Poet Meena Kandasamy’s debut novel, based on a Christmas Day massacre in Tamil Nadu’s Kilvenmani village in 1968, resurrects communist histories of little India.It’s been ten years of research for 29-year-old poet Meena Kandasamy, she who elicits death threats in return for her feminist stances and caste provocations. “I am an angry poet, an angry writer, so much is bottled up inside of me,” she confesses over the phone from London. The Gypsy Goddess, no matter how flighty it sounds, is as stark as caste oppression can get. For there is no way to tell this tale passively, like a non-angry writer would. And Kandasamy is not in a sparing mood. Every detail of charred body, twisted limb, fractured skull and singed hair of the Christmas Day massacre of 1968 in the East Thanjavur village of Kilvenmani, Tamil Nadu, is as visible as the research-of standing side by side with the relatives of the burnt harvesters in paddy fields-has made them. The narrative of the incident which caused E.V. Ramasamy Naicker aka Periyar to exclaim with shock from his deathbed, brought DMK leader M. Karunanidhi visiting, and yet resulted in more acquittals among the 20 accused than incarcerations, has been told before. In Tamil literature, in local and national news reports, through SIT inquiries, a speciality of our nation. So it is nothing new, in that sense. There is no suspense. There is no end to give away. It is the fictionalisation of a caste atrocity. “But it was important to me that the story that is told be a whole one. That it have a beginning, a middle, an end. That it be placed in historical perspective,” says Kandasamy.
Playing with that perspective is something the 29-year-old is able to do with deconstructive ease. Quite like the bones laid bare, of system, state and indeed even the failings of a communism she is sympathetic to, Kandasamy exposes the author and the reader to the open skeleton of the book. “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 a novel? They are hanging on my clothesline over there,” she writes.
This irreverent disregard for form, the inversions of structure, sentences often pages long, spoken with the frenzy of an eyewitness whose memories run into each other, make her work more poetry than prose. It is from these devices that the almost-magical realism emerges. And yet, in the reportage of its content, its will to present as authentic an account as caring for an incident lost to collective memory will make possible, it is non-fictional. These paradoxical plays make for piquant and unique story-telling. Her language is alliterative, and the rules of grammar are her own, her flow-river-like gushing words, angry, burdened with the sorrow of an entire village-crafts the importance of her text. You dare not miss a word, indeed, you barely can: “Was forty-four lives the price for an extra measure of paddy?” she will slip in between a rant, poking you sharply where it hurts: “and so their lives go up in smoke but all of them are too dead to notice this vital fact of existence.”
Kandasamy is like that; direct. She follows in the traditions of communist writing set by Arundhati Roy and Jhumpa Lahiri, yet unlike them, she knows not how to soften the narrative in a shy unfolding. In places, The Gypsy Goddess reads like a communist text-the comprador-bourgeoisie, the red flags, the comrades, the class enemies, the mocking incompetence of the police characterised in the pathetic figures they cut. The book comes at a time when Delhi University teacher G.N. Saibaba has been arrested for alleged Maoist sympathies, and editor of Vidrohi magazine Sudhir Dhawale, has just been released from under the draconian UAPA, Kandasamy points out, by a court that has pointed to communist literature being freely available on the internet. How does reading or knowing what the sentiments are lead to a violent mass movement. Rather, she seems to ask, how is it possible, after reading a tale such as this, not to have sympathy. Kandasamy, unafraid, channels a bottled anger, to dare you to forget, this and massacres like this.
Communism, the Congress, DMK, the caste hierarchies, state machinery and ideological idealism are all faulted at the altar of her true heroes: The farm hands. The heart of the novel is in the characters too myriad to recall by name. The accused that time and justice have forgotten. The names of agreements that ages have buried. Six measures of grain, how much is that? Paappa akka, heavily pregnant, Vasuki, Virammal, Jothi; Kandasamy throws you the names of victims, with the fiery challenge that you catch them. Will you? Or will you forget? The pathos she wrings out of the incident is finally not of the victims, who come out of it brave and simple, and true. “Allarum uravu murai, we were all related.” The pathos is purely of he who will not see. And something in Kandasamy’s mocking tones suggests, dear reader, that that might be you.
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The harvesters of Kilvenmani are on strike, in a deadlock with the landlords for two measures of paddy as wages. On December 18, 1968, Ratnam is thrashed for putting his name first on a memorandum against landlord Gopalkrishna Naidu. His complaint is rejected by Inspector Rajavel at Keevalur police station. The Party tells them there is nothing to fear. The incident is the thread that unravels the horrific events to come…
Paappa akka, Ramayya maama’s wife, was calling everyone to their house. Big with child, she walked with one hand on her stomach, afraid that it would fall off . She stood at the doorway and asked all of us to step inside. Vasuki was tugging at her sari, asking to be carried. Most of the women and children got inside.
Virammal akka, with her little son under one arm, pulled Guru and Natarajan into Paappa akka’s house. She called them naughty monkeys. She told Natarajan that he was not even three feet tall and so he could not join the fighting. She told Guru that if he got out they would put a spear into him and he would never be able to see his sweetheart again. I was looking away all this time and she came to me. She asked me to run and fetch my sister and come back to her. She asked me not to go home. She asked me not to wander off. She asked me to come back in a blink.
I went to find my sister. I called her name.
I looked for her everywhere. I looked out until I could not see.
They were coming closer and closer. I stood there lost. Then Anjalai came and grabbed my hand from nowhere. We began to run. I could not go back to Paappa akka’s home with her. Everybody was running there. I carried her and ran into the fields. We hid ourselves behind the crops, from where the dark night could be touched.
They started shooting. They were moving in. They were shouting. They set fire to the roof of the huts. They took the straw from one burning thatched roof to set fire to another. Then all the burning huts lit up the village. We saw fleeing figures. We heard bamboo splinters blast.
Then everything happened at once. We heard the screaming. The loud screams filled up the land. My little sister and I were crouching like monkeys. I held her tight to stop her running. She sat still. She did not know what was going on. I put my hand on her mouth so that she would not join the screaming. The screams stopped sometime later.
Then I came outside holding my sister. We ran towards our home. The sky was yellow and black with fire and smoke. I heard an old woman crying. When I got closer, I could make out that it was Maayi paati. She was with another woman. They were hiding behind a hut. They sat in such a way that only their faces could be seen above their knees. I understood they were without clothes. I took my father’s lungis and gave them. They covered themselves. They came into our hut. We were all coughing. Maayi paati said that those who had come to attack us had gone away. So we went and sat outside.
A police van came again in the middle of the night. It went away after some time.
They did not come to us. We did not go to them. Maayi paati kept on crying. None of us could sleep.
The sun switched sides.
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