In “Beloved Face”, one of the finest stories in Perumal Murugan’s outstanding new collection Four Strokes of Luck (beautifully translated into English from the Tamil by Nandini Krishnan), the protagonist Saraswati is a schoolteacher in love with the Tamil superstar, Arvind Swami. Her obsession with the actor began when she was a young girl, taunted by all and sundry for her exceedingly dark complexion. In a fit of passion, she had told her detractors that she would marry the fair Swami one day and produce beautiful offspring. The idea haunts her into adulthood, even after she is employed, causing much tittering among her colleagues and consternation to her family. But Saraswati doesn’t relent, she goes about her days as though she is already the wedded wife of the actor, setting an extra place at the table every day for him.
Each of the ten stories in the collection (the last story is misnumbered as 9 in my review copy) holds the reader in thrall to a central character or situation that is riveting, but not because of any aura of sensationalism. On the contrary, all of them appear utterly ordinary, until Murugan scratches the surface and exposes their bizarre quirks.
In “Kiss”, Murugesu, who works as a salesman in a retail store, doubles up as an extortionist once in a while to supplement his income. He ambushes couples in compromising situations outdoors, usually caught making out behind bushes and thickets, and blackmails them into parting with their money and valuables they have on themselves. Apart from this periodic lapse into evil, Murugesu is unbearably common, a man any of us may have met behind a shop counter selling us knick-knacks.
Murugan is arguably the only Indian writer to have several books published in English translation every year. After two stunning novels in 2020—Rising Heat (translated by Janani Kannan) and Estuary (translated by Krishnan)—Four Strokes of Luck arrives in 2021 as further proof of his evergreen genius, in case anyone needed any.
The stories bear the unmistakable stamp of Murugan’s realist style, mostly set in rural and suburban Tamil Nadu, in places riddled with caste prejudice and violent patriarchal norms. The root of all the troubles with his protagonists appear to point back to flawed parenting—most of them have been either stifled with love or treated with scorn and disdain all their lives by people closest to them.
So ingrained are these habits in people that a mother gets furious when her son stops his father from beating her up. She rebukes her saviour for his improper interference in the private affairs of a couple. A group of caste Hindu men enlist the help of a lower-caste man and his grandson with arranging their monthly feast of pork roast. Since the women of their families won’t brook such pollution inside the house, this exclusively male business of eating meat and drinking must be conducted outdoors. From catching the pig to butchering it to skinning it and cooking it, everything unsavoury about the process is largely done by the low-caste neighbour, though it doesn’t still protect him from becoming the unsuspecting victim of an explosion of violence in the end.
Violence, threatened either in the form of unthinking everyday casteism or crass double entendres in gendered language, is a running presence in the stories. Occasionally it does erupt into a bloodbath, as in “Pork Roast” and “Pondaatti”, but mostly it flows quietly like a river through the subconscious mind of the characters.
“Bypass Road” and “Ice Apple”, for instance, leave a chill through the reader, a premonition of danger that may or may not come true. In the former, a young man and his wife are left at the mercy of two twisted mechanics in the middle of the night after their two-wheeler breaks down. Murugan introduces a third man, through whose eyes the entire ordeal unfolds, who not only acts as a foil to the unscrupulous mechanics but also as an impartial spectator to a series of events that could take a sinister turn any moment.
Murugan’s gift of sustaining heart-in-the-mouth suspense elevates his stories above the realm of the ordinary—it’s as though each tale is a lesson in the unpredictability of human behaviour, rendered flawlessly without any overt didacticism. In the best ones, the reader is confronted with abject injustice, which coexists alongside pathos and dignity, and also incredible bursts of resilience and humanity when they least expect it.
In the title story, Kumaresan, a schoolteacher who is a control freak at home and work, is saved from his own tyrannical instinct, and from committing an unspeakable crime, by sheer accident. Chance also tilts the scales in “This Will Do”—a personal favourite—where the possibility of lifelong regret is attenuated by a technological sleight of hand. It’s a rare achievement, bringing simmering caste antagonism, technology and thwarted love to a perfect conclusion in a handful of pages—the mark of a master at the height of his powers.