This is a famous but unfortunately notorious novel by the Tamil auteur, Perumal Murugan. Understandably famous because of his proven quality in writing in his language. Notorious because of the controversial theme which the self-appointed guardians of our morality took umbrage to, to the extent that he vowed to give up writing further, saying the novelist Perumal Murugan is dead. Luckily for his readers, the novel is available and has been translated to English too.
It’s the English translation that I read obviously, and I’m not sure if it has translated well from the original Tamil. The prose is simple enough to follow, perhaps at times too simple. But the main issue is that the feel of time and place seems largely lost and I couldn’t get a feel of the situations which force the protagonists into decisions they may otherwise never consider.
The story revolves around Kali and Ponna, a couple in a remote village who have an extremely loving and satisfying union, except for one obvious drawback; they do not have kids despite twelve years of marriage. The lack of offspring is a burning social question to any couple even in today’s supposedly advanced climate, so one can imagine the predicament of a couple in a remote village in what looks like the pre-independence era. The villagers’ social life and daily gossip revolves around the dissection of each individual and couple and are replete with superstitions guiding various aspects of daily life. Kali and Ponna, despite having a much more satisfying marital life in a lot of respects than the other villagers, are made painfully aware of only their lack by daily surmises, taunts and gossip by neighbors and family members alike. Spurred on by the snide comments, they try every form of country remedy and superstitious temple visit known to them, some even at risk of life and yet remain childless. Eventually, the families of the two, convinced that for a normal social life and happiness a child is a necessity, decide on a drastic last resort of action – a temple festival held every year for fourteen days, on the last day of which the normal social restrictions of male/female interactions do not hold true (The protests which erupted around the book were mostly because of this aspect). But will Kali and Ponna allow such a potentially relationship breaking act to come in between them?
There are some nice descriptions of life in the village, made up mostly of farmers whose lives are shaped around their crops, animals and local festivals which are in commune with the changing seasons. The lack of access to meaningful education and medical facilities is obvious, and in their absence people make do with hearsay and local remedies masquerading as medical advice. Kali is shown as a person in love with his fields and animals, apart from consumed by an unquenchable thirst for his wife. He aspires at times to modern thought, but surrounded by the pressures around him, does not really object when various ‘treatments’ are pushed onto his wife. Ponna, on the other hand, is a fiery character who can give back as good as she gets. However, as the years go by, her desire for a normal social life in the village increases in intensity and she almost reaches the point where she is willing to undergo anything to fit in. As probably with many couples throughout history who had to bow to social pressures, do they give up what they have, an intense and loving relationship, for what they don’t have based on outside pressures?
The premise is great and very topical for our culture, but as I said earlier I’m not sure if it has been lost a little in translation. Apart from the basic descriptions of the place and activities, there wasn’t anything which imparted the unique feel of the era and place. On top of that, the ending was pretty frustrating for a book like this. I’m all for open endings when the theme demands it, but this kind of story hardly seems like one for it.
I’m sure the original book is well worth the appreciation, but the translation I would only reservedly recommend.