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The Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy ~ Book Review

The Gypsy Goddess
~ Meena Kandasamy

In a small village called Kilvenmani, in the Nagapattinam district in Tamil Nadu, on 25th December 1968, 44 men, women and children, or should we say 42 (+2 silent), were brutally massacred, burnt, hacked, call it what you may, annihilated for asking their rights. They threw stones in their defense. They didn’t have guns. They didn’t even have enough food. Or clothes. They were just looking for basic rights with some respect. But because they couldn’t defend themselves against their powerful masters, a holocaust happened.

Meena Kandasamy’s pen doesn’t wear a veil of decorum. She doesn’t have time for it. She has to tell a gruesome story. She doesn’t shy away from quoting the exact details of the wounds found on the bodies of all 42 (+2 silent) corpses. The pen sometimes assumes a screeching staccato, like shards and heartbeats, and sometimes spirals into long sentences, winding, convoluted, lost like some people in the story.

“This fatal flaw in her prose follows her faithfully”

She puts dramatics where necessary (or not). But she doesn’t strive hard for authenticity. She gives clichéd dialogs to her characters,

“If you can’t be men, wear bangles”

Because life is effing clichéd, isn’t it? And then she suddenly breaks the monotony and thunders ragingly.

“Carrying the tales of their cunts and their cuntrees and their cuntenants, women cross all hurdles, talk in circles, burst into tears, break into cheers, teach a few others, take new lovers, become earth mothers, question big brothers, breathe state secrets, fuck all etiquette and turn themselves into the truth-or-dare pamphleteer who will interfere at the frontier. And in these rap-as-trap times, they perceive the dawn of the day and they start saying their permitted say.

So, when there is an old landowner who is a bad money-lender, they don’t sit still, they start the gossip mill. And it is the holy writ: women don’t crib on shit, ’cause they don’t ask for it. The logic is clear: he looked for trouble, now they’ll burst his bubble. They bitch without a hitch; speak non-stop like monsoon frogs. Then they plot their foolproof plan, they make their effigy man.

This is how the season of protest began.”

Meena Kandasamy’s writing is a force to reckon with. It holds power of its own. It hits you where it has to. It is haphazard so you have no idea where and when and how it’d hit you next. Sometimes you want to sit her down and shake her up and tell us why, why this? But then she answers it, almost methodically. She is not our traditional storyteller. The story she wants to tell is not an ordinary story even if it is now hidden behind the curtains of a not-so-long-ago history. Everyone has almost forgotten everything about it. Some ignorant fools like me didn’t even know about it until ‘The Gypsy Goddess’ happened.

We, as a human race, are a terrible disappointment.

Now wait for some optimists to come and tell me, how we are not so horrible, how we have invented some beautiful things around, how we are so intelligent and full of sentiments, and then allow me to thrust this book in their hands and ask them how many lives do they think we trampled over while glossing about everything that looks so beautiful in their eyes. How many lives has this ‘caste monster’ devoured to come to a point where one feels almost proud about its atrocities? Hah. We can be sickening.

Meena divides the book in four parts. Background, Breeding Ground, Battleground and Burial Ground. She uses different formats for different chapters. Sometimes it is a memorandum submitted to the CM of Madras by the head of the landlords, Mr. Gopalakrishna Naidu, some other time it is in the form of a Marxist Party Pamphlet, other times in the form of interviews of the victims involved, and some more times as a stream of consciousness narrative as she enters into the head of Maayi, the wife of the slain village witch-doctor, and the only person who can hear the dead and the silent living walking corpses.

In a particular chapter Meena becomes the interviewee and the interviewer.

“Why can’t you fucking follow the chronology?”

She asks it to herself what readers are prone to ask her when they read this piece of writing.

“I can. If you observe carefully, you will not fail to note that everyone gets fucked in due course of time”

In this non-linear narrative that doesn’t follow the prosaic predictability of a typical story, Meena humors different forms of writing. She sings a song, raps away to some imaginary beats; she dangles words from a rope and loosens the grip for a free fall, and then tries to gurgle and spit them out.

“Remember, dear reader, I write from a land where people wrap up newborn babies in clumsy rags and deck the dead in incredible finery.”

She asks some really tough questions without batting any metaphorical eyelids and mostly with a smile on her lips. The story is so dark it is almost laughable.

“We want him to ask the prosecution what prompted these forty-two (plus two silent) to commit collective suicide? We want him to ask the prosecutor why did the police come to know about the deaths only the morning after? We want him to ask these easy questions. He does not ask these questions. He breaks into poetry and calls this incident heart-rending. He slips into mathematics and wonders how all the dead could have fitted into such a tiny space. He scrubs his conscience clean. He is clearly not in the mood to ask our questions. He is the one who can ask them, not any of us. You see, even if the hen knows it is day, it is the cock that must crow.”

In a morbid moment, she throws the naive readers into the clutches of the engulfing flames as they try to make sense of what’s happening, and theatrically assume the role of the thin little half-naked kid, trying to count the stones he is throwing from outside through a hiding, to douse the fire.

“We knew that everyone came to our village because of death. We knew this because they never came when we struggled or when we starved or when we silently waited for death. The death was the climax. The death was like the moment in the movies that no one wanted to miss and where everyone cried. In the movies, everyone soon goes back to whistling. We don’t know what happened after they came here and cried. We never found out.”

“It is beyond the means of the living to try and make meaning out of the randomness of death.”

If death is so random, how will a book telling us about it follow a predefined narrative?

“the firewood is not sufficient and, in the final act of defiance, the bodies refuse to burn.”

The Gypsy Goddess is whimsical. But she makes sense in almost every sentence that takes the form of this book. She makes sense out of the almost absurd. She pretends to be futile but ends up becoming a “mighty thunderclap” of a slap on the pretentious caste and ‘varna’ pride. There are places where the author’s biases creep in, but the author never pretended to be unbiased in the first place. How can one afford to remain unbiased when it’s death they are narrating about?

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