As long as Caste lives: Book Review of The Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy

The Gypsy Goddess marks a moment in history as one of the first Dalit novels written in English. Meena Kandasamy has a doctorate in socio-linguistics and her academic background is apparent in the book’s ideation of writing itself, referencing, in the most desi way possible, ‘Derrida-Shmeridda’ (39) to put the reader at ease with the postmodern novel. 

Dalit prose has so far mostly emerged as autobiography. The autobiography has afforded writers from Om Prakash Valmiki to Sujata Gidla the space to be unabashed, to deploy the power of narrative to will to the fore, the lives that exist in the trenches of Indian cultural life and politics. The autobiography commands a credibility that the traditional novel cannot and which the aim of Dalit writing demands: a recognition of the writer’s truths. It is not surprising then that the Gypsy Goddess has become a novel on the condition that it be non-fiction, and be acutely aware of the trappings of forms and language, experimenting with both until the story be told justly. The novel is penetratingly conscious of the reactions of the reader: she is commanded not to abandon the book at drab details, made wary of feeling complacent or ‘woke’ for her familiarity with this small village, urged to think how her politics is changing with each passing chapter. In fact, the dialogue with the reader is the most consistent theme of the book.

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The Gypsy Goddess is a non-fiction novel (or an anti-novel) that tells the tale of the 1968 Kilvenmani massacre, in which 44 Dalit peasants were burnt alive by caste Hindu landlords in a culminating stroke of power of the long-drawn tussle between the peasant-victims and bastard landlords. The peasants’ demand was six measures of paddy for their labour in India’s rice bowl, to keep themselves alive. Their weapon (not quite of choice, as we will see): the Red Flag. In the process, the novel brings to the fore cultural and political realities that render the reader’s notions of politics in the same country embarrassingly nascent, pitiably credulous. It is a novel about casteism in public institutions, hunger, and apathy. But it is equally importantly a novel about storytelling itself: about the violence it can unleash, the justice it can inspire, and the hope it keeps alive. 

The content of the book has been researched academically and substantiated by oral history from the writer’s own lineage. She declares that the book is not about a Gypsy Goddess, though there is a fleeting mention of her as a fabled legend, one of many fables that occupy the beginning of the book to sketch the multicultural, multi-theistic history (24) of Tamil Nadu. She could be read as an allegory for Kilvenmani: ferocious, and mostly content with the offering of six measures of paddy. The book is given this “curiously obscure and mildly enchanting” name for a calculated purpose: a name that fits the events would turn readers away, for the story is about a massacre; a name true to its Communist connections might be scorned by the Communists, who shirk the bourgeoisie exercise that is novel writing; the contender ‘Tales from Tanjore’ would disappoint the readers when they found out it wasn’t an Arabian Nights set in the Indian South. The choice of the novel’s form is made clear by elimination. The massacre has already been covered by others academically (Kandasamy references the work of Kathleen Gough), but the readers, whom she addresses in dialogue, “are too lazy for research papers” (22). She could have chosen reportage, but it would only be another headline in a string of Dalit massacres. She sidesteps a work of pure fiction over the risk of providing voyeurs and an exoticized journey to an Indian village port. And so, she is stuck with the non-fiction novel, armed with all the power that a tenacious reader’s attention can conjure.

The book exists in four parts: Background, Breeding Ground, Battleground, and Burial Ground, with a Prologue and an Epilogue. The Prologue is a letter by Gopalakrishna Naidu (landlord and our villain) to the Chief Minister of Madras appraising him of the disruptions the Communists have been causing for his Paddy Producers Association before finally warning him of a ‘conspiracy’ to frame him in a case of murder. It is the only part told through the perspective of the landlords, and the reader is not satisfied. ‘Background’ begins with the histories that Tamil Nadu has witnessed over the centuries and we see the Kandasamy’s consciousness as a writer from the margins: “It is common knowledge that no land would ever be found interesting until a white man arrived […], went back home and wrote something about it. Ptolemy set out to write a Lonely Planet guide book, in which he made a passing, one-off reference to a Tamil port city of Nigamos. Hurtled into history in this desperate fashion, Nagapattinam would patiently wait until a Tamil woman came along and decided to write a half-decent novel set in its surroundings.” (15) She writes about slavery dating back to the origins of colonial trade in 17th century Tanjore, facilitated by feudal relations that divided the Tamilians and made a group of them ripe for the picking by the slave trade. This marks the continuities of caste- class relations across changing government, almost as a tribute to Marx dada’s historical dialectical materialism. “The more things change, the more they remain the same.” (24) 

The rest of the four parts take us through Kilvenmani and its myths, its witch doctor, its abject serfdom and freefalling resistance, and make us witness its marriage to Communism. The story exists in threads and is not singular; for this, she has consulted Chimamanda. Meena does not translate the Tamil phrases, prayers, and wails of the villagers for you (if it were not for my Tamil roommate’s magnanimity in translation, I might have had to abandon the book). The reader is not put in the shoes of any one character and served up a plotline; instead, she is meeting them as a visitor, being welcomed into their homes to drink arrack with them when they feel hospitable. Meena tells her that nobody is going to give her a family tree, a village map; but she will manage. She will learn that a handful of rice can consume an entire village; that criminal landlords can break civil laws to enforce caste codes. She will learn to wait for revenge with the patience of a village awaiting rain (32), and indeed, I did.

Kilvenmani’s inhabitants till the land for the landlords, the Naidus. For this, they get rice which is barely enough to aver starvation, which they turn into congee with whatever spices are around. The repression is abject: the peasants are whipped for taking time off, the landlords’ rowdies and local police their Althusserian apparatus. Sometimes, the landlords will pillage the peasants’ huts and rape the women, maybe indulge in some arson. All this so that the peasants have to start all over, so they have nothing to bargain with. If they go on strike, the landlords import even cheaper labor from the neighboring districts who have less than nothing to bargain with. The police practice untouchability across the cadres, and so the peasants’ spirits, burning from injustice like the red-hot chutney that makes the taste of stale rice bearable, are left to draw strength from the Communists. The repression has made other villages bend lower down to the landlords, but it has only pushed Kilvenmani closer to the Red Flag. Perhaps the most remarkable thing that the Gypsy Goddess does is to deconstruct communism as a spiritual, and not merely a political or intellectual choice. It is this allegiance, we see, that lays the seed for the massacre. 

We witness the dauntless protests of women: for breaks to tend to their infants, over disappearances and deaths, over the tractor looking down at them after stealing their work and over imported labor. The relationship women of Kilvenmai share with their bodies is reminiscent of Mahashweta Devi’s Draupadi. Although our novel does not have as crisply symbolic a moment such as this, its women are infernal. They are stripped and whipped and raped and arrested, yet they are unafraid of arrest, of nudity and bleeding knees, almost as if their honor does not reside in their bosoms, their vaginas. 

We witness the landlords trying to teach this village a lesson by burning its inhabitants alive. The author here makes observations that contemplate the very fabric of storytelling. She wonders what the precipitating point was for this horror. Was it the rallies of the Communists, or the building of a temple for a local hero, or the formation of the Paddy Producers Association, or the disruptive ideas of the Self-Respect Movement, or the land grants to Brahmins, or the meddling of the British or the origin of untouchability itself? In this contemplation, we see the immense responsibility storytellers of history are entrusted with and which is veiled by the determinacy of a ‘timeline’. There is such precarity, such a potential of violence in telling a tale; in picking up threads of reality and attributing a cause to an event, a succession, a resolution. For instance, the media reported the massacre as a culmination of the strife between peasants and landlords. It accorded sense to something senseless, a predictability to the burning of infants.

Kilvenmani has been a living entity itself, a patchwork of indispensable continuities. She is now thrust into this void, this village without a life, knowing no words of solace can be said to start the process of grieving. Only the hope of the truth exploding onto the world sustains the villagers; their anger keeps them from being disoriented and they try to make sure it does not get directed inwards. They have no option but to approach the police for redressal.

Having been enmeshed in this Picasso of a state framework, the reader knows the police will be compromised. The evidence exists: there are surviving witnesses, a charred door locked from outside, blood stains – but everyone knows all the evidence in the world will not be enough when the police itself participated in the burning. Kilvenmani had not cared much for the ruling party’s (Dravida Munnetra Kazhagam’s) Tamil nationalism, for its true enemy was in its neighborhood. When its Chief Minister appeared in the newspaper along with weeping pictures of Mayi the village elder, using the massacre to show his generosity, the village lost hope in both, the party and the journalists, at once. There had been talk of Indira Gandhi’s pro-poor policies around the village, but they knew that the Congress in Kilvenmani was not Indira Gandhi but Gopalakrishna Naidu (250). They had respected Periyar EVR and his Marxist interpretation of the Indian state, but felt betrayed when they heard he had dined with Gopalakrishna Naidu. Their anger still intact, they went to court. 

At the High Court, the Chief Justice, the lawyers, and the landlords were all Naidus (upper castes); to them, the prosecutors were all untouchables (253). The court’s judgment becomes a scathing comment on ‘legal reasoning’ itself, and how its construction in abstraction to social considerations simply allows asymmetries of power to sneak up under the garb of neutrality. They held that it was ‘suspicious’ that all the accused were rich landlords (implying that there could have been a conspiracy against them) and that such powerful, upper-caste men were not likely to risk committing arson themselves, without the aid of servants. This ‘reasoning’, laid out on the rocks of the judges’ own purity-pollution anxieties, worked to free all the accused.

The novel reveals that having justice denied from the state, having their story heard, heard as truthfully as it is told, becomes a form of justice for the village. This justice isn’t extinguished by the disappointing journalists, who take weeping pictures of Mayi’s sorrow but without fury at what caused it, who reported the deaths but never the orchestrated, almost dying that Kilvenmani has trudged through for decades. When these journalists reported the labor strikes from across the country in the 1970s, usually demonizing the ‘disruption’ caused by rowdy, lazy workers, it was the subtext they found solidarity with- the workers’ inability to make a living wage, the unfathomable force of state and private players that faced them when they asked for overtime. No, this justice persists, and as the Epilogue tells us, if the reader decides to extend her travel to Kilvenmani to the physical form, she will hear the stories herself. 

It is not an easy read. By the author’s own admission, it lives to jolt the readers out of the ‘amoral, non-linear lives’ they have been leading. The Gypsy Goddess sketches the lived caste and political realities of Tamil Nadu in the nude. It makes a scathing critique of any idea of the state we might hold as long as caste is alive and kicking, for as long as local politicians and judges are in ancient enmity with Dalits, and police are their watchdogs, all the state can do is make matters worse. The reader revels in revenge not simply because the villain has been punished, but because she is confronted with the abysmal impossibility of justice through this casteist state. In this sense, the novel is almost a call to anarchism. By focusing on Dalit women’s experiences of the same events, it forces caste to converse with gender, but the solidarity of the women who protest and fight for everybody forces gender essentialism of one kind of feminism to come to Tamil Nadu and change its mind. It is a book that converses with the reader, shoots down her complacency, urges her to think of Communism, of retribution, of action, beyond stale debates, in a way that is animated by dynamic subjects with their own conception of justice, of spirituality, and community. Perhaps most pertinently, it is a book that holds a mirror to storytelling itself, to its power and perils, and studies how we let it affect history, rights, and perception.

 

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Meena Kandasamy as photographed by Colin McPherson/Corbis/Getty

 


 

 

 

 

 

Rhea Malik

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Rhea Malik

Rhea Malik is a law graduate and aspires to be a human rights advocate, journalist, and writer. She sees whooping potential in science fiction to describe reality, and maybe even tweak it a little. Her work has previously appeared in The Leaflet, Disrupted Journal for feminist foreign policy, Tint Journal, Mad in Asia-Pacific, and the Booker World Podcast.

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