We told our stories to the court and to the commission. We testified on their terms. We were examined and cross-examined. In their words, we deposed. Since we saw with our eyes, we spoke about what we had seen. However, the Special Additional First-Class Magistrate was not very pleased with our versions.
Perhaps he wanted a single story: uniform, end to end to end. The ‘Once upon a time, there lived an old lady in a tiny village’ story. Sadly, we are not able to tell such a story. A story told in many voices is seen as unreliable.
The story that Kandasamy tells is that of the Kilvanmani massacre and events leading up to it in 1968. Kivanmani is a small village in Tamil Nadu, where the farm labourers haven’t had a pay rise for ten years. Any insubordination against the landlords results in beatings. When Communism arrives, landlords’ violence is enough to subdue it in other villages but not in Kilvanmani, where the local workers stand strong. But their strength results in a massacre in which 42 villagers, mostly women and children, are killed.
The Gypsy Goddess isn’t just about the massacre though, it’s about how to tell the story of a massacre. Kandasamy discusses how to begin, during which she skewers literary critics:
A first-generation woman novelist evidently working in a second language from the third-world country, literary critics may pooh-pooh and pin me down with prize-orange tartness after reading such a tame line, and prepare to expect nothing more than a domestic drama-traumatic tale. Let them jest in peace.
It is common knowledge that no land would ever be found interesting until a white man arrived, befriended some locals, tried the regional cuisine, asked a lot of impertinent questions, took copious notes in his Moleskin notebook and then went back home and wrote something about it.
and predicts the questions critics will ask, my favourite of which are:
Why can’t you fucking follow chronology?
I can. If you observe carefully, you will not fail to note that everyone gets fucked in the due course of time.
Is there a single story?
No. Of course, I’ve consulted Chimamanda on this too.
The tone of the narrative is smart and spirited, challenging the reader whilst pointing out the issues with writing a book that blends fact and fiction, particularly one in which the facts are so horrifying. Kandasamy does the latter with aplomb, however. The narrative voice recedes as events in the village become more gruesome, allowing the key events of the massacre to be told without interference. This gives them a particular power, one which is heightened by the list of the dead.
Kandasamy confidently merges a number of styles and structures including her inner Nicki Minaj to relate how the season of protest begins, which I partly tell you so I can share my favourite paragraph of the book:
Carrying the tales of their cunts and their cuntrees and their cuntenants, women cross all hurdles, talk in circles, burst into tears, break into cheers, teach a few others, take new lovers, become earth mothers, question big brothers, breathe state secrets, fuck all etiquettes and turn themselves into the truth-or-dare pamphleteer who will interfere at the frontier. And in these rap-as-trap times, they perceive the dawn of the day and they start saying their permitted say.
The Gypsy Goddess considers the oppression of the poor by the rich, the role of women in village society and the writing of the book itself. It’s an intelligent, layered, often very funny read and – apart from this being metafiction written by a woman of colour (how very dare she?) – I’m baffled as to why prize juries weren’t all over it last year.
Thanks to Atlantic for the review copy.