Poonachi or the Story of a Black Goat
Translated by N. Kalyan Raman
Context, an imprint of Westland Publications
In his preface to Poonachi, Perumal Murugan explains why he chose a goat to be the main character of the novel, his first since the controversy over Mathorubagan (One Part Woman) three years ago turned his world upside down. “Goats are problem-free, harmless and, above all, energetic,” he writes. He confesses that he had grown fearful of writing about humans,even more fearful of writing about gods. So he chose to write about animals.
In a way Poonachi may have been a cathartic act for Murugan, who had sought to end his life as a writer and just be Murugan, one of the many faceless Murugans in the multitude. But the ordinariness of being any other Murugan seems to have suffocated him. He wrote over a hundred poems during his life in exile, which he self-deprecatingly published as Songs of a Coward, after the Madras High Court pleaded him to revive his writer self. In Songs of a Coward, he wrote about sheep and shepherds, suggesting that the extraordinary thing about them is their ordinariness.
In fact, the kernel of Poonachi can be found in the poem, The Shepherd. (Poonachi, of course is a goat). If The Shepherd is a puram poem that gives the big picture, Poonachi belongs to the akam genre where the writer explores the inner world of his subject, the essence of its life. Poonachi is Murugan’s redemption from exile, letting himself go of the suffocating hold of the venal, vulgar and stifling provincial politics over his life and imagination. He has spoken about the great joy that filled his being when he wrote Poonachi. It’s the joy of a writer, who recognises that his life is meaningless when he stops writing. It is a joy he also fills us, readers with.
Many years ago, another goat had shaken up literature. The context in which Pattumma’s Goat got written, of course, was very different. In the 1950s, its author, the great Malayalam writer, Vaikom Muhammed Basheer, went into institutional care. He returned home to recover his health and chose to write about his extended family, the extraordinariness in their ordinary lives, something he had forgotten or failed to notice in the years he explored the world as a lonely, single young man. Pathumma’s Goat was Basheer’s own treatment of his self, and, it seems, he cured himself of his fears, confusions and sorrows by writing it. Like Pattumma’s Goat, Poonachi also has a fabulous streak running through it. Basheer’s humour and sardonic wit masks the philosophical moorings of Pattumma’s Goat, while Murugan’s sharp, critical eye can’t let Poonachi just be an innocent tale of goats and goatherds.
When a little girl asks the old woman who has taken Poonachi to the ear-piercing office for enumeration, why the government insists on piercing the ear of the goats, she, in all innocence, says: “So it will be a marker for each goat.’ The old woman replied the way she knew it. ‘They will pierce an ear and hang a hoop from it. There is a number embedded in it, they say. With that number, they can find out everything about the goat. Goats have horns, don’t they? Suppose they get a little angry and point them at the regime? Such goats have to be identified, right? That’s why they all have to get their ears pierced.”
When one of the goatherds, frustrated with the long wait at the government office, asks “why do they make us stand in the queue under the hot, baking sun?”, another person in the queue intervenes: “We don’t have the habit of standing in queues. That’s why they are training us.” The other man is not convinced. He asks, “Why should we be trained to stand in queues?” And he is told: “We must get used to queues.” “We must make queuing a habit”. “It’s important to train ourselves for queues.” “We need queues for everything.” “We must get used to standing in queues.” “We must get used to waiting in queues.” “Queues will make us patient.” “Queues will make us tolerant.” “Must get used to queues.” “Must make queues a habit.” Poonachi, of course, is the story of a goat. And Animal Farm was about pigs.
Murugan’s thinai is Palai the dry, harsh, scrubland of his home country, the Namakkal region. It is a landscape he has graphically detailed in many of his books — Seasons of the Palm, One Part Woman, Pyre among others. In Seasons of the Palm, Murugan narrated the life of a boy, bonded to rearing sheep; in Poonachi, Murugan collapses the worlds of the humans and the goats. Each mirrors the other and is inextricably intertwined. There is a lot of sociological, geographical detailing that Murugan does to bring these worlds alive, but it is the voice of an insider, recalling for himself what he has seen and how he has lived. There is a luminous, light touch to the narration, which N Kalyan Raman seems to have captured in his translation. Poonachi and her foster parents, the old couple, will stay with us long after we finish reading their story.