Simmons, Dan; Song of Kali; Bluejay Books/ Headline /Tor.
First published 1985
Review by Fran Nowve
Song of Kali by Dan Simmons won the Bram Stoker Award for Best Horror Novel, New York 1985.
Horror novel set in Calcutta
The reader of fiction should never let himself forget that, upon beginning that first page, he is entering an alternate universe, the authors universe. This is a world created by another human being, someone as human (and fallible) as himself.
To be human is to have opinions, bias. Dan Simmons lays his bias bare in the very first sentence of Song of Kali: Some places are too evil to be allowed to exist. Some cities are too wicked to be suffered. Calcutta is such a place. He goes on to imagine nuclear mushroom clouds rising over a city... human figures dancing like burning insects, like obscene praying mantises, sputtering and bursting against a fiery red background of total destruction... The dreams are not unpleasant.
In the course of his novel, Mr Simmons develops his theme at great length. His details regarding the squalor of Calcutta span page after page as he describes dead rats floating in hotel swimming pools, piles of garbage in the streets, deformed beggars, inadequate transportation, electricity, etc.1 However, all of these evils pale in comparison with the sinister cult of Kali.
Everyone who saw Indiana Jones and the Temple of Doom is familiar with the movies grossly distorted image of Kali worship and the Thuggee Cult.2 Instead of writing about the Thuggees, Simmons focusses on Kapalikas, a criminal group of Kali devotees who run Calcutta much as the Mafia runs many American cities. These evil doers practice frequent human sacrifice, including sacrifice of some of their own initiates. Other sacrifices include stealing already dead bodies from cremation grounds already dedicated to Kali and presenting the bodies to Kali in the Kapalika temple. Sort of robbing Kali to pay Kali. Hummm...3
Interestingly, the cults membership includes prominent, respectable businessmen. This is highly reminiscent of many fanciful exposees of Satanic underground cults which are commonly depicted as secretly consisting of societys elite. This is apparently a very popular fantasy. Perhaps it stems from the realization that there are a lot of things going on beneath the surface of todays society. Many Americans believe that much evil exists behind the facade of respectability: that the democratic process is merely a respectable mask concealing the real machinery of power.4
Power is the real goal and the real god of the Kapalikas. It is supposedly what worship of Kali is all about. This is a sadly truncated vision of a Goddess about whom it is written:
By you this universe is borne, by you the world is created.
The real power is the power within us from which all being emanates. The power one person may exert over another is the weakest kind of power. To make this kind of power your god is to celebrate impotence. The Goddess represents all manifested existence and that which lies beyond it. Nobody who knows this Goddess would settle for such a stupid goal as causing his manifest self to lord it over another manifest self.
Western man is badly alienated from and frightened by his shadow. He is fixated on promoting one side of a dualistic universe which he labels good. The other half of reality is his own rejected self. Because he fears what he rejects, but cannot banish, he finds the worship of Kali incomprehensible. When a worshipper in Song of Kali says, There is great beauty in the Goddess, the protagonist replies, Beauty in death and corruption? But every attraction implies repulsion, every beauty, ugliness, every pleasure, pain, etc. To partake of manifestation is to inherit such a divided universe. The only way out is to renounce all preference and accept neutrally good and evil as sides of the same reality. Thus, the pleasure one may take in power also implies repugnance for power (or pleasure in surrender). The onesided embracing of evil is just as limited as the onesided embracing of good. A true devotee of Kali would know that. Those created by the pen of Simmons do not.
Simmons religious and philosophical limitations exist in counterpoint to a racist attitude toward Hindu-Indian culture. The opening lines of his book in which he happily dreams of genocide are but a crude example of that racism (which incidentally belies his professed horror of violence). Elsewhere, the same attitude is expressed more subtly and insidiously from the mouth of an Indian born (Westernized) woman. (Of course, this woman, like everyone else in the book, is really Simmons in drag.)
After another character has explained that the same kind of squalor seen in Calcutta was once experienced in London, the Indian character, speaking with great moral authority, insists it is a cultural problem and describes an untouchable she had seen that day whom everyone treated as invisible. This supposedly indicates a defect of Indian character. Song of Kali was published in 1985. Eight years later, the shock value of this little anecdote has less impact in a country where thousands of homeless people live on the streets of every American city where they are ignored just as determinedly as in Calcutta. Great contrasts of wealth seem to induce this sort of disassociation on the part of the haves. But Simmons character concludes that such behavior in Calcutta is indicative of some vast and final difference between East and West.
Having developed his philosophical ideas to this point, Simmons throws in his clincher with the kidnap of the protagonists infant daughter, who is murdered, cut open and filled with stolen jewels for the purpose of smuggling. Simmons technique is to emotionally eclipse any remaining resistance to his insistence that India is evil. He doesnt even say the Kapalikas did it. Perhaps that is the point. Calcutta is so evil the whole city deserves to be destroyed -- along with the population, human figures dancing like burning insects.
One can understand how a father whose child was murdered could feel this way. But Simmons, who created the father, the baby, and the crime, is not so easily excused. Calcutta is not a fictitious place. It is inhabited by real human beings. Kali is worshipped in a real religious tradition. It is time to take a realistic look at a book that uses racism as a setting for entertainment, particularly when the protagonist calls for genocide in that story. Genocide is, too, sadly a reality in our all too recent past.
1 Not having personally visited Calcutta, I cant confirm or deny the truth of these details. In New Delhi and Hardwar, I witnessed primitive conditions, beggars, heat and flies but no piles of garbage. One wonders if Simmons has been to Calcutta but authors of fiction are not required to present credentials of expertise so the book blurb did not say.
2 See Indiana Jones in the Temple of Misogyny, Fran Nowve, Beltane Papers, Issue Three -- Beltane 1993. On the web at http://homepage.mac.com/kia/magick/kali_essay.htm
3 Historically the Kapalikas did exist. Opinion is divided on whether they are still around (difficult to verify the existence of an underground group). They are no more representative of Kali devotees than the Mafia is representative of Catholics.
4 The real Kapalikas represented the lower castes and were, in fact, anti-caste.
Review first published Nov 1993 in the journal Ferment
Review © Fran Nowve 1993.
Artwork © Colin Robinson 1999, 2007.