By ASHIK KUMAR
In Tanjavur — the “Rice Bowl” of Tamil Nadu, India’s southernmost state — the many castes of Hindus are split into three groups: Brahmin, non-Brahmin, and Adi Dravidar (original Dravidian). These last, among the indigenous peoples of the subcontinent, were usually descendants of slaves or serfs and did not own land. Unlike the upper castes, they ate meat (including rats, which indicates their poverty), they freely practiced divorce, and they allowed widows to remarry. At tea shops, they would be served in the back in specially kept tumblers so the other customers would not be polluted. They sustained themselves by leasing land from Brahmin or other upper caste landlords and tilling it for a daily wage or portion of paddy. They lived in separate ghettos called cheris, in paddy fields at a distance from the village they were attached to. Paying to work Brahmin land at prices set by the landlords for little compensation, banned from walking in the upper caste streets, made to carry the carcasses of dead cows away from the Brahmin fields, many of them — unsurprisingly— turned to Communism.
On Christmas Day 1968, Kilvenmani, a village in Thanjavur district populated by Adi Dravidars, was burnt down by the hired thugs of the Paddy Producer’s Association (made up of the district’s landlords). Its crimes were unionizing, refusing to replace their Communist Party flags with the flag of the PPA, and refusing to pay tribute (which they couldn’t afford) to their landlords. Forty-four people were killed. Though sentenced to ten years in jail, the landlords responsible were soon acquitted. Then in 1980, Gopalkrishna Naidu, the head of the PPA, was killed. It is rumored that parcels of his hacked flesh, wrapped in palm leaves, were placed on the doorsteps of the people of Kilvenmani. Uproar about the massacre he had ordered forced the government to reform the district’s system of land ownership.
The Kilvenmani Massacre has no place in national history. It happened, after all, to Dalits, and it happened in South India. For the unfamiliar, these are a people and place long felt to be superfluous, even obstructive to the idea of India. To the Dalit movement, however, particularly in Tamil Nadu, it is one of the most significant ways in recent times that the state has revealed itself as built on and sustained by caste-Hindu violence against them. The present war in Bastar is emphatically showing the same to the tribes that live there.
A Wikipedia entry could (and does) tell you this. In fact, it would give you more detailed information. A well-made documentary (if it existed) could give you interviews with people living in Kilvenamani now, let them tell their side of the story, show how the massacre lives in their collective memory. It could communicate, even, the brute injustice of what happened. A research paper could explain the caste-relations that let the injustice go unpunished, the economic relations that sustained the caste relations. But what can, and more importantly, what should, a novel do? The poet, translator, and activist Meena Kandasamy’s first novel, The Gypsy Goddess, which takes the Kilvenmani Massacre as its subject, tries both overtly and implicitly to answer this question.
Born in 1984, Meena Kandaswamy grew up in Chennai. At 17, she began writing poetry and translating Dalit writers. Kandaswamy’s work is formally diverse but substantively unified; her translations, poems, polemics, and activism are all animated by defiance, by militancy. More specifically, the defiance of women, Indian Dalits, Communists, and Sri Lankan Tamils in the face of violence. She has, in the wake of Rohit Vemula’s suicide, been a strident critic of the casteism that continues to inhere in the Indian state and its religion. Her response to the tragedy in The Hindu should be read by all trying to make sense of it. The tone of Kandaswamy’s writing is often triumphant, though her subject matter rarely is. She is usually writing about battles lost (such as in Ms Militancy, where she rewrites Hindu myths from the margins), or, as with the Gypsy Goddess, battles unwinnable. The people of Kilvenmani are powerless and there is no one to help them. The police, the state government, the judiciary are all apathetic or on the landlords’ side. Even the Communist party does not pay them back for their loyalty. It is because they continue to live and fight that Kandaswamy writes about them. For her, that seems to be a kind of triumph in itself, which is why she is able to write:
“Let them realise that Vedic times, the era of pouring molten lead into the ears of the Shudras who hear the sacred texts, the era of cutting the tongues of those who dared to utter the knowledge that was denied to them, are long gone. Let them understand that we have stormed these bastions to educate, to agitate, to organise; we did not come here to die. We have come to learn, but let the monsters of caste and their henchmen bear in mind that we have come here also to teach them an unforgettable lesson.”
Vedic times, as Rohit’s case demonstrates, are not long gone, but being able to proclaim that they are, especially from a marginal position, is not only inspiring, but necessary.
The Gypsy Goddess imaginatively reconstructs the buildup to the Massacre, the Massacre itself, and its aftermath. However, the novel is more concerned with how to tell its story than with the straightforward telling of it. The protagonist is Meena Kandaswamy herself. The writing is self-reflexive, constantly drawing attention to its fictional nature and explaining its decisions. This is by no means unusual, but Kandaswamy thinks that it is an act of bombastic subversion. In her acknowledgments, she refers to her writing as “reckless, badass”, and her prologue ends with the one sentence paragraph “Fuck these postmodern writers.” When she writes a section in rhyme, she imagines a critic telling her, “You don’t try to steal in your dumbass mothafucking poetry into a goddamn historical novel, crazy bitch” (68).
This is perhaps self-aggrandizing and unnecessary, but it signals that this is a novel about how to write about atrocity, how to do justice to its subject. To her credit, Kandaswamy has both the energy and the range to tell in many different ways. I am willing, she writes, to do anything to get this story across. “Anything” ranges from pastiches of PPA and Communist Party pamphlets, monologues in the voices of survivors, and (perhaps the best one) an inspector’s post mortem in the chapter Expression of Countenance:
“If and when he were to rise in rank, he decided to redesign the standard templates that policemen had to fill out for every case of theft or suspicious death. Most of them required the repetition of the same sequence of events in three different formats, and a few of them, like the inquest form he was completing, posed rude, impertinent questions. It required him to list identification marks of the diseased, describe the corpse carefully…comment on the expression of countenance and the position of the limbs… He was certain that the problem with these forms was not merely the absence of specificity, but also the thoughtlessness of generalization — perhaps a naive idiot had demanded the fingerprinting of every corpse that went to the coroner, but only a cold blooded sadist could have come up with an instruction to the reporting police officer to note down the facial expression of a fire victim” (150).
This is Kandaswamy subtly and effectively writing the conventional realist narrative whose tropes she claims to have dispensed with. She shows, rather than directly tells, her reader how detached and callous the district’s so-called protective authorities are to those it is their job to look after. For the rest of the chapter, the author’s voice mutes itself completely and we are shown forty-two inquest forms:
“7. Female; height 4’8”; marital status not known; completely charred legs, teeth intact, visible genitalia and breasts…
- Charred corpse; sex not identifiable; height not known; marital status not known; only skeletal remains hang loosely as body completely burnt away…
- A charred skull and tiny body; other details not known”
We need not be told that this is brutal and clinical in order to feel it is so. “Marital status not known”, which appears in nearly all forty-two descriptions is blackly comic.
Kandaswamy has a remarkable flair for pastiche and the transposition of Tamil speech into English. The former — probably aided by her years of experience as an activist and organizer — can be seen in her imitations of political pamphlets, which are mimetic, but not slavishly so, satirical without being exaggerated or parodic. The novel’s prologue is a missive sent by Gopalkrishna Naidu to the chief minister of Tamil Nadu:
“The Communist leaders merely keep coming up with a list of demands and inciting their followers to go on strike. When their unreasonable demands are not acceded to, they approach the government…and a temporary settlement is reached. This petitioner, like other cultivators, is of the opinion that every meeting has extended the privileges of the agricultural coolies and this has empowered and emboldened the Communist leaders, who seek to create famine in order to make this land a fertile breeding ground for Maoism…All these agreements have been a threat to peace and law and order” (4).
The overly formal register, the indignant appeals to calamity and stability, the pervasive sense of victimization (the absurdity of a landlord complaining about a coolie’s privilege) are all rendered with a precise and light touch. In a later chapter, Kandaswamy once again gives us a pamphlet, but this time it is a Communist Party one:
“In the name of this Green Revolution, we are dependent on American fertilisers. In Tanjore district alone, the use of fertiliser has had a 2,000 percent increase. This is not healthy. We have seen in every village alcoholics who can only walk steadily when they are drunk. Our land has become addicted to these chemical fertilisers in the same manner — if she does not have her fill, she forgets her fertility. She stops bearing crops. The government does not care because these projects fill its coffers.” (93)
The tone here is polemical, the statistic (2000 per cent increase) probably exaggerated. One cannot deny, however, that it makes one angry, that it compels and stirs. This is both an excellent imitation of propaganda and, in itself, excellent propaganda. The analogy between the soil and an alcoholic is, in its melodramatic precision, worthy of Trotsky.
Less successful, however, is Kandaswamy’s depiction of the massacre itself:
“and in desperation a mother throws her one -year-old son out of the burning hut but the boy is caught by the leering mobsters and chopped into pieces and thrown back in and in that precise yet fleeting moment of loss and rage everyone realises that they would die if their death meant saving a loved one and that they would die if their death meant staying together and that they would die anyway because it would not be as disastrous as living long enough to share this sight and so alone and together they prepare to resign themselves to the fact that they have mounted their collective funeral pyre” (164).
This is one paragraph in a four page long unpunctuated sentence that uses paragraph breaks as caesuras. Every paragraph begins with “and, and most clauses are connected with it. The problem is not just the clumsy “in and in”, the phrase “precise yet fleeting moment” which forces one to wonder what an imprecise moment might be, the verbosity that flattens the forceful rhythm the author is clearly trying to give her prose; it’s not even the physical improbability of the child, once chopped-up, being thrown back into the hut as if still whole. Even if this were a well-executed description, it would be inadequate. In the face of atrocity, journalistic language, no matter how charged, cannot make us understand events more than abstractly. Kandaswamy gives us the details of the massacre, she puts it in context; she tells us that it is terrible and unjust, but she fails to convey any of this to us affectively. We forget neither our own nor Kandaswamy’s presence when we read this. We are kept at a distance where we should be made intimate with events.
In 100 Years of Solitude, Garcia Marquez describes the Banana Worker Massacre:
“at that moment …the wild mass was starting to get to the corner and the row of machine guns opened fire… The people in front had already done so, swept down by the wave of bullets. The survivors, instead of getting down, tried to go back to the small square, and the panic became a dragon’s tail as one compact wave ran against another which was moving in the opposite direction, toward the other dragon’s tail in the street across the way, where the machine guns were also firing without cease. They were penned in, swirling about in a gigantic whirlwind that little by little was being reduced to its epicenter as the edges were systematically being cut off all around like an onion being peeled by the insatiable and methodical shears of the machine guns.” (223)
This is a portrayal of a real atrocity, but the subject has been adequately fictionalized. Marquez is writing from the perspective of a child sitting on José Aureliano Segundo’s shoulders, a child who is neither visually omniscient nor entirely comprehending of what goes on around him. We are immersed in the events being described, we feel the confusion and the senselessness of the violence. There are few more ways to be killed more impersonal than being shot at from above, and we are made to see the massacre from an aerial perspective, feel the anonymity of the crowd. The metaphors — a dragon’s tail, an onion — in addition to being acute, convey the dehumanization necessary for such a killing to take place. A documentary could do more effectively what Kandaswamy does, but only fiction can do this.
Only fiction can do this. But must it? Atrocities, because of their scale as much as their brutality, distance us when we try to comprehend them. As Stalin is quoted as saying, the death of one person may leave us in tears while the deaths of millions will leave us cold. Our imaginations, our sympathies often cannot exert themselves enough to feel the latter. Fiction — intimate by nature — does the difficult and necessary work of bringing us closer to these events.
The Gypsy Goddess is set in rural Tamil Nadu. None of its events took place in English, nor would any of the actors involved have spoken it. Kandaswamy’s field research in Kilvenmani would have been carried out in Tamil as well. This is a problem almost every piece of Indian writing in English has to face: how does one write about people who do not know the language you are writing in? The best known (and most criticized) solution is the “kichdi” idiolect of Salman Rushdie’s novels which, though it bears no relation to the speech it portrays, can be wonderfully comic and inventive. Kandaswamy, obviously, cannot (nor would she want to) do the same thing; her novel is too realistic, too rooted in its context. So she opts for scattering bits of untranslated Tamil throughout the text, bending English syntax to imitate Tamil intonation, translating Tamil swear words literally into archaic sounding English (whoreson, for example). Sometimes she uses the fact of translation to distance her reader:
“These songs don’t really work in translation. They are here only to remind the reader that the historical events of this novel did not take place in any English-speaking country. Don’t you even try to get familiar with what goes on around here, for it is not only the sounds of my native land you will find staggering.” (127)
But the point of the novel, Kandaswamy herself states, is to inform her readers, to familiarize. Surely she is trying to bring them closer to her subject? There seems to be a dual and contradictory impulse here whereby the author wants both to pull the reader in and to push them away. Passages like this point to an insecurity and resentment that is and has been felt by most Indians writing in English. Many — maybe most — of their readers will inevitably be in England or America; a minuscule portion of their country’s population can read their work. They do not want to be anthropologists of their homes; they do not want to be the West’s interpreters of the East.
In a novel that constantly addresses its readers directly, a novel whose existence is justified by its readers, this produces something of a crisis. Who is the reader to whom the author is talking? We are given several hints:
“Just because this is a novel set in rural India, do not expect a herd of buffalo to walk across every page for the sake of authenticity. Eager mothers who hold salt and dried red chillies and circle their hands over your head before asking you to spit into their palms three time to trick spirits of the evil eye into abandoning you have been held back at my behest because I do not want to lose you to nostalgia or exotica. The tinkling bells of bullocks could add music to these sentences, but they have been muted so you can silently stalk the storyline.” (26-7)
From where other than the diaries of medieval Portuguese travelers or the stories of Premchand would one expect all this? Kandaswamy’s implied reader, it seems, is an ignorant romantic. More importantly, Kandaswamy seems to assume that this reader is foreign. This is not just incidental to the novel; it’s necessary. Without this imagined reader Kandaswamy would have had to change completely the novel’s tone; she may not even have had to write it in the first place. At the beginning of the book, Kandaswamy discusses Kathleen Gough, the Marxist anthropologist of rural South India:
“If only I could get you to read all of her work, familiarise yourself with Marxist theory and take in all the information tucked away in the footnotes, I would have no need to write this novel. Sadly, you are too lazy for research papers.
To strike a fair balance, would you like to look into old American newspapers? Some headlines say the whole story: Madras is Reaping a Bitter Harvest of Rural Terrorism; Rice Growers’ Feud With Field Workers Has Fiery Climax As Labor Seeks Bigger Share of Gain from Crop Innovations. In a way, that is all there is to it. This novel has only to fill in the blanks.” (22)
To the question “What should a novel do with atrocity?” we have here Kandaswamy’s answer. It should spread awareness that people are too lazy to acquire on their own. How this differs from pamphleteering is unclear to me. It supplements reportage by offering moral interpretation, imagining the gaps, the happenings we do not know about to produce a coherent narrative. The Gypsy Goddess does all of this, but as the Marquez passage shows us, fiction is capable of doing far more. A novel should add indispensably and uniquely to our understanding of its subject. Kandaswamy is clearly capable of these additions, but more often than not, she fails to make them. The passage from 100 Years of Solitude is both edifying and powerfully affecting whether you know about the historical event it evokes or not. If you read it knowing about said events, you understand something new about them. The Gypsy Goddess is important only because the Kilvenmani Massacre is important. Things are the wrong way around; the fiction should serve its subject , not lean on it for support.
However, like insulting white readers of books set in the Orient, criticizing writers for not being Gabriel Garcia Marquez is all too easy. A more difficult, and probably worthier task, is to investigate the problems Kandaswamy and writers in similar positions face that writers like Marquez don’t. Chief among these is language. Writing in English puts Kandaswamy not only at an uncomfortable distance from the events she writes about (which take place in Tamil), but also at an uncomfortable proximity to those whose politics she writes against: the anglicized Indian bourgeoisie, Anglo-American publishing, consumers of “global” literature. Kandswamy’s confrontational apostrophes to her readers disclose, perhaps, that she is aware of and resents this. To direct this resentment solely at an implied reader when it is also resentment of self for writing of these people in this language for those people, is to deny the complex of emotions that constitute the writing of a novel like Kandaswamy’s. It is to simplify. It would be absurd to tell a writer in English to switch to Tamil, but a straightforward realist novel — as would be tenable in Tamil — isn’t in English. Nor is a novel whose resentment directs itself entirely at the reader. The typical response of Indian writers in English to the distance and alienation the language forces on you has been a diminutive narrowing of possible subject matter. Their work is afraid to wander far from the few elites whose inner lives take place in it. Kandaswamy, to her credit, refuses to do the same. But if we are to have a robust and complex literature in English, capable of apprehending any Indian subjectivity or event, then neurosis, self-hatred, and double consciousness need to be given proper place in our work.
Ashik Kumar is a student at the Center for Comparative Literature and Society at Columbbia University.