It Happened One Night

An evocative novel about a childless couple reminds us of the excellence of writing in Indian languages.

Updated: April 26, 2014 4:50:45 am

Book: One Part Woman
Author: Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Pages: 240 pages
Price: Rs 399

Dilip Menon

The novel is set some time after India gained independence from the British in Tiruchengodu, Tamil Nadu. Much has changed but some customs remain. The village is largely dominated by Gounders and they worship a melange of gods, from the village goddess Pavatha to the more brahminical Ardhanariswara. Sometimes it is the same gods; the Brahmin priest and the locals see them differently. At the heart of the story is a couple, Kali and Ponna, much in love with each other but without a child to call their own. This matters to them, but it does not intrude overly on the love and affection they have for each other; at least for a while.

However, in a society where masculinity is measured by the ability to procreate and the identity of a woman manifests itself in motherhood, the barbs of those around them begin to chisel away at Kali and Ponna’s tender and caring togetherness. They are inexorably drawn towards the only recourse: the festival at a Tiruchengodu shrine where men and women mingle freely and the women are visited by “gods”. A bacchanalian night in which passions are let loose, and the barren are allowed an opportunity to redeem themselves by bearing a child; even if not by their spouses. So will Ponna go to this site of last resort? Will Kali let her; more to the point, will Ponna let herself? And what will be the consequence of this brief dalliance with passion for a higher cause?

This is a novel of many layers; of richly textured relationships; of raw and resonant dialogues and characters. Murugan’s narrative moves back and forth, spiralling around episodes in Kali and Ponna’s life. Constructed in the manner of a reverie, we see them making love, engaging in fond badinage; their every moment of togetherness haunted by the absence of a child. There are moments of affection, drunken lovemaking, chiding and anger all of them related in evocative and pungent dialogues. Parallel to Kali’s love for Ponna is his deep friendship with her brother, Muthu, companion in drinking and smoking weed. Muthu discovers sites for himself in the rural landscape —  caves, hidden hollows — where he can create another space and time for himself. Kali is his hanger-on, intrigued by and in awe of his brother-in-law’s ingenuity. And there is Uncle Nallupayyan, unmarried and a philanderer with a vocabulary that can silence any criticism or barb. The characters and their relationships are deftly created through earthy, rough dialogues (one gets a feel of the Tamil through the wonderful idiomatic translation). There is considerable empathy in the author’s rendering of village life with the bitter intimacies of kinship; the stories of legendary individuals who bested English officials; and the curses handed down over generations by errant forebears. And, of course, there are the stereotypical mothers-in-law and mean older women. This is a novel written by a man who knows the world and psyche of men best.

Why is regional literature in India so cosmopolitan and yet rooted, quite unlike the rarefied worlds of Indian English writing? The masters, RK Narayan and Mulk Raj Anand, were strangely stilted in their evocations of rural life: Malgudi reminded one of PG Wodehouse’s Blandings more than William Faulkner’s Yoknapatawpha. The generation that followed, men and women, were more comfortable in their urban milieus writing about people like themselves. When they ventured beyond the world that they knew, they produce characters of stunning inauthenticity like the driver in Aravind Adiga’s White Tiger. There are no Rahi Masoom Razas, Nirmal Vermas, Krishna Sobtis, Sunil Gangopadhyays or Anands, Sarah Josephs and Mukundans writing in English.

Perumal Murugan’s voice is distinct; it is the voice of writing in the Indian languages rich in characters, dialogues and locales that are unerringly drawn and intensely evocative. As the novel moves towards its inevitable climax, tragic yet redemptive, the reader shares in the anguish of the characters caught in a fate beyond their control. It is because a superb writer has drawn us adroitly into the lives of those far removed from our acquaintance.

The writer is currently the Mellon Chair in Indian Studies at the University of Witwatersrand, Johannesburg.

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