Om Namah Shivaya

Om Namah Shivaya

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Nov 30, 2014

UP, CLOSE & PERSONAL: The Gypsy Goddess - Meena Kandasamy


From Hindu lit festivals, to constant ongoing word wars on social media, I have been watching Author Meena Kandasamy's journey to becoming a fiction writer of repute, for some time now. Her book ‘The Gypsy Goddess’, seemed to me, giving voice to her restrained rage against passivity of society at large. In this powerfully crafted novel, she gave vent to her angst in most interesting and witty way, taking us on a journey, exploring one of the most heinous massacres in Nagapattinam at Kilvenmani, where in 1968, 44 dalits were burnt alive by the landlords. 

Click here to buy the book at Amazon
Although, she writes in her book, that 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; this book is not going to be a salve to your conscience but an unwrapping of the bandages from distant past and expose a festering wound for all to see, feel and react to. And not to let, in her own words “the coppery sick-sweet smell of charred flesh: a smell like nothing else, a smell that was almost a taste, a smell that was meant to be smuggled to the grave”, it to be buried in sands of time; in the graves of modern Indian history.

When our book club, Sans Serif (which meets at Apparao Gallery every month), decided to discuss the book ‘The Gypsy Goddess’ by the author, Meena Kandasamy, I reached out to her and she enthusiastically agreed to join us for a discussion with the members. On the day of our meeting, I picked her up from her house and on the way, we happened to talk about Rishikesh, Kedarnath (My favorite places in Himalaya), where she spent almost a month shooting for a Malyalam movie Oraalppokkum, in which she is playing the female lead 'Maya'. I was happy to hear when she said that it was one of those places, where she did not have nightmares. 

In the opinion of our book club members, the Author Meena seemed to be quite vulnerable rather than the impresssion and the tag 'Ms Militancy', she is usually associated with.

Moderating the discussion with Meena Kandasamy at San Serif Book Club
Apparao Art Gallery - Chennai


As you start reading the book, your preconceived notions of blood and gore, given the background of the book, based on a horrible massacre, is immediately destroyed with her introduction. Author Meena disarms your bias with her charming words, painting the canvass of the book with her incisive wit. The usual impressions of typical Indian villages, comes out to be in a stark contrast...

Meena Kandasamy @ Hindu Lit Festival
Pic taken by me
“Famed for its large chariot and its buxom Devadasis, the temple at Tiruvarur once ensured that both gods and men were assured of a good ride. Then there’s a temple for the pubescent Neelayadakshi, the only Tamil Goddess with blue eyes. Clearly, some in the steady stream of visiting white men had spilled their seed”.

As you read on, you realize that her freshness of style, not only comes from the fact that it’s her first novel, (so she can choose to experiment with her writing) but also from being an outspoken poet, translator, an active firebrand 'Ms Militancy' in real life as well as on the social media platforms.

“Some poets are utter losers, unreliable when it comes to facts and incapable when it comes to fiction. … 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 (such) romantic imagery.”

It was a real delight to read her thoughts on the style of her writing, as she takes the reader ‘head on’, getting them ready for anything down the road.

“Sorry… Here (in my book), I simply push them (my characters) off the page. Don’t bother asking me about authorial decorum and all that jazz. I am not running for Miss Congeniality. I stopped practicing politeness in tenth grade. Because I have taken pleasure in the aggressive act of clobbering you with metafictive devices, I can hear some of you go: what happened to the rules of novel? They are hanging on my clothesline over there.

Finally, as she gets ready to drag the reader through the murky waters of feudalism, caste wars and injustice, littered with raw images of poverty and exploitation, she lets you know that her experiences with the medium has made her wiser.

“Initially I wanted to put this section on poets and rivers down as a footnote and forget all about the fictional elements. Last time I wrote a footnote, however, I made the mistake of suggesting that Ponnar and Sankar, two local guardian deities, were Arundhatiyars, an oppressed untouchable caste, and a case was slapped on me by the touchy touchable caste – Hindus seven years after the book appeared.”

Author in discussion with book club members...
Reading the book, I felt closer to the dark reality that was seemingly so far off for those of us, who live in Metro Chennai, a part of the modern India, where, like every other urban city, the public memory is notoriously short. Though, in this write up, I would not like to discuss the politics behind the massacre, the ferocity of feudal landlords or the helplessness of the poor peasants as Meena Kandasamy is a far better person to do that, but I would like to say that it is one of the most difficult book to write. Meena has done a great job in conveying convey the texture, feelings and helplessness of the time, truthfully.

She says, “Even if we stylistically try and recreate the texture of every other old-maids tale, we must remember that hate is not always obedient to plot. It has ambition, it believes in unlimited possibilities and places its trust in tangents”. And she excels, in not letting her ferocious angst take over the book instead she shows us the mirror of our times - oblivious to the suffering of the poor, downtrodden and unjust politics etc.

“… and in desperation a mother throws her one-year-old son out of the burning hut but the boy is caught by the leering mobsters and chopped into pieces and thrown back in and in that precise moment of loss and rage every one realizes that they would dies if their death meant saving a loved one and that they would die if their death meant staying together and that they would die anyway… and together they prepare to resign themselves to the fact that they have mounted their collective funeral pyre.”

Arthur Schopenhauer has once said…
“Truth that is naked is the most beautiful, and the simpler its expression the deeper is the impression it makes ".

For me that was the reality of the book.  Meena Kandasamy reached out to the readers, with simple truth being told as it is. She has perfectly captured the aftermath of the massacre through the eyes of Inspector Rajavel, who made the First Information Report (FIR) of the incident, without being pretentious…

“…only a cold-blooded sadist could have come up with an instruction to the reporting of police officer to note down the facial expression of a fire victim.”

In the end, I would like to share some of the lines from the book that got me thinking. …

Listening to Meena Kandasamy at Sans Serif Book Club...

What is a story worth if it does not have a supernatural element? Why begin when you can not bring in the Gods.

Words transform when they travel through a medium. They die, but worse they can kill. In a novel like this, there is no point in shooting the messenger dead. In the village of Kilvenmani, pannaiyal Subramanian is the linkman. … It’s through him that they receive their threats; it is through him that they learn that their end is near. Like the fool of all folklore, this man will survive and stay unscathed.

Revolutions are usually verbose and, sometimes, they make too many promises.

Don’t you even try to get familiar with what goes on around here, for it is not only the sounds of my native land that you will find staggering.

I was in the mood for some Dostoevsky that day, my mind was swinging with my mood and, reminding myself that men were despots by nature, I maintained an icy exteriors, almost as if I was frozen by fear.

It would be cruel not to appreciate Inspector Rajavel’s labors, and criminal to suppress the facts of the massacre. Therefore his observations have been shared hereunder, and the tabulation shall tell this tale.

Anger prevents Kilvenmani from disorienting itself, Maayi sees how the anger keeps the people together, injects them with life, provides them a reason to live, pushes them to action.

Because all of us are afraid and the fear in our hearts slurs the truth in our voices.

नमः शिवाय
Om Namah Shivaya
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