Author: Perumal Murugan
Translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Price: Rs 399
The prose is deceptively simple and sparse. And yet it has the effect of hitting you hard like the blazing sun, the parched land, the rock, and the thorny karuvelum shrubs. A perfect setting in the true Tamil literary tradition of the bards from Sangam period — it is the landscape that symbolises the nature of men.
Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, a poet and a scholar, knows how to handle masterful imagery and human emotions. Especially when he delves into the emotional space of his women characters, be it a coarse, unloving mother-in-law or the soft, sparrow-like, bewildered new bride.
Murugan’s Tamil novel Pookkuzi, translated into English (Pyre) by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, brings out the subtle nuances in an amazing, evocative style. It must have been a challenging job translating the Kongu rural dialect into English. Thankfully, Vasudevan does not slip into an idiomatic literal translation, which would have marred a supple narrative, while retaining the regional colour and the lilting tone of the original prose. It is a sensitive translation done with great care. There is not a single word that jars and the narrative is more tightly woven. (The original drags in the middle and is repetitive). One wonders why the translator’s name is not on the cover.
It is a haunting tale, of love and desperation; of societal prejudice that is potent enough to destroy ; of the fire of hatred that consumes the community; of caste pride and its resilient force that is felt to be life-affirming though there is nothing else to boast about; of innocent love that fails to understand the engulfing fire.
Pyre is the love story of Saroja and Kumaresan, who belong to different castes. Murugan is careful not to mention the specific castes to which they belong. Saroja is a city girl, a motherless child, reared fondly by her father and brother. Kumaresan, from a faraway village, goes to the city in search of a job and finds shelter in the building Saroja lives in. They fall in love. The love narrative that is woven in between the chapters is like a silent song.
They elope, get married with the help of a friend and Kumaresan takes her to his remote village. Family bonding is very important to him and he knows that the village community will not approve of the inter-caste marriage. But he believes that once his mother and the others have a look at the fair-skinned, pretty Saroja, everything would be fine.
He is, however, shocked, and Saroja is terrified when they come face to face with a mother and a family raging in fury at this breach of faith. It is no ordinary fury. The words spit like fire. The abuse showered with physical blows is dehumanising. Why did Kumaresan take her there? The story unfolds mostly through Saroja’s perspective. The scorching, vast expanses of arid land, the taunting language of women, and Marayi, the mother-in –law, who is in constant dialogue with goats and dogs and the sky, bewilders her. Marayi’s monologues are laments that she sings as dirges, as if her son were dead.
Is she real, wonders Saroja. She is frightened to the core. It is Saroja’s story; her struggle to cope with the surroundings that reject her. She, a dreamer, clings to every word of assurance from Kumaresan, believing a better day would dawn. Kumaresan is loving and kind but feels helpless at the unreasonableness of his people. “Is it a crime to marry the girl I love?” he asks his mother after days of silence. It angers her even more, a woman who was widowed at the age of 20 and had remained “impeccable” in her conduct.
Honour killings in Tamil Nadu, the land that saw a unique movement against caste hierarchy, have become more visible than before. By getting us close to the lives of Saroja and Kumaresan, to the land and language, of beliefs and prejudices, of hatred and cruelty, Murugan seems to attempt to shake us out of the numbness. He gives us a terrifying vision of intolerance. It will haunt the reader for a long time.