A review of Meena Kandasamy’s ‘The Gypsy Goddess’

My series of reviews are a part of a personal reading ‘challenge’ where I attempt to read as many South Asian women authors as possible this year, based on my own selection.

I read Meena Kandasamy’s book as a part of my ongoing annual literary challenge of reading books by women authors. I do think that I should rebrand it as a reading theme, almost like an annual book club except that I’m the only member of the club and I will share my insights on a site that even my relatives barely know of. So lets get started!

My initial reaction to Kandasamy’s book was one of bafflement, coupled with a selfsame feeling of eruditeness that I had seemed to have acquired over the course of time that I read her book. But I realize it is much more than that. Not only is Kandasamy’s book about an incident that has been heavily pushed to the corners of indian historical brutalities; to try and explain myself simply, the book is written in one of the most approachable and endearing ways that I have ever come across. Perhaps endearing is an inappropriate word to use in this context; but that’s the beauty of the book, and of the way the narrative approached the incident.

Kandasamy herself enumerates in the acknowledgement of the book that it started out as a suggestion from a publisher friend to write a non-fiction book on the horrific incident in Kilvenmani, Tamil Nadu. The narrative of the book seems non-fiction; except its not. It features accounts and dialogues from real life individuals, but accounts that did not take place or were not recorded ad lib by Kandasamy. The beauty of fiction and the non-fiction hard-hitting-in-your-face manner of the story progression is one of the many ways that Kandasamy’s novel tackles the pathetic condition of what happened as well as the postmodern condition where events such as these cannot be described merely in the linear tradition of narrating events. I may sound crass, but academic language is another aspect that Kandasamy rejects in the novel. Her narrator not only speaks directly to the plot and commenting on the events, but seems to be engaging with the essence of the relationship between the writer and the reader. The story of Kilvenmani is an inherently personal story to narrate, something which she seems to be tackling by making the narrator as personal to the reader as possible.

For those reasons and more, I thoroughly enjoyed and loathed the book at the same time; not so much because of the writing or plot or any technical aspect of the book, but because of the confrontation of various realities and shadowed histories that the book begs us to question. Perhaps it is not so much goal-driven and oritented; for that Kandasamy could have just written a non fiction or reference book. Aside from being inherently personal, it is an artistic exploration of the boundaries of what one can achieve in their representation of events that were groundbreaking, but at the same were about real people — something that can stay hidden when the narrative transcends to that of fiction. It is really easy to ignore or not acknowledge the non-fiction-ness of a fictional book “based” on true life events. Kandasamy’s book is the real life event, the real life characters with everything that happened, but also not. An artistic representation that was unlike anything I had read before, amongst the contemporary oeuvre of indian writers at least. All this and this was her debut novel?

Mind. Blown.