I first heard about the Tamil author Perumal Murugan when his Facebook post, announcing his own death as a writer, started making waves online. Murugan’s bitter decision to give up writing and to withdraw all his published books was taken in the aftermath of protests and calls for censorship by right-wing and community-based groups in his hometown, who complained that the region, its women, and its deity had been depicted disrespectfully in his novel One Part Woman (initially published in Tamil as Maadhorubaagan). Like many others, I ordered the English translation of the book in a gesture of solidarity with the beleaguered author. But when I started reading it, I was enchanted by the melody of the prose, even in translation. I was captivated by the graceful intertwining of folktales and anecdotes like vines clinging closely, indistinguishably, to the stem of its plot. And after the first few chapters, I was borne along in the powerful current of Murugan’s writing, through the whirlpools and eddies of Kali and Ponna’s life towards the heart-stopping waterfall of its climax.
The story is simple enough. Even after twelve years of marriage, Kali and his wife Ponna’s sexual passion for each other burns like a living flame. Their life in the portia-shaded yards and lush farmlands of late colonial Tiruchengode is almost idyllic, but their bliss is marred by their inability to conceive a child. Murugan masterfully weaves together a montage of anecdotes to demonstrate how parenthood, by its very absence, defines Kali and Ponna’s relationship to each other, to their families, to the society, and most importantly to their own gender roles. While Kali struggles with accusations of impotence and aspersions cast on his “manhood”, Ponna finds herself increasingly cast in the role of the bitter, childless shrew; seemingly stripped of maternal qualities, her beauty and strength render her an easy target for the villagers’ ire. The gradual onslaught of everyday violence perpetrated on the couple by the society, and eventually even by their families, ultimately culminates in a great betrayal. After an unending series of increasingly difficult prayers, pledges and pilgrimages fail to bestow them with an offspring, both families pressurize Ponna into attending the fourteenth day of the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeshwara or Maadhorubaagan — a deity representing Shiva as half-male and half-female. Traditionally, a woman attends the fourteenth day of the chariot festival if she wishes to have sexual intercourse with any man of her choice, outside the normative bounds of marriage. All men are considered to be gods on that day, incarnations of the deity, and women who have been unable to conceive children with their husbands take it as an opportunity to conceive outside wedlock without facing the social stigma that an affair would cause. Kali and Ponna are left adrift at the cusp of a decision of staggering magnitude: Ponna’s participation in the festival is the only way for them to regain respect in the society; it is also the one thing that could test their marriage beyond endurance.
The last few chapters show us Kali and Ponna moving, one wildly and the other hesitantly, towards their separate destinations. The descriptions of these scenes have the weight and texture of magical realism, opening and closing windows to realms unimaginable even in the murky liberality of our times. Murugan’s dexterous pen ensures that we feel what these two feel — the desire, the pain, the rage, the fear — but robs us of the consolation of a proper denouement, thus trapping us forever in these feelings without allowing us to move on. Ultimately, we are left with the question of whether it is ultimately possible for a man and a woman to become one by stepping out of the shadow of one’s own gender and understanding the other. As the novel opens and closes with Kali, Murugan’s question seems to be ultimately for men: is it possible for a man, no matter how loving and caring, to become “One Part Woman”?
Though it deals with such weighty issues, Murugan’s novel is a delight for the lyrical ease with which he describes village life in Kongu Nadu, hinting at complex relationships of caste and social organization. Folktales rub shoulders with local gossip, making this book a repository of rural narratives. Among the small cast of characters, two especially stand out. The first is Kali’s uncle Nallupayyan whose fiery independence and scathing disdain of village laws inspires his nephew and simultaneously highlights the latter’s weaknesses. The other is Muthu, Ponna’s brother and Kali’s best friend from childhood, mischievous Muthu with a knack for discovering secret hideouts and the best toddy and arrack, Kali’s confidant who fuses loyalty and betrayal with gentle care. I rue my inability to read this book in the original Tamil, but Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation from the local idiom is strong and fluid, barring one or two instances of over-glossing. All in all, a lovely read which enfolds itself around you in one sitting, but which refuses to let you extricate your thoughts from its embrace long after you’ve kept it back on the shelf.