Indian author Meena Kandasamy: Breaking class and caste divides
Meena Kandasamy said she was in shock when she learned in September that she had won the 2022 Hermann Kesten Prize from PEN Germany.
DW reached out to her ahead of the awards show, which was held on Nov. 15, to discuss her journey as a writer. But the motivations behind her work cannot be summed up easily, she says: “I don’t know where to start.
A look back at his childhood and family background provides insight into his work.
Much of Kandasamy’s writing is a result of her sensitivity to injustice and the battles against inequity she witnessed as a child.
Her parents, both low-caste Hindus, or “dalits” from the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu, were married under the Marriage with Respect Act. The law, passed in the early 1940s in their state, rejects caste and allows Hindu marriages without the presence of a Brahmin priest, she says.
His mother, who was a teacher at the Indian Institute of Technology (IIT) in Chennai, one of India’s top schools, later became involved in debates around Brahmin-led dominance in the institution. She has initiated several legal cases for better employment rights and wages, and for the implementation of prescribed quotas for employees and students from lower castes.
“I grew up in this environment and it influenced me enormously,” recalls Kandasamy, adding that it was also a political upbringing. “It is not enough to go to university, do a master’s degree and understand what is happening. You watch it unfold, and even though I was a child of academics, I realized that the answer to all these problems would not come from the narrow sphere of academia.
Finding Comfort in Poetry
Poetry turned out to be the favorite genre of the author, who was inspired by Sylvia Plath. “There were so many things that I couldn’t process, that I couldn’t just report or write. So it kind of helped me, you know, to have poetry,” she explains.
Kandasamy’s first poetry anthology, titled TO TOUCHwas released in 2006, followed by Ms militancy in 2010 and two collections of poems entitled “#ThisPoemWillProvokeYou and Other Poems” and “We Are Not the Citizens”, published in 2015 and 2018 respectively.
The author’s poems are iconoclastic, targeting Hindu patriarchy and the depiction of holy figures, including the gods Rama and Krishna. Kandasamy also gives a more assertive voice to female goddesses like Sita, who was sent into exile for betraying her husband after Ravana, King of Lanka, kidnapped her.
“Poetry is subversive,” argues Kandasamy, explaining that authors before her, including Margaret Atwood, Anne Sexton and Carolyn Duffy, rewrote old stories. “They have this tradition of feminist poets who take on myths and legends and fairy tales and tell them in a very subversive and feminist way. I thought someone should do this for Hindu epics and also Tamil epics.
After all, as she points out, throughout history so far, the commentators on such texts have been men, which makes her approach even more relevant.
Novels and translations
Kandasamy’s prolific writing doesn’t stop at poetry, however. Her debut novel, ‘The Gypsy Goddess’ (2014), revolves around the 1968 massacre of low-caste farm workers by their upper-caste landlords in the southern Indian state of Tamil Nadu.
Her 2017 novel, “When I Hit You: Or, A Portrait of the Writer as a Young Woman,” about domestic violence and rape, was shortlisted for the 2018 Women’s Prize.
Translations of older feminist texts, for Kandasamy, are an important aspect of her fight against patriarchy, she tells DW.
She has translated works like “Why Women Were Enslaved” by 20th century Tamil anti-caste activist Periyar from Tamil into English (2004) and poems by four Tamil women poets, also into English, in 2018.
On freedom of opinion
Meanwhile, Kandasamy’s iconoclastic and anti-patriarchal stance often leaves her vulnerable to attack from right-wing nationalist groups, like other writers and journalists who have been targeted in recent times.
Recent high-profile cases include the murder of bangalorejournalist based Gauri Lankesh in 2017, the arrest of delhi Anand Teltumbde, academic and human rights activist, and Shillong-based journalist and activist Patricia Mukhim in 2020. Earlier this year, journalist Muhammad Zubair was arrested for allegedly tweeting against Hindu religious beliefs.
According to the World Press Freedom Index (WPFI), published by Reporters Without Borders, India‘s ranking has fallen from 80th position in the inaugural report in 2002 to 150th in 2022. Critics of the current government under the prime minister Narendra Modi say intolerance has increased as a result of the right-wing government’s strict interpretation of nationalism.
For Kandasamy, it’s only a matter of time before she’s also targeted. “It’s a bit like tarot cards or something. I don’t know. Your turn will come. Your card will come. You will be called. I think at this point it’s just a possibility “, she says.
Meena Kandasamy will receive the Hermann Kesten Award from PEN Germany on November 15, 2022 in Darmstadt, Germany.