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Meena Kandasamy’s powerful debut casts a spotlight on the plight of Dalit agricultural workers in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, who are murdered by oppressive upper-caste landlords. Her book is based on a massacre that took place in the village of Kilvenmani on Christmas day, 1968. At the time, Marxist ideology was gaining popularity among disenfranchised Dalits, or untouchables, who toiled away on rice paddies in brutal conditions. The Green Revolution had also begun to irrevocably alter food production, boosting harvests but forcing farmers into a dependency on toxic fertilisers sold by American corporations.
In the author’s fictionalised version of this tragedy, which draws on historical documents and survivor interviews, farm workers are on strike after landlords murder a popular communist leader. The landlords try to bully them back to work: they impose debilitating fines, use the police to intimidate them, and savagely assault Dalit women. But the hungry people of Kilvenmani village are resolute in their demands for justice. Finally, the landlords send a goon squad to attack Kilvenmani, who corner dozens of villagers into a single hut and set light to it. They end up killing at least 42 villagers, turning their bodies into charred, unrecognisable corpses, and yet most of the perpetrators are let off the hook. Meanwhile, many of the villagers who have lost loved ones in the massacre are sent to jail.
This horrifying sequence of events is told with exquisite language, and innovative turns of phrase. Dew doesn’t just fall on the ground, it “begins to diamond the golden fields”. The novel doesn’t delve into the inner worlds of characters or possess an actual protagonist. But Kandasamy, a critically acclaimed poet, is attempting to immortalise the story of an entire community’s struggle, and perhaps a more traditionally character-driven novel would have undermined this ambition.
Kandasamy uses an array of iconoclastic narrative voices. One chapter is a breathless single sentence that evokes the massacre with lucid, haunting descriptions: “facial features disappear and flesh now starts splitting and shin bones show and hair singes with a strange smell and the flames hastily lick away at every last juicy bit as the bones learn to burst like dead wood …” Other chapters take the form of a communist pamphlet denouncing inequity, or a letter from one of the landlords. A section told in the second person, about a journalist seeking to commemorate the tragedy years later, contends with the futility of documenting such tragedies at all.
Kandasamy cuts this serious and sad novel with bursts of irreverent wit. “It is common knowledge,” she writes, “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 Moleskine notebook …” Unfortunately, in these first-person sections, she also namechecks TED talks and pop stars, chastises critics, and rails against exoticism in Indian fiction and the pitfalls of traditional plot-driven linear novels. Kandasamy has squandered words on these gimmicky asides, especially since the second half of her novel does a fabulous job of simply being an un‑exotic book with an unusual structure. Readers should trudge through this material to get to this novel’s lyrical, radical core, which offers bold perspectives on the relationship between poverty and power.
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Source: The Guardian
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