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From the ruins of Kilvenmani, a ‘mighty thunderclap of a novel’ arises

Meena Kandasamy was advised to write a non-fiction book about the horrific 1968 massacre of Dalits at Kilvenmani, but she ended up writing a chimera, a strange and wondrous novel that predicts its own criticism and indulges in all sorts of authorial mischief, writes Aditya Mani Jha.

ADITYA MANI JHA  28th Jun 2014

Meena Kandasamy

do not consider myself beautiful, says Meena Kandasamy, at the end of a discomfiting question from the audience, her first of the evening. (What did she think of the male Tamil authors who routinely criticised her, saying that her works had little literary merit, and that their success hinged upon her looks?) It's the Delhi launch of her debut novel, The Gypsy Goddess. There is no showmanship in her answer, although there is plenty in the book (in a good way).

As early as page 12, Kandasamy warns readers, "Forgive this text its nagging disposition to try and explain, its disposition to tag its opinion at every turn of phrase. Please understand that staying verbose is a part of the process of prose. And also, please kindly understand that such underselling is clear evidence of my commitment to a supreme mission of self-sabotage."

This "self-sabotage" is Kandasamy's euphemism for meta-fictional devices, something The Gypsy Goddess is full of. The opening chapter — like Aravind Adiga's The White Tiger — is a letter written by Gopalkrishna Naidu, the President of the Paddy Producer's Association, complaining, "with a heavy heart", how Communist leaders are goading the "coolies", or farm labourers, to make "unreasonable demands" of the landowners, the mirasadars. (The novel is based on the Kilvenmani massacre on 25 December 1968, where 44 striking Dalit labourers were allegedly killed by a goon squad hired by landlords like Gopalkrishna Naidu.)

But where I found Adiga's opening salvo to be a little pretentious, a little too sure of itself, Kandasamy's "self-sabotage" pulls off a neat little three-card trick. On the one hand, the "cold opening" is a nifty way of escaping the Other-ising of the villain, and on the other, it allows the author to lay down the rudiments of the story, without sounding dry or didactic. (Kandasamy later satirises this tendency as well, saying, "And how can I go on with the story when the first line itself hasn't received a thousand likes?") Finally, as you progress further, towards the midpoint of the book, you realise that the epistolary opening chapter is a nod towards the author's belief in polyphonic harmony, articulated most famously in a TED lecture by Chimamanda Ngozi Adichie. ("Is there a single story? No. Of course, I've consulted Chimamanda on this one.")

With a horrific tragedy like the Kilvenmani massacre, compiling data and interviewing people from the affected region is an unenviable task. Weaving them into a coherent journalistic account is more problematic still. Ask about her experiences while researching the book, and she'll tell you:

"I think we have this idea about the Indian countryside... that it's quite backward and it's full of old ideas. If you turn up there (Tanjore) on a project like this and start asking them questions, they will turn it right around and say, 'Oh, this isn't how it was, this isn't how it happened'."

Which is why readers looking for a documentary-styled, bloodless examination of the facts of the case will be disappointed. For all its humour, for all its dash and sparkle, The Gypsy Goddess is a novel chomping at the bit, seething with rage and unafraid to assault the reader with scenes of remorseless rape, cold-blooded revenge killings and the occasional impaled infant. On more than one occasion, I was reminded strongly of the Edward Zwick film Blood Diamond, another sterling example of unflinching candour in art, particularly art that seeks to make sense of terror.

I think we have this idea about the Indian countryside… that it’s quite backward and full of old ideas. If you turn up there (Tanjore) on a project like this and start asking them questions, they will turn it right around and say, ‘Oh, this isn’t how it was, this isn’t how it happened.'

n fact, there are several occasions in the book where Kandasamy employs cinematic metaphors to devastating effect, in particular the way in which the camera manipulates the audience; for the camera, hiding things is at least as important as revealing them.

"I think there are reasons why I interweaved cinema into the story. If you look at the '60s, '70s, '80s, there was a huge rivalry between MGR (M.G. Ramachandran) and Sivaji Ganesan. Also, cinema is a recurring trope because there have been so many movies made on landlordism. Everything that was actually happening was reflected in the movies... even on the day it (the Kilvenmani massacre) happened, there were these two cinema-owners who said that they had seen Gopalkrishna Naidu at the time the killings happened."

Kandasamy recently starred in an independent, crowd-funded Malayalam movie called Oraalppokkam, directed by Sanalkumar Sasidharan, incidentally, a poet like herself. Writers, by and far, are control freaks; an occupational hazard of the loneliest job in the world. And as writers who dabble in cinema discover, Kandasamy realised that collaboration comes with different pleasures and different perils. No scope for the solitary re-write here: if a character broke the continuity by say, wearing different earrings in consecutive shots, everybody (the 25-30 people involved in Oraalppokkam) would assemble again and redo the shot.

"I finished this novel late last year, and I knew that I can't write, so what do I do with all this time on my hands? Someone wrote to me, saying that they had recommended my name to a friend who had an idea for a film. And this is something that I'd get all the time, because Tamil people are very passionate about cinema, as I said — everyone has a film in them."

Kandasamy was just 21 when Touch, her first collection of poems was released, in 2005. Her second collection, Ms. Militancy, was published by Navayana in 2010. And though there were plenty of things to like about these books — Ms. Militancy in particular, for this writer — The Gypsy Goddess is easily her best work, a novel in which her exuberant wordplay ("But every language put forth its own Bacons and banyans") is put to devastating effect. This is a novel whose audacity is matched only by its penchant for shifting register.

Above all, it's a book that is not obsessed with being pretty. To a critic obsessed with formal perfection or the sublime sentence, it says, "I do not consider myself beautiful" and walks off, cool as you like.

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