Tuesday 4 September 2012

The Song Of Kali by Dan Simmons

Does for India what Heart Of Darkness did for Africa; uses it as a setting for a tale of unease and terror that could have been set anywhere, really, except that using a third-world setting plays to the western gallery's delicate sensibilities.

This is a superbly structured and masterfully woven horror novel; it's also a fucking travesty of the real nature of Kali and her various manifestations. He's taken a unique female power-divinity, something with no parallel in any other living religion, and reduced her to a 'bitch goddess' of evil.

And I wish that westerners would do a little homework. Nobody spells their name Jayaprakesh. Jayaprakash, sure. Jaiprakash, even. Not Jayaprakesh. Thanks very much kindly. For all the play Simmons makes of Indians mangling English he certainly doesn't hesitate to mangle Indian names.

Simmons' unpleasant narrator hates Calcutta; there are long descriptions of the filth and squalor of the city. There isn't even a hint of compassion for the inhabitants to leaven it; every Indian character is either sinister, conniving, hypocritical or in some way less than human. The only Indian given any sort of a sympathetic portrayal is the narrator's wife, who of course is safely tethered to a white penis and vents her own hatred of India frequently.

And then there's the constant 'bitch goddess' portrayal of Kali. How many things are wrong with this, where do I even begin? From the misogyny of the recurring phrase 'bitch goddess' to the fundamental Indiana Jones-style misunderstanding of a complex and righteous goddess figure, there is just not one redeeming factor here. Kali serves as a stand-in for one of Lovecraft's pantheon of deities waiting to unleash cosmic terror on the world; Calcutta is Simmons' Red Hook and his xenophobia is monumental.

Like metal heads in India, horror fans here are surprisingly forgiving of racism in their favourite genre; this book is one of the favourite novels of many of my horror fan friends. It just shows how deeply we internalise the attitudes of the west; the truth is, this is a vile, hateful book. How xenophobic is Simmons? All the chapters have an epigram taken from an Indian writer except the one chapter that lets in a note of hope and therefore has to return to the light of western civilization with a quote from W.B. Yeats.Yeah. India's only good for being a vector for horror, some poetry and providing unpleasant western men with exotic trophy brides. Fuck this book.


Jesse said...
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JP said...

I live in India you idiot. The only shithole here is your mind. And wowsers for elucidating a 'real' aspect of the goddess. What about the fact that both Simmons and you have cherrypicked aspects of a faith and a nation that fit your superior, sneering mentality?

It's a shame reading spec fic hasn't broadened your mind but why should it when writing it never broadened Simmons'.

LKad said...

Don't know anything about the damn book, but definitely India is bloody tough to survive in today compared to a few decades ago. The inequalities are stark and the government largely absent except to serve corporate interests. There's nothing valiantly Indian about being in denial about it.

Jesse, I must say it's admirable of you as a visitor to India to have noticed the wretched conditions of the 95% and not fall for the circus they put up for visitors, firangs and half firangs who swan around in their ivory boats either trying to dish out charity or try and look like a firang backpacker.

Yet the inequalities are growing in almost all developed countries and even countries that started out being egalitarian in the first place after some social revolution. Even yours.

We need to speak out against inequality wherever we are. But its inevitable that an 'outsider' criticising the squalour of a country without employing a fat margin for senstivity, is setting themselves up for the kind of foam being spewed by the reviewer you are responding to.

wallofcheese said...
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Koel said...

Jesse - what exactly is wrong with you that you reduce a country of a billion people, 1.2 million square miles, 35 states and territories, hundreds of cities, hundreds of languages and cultures, to the description of "a shithole" and all with the misguided authority of someone who doesn't even live there?! Protip: going on holiday to one or more small areas of an enormous place does not qualify you to pronounce that place "a shithole" and expect to be met with anything other than incredulity and disdain.

And if you're looking for "a very realistic view of the living conditions of 95% of India's population.", how about reading some literature, history, current affairs or memoirs by actual Indians, instead of a horror novel by a randomer who has never lived there?

From the blurb of the book - "Calcutta, a monstrous city of immense slums, disease and misery, is clasped in the foetid embrace of an ancient cult."
Your characterisation of the book - "Just because Simmons presents the reality directly does not mean his book is crap. It means he's honest."
Yeah... that is not Simmons presenting the reality of Kolkata directly. His grubby, hideous little story has nothing to do with the real Kolkata(incidentally nicknamed the 'City of Joy' by many), or its problems. People from Kolkata, from West Bengal, from India, are not a faceless mass of squalor-cloaked victims who can be mass-generalised about, or represented effectively in a horror novel about how shit their city is, with a specific agenda of amping up that supposed shitness for the 'exotic' horror elements. Kolkatans are, y'know, real, diverse people in a variety of economic situations, from a variety of social and cultural backgrounds, and are more than capable of representing the reality of their city and its problems themselves.

If you really give a shit, go to the Kolkata Book Fair the next time you're in the city (if you can face being in such a "shithole" again - you stated your belief that Simmons was reflecting the reality of Kolkata, so I'm assuming that's the part of India you've been to) - it's an important part of the city's culture, and an annual event, where you'll learn about the city's literary scene, plus discover some literature by local authors. Or, yknow, use Amazon. Educate yourself, Jesse. You sorely need it.

Koel said...

Having gotten the rant out of my system, I've got to say I found this really interesting:

"Like metal heads in India, horror fans here are surprisingly forgiving of racism in their favourite genre ... It just shows how deeply we internalise the attitudes of the west;"

It took me *years* to see the racism, orientalism, misogyny etc. in the classic literature and films that I grew up with, and then in the genre fiction I devoured when I was a teenager. I always assumed that was because despite being Bengali, having a Bengali family and going to school in Kolkata for a bit, I've spent most of my formative years in a western country, and have therefore drunk more of the Kool-Aid, so to speak. I'm aware that the internalisation of problematic western attitudes/narratives exists in various contexts in South Asia, but it's interesting to know that it's notable among Indian genre fans. How does it manifest itself among metal heads though? Is there a fanbase for the more dodgy yay-for-"Aryanism" bands in black metal?

JP said...

Yes, exactly. I have friends who listen to NSBM bands and own their CDs. It's not a rule - but a number of people are either blind to racist content in their music or weirdly partly endorse it.

Koel said...

Wow, I'm surprised. My first instinct is "WTF", but I'm not someone who should be judging considering the stuff I've loved over the years. ¬_¬