The poet, novelist, activist and academic Meena Kandasamy is a one-woman, agit-prop literary-political movement. It would take Carol Ann Duffy, Caroline Criado-Perez, Kandasamy’s hero Arundhati Roy and, if her first work of fiction The Gipsy Goddess is anything to go by, Salman Rushdie to match her infinite variety.
In conversation, the 30-year-old Kandasamy exudes a laid-back intensity. She is fond of the vivid soundbite: “Facebook has made us all into fucking exhibitionists and voyeurs.” But she is just as prone to flashes of cheeky humour. I mention a meta-fictional reference in The Gipsy Goddess to her mother’s disapproval of her bohemian sex life. Kandasamy giggles. “My parents were very relieved there was no sex scene. I should actually go back and add a chapter.”
A novel of self-conscious experimentalism and unmistakable fury, The Gipsy Goddess throws down a gauntlet to conservative literary and political sensibilities, especially in India. “There are great Indian fiction writers. But some become very lazy. Some write the ‘Sari-and-Mango’ novel. People of my age write novels in airports. People of an older generation reminisce about cooking and spices – pandering to the exotic as well as the urban Indian readers. I really did not want to write what was safe or comfortable.”
The story was inspired by a real-life massacre at Kilvenmani, a village in the Tanjore district of Tamil Nadu. On 25 December 1968, 44 women and children were burned to death for participating in a Communist-organised strike for improved wages and fundamental human rights. “It is a very shocking story. It’s about a huge massacre; it’s about a complete lack of justice; it’s about how the system works against people. In some ways the system legitimises the need for a guerrilla or underground struggle. The coolies of Kilvenmani were really militant, holding out against the threat of violence and police action.”
Kandasamy’s interest in this little-known chapter of Indian history was partly inspired by her father. In 1977, he escaped rural poverty in Tanjore by moving to Chennai (formerly Madras) where he eventually completed a Phd. “Why did he have to run away from where he was born? What is his own story? If you are landless, poor, orphaned and belong to a lower community – all of which was my father was – you don’t have any hope in life. The only thing he had was education.”
At 17, Kandasamy herself began translating books by Dalit (or “Untouchable”) writers and leaders into English. This awakening of her political and literary conscience took place at a time of concerted violence against India’s lowest castes and when K R Narayanan had become the nation’s first Dalit president. Yet the roots of Kandasamy’s rebellious streak can also be found closer to home. “I grew up in an extreme repressed Hindu family. If I did not put on the bindi, my dad would ask, ‘Are you thinking of a Christian boyfriend?’ I didn’t wear my first jeans until I was 25.”
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