on the net) This probably will be the only properly written thing (though the novelist will disagree) that you’ll be reading about the massacre. Though there are a few non-fictional accounts about which the writer herself talks about.

As a first time reviewer (I don’t know if it’s a review, since I haven’t written one before and also the fact that you can’t really write of something like this as I have never been subjected to such a violence, being from a certain caste/class/educational background, but still, for convenience sake) I would recommend (strongly) to read the novel and to try and discover more. You can’t feel the pain (don’t even try to pretend) but at least be aware that something like this has actually happened. Do grab a copy. I heard that the paperback is out (buy a hardcover version though, the words will remain secured inside it) Keep that story of those Gypsy Goddess (seven or seventeen) and their children who were burnt with them, in the hard disk of your memory.

About the Novelist
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, writer, activist and translator. Her work maintains a focus on caste annihilation, linguistic identity and feminism. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch (2006) and Ms Militancy (2010). Her first novel, The Gypsy Goddess was published by Atlantic Books (UK) and HarperCollins India in 2014.

She was a British Council - Charles Wallace India Trust Fellow at the University of Kent and a Visiting Fellow at Newcastle University in 2011. In 2009, she was a writer-in-residence at the University of Iowa’s International Writing Program (IWP). She has held writing residencies at the Hong Kong Baptist University, Jawaharlal Nehru University (New Delhi) and the University of Hyderabad.

She has co-authored (with M Nisar) a biography of Kerala’s foremost Dalit revolutionary Ayyankali, and previously, she edited ‘The Dalit’, a bi-monthly English magazine. She holds a PhD in socio-linguistics from Anna University Chennai, and dabbles in political & literary translation.

- Reviewed by Prabhat Jha

Prabhat Jha is a Research Scholar in Patna University. 
He often writes poetry, plays and short stories. 
Apart from English he also writes 
and translates from Maithili and Hindi.

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