Kali Sculpture from Calcutta Art Gallery
“I think that there are black holes in reality. Black holes in the human spirit. And actual places where, because of density or misery or sheer human perversity, the fabric of things comes apart and that black core in us swallows all the rest.”
Dan Simmons first novel, Song of Kali is a different type of horror story from other horror stories I’ve read. There is a powerful mythical goddess called Kali at the center of this horror but the real monster in this book is a place as much as this ancient goddess. The place is the eastern Indian city of Calcutta in the late 70s. In Song of Kali, Calcutta becomes similar to the Congo of Conrad’s Heart of Darkness. It is to this strange, mysterious city that the book’s American narrator has been sent to by his small literary magazine to track down a famous Indian poet called Das. The poet is rumored to still be alive although he has not been seen in a number of years. The narrator’s assignment is to track him down and get an interview with him and his latest poetry. The narrator also has a contract with a large American magazine that wants a story about the poet as the popularity of the reclusive poet has been rising around the world.
More than a horror story, though, it seems to me a modern adventure story in a similar vein to the old adventure stories of Robert Luis Stevenson or H. Ryder Haggard. Particularly Haggard’s She. Only settings are mixed. In Song of Kali, the narrator does not leave a city to venture to some far off island or kingdom but rather travels into that “country” and state of mind of one city called Calcutta. The descriptions of a city are perhaps the most incredible I’ve ever read about a city. Simmons’ narrator Bobby, is relentless as he continues to build a sense of the filth, poverty, death with every sentence. At times, it seems almost like overkill and the reader says get back to the plot. The fact is, the city is really a character itself, essential to the plot.
Calcutta Street in the 1970s
The book creates this sense of a hot, tropical place where the world is chaotic in a similar way that the movie The Year of Living Dangerously creates the city of Jakarta when the news reporter Mel Gibson arrives in the summer and fall of 1965. An aspiring American poet named Robert Luczak, his Indian wife Amrita, and their infant daughter trek to Calcutta so he can track down a lauded and mysterious old Indian poet, M. Das, whose unsettling new work has been making the rounds of the literary world – after his supposed death some years before.The narrator has brought his half Indian wife and baby girl to the city with him for somewhat of a vacation while he pursues his assignment. They stay at the hotel most of the time while he becomes a type of literary detective, using contacts to search out the mysterious poet Das. Most think the poet is dead but the narrator hears Das still exists and a guide named Krishna takes him around Calcutta in search of the poet.
The book is too incredible to reveal to those who have yet to read it so we’ll stop here and leave it for interested readers to discover for themselves. Yes, it is a horror story in some ways but more than this it seems a modern allegory for to a real historical event called The Black Hole of Calcutta many learn about in grade school. The Black Hole was a small dungeon in Fort William in Calcutta where troops of Siraj ud-Daulah, the Nawab of Bengal, held British prisoners of war after the Bengali army captured the fort on June 20, 1756. John Zephaniah Holwell, one of the British prisoners and an employee of the East India Company, said that, after the fall of Fort William, the surviving British soldiers, Anglo-Indian soldiers, and Indian civilians were imprisoned overnight in conditions so cramped that 123 of 146 prisoners died.
Black Hole of Calcutta
In the novel the entire city of Calcutta is now reimagined as this Black Hole. As the hero observes towards the end of this incredible book, “I think that there are black holes in reality. Black holes in the human spirit. And actual places where, because of density or misery or sheer human perversity, the fabric of things comes apart and that black core in us swallows all the rest.” This great Black Hole of a city has a particular prophetic music called The Song of Kali. It is similar to the Yeats poem “The Second Coming” which expresses Yeats’s apocalyptic mystical theories about the chaos and evil in the world. The poem’s opening lines are similar to the Song of Kali:
Turning and turning in the widening gyre
The falcon cannot hear the falconer;
Things fall apart; the centre cannot hold;
Mere anarchy is loosed upon the world,
The blood-dimmed tide is loosed, and everywhere
The ceremony of innocence is drowned;
The best lack all conviction, while the worst
Are full of passionate intensity.
Against this constant chorus of the song, heard and seen by the novel’s narrator in Calcutta, is juxtaposed the innocence of the narrator’s baby daughter Victoria. His trips into the dark depths of Calcutta in search of the illusive poet Das is mixed with tender moments of father and daughter. But even the innocence Victoria cannot overpower the evil in the world represented by the Song of Kali. The ending of the novel is one of the most powerful I’ve ever read. It is a year since he has left the Black Hole of Calcutta and he and his wife are now living in the mountains of Colorado (where Dan Simmons really lives). The nightmare of their trip to Calcutta is still with them. As the narrator says, “The Song of Kali is with us. It has been with us for a very long time. Its chorus grows and grows and grows.”
But out of the great tragedy that befalls the two of them in Calcutta, there is still hope to be found in the world. As the hero Robert Luczak says in the end, “But there are other voices to be heard. There are other songs to be sung.”