Jayaprakash Satyamurthy's Reviews > Song of Kali

Song of Kali by Dan Simmons
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Apr 07, 2011

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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.

Oh, it also grated on me that 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.

Despite all that, a 3-star rating; it really is a very good horror novel. But it does convince me more than ever that writers tread on uncertain ground when they venture outside their own cultural contexts.
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Comments (showing 1-9 of 9) (9 new)

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message 1: by Simon (last edited Apr 07, 2011 07:52AM) (new) - rated it 4 stars

Simon I have wondered, since I read it, what someone Indian would think about this book.

Your comment: "...that could have been set anywhere, really..." was interesting because goes right to the heard of the story and something that was discussed by the characters themselves at one point. Are (were) the problems of Calcutta such as you might find in any other third world city or is there something unique about them?

message 2: by Mohammed (new)

Mohammed This kind of novel using India like this i wonder if indian writers has written.

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy From what I read of inner-city crime and urban decay in the US or glue sniffing yobs in the UK, it seems to me that it's only cultural myopia that limits these problems to the 'third world'.

Most Indian writers set novels in India and offer their own takes on our social problems and rich cultural heritage. We usually get the names and dialect right, unlike Simmons. My own short story 'Come Tomorrow' uses elements of the terrifying nature of Indian slums and the darker corners of our folklore. But Kali is not a dark force - she was created to slay a demon and only the un-righteous need fear her. Simmons has done done for her what the Christians did for Lilith, Ishtar and so on.

The one statement in this book that I do wholeheartedly agree with is when Amrita says that the caste system is unique and evil. It is, and to my mind its persistence nullifies many of the virtues people claim for our culture.

message 4: by Valerie (new)

Valerie I have to differ about the notion of righteous destruction. Lifton's point about 'destroying the world in order to save it' applies to all cultures. The basic premise that there exist people (and supernatural forces) that deserve to suffer is destructive in itself, regardless of particulars.

As for mispronunciations (and lousy transcriptions), the problem is scarcely a new one. I think it was Herodotus who expressed puzzlement that all Persian names ended with the same suffix. But they didn't--except in Greek renderings of the names.

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy It's still annoying. And easier not to be annoyed when it's a foreign or dead culture being rifled about with.

Jayaprakash Satyamurthy >>The basic premise that there exist people (and supernatural forces) that deserve to suffer is destructive in itself, regardless of particulars.

I'm with you on that. But when I post a review like this, I always dread the responses from people telling me to make allowances for outsider perspectives on a culture. In my very first published short story, I had a derogatory reference to 'the sky-god, Yah-Way' (uttered by a deity from a different religion) which I was asked to remove because it may 'hurt sentiments'. And yet, it seems I'm expected not let my own sentiments be hurt when the tables are turned.

Nesa Sivagnanam It is a fine novel but it took me several attempts to finish it due to being upset at all the liberties that were taken. I do wish writers would make the effort to do their homework. It throws the reader off.

message 8: by Valerie (new)

Valerie We've come to a strange place when we regard our fellow humans as 'outsiders'. I've had to quote the African/Roman playwright twice in about a month "Homo sum. Humani nihil a me alienum puto" ("I am a human being. I consider nothing human alien to me"). But he added 'except cruelty'.

I'm not personally offenced by criticism of religions. I consider it a perversion that the People of The Book in general have been interdicting criticism of their beliefs for many centuries. One of the consequences of proselytization, I suppose, except that the creeds forbid INTERNAL criticism, as well. That's one of the reasons I like Ellis Peters' book The Heretic's Apprentice, and (on another front), James White's The Genocidal Healer (though, since White spent a lot of time in Northern Ireland during 'The Troubles', he does tend to fall into the 'Is he a Protestant Buddhist or a Catholic Buddhist?' trap).

I don't think any religious or philosophical beliefs should be immune to criticism--but I do agree that the critics should do their homework very thoroughly first.

message 9: by Joshua (new) - added it

Joshua  Chaplinsky Interesting, thanks. I, too, really liked the book, but was curious to hear an Indian person's opinion.

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