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
Secrets of JK Rowling's Harry Potter workings have been revealed in a new bibliography
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Fearne Cotton is leaving Radio 1 after a decade
radio The popular DJ is leaving for 'family and new adventures'
Arts and Entertainment
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Public Service Broadcasting are going it alone
music
Arts and Entertainment
Eddie Redmayne as transgender artist Lili Elbe in The Danish Girl

First look at Oscar winner as transgender artistfilm
Arts and Entertainment

Oscars 2015 Mexican filmmaker uses speech to urge 'respect' for immigrants

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscar nominations are due to be announced today

Oscars 2015 Bringing you all the news from the 87th Academy Awards

Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Arts and Entertainment

ebooksNow available in paperback
Arts and Entertainment

ebooks
Arts and Entertainment
Lloyd-Hughes takes the leading role as Ralph Whelan in Channel 4's epic new 10-part drama, Indian Summers

TV Review

The intrigue deepens as we delve further but don't expect any answers just yet
Arts and Entertainment
Jason Segal and Cameron Diaz star in Sex Tape

Razzies 2015 Golden Raspberry Awards 'honours' Cameron Diaz and Kirk Cameron

Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars ceremony 2015 will take place at the Dolby Theatre in Los Angeles
Oscars 2015A quiz to whet your appetite for tonight’s 87th Academy Awards
Arts and Entertainment
Sigourney Weaver, as Ripley, in Alien; critics have branded the naming of action movie network Movies4Men as “offensive” and “demographic box-ticking gone mad”.
TVNaming of action movie network Movies4Men sparks outrage
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
Arts and Entertainment
Sleater Kinney perform at the 6 Music Festival at the O2 Academy, Newcastle
musicReview: 6 Music Festival
News
Kristen Stewart reacts after receiving the Best Actress in a Supporting Role award for her role in 'Sils Maria' at the 40th annual Cesar awards
people
News
A lost Sherlock Holmes story has been unearthed
arts + ents Walter Elliot, an 80-year-old historian, found it in his attic,
Arts and Entertainment
Margot Robbie rose to fame starring alongside Leonardo DiCaprio in The Wolf of Wall Street

Film Hollywood's new leading lady talks about her Ramsay Street days

Arts and Entertainment
Right note: Sam Haywood with Simon Usborne page turning
musicSimon Usborne discovers it is under threat from the accursed iPad
Arts and Entertainment
A life-size sculpture by Nick Reynolds depicting singer Pete Doherty on a crucifix hangs in St Marylebone church
arts + ents
Arts and Entertainment
Escalating tension: Tang Wei and Chris Hemsworth in ‘Blackhat’
filmReview: Chris Hemsworth stars as a convicted hacker in Blackhat
Arts and Entertainment

Oscar voter speaks out

film
Arts and Entertainment
The Oscars race for Best Picture will be the battle between Boyhood and Birdman

Oscars
Arts and Entertainment
Anne Boleyn (Claire Foy), Thomas Cromwell (Mark Rylance)
tvReview: Wolf Hall
Arts and Entertainment
Tom Meighan of Kasabian collects the Best Album Award
music
Arts and Entertainment
Best supporting stylist: the late L’Wren Scott dressed Nicole Kidman in 1997
film
Arts and Entertainment
Dakota Johnson and Jamie Dornan as Anastasia Steele and Christian Grey in Fifty Shades of Grey

Film

Arts and Entertainment
Mick Carter (Danny Dyer) and Peggy Mitchell (Barbara Windsor)
tv occurred in the crucial final scene
Arts and Entertainment
Glasgow wanted to demolish its Red Road flats last year
architecture
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.

    HIV pill: Scientists hail discovery of 'game-changer' that cuts the risk of infection among gay men by 86%

    Scientists hail daily pill that protects against HIV infection

    Breakthrough in battle against global scourge – but will the NHS pay for it?
    How we must adjust our lifestyles to nature: Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch

    Time to play God

    Welcome to the 'Anthropocene', the human epoch where we may need to redefine nature itself
    MacGyver returns, but with a difference: Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman

    MacGyver returns, but with a difference

    Handyman hero of classic 1980s TV series to be recast as a woman
    Tunnel renaissance: Why cities are hiding roads down in the ground

    Tunnel renaissance

    Why cities are hiding roads underground
    'Backstreet Boys - Show 'Em What You're Made Of': An affectionate look at five middle-aged men

    Boys to men

    The Backstreet Boys might be middle-aged, married and have dodgy knees, but a heartfelt documentary reveals they’re not going gently into pop’s good night
    Crufts 2015: Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?

    Crufts 2015

    Should foreign dogs be allowed to compete?
    10 best projectors

    How to make your home cinema more cinematic: 10 best projectors

    Want to recreate the big-screen experience in your sitting room? IndyBest sizes up gadgets to form your film-watching
    Manchester City 1 Barcelona 2 player ratings: Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man?

    Manchester City vs Barcelona player ratings

    Luis Suarez? Lionel Messi? Joe Hart? Who was the star man at the Etihad?
    Arsenal vs Monaco: Monaco - the making of Gunners' manager Arsene Wenger

    Monaco: the making of Wenger

    Jack Pitt-Brooke speaks to former players and learns the Frenchman’s man-management has always been one of his best skills
    Cricket World Cup 2015: Chris Gayle - the West Indies' enigma lives up to his reputation

    Chris Gayle: The West Indies' enigma

    Some said the game's eternal rebel was washed up. As ever, he proved he writes the scripts by producing a blistering World Cup innings
    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare and murky loyalties prevails

    In Ukraine a dark world of hybrid warfare

    This war in the shadows has been going on since the fall of Mr Yanukovych
    'Birdman' and 'Bullets Over Broadway': Homage or plagiarism?

    Homage or plagiarism?

    'Birdman' shares much DNA with Woody Allen's 'Bullets Over Broadway'
    Broadchurch ends as damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    A damp squib not even David Tennant can revive

    Broadchurch, Series 2 finale, review
    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower: inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    Inside the mansion of Germany's 'Bishop of Bling'

    A Koi carp breeding pond, wall-mounted iPads and a bathroom with a 'wellness' shower