Perumal Murugan is perhaps best known as the author of Maadhorubaagan (One Part Woman) and the controversy it created — causing him to famously declare that he was dead as a writer. But Pookkuzhi remains by far his best work yet. Like all his books, this one, too, is a social commentary — a chilling narrative on caste and its vice-like grip over society.
The story is about a young couple in love, Saroja and Kumaresan, who decide to get married. Their differences don’t matter to them — she is an upper-caste woman from the city, he a Dalit man from a village; she is fair-skinned, while he is dark. Kumaresan takes Saroja to his home, hoping to start a new life. What he doesn’t expect is the fierce resistance from the villagers, including his mother. Despite all this, he remains optimistic that they will be accepted. Saroja is not as naïve.
While her husband goes looking for work, she is subjected to endless verbal abuse by her mother-in-law, making her question if she made a hasty choice. But she convinces herself that all she needs is Kumaresan and his love.
From the very beginning, there are clues that this love story doesn’t have a happy ending. The people and even the landscape are hostile to Saroja — the heat is overpowering; the rock they live on is cut-off from everyone else (more so, after the village excommunicates them); even the vegetation is thorny.
As the book nears the end, it gathers pace and overwhelms you with a sense of dread. Murugan plays brilliantly with the tension, leaving you hoping that maybe, just maybe, what you feared all along won’t come to pass.
An English translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan was published by Penguin in 2016.