“… until the stories slipped through the sieves of our mind”: Meena Kandasamy’s “The Gypsy Goddess”

The ochre sparrows are on fire. The pigeons in white flight are on fire. The sun is on fire. The clouds are burning at the edges. The flaming yellow of the moon is on fire. The stars pour with sparks that will scorch the earth on touchdown. The gold of the paddy fields is on fire. The burning brown mounds of grain and mountains of hay are on fire. The red flag at noon is on fire. The gutted huts have roofs on fire. The ponds are bright and burning as they splice up the sunlight. The roads catch fire whenever a stray vehicle kicks up dust. The sand is speckled with fire sparkles. The gods have blackened into death and the camphor only lights up their charred corpses. Women carelessly wind the fire around their hips and across their breasts. Girls carry fire in the ends of their curling hair and they pretend not to notice at all…” 

Meena Kandasamy’s The Gypsy Goddess is a novel about the real-life massacre of forty-four Dalits in the village of Kilvenmani, in 1968. The massacre was part of a chain of events in the resistance of the peasants of Tamil Nadu against high-caste landowners and their struggle to secure higher wages and a better life, a struggle that was punctuated by facing both physical and social violence (in the form of caste-based and economic boycotts). The important role of the Communist Party in organising resistance lent it strong class overtones, and following a similar pattern, was portrayed as communist insurgency by the landowners. Ultimately, the along with the massacre, the village of Kilvenmani was burned down, and the perpetrators were never punished. The Gypsy Goddess is a retelling of this epochal – and little-studied event – in post-independence Indian history. For reasons that will become immediately obvious, it is also an extremely difficult book to review.

Let us start with its novel approach to what I’d call the problem of authenticity. As a non-participant, separated from the events by the gulf of time, class and lived experiences, how can a writer authentically represent her chosen set of events? To put it another way, what right does she have to tell someone else’s story? (Let us bracket, for this purpose, postmodernist arguments, and assume that “authenticity”, as a concept, makes sense)

One poignant method of dealing with the problem is Jean Genet’s. In Prisoner of Love, which is his account of his two years among the Palestinian fedayeen, Genet is acutely alive to his outsider status, and the risk that in the very act of writing about the Palestinians, he is performing an act of appropriation. That understanding haunts him throughout the book, and he goes out of his way to clarify that he is telling his story, and not Palestine’s. This is about my time spent among the Palestinians, not with them, he says. Later, he writes: “I’ll have looked on at the Palestinians’ revolt as if from a window or a box in a theatre, and as if through a pearl-handled lorgnette”, and affirms that “you used to be in the audience and now you’re backstage. But you’ll never be an actor.” But if Genet deals with the problem by expressing his unease with his project, while affirming its necessity –  Ali isn’t a voice, unless he’s a faint, pale voice contained in mine – Kandasamy addresses it by deliberately parodying all accepted conventions of the novel (such, as for instance, character construction and show-tell, to name just two), conventions that are designed to gloss over the problem of authenticity. Throughout the story, the authorial voice alternates with the narrative voice, never letting us forget that what we’re reading is a conscious reconstruction. “I am just spreading out the mattress on the riverside, setting up the landscape, inviting you, dear reader, to join me and look beyond the trauma, with the aid of… romantic imagery.” “I am willing to try everything to get this story across. So, here I am, pitching a tent under a tree, propping up a blank screen, pulling out my puppets.” This device takes on a particularly fascinating form in the middle of the book, when Gopalkrishna Naidu, caste-Hindu, head of the Paddy Producers’ Association and ultimately responsible for the massacre, is dictating a petition to the government, pleading for action against the “communist agitators.” Here, the author re-imagines the scene by putting herself in the place of Naidu’s legal consultant and secretary, and intersperses the narration of the event with her own reflections about it, not as a disembodied, third-person narrative voice, but in the first person present: “every Communist gospel is deliberately reworked until it sounds as though it were a part of a sinister agenda to murder him. It sets him at ease.” It is a rather unique – and brilliant – interpretation of Thucydides’ confession to his readers at the beginning of The Peloponnesian War” – that the speeches he will describe represent not what the speakers actually said, but what – in the author’s opinion – speakers of that sort, in those circumstances, ought to have said. Somewhere between invention and reconstruction. And that is the point.

The intriguing similarities with Genet do not end here. Like him, Kandasamy is ambivalent about the act of writing itself. But what if it were true that writing is a lie?, Genet wonders in Prisoner of Love. “What if it merely enabled us to conceal what was, and any account is, only eyewash? Without actually saying the opposite of what was, writing presents only its visible, acceptable and, so to speak, silent face, because it is incapable of really showing the other one.” The same idea is prevalent in The Gypsy Goddess (at one point, Kandasamy presents it as the only alternative to immersion, albeit a deeply unsatisfying one), although it comes out with particular force in the Epilogue: “Twelve years on, Kilvenmani is a season-ticket for journalists who want to make a pilgrimage into people’s memory, that writing an annual one-page article salves not only your conscience, but also everyone else’s. You are allowed the privilege of being seen as progressive.” This is closely linked to another important point: that writing about an event – especially a revolution – entails obedience to a set of imposed conventions. Genet writes that “[the Palestinians] were admired so long as [their] struggle stayed within the limits set by the West.” And, subsequently, “they take photographs of us, they film us, they write about us, and thanks to them we exist. And then suddenly they may stop, and for the West and all the rest of the world the Palestinian problem will be solved simply because no one sees its picture anymore.” Similarly, Kandasamy observes that “it is common knowledge that no land would be found ever be found interesting until a white man arrived, befriended some locals, tried the regional cuisine , asked a lot of impertinent questions, took copious notes in his Moleskin notebook and then went back home and wrote something about it.” Both Prisoner of Love and The Gypsy Goddess are attempts, in their different ways, to break free of such constraints.

An important theme in The Gypsy Goddess involves the role of the Courts and the judicial system in dealing with violence – in particular, violence that embodies and exemplifies structures of domination and subordination that are upheld by the same system of law and government that creates and maintains the courts themselves. Ultimately, the perpetrators of the massacre are acquitted in Court because the formal rules of evidence and trial are particularly susceptible to manipulation against the kind of oral narrative and testimony that the survivors are most suited to convey. Here, I was strongly reminded of Shahid Amin’s Event, Metaphor, Memory, which deals with the Chauri Chaura violence, and its judicial aftermath. Amin contrasts the judicial reconstruction of the event, predicated upon a set of assumptions about the nature and character of the (peasant) participants, with the participants’ own understanding. In illustrating the vast gulf between the two, he shows us how the Courts’ view of an event – especially an event of violence – invariably reflects the view of the dominant, and the Court’s power and authority then makes that not only the dominant view, but the legitimate view – or the “truth”, if you would have it so. Amin writes, for instance:

While the [Chauri Chaura] judgment seeks corroboration of Shikari’s testimony, it also engrafts its own meanings onto the approver’s episodic recall. The links within the testimony are picked out and strung together into quite a different chain, an ornament befitting the stately requirements of magisterial rule.”


The High Court judges were prepared at most to grant a political backdrop to the crimes; any political foregrounding of the event would have cast them, so the judges thought, into ‘apologists for the lawlessness of the crowd.’ At the highest level of the provincial judiciary, Chauri Chaura remained a series of criminal acts rather than a violent instance of mass peasant politics. If a plausible case could be made for the reduction of death sentences it could only be by characterizing the accused as ‘in the main ignorant peasants’, the ‘great majority of whom’ were drawn into the business by misrepresentation of fact and preposterous promises concerning the millennium of Swaraj… the difficulty of my approach to generate an entirely alternative narrative of the event, I might even say its failure, illustrates, rather, the hegemonic power of judicial and nationalist discourse. The subalterns make their own memories, but they do not make them just as they please. The gallows and the prison ensure that, decades later, judicial pronouncements live to be heard even in the familial recall of an event. And so it is with Chauri Chaura. Peasant narratives that I collected were inescapably tainted or vitiated or coloured in varying degrees by the hegemonic master narrative.”

Something very similar is at work in the Madras High Court judge’s affirmation that caste-Hindus who own a car would be too scared (of the law?) to directly unleash violence, but would use agents to do it – and a language that attributes the death of the villagers to a “fire”, and not to the deliberate human agency that locked them into the house and then set fire to it. The “hegemonic master narrative”, to use Amin’s language, decides whether the ultimate cause of death was fire, or men – and decides, for all time, the moral quality of the incident accordingly. Both Event, Metaphor, Memory and The Gypsy Goddess, again in their separate ways, are thus acts of “writing back” – agains words that speak only for some, and – in Kandasamy’s language “reduce others to a charred silence.”

In exploring these meta-questions, I wouldn’t want to ignore the seriousness of the themes themselves: the acute observation and descriptions of how caste-based violence is not only physical, but operates through social ostracism and boycott; the strikingly accurate portrayal of government and judicial petitions, and their role in casting the veil of legitimacy over naked domination; and of course, the wretched role of the police in the willful misuse of the Indian Penal Code. Nor would I want to ignore the writing itself, although of course, that is best experienced by reading the book cover to cover. Here is a preliminary whetting of the appetite, though:

“… he linked love to life and life to livelihood and livelihood to the land and the land to the local river and then, with a smiling simile he likened the lazy white river to a pearl necklace on the bosom of the earth, and in his picture-perfect poetry that sang of the River Cauvery, the bleeding, blinded breasts of slave labourers in this delta district were forgotten.”

“… here stories grow like haphazard weeds. Here, ideas flow like rain through leaky thatched roofs.”

“… as the bones learn to burst like dead wood and some of the singing bones spring to life and crack along the grain as if maintaining the beats of a long-forgotten dirge…”

… it was Margazhi, the month of morning mist and the month of rain and slippery soil…”

… words on paper have a life only on the page…

In form and method, The Gypsy Goddess is, in many ways, an experiment. Like all experiments, it doesn’t always work out, and there are patches where the authorial voice seems overcooked, the conscious dissolution of show-tell becomes unbalanced – but these are minor quibbles. I would unhesitatingly recommend putting this book somewhere high up on the ever-expanding reading list.




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Filed under Indian Writing, Meena Kandasamy

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