Q&A with poet Meena Kandasamy on her first novel

PUBLISHED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 4:08pm
UPDATED : Sunday, 11 May, 2014, 4:08pm

In India, Meena Kandasamy is known as a poet, an outspoken activist on political issues (women's rights, caste issues, beef eating), an academic and even an actress. With the publication of her first novel, The Gypsy Goddess , she can call herself an author. She talks to James Kidd

Why did you decide to write your first novel?

The first reason is my disappointment with Indian fiction. There are great Indian fiction writers. Some are really brilliant. But in part they have become very lazy. Some writing is what we call the stereotypical "sari-mango" novel. Or people of my age writing novels that take place across airports. Or people of an older generation reminiscing about cooking and spices. I didn't want to write what was safe or comfortable.

is inspired by shocking real events. Can you describe them?

The village of Kilvenmani has been fighting against landlords, against forced recruitment into their land association. This village, which is full of untouchable people, is really militant. They are seeking higher wages, and what happens on December 25, 1968, is that the landlords and the mobs plan a rampage. They visit this village and leave 44 people dead. It is heartbreaking, cruel and tragic. This novel is not just a lament, or a resistance or a kind of militancy. It asks: "How do you get people who are totally unconnected with the story to feel for these people? How do you translate a landless agricultural worker in the 1960s who speaks only Tamil into a foreign language, a time he doesn't know and an audience who don't know what it means to go into the field."

How does the Kilvenmani massacre express your own political outlook?

For me this is a story about the history of the early communist resistance - how they were organising peasants in Tanjore in the 1960s. It is a 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 guerilla or an underground struggle.

How did you learn about the Kilvenmani massacre?

I have been involved with the Dalit (or untouchable) movement since I was 17 - translating books and speeches of a Dalit leader. In the late 1990s, you had extreme violence visited upon Dalits. This was a time when the Indian president [K.R. Narayanan] was an untouchable man himself. Such violence has been happening all the time. The worst carnage was in Kilvenmani but in India, the entire system of the judiciary and the police work hand in glove to keep caste intact.

Does the story have personal dimensions as well?

I come from Tamil Nadu. I grew up in an extreme, repressed Hindu family. If I did not put on a bindi, my dad would ask: "Are you thinking of a Christian boyfriend?" I didn't wear my first jeans until I was 25. My father is originally from Tanjore district. He ran away and came to Chennai in 1977. He told me if he lived in Tanjore, there would be no hope. If you are landless, if you are poor, if you are orphaned, if you belong to a lower community - all of which was my father was - you don't have any hope in life.

The novel portrays violence in India as a form of punishment but also social control. Is this still the case in modern India?

The landlord thinks he is going to discipline the Dalits. The father thinks he is disciplining the disobedient child. The husband thinks he is disciplining the defiant wife. Violence becomes an action for the general good, to teach. It isn't an issue of anger management or power.

You have used social media to express your political views: you have 24,000 Twitter followers. Your advocacy of a beef-eating festival at Hyderabad's Osmania University recently resulted in a torrent of horrific abuse on Twitter. What are your views on the pros and cons of online protest?

If a woman in the UK [is abused on Twitter], then Twitter has to clean up its act. The police would take action. In India, Twitter even refused to take those tweets off, saying it was not hate speech. Nothing happened in India.

Do threats of violent reprisals ever dissuade you from criticising Indian society?

The threat of violence shouldn't dictate what you write or hinder you in any manner. In The Gypsy Goddess, I am not giving voice to the voiceless. It's about me getting inspired by their militancy, by understanding that they have been standing up to the system without any of the safety nets we take for granted.

What is your next project?

I don't think I will be writing too much fiction. I am a poet. If it is something easy - a campus novel - I won't do it. Like a novel about living in another country or dating people interracially, having fun. That's easy. When I'm writing, I want to do something that actually requires work.