Author: Perumal Murugan
Language: Translated to English from Tamil, in 2014
Genre: Indian Writing, Cultural, Fiction
I first heard of Perumal Murugan in 2014 when his name was plastered across newspapers and he was the centre of a controversial storm. I was passive in classroom and cafeteria discussions because I hadn’t read his work or understood the core of the controversy. I never thought to pay too much attention to it all because it didn’t affect me as a reader or a person. When he imposed a self-exile from writing, I stopped to think. Why should a writer be driven to stop doing what he set out to do? What did he write that was so unbearable that it caused loss of lives? After reading about it, I was still on the fence about the sentiments that were hurt and his right as an author to have written about the rituals.
Taking both sides into consideration, I believe both are right in their own way and I don’t say this because I am afraid to pick a side. Two worlds happened to come together – that of hidden traditions and of modern curiosity – and not in the best way possible.
The world we live in today isn’t uniform and I would attribute that to the fact that it is so easy to customise it to your liking. The idea of a community seems absent sometimes and equally alive at other times. The idea of the ‘world’ is constantly changing, and the extent of the access you have is a major factor.
By access, I mean the ability to gain insight into cultures and communities outside your bubble of a world. As your radius expands, your mind gains perspective simply because you are exposed to variations of situations that you may have witnessed or gone through. Here’s where I would like you to pay attention to the fact that not everyone has the same amount of access. We tend to overlook this once we have enough of it for ourselves through education, social contact, the Internet, media and other spaces.
Murugan gives us access to a tradition that isn’t even openly spoken about in the community that may opt to follow it. Taboos are always a rocky terrain and someone comes out hurt; in this case it was partly the community that felt exposed and insulted and partly Murugan, who chose to write about it because it struck a chord.
On one hand, reading about the struggle Kali and Ponna go through as a childless couple and the seemingly archaic roles they play as a man and a woman was an incredulous experience. Reading it now felt like I was reading history because we are surrounded by speeches and articles about women empowerment and gender equality. It makes us believe that the whole world is on the same page. Lo and behold, it isn’t.
Edit: Spoiler Alert! Paragraphs marked with ‘Ø‘ contains spoilers, so you could choose to skip them and come back later.
Ø The efforts they put in as a couple and individually to be able to conceive fail miserably, leaving them one option – the night of the annual chariot festival when consensual intercourse between any man and woman is permitted. Kali is completely against the idea and is appalled that the women in his house, including Ponna are considering it, in order to do away with the stigma they had accumulated over time due to childlessness.
On the other hand, their struggle is something that any couple from any economic or cultural background could go through and the difference lies in all the solutions they try. If you have received a basic education or if you follow news and are aware of the advancements in science, you would immediately suggest IVF, surrogacy or adoption as possible solutions. The novel may even seem primitive and irrelevant when you view it against a modern backdrop.
I tried to read it in the context it was written in and I found myself connecting to the emotions, to say the least. I also gained perspective on how communities age and ‘grow’. I emphasise on the latter because growth is so subjective; what may be growth to one person may count as loss or change of habit or culture to another person. To add to this, think about tribes or colonies existing all over the world. There are some that actively reject contact from the ‘outer world’ and there are some that retain their heritage and blend it with other ways of living. In both cases, it isn’t about the survival of the fittest, it is simply a choice they make to live a certain way.
Ø Coming back to One Part Woman, I was hoping there was more to it once I reached the last page. The story ends in agony suggesting that Ponna did go through with the act on the night of the chariot festival, leaving Kali to lament in solitude. This situation arises because Ponna is tricked, by both their desperate and hopeful families, into believing that Kali has given his consent for her to attend the festival and conceive through a blessing from Ardhanareeswar, the god who is half man and half woman, and symbolises the union of male and female energies and entities and the balance that creates. It is not only about two sexes, but also includes gender identities. Does that ring a bell?
Concepts may acquire different terms in different languages, but they come to mean the same thing once you look into it and understand it. Kali and Ponna visit the temple to seek blessings from Ardhanareeswar, who is believed to the culmination of man and woman. The couple stands for the two parts that are unable to do what they were meant to do. They have a double stigma attached to them – one of being childless and the second of being without a male heir. Though they are a man and woman, the masculinity and femininity fluctuates in both their personalities and roles. Traits like sensitivity, care and protective nature are seen as feminine and aggression, strength and determination are deemed masculine, which could be valid if they were taken as traits that could exist in any person, as they do. Both Kali and Ponna exhibit these traits while performing typical male and female roles in society.
Though there was enough depiction of the despair the couple share, I wished there was more about what they go through once Ponna returns and if their marriage and relationship can ever recover. What if Ponna did conceive, would they be happy eventually? And what if she gave birth to a female child? Would that spark a whole other sequence of emotional turmoil? These are some questions I have answered for myself, for now. And you can think of that and more if you have or will read the novel. Do let me know!
All in all, One Part Woman touches upon tradition, taboo, and conformity, while also throwing light on concepts like gender identities, relationships and marital struggles that are constantly in discussion in the present day scenario. That’s what makes it relevant. And it lets you understand that you really aren’t alone in your triumph or your struggle.
Reader. Learner. Dreamer.
I am all about the little things in life!