(I was a bit nervous about the title of Kandasamy’s new book. “Gypsy” is a term with a huge and uncomfortable history, and I’m sometimes surprised by how many people who are otherwise careful about language will still throw this one around casually. I don’t think Kandasamy is using it casually; as I understand it within the book it’s a reference to the Narikuravar.)
I’ve only read scraps of Kandasamy’s poetry before; in the later stages of this book there’s a control over the prose that feels like it comes from poetry but that I haven’t seen before in the little of her work that I’ve read.
A version of this piece was in last week’s Hindustan Times.
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 mold 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 out of 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 need to re-examine the act of telling, 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 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 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.