Tamil Nadu, 1968. Village landlords rule over a feudal system that forces peasants to break their backs in the fields or suffer beatings as punishment. In the misery of their daily lives it is little wonder that the Communist Party begins to gain traction, a small spark of defiance spreading from villager to villager. As communities across the region begin to take a stand against the landlords, the landlords vow to break them; Party organizers suffer grisly deaths and the flow of food into the market-places dries up. But it only serves to make the villagers’ resistance burn more fiercely. Finally, the landlords descend on one village, Kilvenmani, to set an example to the others. . .
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. Read an excerpt from the novel below, shared by permission.
Excerpt from Chapter 6, Oath of Loyalty
Police Constable Muthupandi; Gopalakrishna Naidu’s nameless-for-the-purpose-of-this-novel cook; and the official party organ of the Communist Party of India (Marxist) share the uniform opinion that the agricultural workers’ demonstration held to pay homage to Comrade Sikkal Pakkirisamy attracted more than 3,000 people. More than 300 policemen were deployed to ensure that this public rally passed off peacefully.
These facts, plain and unadorned, will be rejected by those readers whose minds have been poisoned by the passion of the novel. Such injured souls — as a certain Mr Thomas Jefferson observed — carry a bloated imagination, sickly judgment and disgust towards all the real businesses of life. They are not going to be dazzled by date and time and location. They will not give in to name and place and all the greasy, gratifying noun-fuck that gives one the aura of authenticity. If they want a linear narrative and a self-contained story, they will read the day’s newspaper, not a novel. Being in the business of entertaining such disturbed minds, I shall don the mantle of devious author, and set about my job of disorienting the reader.
Now, the readers-at-large don’t know what exactly happened between the murder on 15 November and the massacre on 25 December 1968. They can find the dateline in an excellent documentary on this subject, Ramayyahvin Kudisai, but asking them to rush to their nearest video library is not a good way to fill up a first novel. Sitting here in Canterbury, with video footage of the village ready to run continuously for five solid days, and with four diaries bristling with notes, I shall surmise and theorize, assume and presume, speculate and conflate and extrapolate every detail revealed by my field research in order to make it fit into the narrative mode of my novel. The age of apologizing authors is long gone.
Let me follow the format of the previous page.
A villager asked to face a handheld video-cam for the first time, a reporter writing his in-depth opinion piece on this subject in under 1,000 words, and a novelist sorting out her storyline, will tell you with an air of certainty that Comrade Sikkal Pakkirisamy’s murder on the day of the district-level agriculture strike proved to be a flashpoint for all the tragedy that followed. They will not begin their story with the arrival of the various Europeans, or the story of rice cultivation in this delta district, or the local kings’ largesse and land grants to the Brahmins, or the history of local invasions, or the emergence of communism, or the shrill independence movement, or the manner in which Murugan first manifested himself to the divine in their dreams and then had a temple built in his honour and for his worship, or the origins of untouchability that set apart and put aside some men and some women, or the succour offered by the slave trade of the brown peoples, or the anti-God activities of the Self-Respect Movement or the establishment of the first church at Tranquebar or the formation of the peasant associations or the foundation of the Paddy Producers Association, because it would be easy to get caught up in this multi-dimensional mess of events and impossible to pull oneself out of these knots. Unlike this jumble that is beyond disambiguation, the selection of a key incident such as the murder of Sikkal Pakkirisamy removes the creases from the timeline. Like a lullaby, it transports us to a safe zone in time so that when we wake up, we can discuss this historical tragedy with the same self-assuredness that everybody employs when they speak of the assassination of Archduke Franz Ferdinand of Austria as being the immediate trigger that led to the First World War.
So, somewhere in this sultry chapter, we shall begin at the immediate beginning.
What is a story worth if it does not have a supernatural element? Why begin when you cannot bring in gods?
On the day Jayabalan’s mother-in-law dropped dead from starvation, a legislator in faraway Madras expressed concern about chronic food-grain scarcity, famine conditions and exorbitant prices, another took issue that cultivators in Tiruchy had been deprived of paddy for their own consumption as state revenue officials had forcibly procured all their harvest; the chief minister tabled a report on the extent of damage caused by a cyclone, along with a detailed break-down of the relief and rehabilitation measures undertaken by his government; while local temple-dweller Lord Murugan, popular in these parts under his alias of Sikkal Singaravelan, according to his strict daily regimen, was bathed in milk twice that morning, noon and night.
When he learnt, after his sixth bath, that the local Communist leader Sikkal Pakkirisamy had been killed off by the landlords, his lordship Sikkal Singaravelan prayed for his own safety – Murugamurugamurugamurugamurugamuruga — and decided not to interfere in the internal affairs of this mad and murderous district. Although he was not bothered about the equitable distribution of resources or the wage struggle of the workers, his lordship always knew that he was no different from the local Communist leader in two aspects: he always sought to be defined by his domain of influence, and he could put up a good show of strength at short notice. Being a bright young chap, he decided that he would not risk taking a position on anything outside his own war portfolio, as long as he was provided with food to eat and milk to drink so that he didn’t drop dead and make two women instantaneous widows. He kept his word. He turned a blind eye to blood baths.
Any student of history with access to Wikipedia will be able to tell you, with the requisite annotations, that in the 1968 winter session of the parliament of gods, he abstained from voting on every issue except Vietnam, where he enjoyed cult status as Saigon Subramaniam.
Meena Kandasamy is a poet, writer, activist and translator. Her work maintains a focus on caste annihilation, linguistic identity and feminism. She has published two collections of poetry, Touch (2006) and Ms Militancy (2010). She has co-authored (with M Nisar) a biography of Kerala’s foremost Dalit revolutionary Ayyankali, and previously, she edited ‘The Dalit’, a bi-monthly English magazine. She holds a PhD in socio-linguistics from Anna University Chennai.