Wednesday, 16 April 2014

Songs of Kali: Orientalism, post-colonialism and the Calcutta Chromosone.

This is one of those articles I feel a bit weird writing, the sort of thing I worry when I approach. After all, I'm white.

Okay, sure, a good handful of my DNA has its origins in places like north India or the Middle East, but that isn't what I'm talking about. If you look at me in the street, there will be a little box that is ticked in your head: white. Probably British.

Not only am I white, I really don't know a whole heap of stuff about India. Sure, I've read Midnight's Children and while I don't want to say, "and that's about it", there isn't masses more I can bring to this conversation. When it comes to the subcontinent, I sit up, let other people do the talking, and I do try to pay attention.

Which is why, if we're honest about it, Song of Kali pissed me off. Heck, if I found so much of this book worrying and repellent, what was the response of people know about this stuff? People who have to deal with this kind of cultural assumption every day?

If you want an answer to that question, here's an article that seems to nail it. I've found plenty of people online who seem to think Song of Kali somewhere on the scale icky to downright indefensible. In the same manner, I can find lots of people on the web who are willing to praise Amitav Ghosh's The Calcutta Chromosone (and rightly so.) What I can't find, however, is anyone who thinks one might be a response to the other.

In Song of Kali, Robert Luczack is searching down the poetry and person of M.Das, an Indian poet of some celebrity. In The Calcutta Chromosome, Antar is seeking some explanation of the disappearance of a colleague, L. Murugan. One of the first people we are introduced to as being around Murugan before his disappearance? Sonali Das, the celebrated film star and writer.

Okay, common name. Still: Why did M.Das disappear? He contracted leprosy - a disease almost unknown in the West - and was restored by supernatural means. And L. Murugan? Syphilis. Again it is rare in the West, easily cured. But again, our character was cured not by modern medicine but a procedure given almost mystical status by the narrative - the action malaria upon syphilis.

These echoes of names and plot tease you throughout the text: Where is M.Das? He has been drawn into the underworld of Calcutta's cults, on whose behalf he writes powerful and impassioned pleas. Where is Sonali Das met? At the Rabindra Sadan auditorium, where the great writer Phulboni makes an impassioned plea to the "unseen presence" that must be sought in "the darkness of these streets". I even found myself asking if Antar's education, a scholarship at the Patrice Lumumba University in Moscow, was not meant to draw attention Simmon's narrator's naive and hostile understanding of communism.

Perhaps it's apt given the books I'm writing about that I'm picking up hints with all the care and illogic of someone chasing a conspiracy. Literary criticism can lead you astray, and before you know it, you're sincere and slightly scary, drawing certainties from co-incidence, and believing there is some grand design here. Still, even if The Calcutta Chromosome is not a direct response to Song of Kali, even if I am imagining things, even if Ghosh has never read Simmons, it remains that the books have something to say to each other.

Both writers make a great deal of pronunciation - especially pronunciation of names. In Simmons this is de-familiarisation at work - look at all this strange, Indian names! We see the narrator, Luczack, barging in, correcting everyone's attempts to fathom his Polish surname, yet visibly stumbling over that of everyone he meets. Ghosh, however, shows the secrets, the accommodations, the colonial mindset that informs the mispronunciation of a name. One knows where the power lies in an interaction where a foreigner introduces himself, "That's Loo-zack", and where it resides in one saying, "The name's Murugan[...] But feel free to call me Morgan."

Similarly, understanding of space is used to portray power in both narratives. The American locations in Song of Kali are given specificity: we are invited into them, asked to understands their quirks and secrets (that's Loo-zack), while Calcutta - indeed, the entire general global area of Asia - is a sprawling mass, a blank and grotesque canvass of 'otherness' inhabited by swarming, stinking, brown hordes of dirty, bodily sub-humanity (count the number of instances of the verb 'squat' to describe the actions of the inhabitants of Calcutta.) The few 'respectable' inhabitants live in ivory towers that are still squalid by Western standards, ignoring the poor and dispossessed in their midst.

For Ghosh, each city, each place, has its character. It shows different faces to outsiders, to insiders, to the interested and the personally involved. Calcutta is a city, nothing more. It has rich areas, poor areas, it has poverty - dreadful poverty from which Ghosh does not flinch - but also buses, social clubs, flower shops, markets, hospitals, memorials and auditoriums. The most important thing about this city is that it is inhabited and visited by people. They agree or disagree, they love or hate, they gossip or ignore.What is more, they move, both narratively, emotionally and socially. Urmila is poor and ambitious, yet she spends her time with the famous Sonali Das, with once-rich Mrs Aratounian, with Murugan, the westernised outsider. There is a discernment, a precision in Ghosh's writing - poverty is something which occurs by degrees, in ways that are not always recognised by those experiencing it. In showing the humanity, the specificity, his portrayal of its hardships is more precise, more effective.

The same goes for their portrayal of cults, of cultures. In Simmons, the antagonist is Kali, who he portrays as some sort of blood-cult-delusion meets eldritch abomination. This 'baddie' and her destructive intent is balanced - thematically, if not literally - against Mother Teresa. Those who inhabit and perpetuate Kali's 'song' are various communists strikers, the Indian literary establishment and, just for fun, most of the Middle East. When Luckzack tells us "there are other songs to sing", the only one he offers is a 'moderate risk' adventures about friendship and fun for American middle class children. If you're not already getting an vibe of "Western, American values and Christianity good, everything to do with brown-skinned people and, by the way, Karl Marx, bad", it's possible that you aren't paying attention.

Perhaps the worst thing about this is that, in creating his supernatural threat, Simmons uses an actual Goddess that real people actually worship. Perhaps realising the vilely offensive potential of doing so, he makes a big point of balancing the vicious, mindless cult of Kali with the peaceful, loving, mother-earth hippy type worship of Durga. Durga worshippers, he suggests, are not a threat to Western values. No. They are sweet, exploited and impoverished villagers who stay away from the hell-city that is Calcutta. Although I'm not an expert on this by any means, this Kali/Durga dichotomy strikes me as such a wilful misinterpretation of the nature of Godhead in Hindu belief, such a total set of false assumptions botched together by a failure to understand complex philosophical beliefs, that one could almost overlook how fucking patronising it is to type-cast an entire actual religion into bolshy cultists and the kind of person who tips their cap and says, "Gor blimey, thanks for the centuries of cultural imperialism, Guv'nor."

*deep breaths, Alys, deep breaths*

More sensitive to cultural identities, this is something Ghosh handles with far more respect. He is careful - he is extraordinarily careful - never to associate the cult of 'silence' as anything other than an aberration, as anything other than a woman who thinks she is a goddess, to a group of people who believe her to have supernatural power. That his model of silence, of the healing and the restorative power of something usually considered destructive, is much closer to what I understand of actual Kali worship is sort of the point. "Look," he seems to say, "let me explain this through metaphor, in a way you might understand - you are dealing with a different paradigm, something irreducible to battles between East and West, between bad and good."

Indeed, Ghosh even gives Western readers the suggestion that our culture may be viewed with as much horror as Simmons' heaps upon Kali. One image that resonates in both books is the severed head. In Song of Kali this is a response to the way that - in one of her four arms - Kali holds a severed head. In the temple of the cult the hand is ominously empty, to be filled by the beheading of an unsatisfactory initiate. We hear the drip, drip, drip of the blood falling onto the temple floor. As an portrayal of horror, of savagery, it is effective.

But, like so much of Simmon's work, this horror is founded on a misunderstanding. Just as the body upon which Kali places her foot is not a vanquished foe, so the head she brandishes is not 'real' in the sense of 'killing people'. It's function is either mythological - the head of a demon she has killed - or symbolic, the false consciousness she had destroyed with the sword of knowledge. Perhaps this does not mitigate the disgust felt by those who wonder why one is worshipping in front of a statue holding a severed head, but to think like this is to consider that disgust as the product of a cultural misunderstanding.

It is this cultural misunderstanding that Ghosh presents. He shows us not the leavings of a cult but the failed sensitivity of American computer who does not understand - or perhaps does not care - that humans might find such things upsetting. Again, the image is compelling in its horror. As Antar crops the hologram so that he does not need to see its whole body:
he discovered that Ava had done such a realistic job of severing the head that every artery and vein was clearly visible. He could see the throbbing capillaries; even the directional flow of blood was reproduced, in motion, so that the head looked as though it was spouting gore.
What comes next is what is really interesting. Antar reacts with horror, not only because the image is so visceral (even though no-one has been hurt) but because it reminds him of:

a vision that often recurred in his worst nightmares; an image from a medieval painting he had once seen in a European museum, a picture of a beheaded saint, holding his own dripping head nonchalantly under his arm, as though it were a fresh-picked cabbage.
The message is clear; what to one mind is horror and savagery, to another is religious art. What to one is a clear representation of certain facts (literal or mythological) to another is nauseating and obscene. It is something that Simmons' narrator, with his brash insistence on the pronunciation of his name, is unable to comprehend. It is something of which Ghosh's narratorial voice is acutely aware.

While reading, I found myself wondering if the reason Antar contracted malaria in the rather unusual Egypt was to point out Simmons' homogenising of the geographically and religiously diverse East into 'Song-of-Kali-general-mindless-evil'. Found myself asking if his conspiracy-of-malaria were not a way of pointing out that, when dealing with real people, one needs to be careful of what one says. Wondering if the unprecedented scorn Murugan faces at daring to challenge the official, colonial narrative of science were not another way of showing that the rules are different if you are not white. Even if the references are not direct, it answers the tendency of orientalism that informs Simmons' work. Not only is The Calcutta Chromosome a better book, it's provides us with a far more vital narrative.

Better still, it doesn't just reassure and flatter those up to their necks in privilege. It makes them think.

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