A Hidden Firebrand

Page 1 of 1
On the occasion of the publication in English of his novel One Part Woman, Tamil writer Perumal Murugan talks about growing up a reader in a family of farmers and getting into trouble writing about caste
“My wife found it very hard to deal with what Ponna does. She had to read it four-five times. Many people couldn’t accept the idea of that custom; that a woman could do that.” Perumal Murugan’s grin is triumphant. It may be because he had shocked his readers even in writing about a decades-old village custom. Or it may be an author’s pride in his men and women—that they were real enough to disturb an audience.

Murugan’s wife had to deal with several things in his Mathorupagan (2010), whose English translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, One Part Woman, has just been released by Penguin. Murugan was taking on a female protagonist for the first time, and had to think like a woman who yearned for children; the father-of-two also had to think like a man who was ridiculed for not producing heirs; and he had to bring to life a world from the 1940s.

One Part Woman has the distant romanticism of a gentler, slower, prettier world, but it is infused with a sense of immediacy. It was only towards the end, where there is a reference to British rule and to a ‘new’ Tamil film called Sri Valli (which was made in 1945), that I realised it was a period novel. The book is about Kali and Ponna, a couple who are childless ten years into marriage. We see their intense, tender love, their constant craving for each other’s bodies. This, apparently, is not enough to keep a marriage going. Everyone is preoccupied with their ‘failure’ to produce a child. We hear voices of reassurance, voices of accusation, voices of pleading, voices of mockery and voices of comfort. But the voices that linger are the cruel ones.

Murugan intricately examines the effect the pressure to have a child has on their relationship. It all comes to a head during a temple festival, where the families of the two conspire to send Ponna ‘alone to the hill’ on the last day, when it is believed ‘the gods go back’. The idols of temple deities, brought downhill for the two-week-long festivity, would be carried back to the hill temple of Lord Ardhanareshwara, the fusion of masculine and feminine. On this day, another fusion of the male-female forms was permissible: it was believed that all men became gods at night, and one would grant a barren woman a child— the old-fashioned way.

In person, the 47-year-old author displays a strange mix of confidence and diffidence. He has the commanding presence professors tend to acquire. Yet he has a cautious, self-effacing mien. He greets me with an awkward smile, and isn’t quite sure how to react when I feel obliged to tell him my Tamil accent has become sort of awful from years of living away. When he eventually warms up, it turns out that, like most interesting writers, he’s keener to hear about my life than talk about his own. He is aware of his role as a craftsman, and his pride in the unconventional themes of his novels is obvious. However, he involuntarily lowers his voice and searches for delicate words while speaking about the sexual appetites of his characters.

Murugan’s air of easy charm is complemented by his expression of permanent amusement—which may have been aided by suspicious hotel staff who kept opening the door to the waiting room where we were speaking, not entirely convinced by my explanation that I needed the door closed because I was recording an interview and the Tamil music they were playing at dangerous decibel levels was not conducive to the purpose.

His sense of irony, which characterises his writing, emerges often during the interview. “My biggest advantage when I decided to study Tamil and take up writing was that my family was uneducated, and had no clue what I was doing. They knew I was in college, and that was all they cared. That’s a good thing. You know how literature’s seen in this part of the world. People grumble that their children are wasting time on storybooks instead of textbooks. When I was growing up, there were no book fairs like this one”—Murugan has travelled from his home Namakkal to Madras to attend the Chennai Book Fair, where his latest novel Pookkuzhi is being released—“and no book shops in our village. So you had to look out for advertisements for books in newspapers, and order them by VPP (Value Payable Post). On the days the postman came home with a book for me, it would be like a great calamity had struck. Everyone would walk about slowly and silently, as if they were in mourning. They were mourning— mourning the money I’d wasted on the book.”

Born into a family of farmers, Murugan isn’t quite sure how and why he found his love for the written word. He muses that he was so introverted he had to create a world for himself. “Until I was 20-25, I couldn’t speak in public; I was terrified of facing strangers, very reserved. I wouldn’t have been able to chat with you like this.” He would listen to the radio, and read whatever he could lay his hands on. As a child, he sent poems to a radio show, which were set to music and played on a children’s programme. Soon, people began to seek him out to write customised cards for weddings. His short stories were published in periodicals, and in 1991, his first novel, Eru Veyil (Rising Heat), created a stir.

Drawn from his own life, the novel describes a young man whose ancestral land is being sold to make way for urbanisation. It’s an issue Murugan feels strongly about. In his milieu, land is not just about wealth, but also dignity and social status. Owning a few acres of land is preferable to having crores of rupees in the bank. “Agriculture is the biggest loss-making industry. It has the worst labour-profit ratio.” Formerly a Leftist, he is vocal about the need to make people aware of issues like the Vidarbha farmer suicides. He speaks passionately about the way in which American companies have exploited Indian farmers, flooding the market with hybrid seeds. “Our old methods sustained us for centuries— no, for millennia. But ten years of using these hybrid seeds, and the soil is ruined; its fertility is gone. You become dependent on pesticide, on artificial methods.”

He’s pragmatic enough to say urbanisation— and modernisation—can’t be stopped, and his views on farming have less to do with nostalgia than concern for a livelihood that may be permanently lost. “You need to plan things properly. Now, garbage from cities is dumped into villages. Sewage is released into ponds and rivers that supply villages.”

But he demurs when I ask whether he intends to write a novel focusing on these issues. He doesn’t see writing as a campaign vehicle. His social commentary is subtle. His 2008 novel Kanganam (Resolve) talks about female foeticide and infanticide—but that’s the undercurrent to a story about a man in his thirties whose family has been searching for a bride for more than a decade. The novel begins with the man’s frustration that an 18-year- old boy from the ‘lower’ Chakkili caste has no trouble finding a bride. In his own Gounder community, the female population has been whittled down, so that there are only three women of marriageable age in a village with forty suitors.

“People think it’s poverty that drives the killing of the girl child,” Murugan says, “But, really, it’s the wealthier families who do it. They’re worried that their property will be lost to the girl’s family. They find devious ways to make the deaths look natural— like, they leave a newborn lying on its stomach for a few minutes. The baby will run out of breath, and can’t turn its face. People put the death down to complications at birth.”

Kanganam was the first novel that was set outside Murugan’s own experience. “I graduated from writing about my own life to writing about lives I knew, from what I saw to what I observed.” It took him thirty years to venture into writing about the experience of a woman.

Mathorupagan was conceived when he was doing some research on the temple festivals of his native Thiruchengode and the myths around the hill. “This custom, of women being impregnated by ‘gods’ who were not their husbands, was fascinating. I’ve seen the way people speak about childless couples. I have relatives who have been through this. I know a woman who wouldn’t leave her home for months on end because of the taunts, and the pity, which can be worse. Look at the way fertility clinics have mushroomed across the country. There are five hospitals in Namakkal alone which specialise in in-vitro fertilisation and treatment for sterility. People spend lakhs on this. They sell property so that they can afford it. The stigma, the pressure, has remained all these decades. We just have a different solution now.”

In the book, Murugan uses an interesting device to nudge his readers into rethinking the idea of progeny—he introduces a charming bachelor called Nallupayyan, a 60-year-old man who counsels Kali, setting out the advantages of not having children. Often, Nallupayyan makes wisecracks about his sexual conquests. When he gets contemplative, he speaks about how silly it is to live frugally in order to provide one’s children with a better lifestyle, and foster a circle of self-denial.

Like all of Murugan’s novels, One Part Woman is beautifully rooted in its setting. Murugan delights in description and Aniruddhan translates it ably. What is lyrical in Tamil can get cloying in English, but Aniruddhan circumvents this for the most part. Often, the translation is literal, which brings out the cadence of Tamil to those who know the language. I’m not quite sure whether it would work as well for those who can’t imagine the dialogue in Tamil. I also have a personal quibble with the use of adjectives in English, while Tamil is dependent on them.

It’s the translator’s perennial dilemma— whether to be faithful to the word, or to take ownership of the novel. Maureen Freely’s translations of Orhan Pamuk and Philip Gabriel’s translations of Haruki Murakami read so well it’s easy to believe the novels were originally written in English. But then, one wonders how much of the flavour of the original is lost. I asked Murugan what he had made of it.

“I don’t know much English, so I only read the parts that corresponded to the ones I found challenging,” he says, “This novel was very hard to write. I usually finish a novel in one or two months. This took much longer. I had writer’s block for a month, just before I reached the crisis- and-denouement. I thought that part really flowed in English. You know, I want my novels to be translated so they have a wider reach. It’s tricky, because English sometimes has no equivalent for the words I use. Even the title—Mathorupagan— isn’t exactly ‘one-part woman’. We have several words—umaiorubaagan, mangaipangan, ardhanareeshwarar, ardhanari— because the myth exists in our culture. But there isn’t a single word for half-man-half-woman in English. Even so, I’m happy to be translated, because I think all writing contains a humanism that transcends language and culture and comfort zones. My Nizhal Mutram (published in English as Current Show) was recently translated into Polish, and I have had people from Poland tell me that they can relate to this story, about a cinema theatre in the 1970s and 80s, where children sell soda and murukku.”

Murugan’s new novel Pookkuzhi posed another challenge—it is set partly in a city that he is not familiar with, so he couldn’t rely on his memories and roots. “It’s another step in my growth as a writer,” he says, “This is about an inter-caste marriage set in the 1980s. I myself had an inter-caste marriage, so I have some experience of it. But compatible castes are somewhat acceptable. As soon as someone marries a Dalit, there is immediate ostracism. Look at the Divya- Ilavarasan tragedy. Look at how little has changed in 2013.”

A court case over the marriage between Ilavarasan, a Dalit, and Divya, of the Vanniyar community, began to make it to newspaper front pages this year—Divya’s father committed suicide in the wake of the wedding, sparking off caste riots that culminated in Ilavarasan’s body being recovered from a set of local railway tracks. A suicide note was found later, but the death remains murky.

Caste politics in Tamil Nadu, led by the Dravida parties, has been driven by an anti-Brahmin agenda. Since the mid-twentieth century, Brahmins have represented everything dislikeable, with their claim to Aryan ancestry, their Sanskritised Tamil dialect and well-paying government jobs. But the BC, OBC and MBC communities have strong political ties, and Perumal Murugan is among very few writers who have explored the relationship dynamics between ‘caste Hindus’ and Dalits.

“Oh, I got into some trouble over that,” he laughs, “In Eru Veyil, I spoke about caste and mentioned the real names of politicians. I was pretty sure no one would read the book, especially from my village. But a man with some clout in the DMK read it, and there was big trouble. For a couple of years, I had to sneak in and out of my village in secret. I would arrive at night, stay hidden at home throughout the vacation, and then slip off to catch a night train back. I changed the names in the next edition. Sometimes, people ask, ‘How can you write this way about Gounders?’ Like there’s a scene in Kanganam where a man is aroused by the sight of his own mother, in shadow. They say I’m portraying the community in bad light. I have a tactic now— I tell them, ‘There are 60-70 subcastes within Gounders, so assume he doesn’t belong to yours’.”

As I prepare to leave, I ask Murugan whether he had any hideouts in the village, like the young men in his novels do—a little patch in the fields, hidden by crops, or a cave dug out of the inner walls of the village well. “I had lots of those,” he laughs, “I inherited some from my uncle. As a youngster, I was a firebrand, and would storm off when I got angry and stay away till they sent out search parties.” Then he deadpans, “Now, of course, I’m confined to the house, and it’s hard to make a secret hideout there.”