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Perumal Murugan’s hall of mirrors: Narratives of violence and images of endurance

Everything can be alive in Perumal Murugan’s prose: a boy, a tree, a well, a goat. Life is its own essence. And the writer treats them with respect, careful love or even distant disgust

Perumal Murugan’s hall of mirrors: Narratives of violence and images of endurance

Luis A Gomez

He creates, thereby, ‘several futures,’ several times, which themselves proliferate and fork. Jorge Luis Borges, ‘The Garden of Forking Paths’

Not so long ago, old traveling fairs in ancient Europe would offer a simple enjoyable act. A hall in which a variety of mirrors would show distorted reflections of people. Concave, convex and of mixed nature, the mirrors enlarged this or that, condensed or shrank something else; the head or the torso, the eyes or the legs of anybody close enough. Somehow, the works of Perumal Murugan are like those mirrors, reflecting features of life and society in extraordinary ways where others, apparently, see normal things, regular forms.

It is true for a novel so full of sad yet lively young people, Seasons of the Palm. There, a group of dalit kids live the daily drama of their lives, grazing cattle for a few coins, eating poorly, playing or swimming season after season. Shorty, the protagonist, takes us in there while sheep ruminate their meals. And like over a river or a clean pond, a reader can understand how the author masters something we should call ‘progression:’ chapter after chapter Murugan adds a new bad day, a conflict or a problem that makes these kids cry or shout in anger. Up to a point where we know the image of their lives—paunchy ragged presences—becomes unbearable, because for them there’s no exit (no overcome).

The same happens with Current Show, a novella where every chapter ‘rolls’ like episodes of a film. The main character, a teenager growing sad, wanders like a Herman Hesse antihero trapped in his life like a small fish under a watermill. Every turn of his so-called life exposes him to rape, hunger and violence. The mirror that this short book is shows clearly his filthy clothes, his skinny body and that look dogs also have in every forgotten alley of the world. Hidden in plain sight at a film theatre, poverty is visited by Perumal Murugan. These mirrors seem to be alive but they are not, it is mostly a dynamic effect (we are alive in front of them).

As we move around Perumal’s hall, we can bear witness to an evolving movement, a quiet one from book to book (in English, at least) where symbolism and progression work stronger and better. Something else remains constant: the Tamil author bets his writing on language, not in words. He builds every book around what needs to be told, never quite focusing in the vocabulary or the syntax. Even more, he shares this with one of Karl Kraus’ aphorisms: a man able to keep a word silenced is its master. That’s how he manages to write entire novels with dalit characters without mentioning the word ‘untouchable’ for most of them: he tells what caste is and how it looks…not much more, he does not need to.

Just with these two books, exuberant mirrors, Perumal Murugan is not putting a village to shame, a religion or any caste for that matter. He is putting this entire country to shame: what you will find inside them needs to be confronted and none should move away from the images he shows. Never listed, it seems, Murugan’s name never shows up in the lists every media or literary group makes. Not in the authors you must read before you die or marry (that’s up to you.) Never in the list of best books of last year, or any other year. Yet, he should be discussed in a country where chick lit and new age volumes abound; he could probably contend to be called the best Indian writer of these times. And therefore read and discussed for this reason and not simply praised because of his creativity or the scandals that made him put the writer to rest for a while.

Then his most accomplished work comes in. A simple and emotional young girl, poor like most of Murugan’s heroines, marries a sweet, shallow and optimistic man…not from her caste, not from his caste. And they run away to his village. What will happen in the pages of Pyre from that moment looks like the most deformed image in Murugan’s hall, yet comprehensible for a reader who stands there, eyes wide-open and a wilful mind.

Lost and disoriented in the caste maze, Saroja and Kumaresan move in the dark, trying to avoid rejection and anger from his mother and other relatives. Blindness in Perumal Murugan’s creations lives not just in their eyes, it’s also what makes them break apart, struggle for a change and, finally, lose hope and their desire to live.

Something else arises while Pyre progresses. At some point the reader feels distraught. ‘What’s the point?,’ One could quietly ask putting away the book, calmly...any of his books. What does it matter if a young woman is worshipped by her foolish husband? Or what of the wind caressing the skin of a beaten boy in a pasture field? Everything will come down again (and again) to sadness and pain, everything will be burnt and then forgotten. That’s the point. Be upset reading Pyre. The tragedy will unfold before you (an angry mother, a righteous uncle, a ‘dishonoured’ village) and you will have to bear with it. Murugan’s characters will live their sentences forever, pretty much like the people inspiring him to write. That’s the point. Be upset.

In 2017, Perumal Murugan came back from the kingdom of death where he stayed for around two years. Three books were published in English and he resumed his literary travel. A collection of poems (Songs of a Coward) written during his exile, a new novel and an anthology of his short stories. The latter, The Goat Thief, is a book of exceptions where the author feels ‘concerned and affectionate towards those who are exceptions. They are afflicted with the misery of being unable to live according to the rules.’ And for this peculiar limitation they may pay with their life or the peace of mind.

Everything can be alive in Murugan’s prose: a boy, a tree, a well, a goat. Life is its own essence. And the writer treats them with respect, careful love or even distant disgust. Not compassion in an old fashioned manner, there is no lachrymatory style. Simply aiming to be fair with them, be it a thief, a lonely teenager or a bunch of high caste men, like in ‘Shit,’ a story where caste is presented nude in front of the reader, repulsive, while a low caste man laughs at it. There’s also a geography, as some noted before. The space where everything takes place, Kongunadu, the beating heart of South India. But this space is not simply described or surveyed; Perumal Murugan takes you there to understand how it is lived, worked, suffered by people, or an animal, like in Poonachi, or the story of a black goat, a peculiar novel published originally in 2016.

Like in ancient epic tales, here we enter into the dimension of the extraordinary. But there is not grandeur of god or the intensity of heroes. It’s a ‘goat kid’ presented as a gift in the hands of a giant. Fragile, Poonachi lights up the life of an old couple with her arrival. She’s a new kind of character in Murugan’s body of work (at least to his non Tamil readers.) Small heroes for little people, something that measures exactly to their rooted needs and their mighty and humble ability to produce life one day and the next one (and so on).

Franz Kafka comes to mind too. These little people scrutinized (oppressively) by officers and police, hopeless as Kafka presented them too but not just that. In Poonachi Murugan makes a part of the mirror deeply concave, letting us see the absurd reflection of a state bigger than it really is, ridiculous. The story of the black goat is then a little wall filled with undulating crystals. Sometimes, to be understood, a fact or a drama needs to be presented to us in an oblique way or distorted massively, like using a sweet little goat to question who we are:

People keep destroying everything and shoving every last bit into their mouths. How then can anything or anyone survive here apart from human beings? In the end, can even people survive for long?

These mechanisms, these literary tricks, beg for one question. Who is Murugan writing all this for? He would probably say, slowly: everybody can read my work but I’m mostly aiming for the young, the misfits, these ‘exceptions’ of our times. Aiming to reach them, he tries and set a new light for all, with kindness. That’s why Poonachi can be a treaty of love and solidarity, or a slice in the author’s enterprise to paint life, sharing what he’s learnt about it so far.

Finally love, sacrifice and endurance. One Part Woman is above everything a story about limits, the bordering demeanours almost out of convention and tradition. Almost. Because the lives of people in small universes aren’t always fully alienated from each other.

What Kali and Ponna have (love expressed in every corner of their small piece of land) is overweighed by what they have not, a child. This is the imbalance they pay the price for, everyday, and what will make their relation crumble. A couple in front of this old cracked mirror will stare at an incomplete image, still deformed here and there.

Of course Murugan writes here true to his life, that ‘wealth of vivid, true experiences that pass from the writer directly into the life of the reader,’ said Elena Ferrante. He is merely exploring what he knows in the land he was born. What comes to hurt his characters in One Part Woman, in the form of a noose, is also what nurtures them or makes them feel reassured. No culture is a totality in any direction, much in the same way a book is not the final word neither a mirror reflects everything in it. But childless and refusing to try the festival solution is not tolerable (for their mothers, especially his).

The heart of the matter is a well-intentioned family conspiracy. Therefore, driving a woman into a festival where—with the help of a stranger (a god for a night)—she might get pregnant after 12 years of marriage is the story. Not the village, not the customary festival. It’s with this in mind that Perumal Murugan breathes into this novel whatever he collects of life and labours from his people, or about how women are submitted to the pressure of time, or about everything and more.

In the end, Kali is just a dejected man, jealous and disappointed by Ponna. She acted under the false impression of her husband’s agreement. This is no spoiler; whatever this poor farmer couple in India endure, whatever they struggle with will always come to the same place. No need to read to understand that. One Part Woman must be read to understand the story in a sensitive way, one that can’t be reduced to another genre or style.

Endurance gives place to hope, you could say anytime. In the life of a writer or in the life of his characters. After coming back from death in 2017 with three books, Perumal Murugan published again in 2018. He brought two new novels with him, performing a singular act in time and literature: two parallel sequels to One Part Woman. Both can be read independently of the first story about Kali and Ponna; each one a branch of a bifurcation you can find in comics and sometimes in television shows, rarely in literature. This is a twin mirror in the hall.

The first of them, Trial by Silence, unfolds like ancient Greek tragedies do. The cosmos has been shattered (the little cosmos of a couple.) Someone somewhere has broken the order of things as they lived them. Just that now there are no gods to bring back harmony punishing men and women alike. There are only humans and the pain surrounding them.

Kali tries to hang himself but his mother Sreerayi stops him, convincing him to stay alive. This woman, as the author acknowledges, grows geometrically as pages pass on. She takes the centre stage to help her son and disgraced daughter-in-law endure their predicament. Chapters go by while she works, she prays and insults her son: she is to blame for Ponna’s attendance at the festival. Looking for a grandchild to continue a lineage is no sin, she believes.

Ponna tries her best too because she is not to blame and she craves for her husband’s love. And he still loves her. So the trial of these two, and their close relatives, is to wear out hope every morning in their home. He isolates himself from all in bitter silence. Then, oh god, she is pregnant at last, and everybody lets their feelings run with the news. But there’s more to it.

Conscious of his characters’ will to live, Perumal Murugan treats them with respect again. He is not narrating their drama, the violence and the rips, on their behalf. His style full of details and gentle descriptions remind the reader both are outsiders. The writer delivers a ‘chronicle’, a sensible rendition of what he knows so well. Therefore symbolism and the allegoric treatment of the land, the seasons and the acts.

Murugan’s work is like an ample movement over a millet’s field, a tour around popular culture, the closest he can get us to land and traditions. In Trial by Silence this means the spicy dialogues between old people or the ways women can sing improvised lyrics to celebrate or to lament anything. He is just offering a contemporary epic blossoming inside what Mihail Bakhtin saw as one of the main features of popular literature, nothing more. Simplicity and clarity are not easy to achieve, to forge in a book. Perumal Murugan succeeds at it.

A note on an old man here: Nallayan, old buffoon easy on irony and wisdom. A paternal uncle, loving his nephew with open eyes, this Tamil Falstaff lightens the story, the pain, the anger. He’s a counterpoint to Sreerayi, traditional mother of sorts. Their parts stimulate hope like soft blows on a fire. They know that setting down your load is a matter of faith that heals; hearts mend.

Whatever happens in Trial by Silence is for readership to know. Let’s just say a woman finally owns her body and her fate, and that the story ends with a little twist that makes sense in the same way Bollywood stories do (or not).

Not so much in A Lonely Harvest, the other sequel. A reader must go back to the previous mirror on this wall and then try this book. Here, Kali ends up dead, hanging from his favourite tree and his mother and wife are to keep living. The trip is quite different in the same place. For in this book the reader is confronted by shame, sadness and yet again with pregnancy. It’s from this dry ambience where Sreerayi, Ponna and Vallayi, her mother, will have to come out (with a baby).

So women grow bigger in volumes in this story. Not just by enduring Kali’s suicide but betting their future to the child in Ponna’s womb. Cycles of life are attended to: sowing, cooking, paying attention to customary events and rites. One life ended and that saddens all, but one more is yet to come and they know the most important tradition in human life: creating well-being for those to come.

In A Lonely Harvest women are also freed by men’s absence (though Kali comes one more time as a ghost). The complexities of sex, parenthood and love for your human herd (your family) comes under the light here, today, not in the past where the stories are set.

Ponna gets used to pregnancy, Sreerayi acts as a headmaster and Vallayi helps in everything she can. All of them learning slowly, painfully. Murugan is effective here in his progression. Like a composer, he phases in and out of every situation, much like following the way feelings are felt, over layered but firmly united. That’s how he provokes in you a living process: persistence is not something we find, finished and polished in a designated spot; it’s more like a growing movement of the sea according to the travel of the Moon. That’s the matter of the book. Again, a little twist for anybody at the end. In A Lonely Harvest, a book where men refuse to be a part in every major time, surprise and humour show up too.

Perhaps this novel shows adjustment and flexibility because it’s feminine. Murugan reviews through it honour and kinship. The whole social structure is put to question. Even caste, of course, shown in a very short inane scene in front of a well. The books transcends all this with introspection, the women’s way of thinking, spread all over the narration. Women in action dominating A Lonely Harvest do anything after careful thinking and according to it, reclaiming their rights and their voice (even breaking away from patriarchy, law or tradition):

Only women understand other women’s struggle.

By reading just the bifurcation created by Perumal Murugan (Trial by Silence and A Lonely Harvest) someone could say his hall of mirrors is not a nice place to be. Some might not really care to visit. Nobody will forget being there, even if someone says his books render a deformed image of reality (and scream and threaten the author.) We must not forget Murugan’s books are reflections of reality, even if distorted, and they enhance details some prefer to ignore, but nothing will make them less dirty or ugly. People shouldn’t pass through Murugan’s hall of mirrors walking fast, not looking at what lies there for us to see. That would be a shame too.

(Luis A. Gómez is a Mexican journalist based in Kolkata, and volunteers for adivaani)

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