5 reasons why Perumal Murugan must be read
If you believe in freedom of expression, this should be reason enough to read "One Part Woman" as soon as you possibly can.
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"Author Perumal Murugan has died. He is no god, so he is not going to resurrect himself. Nor does he believe in reincarnation. From now on, Perumal Murugan will survive merely as a teacher he has been."
Thus began the heartbreaking note that has been doing the rounds of social media today, bringing us the news that Murugan has decided to stop writing. About three weeks ago, the BJP, the RSS and other Hindu organisations in Tamil Nadu were burning copies of Murugan's novel Madhorubagan (translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan as One Part Woman), asking for the author to be arrested. His "crime" was portraying the Kailasanathar temple in Tiruchengode (and its female devotees) in a negative light. Now, Murugan has asked his publishers to withdraw all his books. If you believe in freedom of expression, this should be reason enough to read One Part Woman as soon as you possibly can, but just in case you need further persuasion, here are some compelling reasons:
1.) It's a great novel: The word "great" has lost some of its lustre, mostly because it has been sprayed around indiscriminately. One Part Woman, however, deserves this appellation. Murugan's protagonists, Kali and Ponna, are deeply in love, but the constant needling of their families have forced them to a point where they are considering a radical solution to their childlessness: on the night of the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara (the half-female god), sexual intercourse between any consenting pair is allowed. Out of this dilemma, Murugan builds an utterly gripping narrative. His acuity of insight into human relationships and the felicity of his metaphors make One Part Woman a very special book indeed. Will the lovers exercise this option? If yes, how will it impact their marriage? Read the novel to find out.
2.) It's a statement against superstition (and not against faith): Most of Murugan's critics have failed to realise this basic point: that a novel can make fun of superstitions without shredding the idea of faith in general. For instance, in the concluding scene of the seventh chapter, Ponna's mother-in-law makes her drink the essence of neem shoots (eminently horrible taste-wise), thinking that prayer plus neem shoots will make her conceive. This regime, however, fails and Ponna laughs the whole thing off while describing it to Kali. "She had laughed once, whispering into Kali's double curve-studded ears, 'If you had married a goat instead of me, it would have given birth to a litter by now for all the shoots she must have eaten."
3.) It's a brutally honest portrayal of familial pressure: We've seen a lot of weird families in Indian literature: the Zogoibys (from The Moor's Last Sigh), the Chatterjis (from A Suitable Boy) and everybody ever written into existence by Upamanyu Chatterjee. But what Murugan brings to the table is something else entirely: an otherwise normal family that begins to behave monstrously in the face of a popular stigma: childlessness. In one scene, Kali's childhood friend shouts from a great distance: "Do you have children (yet)?" In another, a man called Chellapa Gounder, "keeps his gaze fixed on her (Ponna)" even as he supposedly advises Kali on the matter of an infertile cow. "'It is fate, mapillai,' said Gounder, using the colloquial variation of 'maapillai' or 'son-in-law', also a term of friendly address between two men. 'That is just how some cows are. No matter what you do, they never get pregnant. Just quietly change the cow. If you say yes, I can fetch you one right away.'"
4.) It is a fascinating exploration of androgyny and gender identity: From Orlando to Middlesex to Girl Meets Boy, literary fiction has enjoyed its riffs on androgyny and the idea that all of us have both "masculine" and "feminine" character traits and preferences. But for obvious reasons, such a concept is threatening to the extreme right-wing activists who managed to get Murugan to back down. If everybody realised that their religion-sanctioned gender roles were just that: roles and nothing else, the entire system of Hindu patriarchy would collapse. Sample this passage, where a priest explains the mythology behind Ardhanareeswara: "In other temples, you would see separate shrines for Eeswaran and Ambal. But here they stand together as one. (...) Even though we (men) are born male, we also have feminine qualities within us. Considering all this, elders have called him One Part Woman."
5.) Just look at who the novel has offended: Wendy Doniger, AK Ramanujan and now Perumal Murugan: in the recent past, right-wing Hindu activists have arm-twisted publishers and authors alike, in order to suppress works by these writers. Add Rohinton Mistry into the mix, and you have a fantastic reading list already. Moral of the story: while most book-burning fanatics in India do not actually read the stuff they're burning, they have targeted some excellent writers. The best way to fight back? Read all of these suppressed/banned/pulped/withdrawn books from cover to cover. And if possible, write such an incendiary book yourself.One Part Woman, Penguin Books India; Rs 298.