Meena Kandasamy interview: ‘I don’t know if I’m idiotic – or courageous’

Novelist and activist Meena Kandasamy tells James Kidd what fires her work and politics

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 Gypsy 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 Gypsy 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 Gypsy 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.”

Over the next decade, Kandasamy forged a career fusing activism and literature, producing two collections of verse, Ms Militancy and Touch. These competing strands – the private and the public – can get entangled, especially on the internet. Ask Kandasamy about her rising profile as a spokeswoman on caste, corruption, violence, and women’s rights, and she complains about a corresponding preoccupation with her appearance. “When I started writing in the early 2000s, it was much safer. How you looked …” she sighs. “You could still be in your pyjamas for seven days. Your looks had nothing to do with what was getting written or how many people followed you.”

But as her 24,000 Twitter followers suggest, she has also clearly learned how to use social media as a political platform, profile pictures and all. But becoming the feminist face of Indian protest has its downsides. In 2012, Kandasamy’s support for a beef-eating festival at Hyderabad’s Osmania University resulted in a torrent of online abuse. “There were 800 tweets in four hours calling me whore, bitch, terrorist, Jihadi.”

In contrast to the vitriol meted out in the UK to Caroline Criado-Perez during the campaign to have Jane Austen’s face printed on the £10 note, the threats of rape and acid attacks aimed at Kandasamy met with minimal response from Twitter. Kandasamy argues the difference was partly a matter of geography. “If it’s a woman in the UK 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’s not hate speech according to us.’” The only hint of legal redress came when the writer Patrick French reported a US-based tweeter for threatening to throw carbolic acid at Kandasamy. “I have some weird respect for the US police. Nothing happened in India.”

The threats reinforced Kandasamy’s belief that violence plays a “universal” social role in India, despite its reputation for peaceful protest. “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.”

Kandasamy admits to experiencing these violent tutorials – in school and the family home. “Parents beat up children all the time,” she says, before citing several cases in Norway where Indian-born parents have been convicted of child abuse. “Me and my sister were telling my dad, ‘If you lived in Norway, you are going to have a whole lifetime in jail.’” It is a testament to her personal fortitude, or at least her sense of humour, that she laughs at this anecdote.

She is more reserved when discussing her violent ex-husband. “I have been in an abusive marriage. Violence can come from love, from a very intimate person. Violence can come from all sorts of crazy situations. What are you going to do? You have to deal with it when it strikes.” Kandasamy is reluctant to expand publicly on her own case of domestic abuse, except to say she divorced her husband and moved on.

Does the threat of violent reprisals ever dissuade her from criticising Indian society? “Sometimes I think that what I do must be either idiotic and naïve or courageous. I don’t know which. If there was no threat of violence, that is what you would do. This threat of violence shouldn’t dictate what you are going to write or hinder you in any manner.”

Kandasamy cites the surviving Kilvenmani villagers, some of whom she met while writing The Gypsy Goddess, as the best antidote to oppression. “I am not giving voice to the voiceless. That sounds like you are a Messiah or a Mahatma. 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. I look at them and ask, What am I doing? Why am I not fighting? They are giving me courage.”

Extract: ‘The Gypsy Goddess’ By Meena Kandasamy (Atlantic, £12.99)

“They are outraged by these inconceivable deaths: the young did not deserve to die and the old left them without any warning. Now burdened with mourning, it is beyond the means of the living to try and make meaning out of the randomness of death.”

Arts and Entertainment
Rhino Doodle by Jim Carter (Downton Abbey)

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Christian Grey cradles Ana in the Fifty Shades of Grey film

film
Arts and Entertainment
Chris Pratt stars in Guardians of the Galaxy
film
Arts and Entertainment
Comedian 'Weird Al' Yankovic

Is the comedy album making a comeback?

comedy
PROMOTED VIDEO
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment
Sue Perkins and Mel Giedroyc, centre, are up for Best Female TV Comic for their presenting quips on The Great British Bake Off

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Martin Freeman as Lester Nygaard in the TV adaptation of 'Fargo'

TV
Arts and Entertainment
A scene from Shakespeare in Love at the Noel Coward Theatre
theatreReview: Shakespeare in Love has moments of sheer stage poetry mixed with effervescent fun
Arts and Entertainment
Dwayne 'The Rock' Johnson stars in Hercules

film
Arts and Entertainment
Standing the test of time: Michael J Fox and Christopher Lloyd in 'Back to the Future'

film
Arts and Entertainment
<p><strong>2008</strong></p>
<p>Troubled actor Robert Downey Jr cements his comeback from drug problems by bagging the lead role in Iron Man. Two further films follow</p>

film
Arts and Entertainment

theatre
Arts and Entertainment
Tycoons' text: Warren Buffett and Bill Gates both cite John Brookes' 'Business Adventures' as their favourite book

books
Arts and Entertainment
Panic! In The Disco's Brendon Urie performs on stage

music
Arts and Entertainment

film
Arts and Entertainment
Keira Knightley and Benedict Cumberbatch star in the Alan Turing biopic The Imitation Game

film
Arts and Entertainment

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Radio 4's Today programme host Evan Davis has been announced as the new face of Newsnight

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Pharrell Williams performing on the Main Stage at the Wireless Festival in Finsbury Park, north London

music
Arts and Entertainment
Carrie Mathison returns to the field in the fourth season of Showtime's Homeland

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Crowds soak up the atmosphere at Latitude Festival

music
Arts and Entertainment
Meyne Wyatt and Caren Pistorus arrive for the AACTA Aawrds in Sydney, Australia

TV
Arts and Entertainment
Rick Astley's original music video for 'Never Gonna Give You Up' has been removed from YouTube

music
Arts and Entertainment
Quentin Blake's 'Artists on the beach'

Artists unveils new exhibition inspired by Hastings beach

art
Arts and Entertainment
MusicFans were left disappointed after technical issues
Independent
Travel Shop
the manor
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on city breaks Find out more
santorini
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on chic beach resorts Find out more
sardina foodie
Up to 70% off luxury travel
on country retreats Find out more
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?

ES Rentals

    Independent Dating
    and  

    By clicking 'Search' you
    are agreeing to our
    Terms of Use.

    Backhanders, bribery and abuses of power have soared in China as economy surges

    Bribery and abuses of power soar in China

    The bribery is fuelled by the surge in China's economy but the rules of corruption are subtle and unspoken, finds Evan Osnos, as he learns the dark arts from a master
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Highland terriers stole the show at the opening ceremony

    Highland terriers steal the show at opening ceremony

    Gillian Orr explores why a dog loved by film stars and presidents is finally having its day
    German art world rocked as artists use renowned fat sculpture to distil schnapps

    Brewing the fat from artwork angers widow of sculptor

    Part of Joseph Beuys' 1982 sculpture 'Fettecke' used to distil schnapps
    BBC's The Secret History of Our Streets reveals a fascinating window into Britain's past

    BBC takes viewers back down memory lane

    The Secret History of Our Streets, which returns with three films looking at Scottish streets, is the inverse of Benefits Street - delivering warmth instead of cynicism
    Joe, film review: Nicolas Cage delivers an astonishing performance in low budget drama

    Nicolas Cage shines in low-budget drama Joe

    Cage plays an ex-con in David Gordon Green's independent drama, which has been adapted from a novel by Larry Brown
    How to make your own gourmet ice lollies, granitas, slushy cocktails and frozen yoghurt

    Make your own ice lollies and frozen yoghurt

    Think outside the cool box for this summer's tempting frozen treats
    Ford Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time, with sales topping 4.1 million since 1976

    Fiesta is UK's most popular car of all-time

    Sales have topped 4.1 million since 1976. To celebrate this milestone, four Independent writers recall their Fiestas with pride
    10 best reed diffusers

    Heaven scent: 10 best reed diffusers

    Keep your rooms smelling summery and fresh with one of these subtle but distinctive home fragrances that’ll last you months
    Commonwealth Games 2014: Female boxers set to compete for first time

    Female boxers set to compete at Commonwealth Games for first time

    There’s no favourites and with no headguards anything could happen
    Five things we’ve learned so far about Manchester United under Louis van Gaal

    Five things we’ve learned so far about United under Van Gaal

    It’s impossible to avoid the impression that the Dutch manager is playing to the gallery a little
    Screwing your way to the top? Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth

    Screwing your way to the top?

    Good for Lana Del Rey for helping kill that myth, says Grace Dent
    Will the young Britons fighting in Syria be allowed to return home and resume their lives?

    Will Britons fighting in Syria be able to resume their lives?

    Tony Blair's Terrorism Act 2006 has made it an offence to take part in military action abroad with a "political, ideological, religious or racial motive"
    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter, the wartime poster girl who became a feminist pin-up

    Beyoncé poses as Rosie the Riveter

    The wartime poster girl became the ultimate American symbol of female empowerment
    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones: Are custom, 3D printed earbuds the solution?

    The quest to find the perfect pair of earphones

    Earphones don't fit properly, offer mediocre audio quality and can even be painful. So the quest to design the perfect pair is music to Seth Stevenson's ears
    US Army's shooting star: Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform

    Meet the US Army's shooting star

    Lt-Col Steven Cole is the man Hollywood calls when it wants to borrow a tank or check a military uniform