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Two endings and a funeral

In the sequels to 'One Part Woman', Perumal Murugan's story-telling and characterization shine through

Perumal Murugan writes strikingly about life in rural Tamil Nadu. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint
Perumal Murugan writes strikingly about life in rural Tamil Nadu. Photo: Priyanka Parashar/Mint

The real-life sequel to Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (published in Tamil in 2010 and translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan in 2013) is well known. The controversy that erupted over Murugan’s depiction of a temple fertility ritual in Tamil Nadu, involving consensual sex outside marriage, landed him in court in 2014. For a while, he dwelled in fear, hounded out of Namakkal, where he had lived for over 15 years, by right-wing outfits and caste groups, until the petitions against him were dismissed by the Madras high court in 2016. The novel, however, outlived the mob outrage. In 2014, Murugan published two sequels, recently translated as A Lonely Harvest and Trial By Silence (Penguin Random House , 399 each), also by Vasudevan, which deepen our understanding of the characters in the original and their moral universe.

One Part Woman tells the story of a couple, Kali and Ponna, living in a village in Tamil Nadu. Although married for over 12 years and deeply in love, to the point of being sexually obsessed, with each other, they remain childless. The lack of offspring is a sore in their conjugal life. It festers and flares up every so often, abetted by the jibes of neighbours envious of their plot of fertile land and thriving farmstead. In a last-ditch bid for a grandchild, Kali’s mother Seerayi conspires with Ponna’s family to send her to the temple festival, where, for one night every year, childless married women are allowed to have sex with a stranger in the hope of begetting a child. If the wish comes true, the baby is considered a gift of the deity. So, Kali is distracted with alcohol by Ponna’s brother and his friend Muthu, while Ponna is deceitfully led to believe that she has her husband’s consent to conceive another man’s child. By the time the couple becomes aware of the trickery, the deed is done. One Part Woman ends ominously, with Kali contemplating suicide and Ponna devastated by her husband’s reaction.

Both A Lonely Harvest and Trial By Silence begin with Kali’s mission to kill himself. In the former, he succeeds. His corpse is discovered by his mother, hanging from a branch of the portia tree at the farm. In the latter, she arrives in the nick of time to stall his plan. But dead or alive, Kali hurtles Ponna’s life into misery either way. As a widow, she retreats into a cocoon of mourning—refusing to speak, eat, or do anything for days, until the prospect of imminent motherhood improves her spirits. In Trial By Silence, she is left with a husband who is alive but utterly oblivious to her presence. But our familiar vocabulary of jealousy, infidelity and rejection all seem inadequate in the face of the web of emotions Murugan weaves through Kali and Ponna.

Like Sita, who undergoes a trial by fire in the Ramayana to prove her chastity, Ponna stands as a supplicant twice: once, in A Lonely Harvest, before the village council to urge them to accept her unborn child as legitimately her late husband’s, not of a stranger’s; and, the second time, in Trial By Silence, when she throws herself at Kali’s feet to placate him. As Vasudevan writes in the introduction, the intensity of Kali’s suffering, in both books, is heightened by Ponna’s “decision to go to the festival", even though she is misled by their treacherous families. He perceives her move “as a great betrayal of that oneness" he had once felt with her, and calls her a “whore" even as she begs his forgiveness.

Like One Part Woman, its sequels are charged with questions of social propriety, reinforced by the lyrical realism of the natural world. Murugan describes the rural ecosystem tenderly. He etches an intimate portrait of life in the hamlet, teeming with wizened women, who break into bawdy jokes as readily as they offer solicitous advice. While mindful of age-old patriarchal rules, the women, show unflinching solidarity when called upon. Some of the most moving scenes in the sequels feature women coming together to protect Ponna from the humiliation of being a pregnant widow or a young mother abandoned by her husband. Old enmities are brushed aside, fresh bonds of generosity are forged, though, ironically, it takes a calamity for the ties to repair. It may seem though, at times, that Murugan is too optimistic about the innate goodness in people, except for Kali, whose bitter resentment doesn’t let up.

As the seasons turn, the harvest grows, ripens, droops or dies away. For years, when Kali and Ponna remained childless, their fields were flushed with crops. But as she is about to bear a child at long last, the harvest lies unkempt, dwindling, the turmoil in the family’s life affecting the yield. Tending to a brinjal patch planted by Kali becomes, for Ponna, a way of keeping his memory alive in her widowhood. In Trial By Silence, cooking the brinjals and sending the dishes to him through her mother-in-law is the most intimate contact Ponna has with her aggrieved husband. To Kali, too, the natural world holds out consolations. His spirit finds refuge in the portia tree from which he hangs himself in A Lonely Harvest. In Trial By Silence, the animal needs of his milch cow in heat softens his heart, her eagerness to mate with any number of bulls and her ability to produce a calf well into old age begin to dissolve the rigid barriers in his mind.

Murugan describes the inner lives of his characters with acuity, but also leaves much unsaid. With precipitous turns in their behaviour, his men and women sustain the momentum of the plots, even when the end is not only predictable but also foretold. When one least expects it, Murugan suspends his social realist style, inserting a breath-takingly surreal, if not supernatural, element in the crux of the stories. For a writer of such gift, the translation leaves much to be desired. Vasudevan’s phrasing of idiomatic Tamil is so literal as to sound infelicitous in English. His text is also dotted with colloquialisms that sound dissonant to the colonial era milieu Murugan so carefully conjures up.

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