In Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s 2013 novel Pookkuzhi, translated into English as Pyre in 2016, every symbol of refuge—a mother, a home, a close-knit community, even a tree—becomes a warning of death. When the female protagonist, Saroja, shelters from the heat under a massive neem tree, she is informed by her husband, Kumaresan, that his village’s burial ground lies behind it. Later, in the novel’s denouement, their inter-caste relationship meets a tragic end as her husband’s community burns Saroja alive in the bush in which she hides.
The idea of burning, of fire, seems to find a place at pivotal moments in Murugan’s career—it makes his commitment to his craft stronger. In 2015, protesters burnt copies of his book Madhorubhagan (in English as One Part Woman) and matters went to court. In response, Murugan announced that he would stop writing, that the writer in him was dead. The Madras high court, however, dismissed the cases against him and Murugan’s output since has been prodigious. Since 2016, he has written novels—including the popular Poonachi: Or The Story Of A Black Goat (2017)—anthologies of poetry and essays, and a memoir.
Now, with last week’s announcement of Pyre becoming the first Tamil novel to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize, Murugan, like Hindi writer and last year’s award winner Geetanjali Shree, has officially entered a space usually reserved for South Asian Anglophone writers. It is important to note, however, that the mammoth task of bringing Murugan’s work to the world of English-language publishing, even within India, has been a decade-long one. It has involved the labour of a number of prolific translators, including Aniruddhan Vasudevan (who translated Pyre), N. Kalyan Raman and V. Geetha.
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Sample Murugan’s laurels before the International Booker longlisting: His works have been shortlisted and longlisted for the DSC Prize for Literature, the JCB Prize for Literature and the Crossword Book Award. His book Seasons Of The Palm, originally published as Koolamadari in 2000 and translated into English by V. Geetha, was shortlisted for the now defunct Kiriyama Award in 2005. One Part Woman, translated by Vasudevan, and Poonachi, translated by Raman, were longlisted for the National Book Award for Translated Literature in 2018 and 2020, respectively.
In many aspects, Pyre is the most accessible of Murugan’s novels. The close third-person narrative centres on Saroja, who elopes with Kumaresan and finds resistance to their inter-caste marriage within his community.
While its characters are prototypical Murugan figures—gentle and seemingly passive—Pyre unfolds with the capricious rhythms of a thriller. In fact, the Tamil original even harks back, through its dedication (“For Dharmapuri’s Ilavarasan”), to the tragic 2012 story of a young Dalit man, whose elopement with a Vanniyar woman led to a Vanniyar mob setting fire to more than 300 Dalit homes in Dharmapuri, Tamil Nadu. Ilavarasan was subsequently found dead on a railway track. The English edition, however, does away with this bit of context setting.
The novel’s all-too-rare accolades aside, Pyre’s recognition also marks the shift away from sentamizh (standard literary Tamil) within the mainstream Tamil literary sphere over the past few decades. Pyre is, instead, part of a rich tradition of realist Dravidian and anti-caste writing, where caste-mediated interpersonal dramas play out in desiccated semi-rural landscapes.
Ki. Rajanarayanan is one of the doyens of “karisal ilakiyam”, or black soil literature, which largely narrates the stories of the dispossessed labouring classes. Murugan follows even more closely in the footsteps of writer, essayist and film-maker Poomani and novelist Imayam, whose works, set in similarly arid landscapes, are ballads and dirges for common folk crushed by the nightmares of caste oppression.
As Saroja notes in Pyre’s final page: “Any moment now she would wake up and laugh at what a terrible dream it was.”
Murugan, though, is not without his detractors. A Tamil writer once described Pookkuzhi as a self-orientalising tale and claimed it offered what the Anglophone reader expects from so-called regional literature: caste violence in a rural setting. But the novel’s recognition must also be read alongside the increasing global awareness of India’s caste hierarchy.
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In the two decades since caste’s similarities with anti-blackness were laid out at the 2001 World Conference against Racism (WCAR), there has been greater scholarly interest in B.R. Ambedkar in Western academia. Moreover, anti-caste activism has directed attention to Dalit violence and dehumanisation, leading to political victories such as the recent ban in Seattle, US, on caste discrimination.
However, it is worth asking what modes of cultural reflexivity are rewarded in the global marketplace of literary honours. As cultural critic D.R. Nagaraj has noted in his essay anthology, The Flaming Feet, literary landscapes of Dalit representation, particularly by non-Dalit writers, are shaped by modes of expression such as pity. In line with this, in the final pages of Pyre, Saroja is rendered pitiable through comparisons to animals such as goats, rats, baby birds and centipedes. Moreover, Pyre trades caste specificity for the universalism of the oppressed. Tamil Nadu’s caste history from the 1968 Keezhvenmani massacre or the establishment of Dalit political parties such as the Viduthalai Chiruthaigal Katchi (Liberal Panther Party) in 1982 are absent.
Yet, canonisation places unfair burdens on literary works. The International Booker jury has described Murugan as a “great anatomist of power”. For me, however, Murugan’s skills lie not in his sociological storytelling but in his invocation of everyday intimacy: “He lifted her head and placed it on his lap, touching her face gently. She punched his chest with both her hands. He merely leaned back and accepted her punches.”
Karthik Shankar is a writer and editor based in Chennai