Thursday, April 06, 2006

Song of Kali - A Novel of Horror

Song of Kali - Google Search

I came across this book when I was reading something about Dan Simmons, an author I had just come across. I read a piece by Dan Simmons on how the world would be if Islam took over - a scary but well written piece. Then I saw that his first big novel was titled "Song of Kali" and that this book had apparently won a Fantasy award when it was published in 1985-86.

Upon reading the gist, I found the idea of the story to be revolting. Apparently Dan Simmons had stayed for two days in Calcutta when he got so "enamoured" of the place that he got the idea for this novel. A synopsis of the novel from Amazon is as follows
The story concerns an American poet who travels with his Indian wife and their baby to Calcutta to pick up an epic poem cycle about the goddess Kali. The Bengali poet who wrote the poem cycle has disappeared under mysterious circumstances.

The synopsis doesn't say it but I gathered from other sites that Goddess Kali had been portrayed as the Goddess of Death in the book. Further, Kali is likened to an evil spirit (much like Imhotep in the movie "the Mummy" and Voldemort in Harry Potter) that desires to be brought back from the dead so that the world could be ruled. Not just that, but Calcutta is shown to be hell on earth - the worst possible place that exists.

Upon reading this set of synopses and ignorant reviews, I, as a Hindu, was appalled at the way Kali and Calcutta had been shown in the book. In fact, this book might have caused several Western readers to have a revulsion towards India, sanAtana dharma and Kali in particular. I also felt a lot of anger and pity at the sheer stupidity of the author for not having gauged Kali (of course, Kali is not a concept that can be easily understood by adherents of simple minded good-bad religions) correctly. Since the book was published in the mid 80s, when there was no world wide web and as much communication as we have now, it must have created this barrier against India and her religions in the minds of the readers. To be fair, I have not read the book but Kali is definitely not the goddess of death. One must be a fool to say this.

Kali is Prakriti and She dances on Shiva who is Purusha. One can say that Kali is Brahman in action (very crude way of explaining things). She is beyond the mundane. One has to study the shAkta purANas, the tantras or at least the durgA saptashatI to see what Kali even feels like. Of course, knowing Kali would be Realization itself. The concept of kAlI is great but some of the methods in which She is worshipped can bring fear into the hearts of even the most ardent of devotees. She is worshipped in Right and Left paths (samayAchAra and vAmAchara). The Right (as in Left and Right and not as in Right and Wrong) path involves worship with flowers, fruits and such sAttvika elements. The Left path is the more horrifying one involving the pancha ma (the five mas including mAmsa (flesh), madya(liquor) and other things) in the milder cases and can possibly go to even human sacrifice. Though the Left mode of worship is followed mostly while worshipping kAlI, it is mostly restricted to animal sacrifice and possibly some liquor - but nowadays human sacrifice is unheard of (I do see a rare case once every few years- but that is hardly how kAlI is worshipped by most people). The English reader could study Arthur Avalon's (John Woodroffe's) works on Shakti to get a good idea. I don't know if this Simmons person went through these books at all. But even the best books do not illumine those who don't want to be illumined. And you have so many forms of kAlI - bhadrakAlI, soumyakAlI, dakShiNakAlI etc., Only a person bent upon propagating ignorance would call kAlI the goddess of Death. Even in the semitic religions, God strikes down the "infidels". Now, can He be called the God of Death and Jealousy by other religionists? That is exactly what Simmons has done.

And about Calcutta, it is in its present state owing mainly to the British and now the Communists. In spite of my not having been there, I don't think Calcutta becomes hell on earth. What would you call quite a few places in the Middle East then? What would you call North Korea?

It is a tragedy that such a work got the World Fantasy award and is being reprinted as a twentieth anniversary edition. We now know where the West is getting its biases from.


Anonymous said...

Itseems people in the west knows evry thing on the earth and beyond.They wil guide every human being by their limited knowledge.Rarely if ever they can find out anything good in the thirdworld.Their concept of religion ends after praying to the god in the church and doing some charity.They(west) will sell science to third world people at the cost of their identity,not to mention their religion.They will make money and we will buy their toys.I donot expect anything better from these writers
if these people understands religion or kali better(if they can kill the beast in thier mind and conquer the bad elements in every ones thaught and action) ,I am sure they will become better scientists themselves and they will stop making atombombs or using their army against fellow human beings(probably they donot consider others as of same status! as they have money and live a better life compared to the poor people in the third world)I wish they understand their religion better(and should not misinterpret) as no religion can promote hatred among human beings,or teaches to disrespect another religion.

Anonymous said...

How can you criticize a book you have not read? You are being as judgmental as you are accusing Simmons of being.

nIlagrIva said...

Anonymous 2,

Yes. I haven't read the book. But when more than five or six reviewers call Calcutta "hell on earth" and think of it as a place that they never want to visit in their lives, I saw that this author had created this false idea amongst his readers. What if he had called the city by some other name?

The other factor that led to my writing this is the way Western authors view Hindu deities. I have seen Hanuman being portrayed in Xena, the warrior princess. Just because Hindus are not stupid and intolerant enough to protest these silly things, it doesn't mean that they can't express their displeasure at incorrect representations of their cultural and spiritual icons. If you were a Christian and you saw a review of a book calling Jesus son of Satan or a blood-thirsty tyrant, would you wait to read the book or call the book anti-Christian? Similar emotions compelled me to write this criticism.

I am not criticizing Simmons for his craft - he is quite a good writer and I am sure he doesn't need my certificate. His story on Islam possibly conquering the world is quite a chilling one. So, I can only imagine how chilling his kAlI novel might be. But being a devotee of the Divine Mother, one of Whose forms is kAlI, I cannot but call this an incorrect representation. However, I agree with you that I should read the novel at least once to make a better criticism.

I'll probably write more in a separate blog post.