Bad Atrocity Writing
“What’s the difference between a baby and an onion? No one cries when you chop up the baby.”
In desperation a mother throws her 1-year-old son out of the burning hut but the boy is caught by the leering mobsters and chopped into pieces and thrown back in and in that precise yet fleeting moment of loss and rage everyone realises that they would die if their death meant saving a loved one and that they would die if their death meant staying together and that they would die anyway because it would not be as disastrous as living long enough to share this sight.
This passage comes from The Gypsy Goddess (2014), the first novel by the poet, translator, and activist Meena Kandasamy. It deals with the Kilvenmani massacre, which occurred on Christmas Day of 1968. According to the critic Ashik Kumar, the village, populated by Adi Dravida (that is, Dalits), “was burnt down by the hired thugs of the Paddy Producer’s Association (made up of the district’s landlords)” for the crimes of unionizing and flying Communist Party flags. Forty-four people were killed. Because the atrocity occurred in South India and because its victims were Dalits, Kumar goes on, the event has no place in India’s national history. In calling attention to it, Kandasamy is not wasting her time.
And yet the description of the massacre is not good. You can tell from the “precise yet fleeting” moment that Kandasamy treats as decisive: when a 1-year-old is “chopped into pieces and thrown back in.” This is, in Kumar’s words, a “physical improbability.” It is not absolutely impossible that each individual piece of the chopped-up child was thrown back in, but in using the word “precise,” the sentence makes a stylistic mistake by taking liberties with its own precision. It presents many separate acts, as many as there are pieces of the child, as if they were all one act. Seeing “precise” and “fleeting” together, one is tempted to conclude that this moment so quickly flees from memory because it was never actually perceived, hence never actually remembered.
The point of passages like this is to induce such a breathless sense of outrage that readers will not notice any imprecision. Chances are they are skimming. The details are awful, and by now they’ve got the idea. If this indignant, accusatory prose belongs to a genre, that genre has built into it the temptation to lift your eyes from the page and accelerate. But encouraging such skimming has a disadvantage: it leaves the reader unprepared when the accused try to poke holes in the accusation. Those likely to be blamed for the atrocity, for its cover-up, and for long-standing and remunerative affiliations with the social system that encouraged it can hold up instances of sloppiness as evidence that the testimony itself is unreliable. If something that is represented as having happened could not have happened, why