A tragedy told in striking prose

I don’t know what to say to people when they tell me “But it’s 2016, caste doesn’t exist.” I also don’t know what to say about them. Oblivious to my discomfort (and what I call my ‘derisive smile’), they continue. “Caste exists only in the agendas of political parties.” And they go on, until I say something incoherent (irritation), or something rude (anger), or something incoherent and rude (“Man, let’s just talk about something else.”)

The Gypsy Goddess by Meena Kandasamy is about the Kilvenmani massacre. It recounts for us the horrifying tale of Dalit families being burnt to death on Christmas day in 1968. Here is what the blurb says:

The Gypsy Goddess is both a novel about a true-life massacre and a novel about the impossibility of writing a novel about a true-life massacre.

I cannot say it better than that.

At the risk of sounding ignorant, I want to admit that I was not aware of such an event having transpired. (Can I excuse myself, I wasn’t born then). So I asked my mother if she knew of this (okay, she would have been a toddler at the time of this tragedy), but surely it was part of the collective consciousness for a decade? No? No.

So, as I was reading the book, I turned to Google.

From Wikipedia:

At its core, […] a gruesome reminder of the treatment that is meted out to the oppressed when they start demanding what is rightfully theirs.

This is a strange book to read, and the author seems to know it better than us. It is non-fiction, yet it goes on flights of fantasy as though it were a fairy tale. It is a research paper (but poetic, not academic). It is a novel of digressions and asides. It is a fictionalized narrative, and she takes on different roles. She is the writer, but she is also a character in the novel when she so pleases. She observes from outside, and recalls from inside. She makes use of a number of literary techniques, some of which may frustrate you. Sometimes a report, other times a dialogue, a petition from a land-owner to the government, a Communist party pamphlet, an entire chapter told as a single sentence, and one time a list of the dead bodies in glorious detail (I stopped reading for about a day); but always trying to do right by the story she has decided to bring attention to, so that it doesn’t remain an afterthought in a Wikipedia page. She plays with the reader, giving us different opening lines, and arguing with us as to why the title and the story must have anything in common. The book is rooted in its setting and its context, for even though it is written in English, you can imagine (in Tamil) the speeches filled with rhetoric, the slurs, the hectoring, the hyperbole we are prone to.

This is a provocative novel. It is also sure of itself, absurd in parts, transparent about its ideologies and where its sympathies lie. It is an angry novel, and a very sad one.

Read it, or maybe don’t. As she says, “Fuck these postmodern writers.”


7 thoughts on “A tragedy told in striking prose

    1. The caste system is still very much in existence. It influences the way we speak the language, food, ceremonies and rituals, the life partner your parents choose for you, etc.
      The book is specifically about a caste based atrocity that happened in 1968.

      Liked by 1 person

  1. I am married to tam brahm and see how they still discrimate ppl of other castes by not letting them come into their kitchens, reqashing vessels waahed by house help etc.

    My grandmom discriminates against ppl who are from a lower caste than us. Go figure.


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