A horrific tale of the massacre of 44 Dalit families of landless rice tillers on the Christmas of 1968 in Tamil Nadu morphs into a modern allegory of tragedy, conflict and caste indignation – through a retrieval of a slice of India’s complex history of Dalit (marginalized community) struggle for empowerment and the Left movement in South India by Chennai-based poetand writer Meena Kandasamy in her debut novel, “The Gypsy Goddess”. The novel was unveiled by the author at a discussion in the national capital this month.
Kandasamy turns her spotlight on Kilvenmani— a tiny village of marginalized and the down-trodden Harijan community of agricultural workers — which became a killing field when an armed militia, reared by a local landlord, Gopalakrishna Naidu and his landed associates —razed the settlement of tillers and butchered the residents for daring to defy the whip of the landlords. The Dalit tillers had sworn allegiance to the Communist Party; moving away from the Paddy Producers’ Association, an umbrella of landlords who owned the vast tract of rice land in the Tanjore (east) district of Tamil Nadu. The upper caste-dominated East Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu was the cauldron of the state’s abortive encounter with Communism in the 1960s — which tried to ride on the resentment of the socially and economically backward castes against the Brahmin (placed on the top of the caste hierarchy) and the upper caste land owners on the lush terrain that was “said to grow the best paddy in all of south India”.
The Communists, a group of educated and progressive intellectuals, failed to counter the fire of the upper caste stranglehold over the agrarian economy. On the night of December 25, 1968, a mob descended on the village and torched the huts. The triggers were a series of complaints by the Dalit tillers at the local police station against frequent atrocity by the landlords, poor wages, forced harvesting of paddy at night by agitating tillers, inhuman working hours and clash of political ideologies between feudal capitalism and fledgling Communism that relied on rhetoric rather than armed struggle. Two other conflicting movements — the identity and the self-respect movements (the latter launched by Periyar EV Ramasamy) were at odds with Communism – arresting its growth in Tamil Nadu.
Kandasamy chooses the historic city of Nagapattinam or Tranquebar, one of the earliest centres of the east-west encounter in south India — and the village of “Kilvenmani”- which married itself to Communism — as the locales of her plot. The story of Kilvenmani massacre is a much-told tale — but in Kandasamy’s novel, it becomes a personalized acoount of loss, caste ignominy and redemption by the rejection of everything to do with “caste enemies” including justice. “We told them we did not want compensation. We also did not want their justice”.
Kandasamy used the a variety of literary devices like a fairy tale opening, folk lore, transmission narrative, time warping, direct participation, absurd prose and a non-linear and deconstructed narratives that do not adhere to the conventional format of literary fiction.
The novel begins with a historical backgrounder of Nagapattinam – the conflicting influences that the port town was subjected to and the events leading to the stirrings of Communist thoughts inspired by Karl Marx rather than Comrade Mao. The chapters negotiate an unpredictable path. The history of Nagapattinam ends abruptly as it begins, making room for Kandasamy to accommodate her mercurial creative process. She searches for a suitable one-liner as the prelude to the grotesque tale of Kilvenmani — “once upon a time, in a tiny village, there lived an old woman”. It is a sentence she plays over and over in the segment of her book, “background” to create a take-off point for her narrative. The old woman in the beginning of the Kandasamy’s book, in whose village the landlords script their drama of caste and violence against the marginalised in blood, is the village witch doctor’s wife Maayi, whose anchors the story. She tends to the sick, dying, demented and maimed. Kandasamy looks at the history of Kilvenmani through Maayi, probably the “Gypsy Goddess”, the title of her book.
The writer, a poet of repute, employs prose-poetry as a technique to describe the attack of the December 25, 1968, glossing over individual details but conveying the overall impression of horror and death— the collective screams of agony, the gradual numbing of senses and dissolving of charred bodies into headcounts.
The writer uses “the artist’s broad canvas” to paint the caste sacrilege on the lush of paddy on the Cauvery delta. She enters the story as a participant – a scribe in the service of the villain Gopalakrishna Naidu hired to draft his petition. She tries to understand his side of the story- but the defence falls through the cracks. The landlords’ alibis are carefully concocted to give the court benefit of doubt. The accounts of the victims are dismissed as “incoherent”.
Nearly 46 years later, Kandasamy, still in her thirties, fails to dredge up the anger surrounding Kilvenmani, she makes up for the rage with her “sorrow, hurt and sentimental rejection of the verdict – how the media and the world related to the event and enacted it on the greater international stage”.
Kandasamy said the idea for the novel germinated in 2003 when she was translating Dalit literature. Kilvenmani was the heart of her research-based study and translation. “But I knew about the story,” she said. Kandasamy later visited Kilvenmani to speak to those who carried the memories of the massacre. “The victims of Kilvenmani did not get justice like the victims of Lakshmanpur Bathe and Bathani Tola caste massacre in undivided Bihar). The battle is against the system of justice that fails to dispense justice to the victims,” the writer said. The narrative does not change much — across the country’s heartland where caste and land are the core of social disparity and silent conflict between the “haves” and the “deprived”.
Kandasamy ends her story with the suggestion of an insurrection for justice –Naxalism, a radical avatar of the Left movement that took to arms to fight the well-entrenched feudalism.
“This is exactly what happened to Communism in the early 1940s. The Communists’ wish to unite the peasants (including the Dalit peasants) could not go beyond the politics of parliamentary parties. The judiciary failed, the media failed and politicians failed. But I don’t think history should absolve the bad and cruel feudal landlords,” Kandasamy told this writer in an interview.
She imbues her prose with a magic realism, subtle nuances of literary fiction writing, an element of fable and experimentation with the absurd and the abstract. But the narrative manages to flow through the insane chapters as if by magic – giving the first time reader a riveting feel what happened on the fateful Christmas night of 1968 in Tanjore. “You can best describe it as a non-fiction novel,” Kandasamy explained.
The book has been published by Harper Collins – Fourth Estate.