Song of Kali by Dan Simmons

After the Romans had conquered the city of Carthage, they killed the men, sold the women and children into slavery, pulled down the great buildings, broke up the stones, burned the rubble, and salted the earth so that nothing would ever grow there again.

I don’t think I’ve ever read a book in my life set in India with such a great accent on how crappy the place is / was.

Told from first person POV, the story of how the Song Of Kali came to be is both a mix of supernatural and an absolute trashing of Calcutta and India. What begins as an exploration of an exotic and forbidding world turns into a harrowing descent of steadily mounting terror when an American writer travels into the dark underworld of the cult of Kali.

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This masterful and terrifying debut novel has earned Hugo- and Bram Stoker Award-winning author Dan Simmons the World Fantasy Award.

When I say trashing a place in writing, I am not joking. Check this out:

Well, the only word that could describe Calcutta to me then . . . or now . . . was miasma. I can’t even hear one word without thinking of the other.” “It was built on a swamp,” I said, still irritated. I wasn’t used to hearing this kind of garbage from Abe. It was like having your reliable old plumber suddenly break in.

The memories of India that she had shared with me supported the stereotype of a culture rampant with noise, confusion, and caste discrimination.

Amrita had once described her home in Delhi and the apartment in Bombay where she and her sisters had spent summers with her uncle: bare walls encrusted with grime and ancient handprints, open windows, rough sheets, lizards scrabbling across the walls at night, the cluttered cheapness of everything.

Rotting residential slums gave way to larger, even more decayed-looking buildings. There were few streetlights.

Families were brewing hot water for tea on the broken sidewalks while men with briefcases stepped over sleeping infants. A man in rags squatted to urinate in the gutter while another bathed in a puddle not six feet away. I brushed through the Communist pickets and entered the air-conditioned sanctuary of the hotel. 

The air in Calcutta, already sweetened by raw sewage, burning cow dung, millions of tons of garbage, and the innumerable open fires eternally burning, was made almost unbreathable by the further effusion of raw auto emissions and industrial filth.

Indeed, there is much poverty here. Much squalor by Western standards. That must offend the American mind, since America has repeatedly dedicated its great will to eliminating poverty. How did your ex-President Johnson put it . . . to declare war on poverty? One would think that his war in Vietnam would have satisfied him.”

I watched as a man squatted by the roadside to defecate. He lifted his shirt over his head and prepared a small bronze bowl of water for the fingers of his left hand.

In the littered plaza across from the hotel, forty or fifty men squatted with their bony knees higher than their chins, trowels, mortarboards, and plumb bobs on the pavement in front of them. It seemed to be some sort of work lineup.

Not only does the author present India in a most unfavourable light, the Indians that he is speaking to don’t seem to bring their home country much homage either. His wife, who is described as beautiful with long luscious hair, says her family home was cluttered. His guide speaks of public monuments erected by the government turned into worshiping temples. The people he meets are separated in castes and the higher castes speak badly of the lower one and even worse of the people without a caste to belong to. Amrita tells a story of how she saved the life of a weed picker who was electrocuted because nobody wanted to intervene and even worse, they were laughing at the trashing woman.

I should have expected this. You can’t have a book on an Indian Goddess, and not have a few lines here and there about the place where the Goddess was born. With regards to Kali, and her song, the author / main protagonist of the story, is given a poem written by a deceased-now-alive author who was resurrected by Kali in an underground ritual.

In the dim light the lines of Indian script looked like magical runes, ominous incantations.

There is a whiff of supernatural, but nothing is confirmed and the author is soon to dismiss the “confession” of a man who brought the dead body to Kali in the ceremony as an attempt to gain money and fame from a westerner source.

Kali was a goddess, wasn’t she?” I said. “One of Siva’s consorts? Her hands show the abhaya and vara mudras — the fear-removing and boon-granting mudras. To worship Kali beyond her holiday was to follow the Vamachara — the perverse left-handed Tantra.

There is an incursion in the underground worshiping of Kali which was reduced by the author as nothing more than “alcohol, meat, fish, hand gestures, and coitus.” As he walks around museums with his wife and infant daughter and runs across a statue of Kali, she is nothing like the representation given by his “source”.

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This thing’s two thousand years old,” I said. “Maybe she’s grown more hideous and bloodthirsty since then.”

I started laughing when the author, after reading the poem that Mr. Das (the resurrected Indian poet wrote about Kali) falls asleep and dreams about having sex with a Goddess of death.

My penis stirs, hardens, and rises stiffly into the night air. My scrotum pulls tighter as I feel the power flow through me and center there.

When he finally manages to meet the elusive Mr. Das, he realises that the poet was actually a lepper and not a revived person.

It is a disease of filth and muck and unhygienic conditions forgotten by the West since the Middle Ages. But it is not forgotten in India

He tries to escape but the cult that Mr. Das now rules over superstitious Kali worshipers manages to get the storyteller back in his grasp.

There is only power. Power is the single, great organizing principle of the universe, Mr. Luczak. Power is the only a priori reality.

When you open your eyes you will see someone you know. You do not have to wait. Let it begin here.

The book takes a very dark turn in its third act as the protagonist shoots Mr. Das, his followers decide to have him crowned as the new prophet for Kali and ask him to publish the Song of Kali that Mr. Das wrote and when he refuses, his infant girl is kidnapped from his wife’s quarters and then found dead when a couple of young Indians are trying to sneak the dead body over the border (after having it had filled with Rubies and Saphires)

The devastated American couple returns back home where they grieve in their own ways and after a pretty terrible health scare they get back together and look forward to life in the countryside, far away from the city bustle.

It all comes full circle when the local bookshop stocks a new book which apparently is all the craze abroad depicting an Indian Goddess having sex with a mortal – the Song of Kali.

Book was good but I’ve read better. 1977 was a hell of a year for most authors and considering that Hell House is taking place in the same year/setting, makes me thing that the 1970’s was pretty prolific for horror novels.

2/5 and 5/5 for the dirtiest picture of Calcutta ever depicted.

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