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.”

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