There’s some­thing com­pelling about a po­lit­i­cal story that re­fuses to sweep the reader up in its nar­ra­tive

Hindustan Times (Lucknow) - - HT DO - Aish­warya Subramanian ■ let­ters@hin­dus­tan­times.com

There’s so much about nar­ra­tive, about the process of turn­ing lives and events into story, that we take for granted. It’s easy to for­get that books and nar­ra­tive for­mats mould sto­ries into par­tic­u­lar shapes, that the truth, to what­ever ex­tent such a thing ex­ists, is only avail­able to us me­di­ated through those shapes.

Yet this is a use­ful thing to re­mem­ber, per­haps par­tic­u­larly so when we’re writ­ing about real peo­ple and hap­pen­ings. Meena Kan­dasamy’s The Gypsy God­dess is a novel about the (real) events of the Kil­ven­mani Mas­sacre of 1968, but it’s also a novel about the process of nar­rat­ing those events. The book is di­vided into four seg­ments and in the first two, “Back­ground” and “Breed­ing Ground” the au­thor treats us to a range of ways of telling a tale. We are never al­lowed to for­get that this is a story that is be­ing told to us; Kan­dasamy (as­sum­ing the nar­ra­tor and the au­thor to be the same, as dan­ger­ous as that may be) will stop, restart, re­flect on her nar­ra­tive choices as she is mak­ing them, ad­dress her read­ers di­rectly to in­form them that they will not be get­ting what they ex­pect. Oc­ca­sion­ally, she will par­ody the style of the pro­pa­ganda from one side or the other of the con­flict be­tween the land­lords and the ex­ploited labour­ers. The Gypsy God­dess ex­ists in a world of read­ers who watch vi­ral in­ter­net videos (“Is there a sin­gle story? No. Of course, I’ve con­sulted Chi­ma­manda on this too.”), who read widely, who have seen the im­pos­si­bil­ity of telling sto­ries pa­raded be­fore them in the past, and who know that it is not a new idea, and Kan­dasamy ac­knowl­edges this as well.

“How does this work of art seek to de­clare it­self ? It pla­gia­rizes the most scathing crit­i­cism, it prides it­self on its abil­ity to dis­ap­point. Why bother about the pain of ac­com­plish­ing some­thing and ar­riv­ing some­where, when fail­ure has been made a flashy trophy in its own right?”

It’s a crit­i­cism that the book ac­cepts as valid even if, by pre-empt­ing it, it puts the re­viewer in some­thing of a dou­ble bind. This sort of self-ref­er­en­tial, self-crit­i­cal writ­ing can be­come a closed cir­cuit, too fo­cused on its own me­chan­ics to say any­thing about the world out­side it. Which is fine, in some cases, but Kan­dasamy has cho­sen for her sub­ject a story that does, for sound po­lit­i­cal and moral rea­sons, need to be told more of­ten; and a story that de­serves not to be crowded out of the book (and sub­se­quently reviews like this one) by the lit­er­ary py­rotech­nics of the au­thor. It’s in this un­re­solv­able clash of writerly ideals, the re­porter’s duty to bear wit­ness ver­sus the 21st cen­tury nov­el­ist’s eth­i­cal need to re-ex­am­ine the ques­tion of the novel it­self, that The Gypsy God­dess sit­u­ates it­self. Fail­ure is in­evitable.

Kan­dasamy does even­tu­ally come to the nar­ra­tive that we (by this time, some­what guiltily) crave; in the lat­ter half of the book she tells it ef­fec­tively and well. “Bat­tle­ground” and “Burial Ground” form a pow­er­ful ac­count of events, with lyri­cal writ­ing saved from be­com­ing trea­cly by be­ing un­der­cut with anger. And— this is where the ear­lier sec­tions pay off—hav­ing dwelt so much on struc­ture ear­lier, we are rarely in dan­ger of los­ing the crit­i­cal dis­tance that the au­thor has de­manded of us.

A project like this one is never go­ing to work; that is part of the point. Ev­ery crit­i­cism that the book has al­ready made of it­self is valid, and I’d add to that the cyn­i­cal critic’s com­plaint that a book that sets out fail­ure as a goal ren­ders it­self in­vul­ner­a­ble to any point­ing out of flaws. But there’s some­thing com­pelling about a po­lit­i­cal story (and that too a story of a mas­sacre) that re­fuses to sweep the reader up in its nar­ra­tive. The Gypsy God­dess sets out to do the im­pos­si­ble and (nat­u­rally) does not suc­ceed, but it’s the sort of eth­i­cal, am­bi­tious fail­ure that we need more of.


Meena Kan­dasamy pho­tographed at the li­brary of the In­dian In­sti­tute of Tech­nol­ogy, Chen­nai on Jan­uary 30, 2010

The Gypsy God­dess Meena Kan­dasamy HarperCollins Pub­lish­ers In­dia Ltd


499; 204pp

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