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Myth and Reality: Review of One Part Woman

N Kalyan Raman

One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan, Penguin Books India, 2013

At the heart of Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman is a young, childless couple, Kali and Ponna, whose union has produced no progeny even after ten years of marriage. Kali and Ponna are still very much in love with each other and in a perpetual state of sexual enchantment. The absence of a child in their lives is hurtful, but their mutual love and affection far outweighs the grief of such deprivation. Yet, they remain vulnerable to the world around them.

In our country, childlessness is seen as nothing less than a calamity. According to one of our ancient scriptures, “the childless shall go to a special kind of hell.” Agrarian societies, such as the Kongu Vellalar community to which Kali and Ponna belong, have always stigmatized childlessness. To them, children are an essential link in the continuation of

property ownership and caste-based vocations, so essential for maintaining social equilibrium. The pervasiveness of the stigma faced by Kali and Ponna is a central thread of the narrative. They encounter its corrosive presence all the time, from family and friends, enemies and strangers, in all situations. The only relative who reassures them that a childless life is indeed worth living and can actually be a cause of celebration, is Kali’s uncle Nallupaiyan, a social maverick who believes neither in filial piety nor in the ephemeral pleasures afforded by children. Kali and Ponna, engaged far more deeply with their family and community, cannot so easily escape the constant pressure on them to produce a child.

Living in the decades just prior to independence, the couple does not have the benefit of medical knowledge and techniques that can detect the cause of childlessness and attempt to find resolution. Typically, they are led to believe that childlessness is the result of a curse on Kali’s lineage by a tribal girl from the nearby forest who was raped and murdered by a gang of four which had included one of Kali’s ancestors. “No girl child will ever be born in their families. Even the male children shall grow up to be impotent and die young.” The couple perform elaborate rituals to Pavatha, a female deity in the forest on Thiruchengode hill, to be reprieved of the curse, but to no avail. Ponna makes many attempts to appease the gods, going around varadikkal, the barren woman’s rock,

at great risk to her life; gulping down bitter need extract; and undertaking severe vows at nearby temples, if she would only be granted the boon of a child.

At each instance of disappointment and on every occasion of cruelty inflicted on them by the community, Kali and Ponna stand by each other and re-affirm the mutual bond of love and understanding between them.

Though tempted sometimes, Kali is steadfast in his refusal to marry again in the hope of begetting a child. They are indeed the human embodiment of Mathorupagan, One Part Woman, presiding deity at the Thiruchengode temple, who has given the left part of his body to his female consort and is therefore Ardhanaari, or a half-woman.

The marriage is beset by a crisis when Ponna’s mother and mother-in-law confer among themselves and decide that Ponna must take recourse to an age-old practice that occurs on the fourteenth day of the annual festival of Thiruchengode temple. On the afternoon of the fourteenth day, a childless woman can sleep with any man she chooses from among the crowd there in order to conceive a child. The man so chosen is considered as God himself, and the child conceived of such a union is often names Sami Pillai or God’s child. Both Kali and Ponna are horrified at the suggestion but by a combination of persuasion and deceit, Ponna is brought to the temple on the appointed day and left alone in the festival crowd. Kali is deftly removed from the scene and does not find

out about it until it is too late.

Perumal Murugan’s sixth novel, One Part Woman is that rare thing in modern Indian literature, a full-fledged psychological portrait of a marriage under pressure, beset by traditional practices and outdated societal attitudes that contrive to destroy the union of a loving couple.

Perumal Murugan, an eminent literary figure on the Tamil literary scene, has emerged as the most humane chronicler of life in northern Kongunadu, especially the area around Namakkal, the region he hails from. Perumal Murugan’s narratives are full-bodied in the sense that they include vivid descriptions of the landscape and terrain, the daily labour of various people in the fields and pasturelands, houses and barnyards, and the nuances and crudities of social relations in a casteist society.

It is at once an attempt to explore human predicament with sympathy through focussing on the individual, while at the same time situating him or her concretely in the social and natural worlds. In this way, he makes his protagonists intelligible not through isolating them but by weaving them into a vividly woven narrative of the larger world.

In One Part Woman, too, the different aspects of rural life – family, occupation, landscape, culture and community – combine in many ways to give us a rich narrative. Here is childless maverick, Uncle Nallupaiyan, advising Kali:

“You keep saying that we need an heir to what wealth we save, don’t you? But what’s the use of having a child? Even those parents who have four or five children have been left to take care of themselves. They all die alone. But I won’t die that way....The other day, I said, just for the sake of it, that since I didn’t know who was going to take care of me, I was planning to write my property off to Sengottayan and Pavatha temples and then go die in a monastery somewhere. Since then, I am sent a big portion of whatever is cooked

in my brothers’ homes! Do people who have children get treated this way? Don’t worry. In the future, you will get all this attention, too.” Saying this, he cheered Kali up. (p. 237)

The description of Ponna’s transformation as she is left alone in the festival crowd, free to make a sexual choice for the first time in her life, is extraordinarily vivid:

“Ponna felt that she could watch forever the way the topknots of the dancing men bounced up and fell back on their napes; each of the men had tightly combed back his hair, fastening it into a knot at the nape. She liked the way they worked their sticks, sometimes separated as two teams, and at other times as one, but always leaving enough space for the sticks to clash, always doing it without the least discordance. It felt like the clank of the sticks was hitting open the knots in her mind. This dance was not just about sticks clashing. It was not just mere combat. It was the play of magic wands which cracked open facades to bring out hidden secrets.” (p. 204-5)

Here is the pivotal moment when Ponna chooses her man: “When she felt something touching her earlobes, she reached back and wiped herself. It felt as though someone was blowing gently on her nape. She turned around and saw a pair of eyes to her side. She knew it was the touch of those eyes which had bothered her. Those eyes pierced the glow of the burning torches, and touched and teased her. The folded dhoti and the tower that was around his neck and fell over his chest made him look like no one she knew. His hair had been combed carelessly, and it looked like he had not even started shaving. It occurred to her that this as her god.” (p.223)

Perumal Murugan’s excellence in the craft of storytelling is perfectly matched by the skills that the translator, Aniruddhan Vasudevan brings to the text. Always elegant and precise, and in harmony with the flowing rhythm of the narrative, this translation is simply one of the best that this reviewer has come across in the Indian milieu. Even where the sentence construction is unusual for the host language, it can be read very clearly and precisely. The translator’s language assimilates the landscape, community, food and people and makes them belong to it, which is a considerable feat for any translator of Indian language fiction.

Finally, One Part Woman is an absorbing tale, rendered in elegant and readable prose that draws the reader into the fascinating yet poignant lives of its protagonists, Kali and Ponna, and into their time, place and community. Its arrival will certainly enrich the corpus of Indian fiction in English translation and introduce the reader to the oeuvre of a humane and sensitive writer of our times.

A version of this review appeared in Sahitya Akademi's Indian Literature, 279. Nov-Dec 2013


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