Reading between the lines
Perumal Murugan, widely regarded as the face of contemporary Tamil writing by English readers, is out with a new novel in translation
The birth of an ordinary life never leaves a trace, does it?" says the omniscient narrator in Perumal Murugan’s latest book, Poonachi, Or The Story Of A Black Goat. The title harkens back to the grand chivalric romance of the first Tamil novel ever written—Pratapam Ennum Pratapa Mudaliar Charithiram (Heroic Exploits, Or The Story Of Pratapa Mudaliar). Murugan’s works, however, elevate the unexceptional. Their modest dreams, endurance, and even cowardice are extolled. They reveal themselves through the minutiae of their quotidian rituals—meagre jobs, cooking, feeding the livestock, fending off prying relatives and deferring to authority, even at home.
In Tamil, Poonachi was the first Murugan novel to release after he came out of his self-imposed writer’s exile following the protests and furore surrounding Madhorubagan (One Part Woman), over its depiction of a temple sex ritual. For English readers, however, Murugan’s metaphorical death has simply been a matter of information. In the last few years, several of his translations have reached a growing audience clamouring for them. The last, The Goat Thief, a collection of short stories, was released in November. For most readers of English, Murugan has become the de facto face of Tamil literature.
Poonachi, a work that centres on the eponymous doe, is meticulously translated by N. Kalyan Raman (who also translated The Goat Thief). Goats have previously trudged across Murugan’s pages. Shorty, the protagonist in Seasons Of The Palm, herded goats to pay off a family debt, and Boopathy in The Goat Thief stole goats for a living. Poonachi, however, is the first to imbue these animals with a full range of emotions. If at first glance the novel seems wildly out of tune for Murugan, so adept at locating the rhythm, silences and noisiness of human relationships forged under patriarchy and caste, these worries are misplaced. Poonachi is a classic Perumal Murugan novel, empathetically illuminating lives of quiet dignity overrun by subjugation and hardship.
Poonachi begins like a fable. A towering stranger hands over a pitch-black baby goat to an old man, adjudging him to be good-hearted. The old man, a marginal farmer and goatherd, and his loving wife, who live in the imagined Odakkan Hill, welcome this newborn kid, naming her Poonachi. The couple belongs to the community of “asuras" (the book’s sly dig at resisting caste controversy) and lovingly takes care of the kid. Tiny and undernourished, the goat manages to make it through the odds, surviving a wild-cat attack and getting lost in the jungle at one point. Her carefree childhood days filled with frolic and games give way to the shackles of adulthood, where giving milk and birthing litters are expectations continuously foisted on her. With a drought intensifying, the constancy of social ruptures and death is felt, as Poonachi’s four-legged compatriots are sold off for meat or milk. It’s a bleak coming-of-age tale that recalls classics like Black Beauty and Watership Down.
Like those novels, the social and political commentaries in Poonachi are veiled behind a tale that is ostensibly about goats. The book’s anthropomorphism serves the purpose of grafting human social and gender norms on to the beleaguered goats. Villagers discuss how goats are “stealthy" and will become “arrogant" if not subjected to constant scrutiny. The bureaucratic machinery, referred to as the regime, questions the old woman repeatedly about Poonachi’s parentage when she goes to get the kid registered. A buck’s sexual urges are discussed by a goatherd like that of a lascivious young man’s (“If he fucks a doe, he’ll lose control"). The doe his attention is focused on is referred to as a vamp and the old woman angrily reacts to the impropriety of the buck staying with the doe’s herd to mate. The goats, unsurprisingly, face all kind of horrors. Everything, from castration to birthing, is relayed in graphic detail—it’s not for the faint-hearted.
Sharper ideas abound in Poonachi as well: how the relationship between the goat and the old couple evolves, from its loving beginning to its transactional nature, leading to an inevitably tragic ending. Murugan’s Marxist views are apparent in the ways social relations transform with regard to property.
Poonachi can occasionally be clunky, especially when stilted political commentary doesn’t emerge naturally from the text. “The regime had the power to turn its own people, at any moment, into adversaries, enemies and traitors." The book also occasionally promises a more idiosyncratic novel, steampunk with an animal protagonist. “Once upon a time, so the lore went, the state teemed with black goats. Since they could not be recognised in the dark when engaged with any criminal activity, the regime, it was rumoured, deliberately wiped them out."
Murugan’s style, as always, is sparse. Born into a family of Gounder farmers in the Kongu region of Tamil Nadu, he effortlessly evokes the sights, sounds and smells of the place. Murugan allows his words and landscapes to speak for his characters. With his lexical precision, he conjures a dizzying array of moods—the throat-clenching anxiety in Pyre, in which an intercaste marriage attracts the ire of a boy’s community, the heart-wrenching intensity of One Part Woman, and the wistful melancholy of Poonachi.
As R. Sivapriya of Juggernaut Books, who edited the translation of The Goat Thief, puts it, his characteristic style is “plainness of language with subtleness of thought". Like the titular goat herself, Poonachi initially comes off feeble. Its quiet reservoir of empathy and fortitude is slowly unravelled. Murugan doesn’t strain too hard for a subtext. Routine village incidents are pivotal character-building moments for Poonachi, but by putting us on her side, we see them in the light of human nature. The caste angle isn’t explicit, unlike in Murugan’s earlier works like Seasons Of The Palm, where the main Chakkili (Dalit) characters are trapped in indentured servitude and endure a tirade of caste epithets. Yet, one doesn’t need to dig deep to find these themes echoing across the story.
Murugan’s work might be revelatory for a non-Tamil audience but it falls squarely into a tradition of Tamil literature that Raman called “vattaara ilakkiyam": His stories break away from classical notions of Tamil literature, navigate caste communities and are rooted in the soil of the villages. They are written in ways that express the musicality of the dialects and expand the rigid notions of the Sentamil (pure Tamil) that was primarily used in novels.
Why, then, has Murugan become one of our few inlets into this exciting literary tradition? At a literature festival in Chennai last month, a few authors privately expressed resentment at the fact that Murugan has been anointed the face of Tamil literature. Pritham K. Chakravarthy, a prolific translator who translated P. Sivakami’s Anandhayi as well as the best-selling three volumes of The Blaft Anthology Of Tamil Pulp Fiction, says: “His writing is very factual. To me, Perumal Murugan is not a very tantalizing writer." Charu Nivedita, the author of the postmodern cult novel Zero Degree, didn’t mince words either. “Writers like Ku. Pa. Ra. and T. Janakiraman had the range of (Anton) Chekhov and (Leo) Tolstoy. Murugan’s novels are pulpy and don’t read like literature. It’s the equivalent of a Vijay film," he says, referring to the Tamil superstar.
Does our adulation of Murugan, then, reveal something about urban upper-caste biases and the way he reinforces them? His works are largely set in rural areas, allowing the English-speaking elite to extricate themselves from these caste narratives. The cultural relocation of translation can also obscure some of Murugan’s nuances. I wasn’t the only reader to miss that Saroja, the female half of the intercaste matrimony in Pyre, was Dalit. Sivapriya notes that this is characteristic Murugan and only alert readers will pick up these cues. “Even in the Tamil, (Saroja’s) caste is not explicitly mentioned or even strongly evoked. You infer from the jobs of the father and brother that she’s most probably Dalit. And the silence around their caste identity."
This isn’t to dismiss the power or bravery of Murugan’s prose. He has consistently put his own community—the traditionally landowning Gounders—under the scanner. As Raman says, “Poonachi is about the politics of the person." That person could be Murugan himself, who, like his characters, quietly resigned himself to a metaphorical death till a court order and public support resurrected him. As Poonachi’s life becomes tougher, she hardens herself too. Doomed to living in a rut, she eventually goes through the motions of existence like a “nadaipinam" (a walking corpse). It’s a word Murugan used to describe himself after protests against One Part Woman intensified and death threats were issued against him. Suddenly, the allegorical world of goats comes into sharper focus.
Poonachi, Or The Story Of A Black Goat will be available in retail and online stores from 20 February.