Gypsy Goddess by Meera Kandasamy
“Gypsy Goddess” by Meena Kandasamy is the fictional retelling of the 1968 massacre of 44 Dalit villagers in Kilvenmani, a village in the Nagapattinam district of Tamil Nadu. The story revolves around the land-owners of the village, who refuse to provide decent living wages for their workers and farmers, and the retaliation of these farming communities under the banner of the Communist Party of India, leading to drastic, tragic consequences for the poor communities. While this is not the first time that an author or artist has been inspired by this historic event, Kandasamy has made her intentions for writing this story very clear.
The representation that an artist who holds the ancestry of this lived experience brings to art, is valuable in many ways. While many have worked hard to bring justice to this story and piece of important Dalit history in India, very few have written so vividly about the first-hand experiences of people who are often reduced to their traumatic struggles alone. Kandasamy writes this novel with an awareness of her anger, which she does not try to diminish or ignore. What’s more, is that she forces you to feel uncomfortable, almost implicit in this injustice.
The author also emphasises the role of women in these communities, recognising the violence they have endured, and them being the backbone of the agitations of their communities. She also talks about anger in constructive forms, connecting it to the identity of the characters in the book. For Kandasamy, anger may be unwanted, but it is necessary for their struggle and survival. The intersectionalities of caste-based violence and gendered violence are still overlooked in India, and the mental health consequences of these experiences even more so. Kandasamy has used her anger to inform her novel, using it as a tool that empowers her, gives her the confidence to write this story, and reminds her of her intentions for doing so.
The story focuses on multiple mental health issues that can be triggered due to trauma, violence and abuse in a social system, alluding to painful accounts of schizophrenia, depression, anxiety and post-traumatic stress. Forms of emotional, physical and sexual abuse against marginalised communities have pervaded for centuries in India, with little to no legal, social or political support given to the victims of this violence. Lack of access to decent living wages, proper healthcare, education and basic human rights are still realities for many communities that Kandasamy has alluded to, even today. With caste-based violence being recognised in mainstream media, there is a need to understand systemic forms of oppression, and their direct impact on mental health, and the intergenerational forms of trauma that it can manifest into.
Meena Kandasamy works hard to be the representative of a largely voiceless community, in that its voices are often shunned and ignored. In her acknowledgements, she mentions, “For the dark and handsome young men on the fields, who spontaneously serenaded me with classic MGR songs… It is almost impossible to resist such charm”. Kandasamy delivers in reminding readers that her community is not defined by their traumas alone, but also by the irrepressible desire to survive, thrive and have their stories told. She reminds her readers that her community is endlessly resilient, not lacking in providing strength to its own members. Still, the promotion of community-based resilience can be enhanced through allyship, support, and active socio-political realignment. “When one drastically sheds the comforts of an insulated existence, it is small pleasures like this that make the search for a story so worthwhile”, she reminds us to constantly place our awareness outside ourselves, and use our privilege to acknowledge the stories of those whose voice may be easily lost.
This book is not just an account of pain, suffering and injustice, but is also a beautifully thought out literary piece of writing, where the author has experimented with many forms of literary devices, which adds to the experience of this story. She uses them well to remind the reader of the author’s identity location as a Bahujan writer, and makes it painfully clear that no amount of research, awareness and empathy can replace lived experience, as she rightfully should. More conversations around Bahujan injustices need to be had, along with urgent pathways to bridge the inequities in mental healthcare access for such communities with immediate effect.
Written by Akshata Chonkar.
The writer of this article recognises her privilege in caste, and understands that an accurate representation of this storytelling can only be done by a person with lived experience.