Book review of Perumal Murugan’s “One Part Woman”
This book was banned in Tamil Nadu until the Hight Court ruled in favour of the author and prohibited the ban demanded by self-appointed gatekeepers of culture in the society.
I found the entire ban thing ridiculous.
Perumal Murugan has written a simple novel in a non-linear narration style. We are shown the plight of the protagonists through a maze of past and present scenes that melt into each other. It was such a pleasure reading it. Usually, some books feel really heavy, and I need short breaks between every 50 or so pages. But I could finish this book in a single sitting because of the easy flowing narration.
Kali and Ponna are a childless couple who have been married over 12 years now and are very much in love with each other. Perumal Murugan very empathetically shows us what propels this couple’s blissful life into utter misery. The taunts of the villagers and their relatives make them feel incomplete all the time.
Ponna is always called the Barren Woman and Kali, the Impotent Man.
Children are not so much as revered and taken care of when they are born to the villagers, but the lack of one gives them the perfect excuse to outcast the ones who lack a child. The psychology of rural life in India and how human beings’ sense of happiness and contentment is shaped by the way others treat us is shown here without being said directly. The couple spares no stone unturned(literally) in temples strewn all over Tamil Nadu. They sacrifice animals, give donations, make promises, do dangerous feats like walking around barren rocks in temples, but to no avail.
The Controversial Part-
Their family desperately wants to help this couple and so they connive to get Ponna pregnant by taking her to the 18th day of the festival of Lord Ardhanareshwar or Maadhorubagan, the One Part Woman, or the Half Female God in the hills of Tiruchengode, Tamil Nadu. On this day, when the Gods are retuned to the hills, the rules are relaxed and consensual sex between any man and woman in the festival is allowed. In the world before advancement in fertility science like IVF and sperm donation, this was a religious way of helping childless couples, whereby every man in the festival is looked upon as a God and the child if conceived this way is believed to be a gift from the Gods. This part was what irked certain stupid elements in the society who went on to make death threats to the author and his family.
Kali does not agree to this arrangement. His love for Ponna does not allow him to send her to be touched by another man. The climax of the story is heart rendering. Does Ponna go to the festival? What happens to this loving couple? What does their future hold? Does Ponna beget a child? Does their misery end, or does it elevate? A lot is left for speculation, and that is the beauty of the ending.
I did not feel repulsed by this idea of the festival or the description of it in the book. In fact, it felt like a very sympathetic and ethical idea of helping childless couples, though I am not sure about the diseases that people participating in this ritual may incur. The way Perumal Murugan was mired in controversy on this singular idea of sexual liberty on a festival day in his book, I thought it would be really repulsive to read. I felt far from it. This book was banned for a while in Tamil Nadu. The irony is that something very similar to the narrow mindedness of the villagers that he portrayed in the book affected his book much in the same way in the real world to0.
This was my first taste of Tamil literature translated into English. I liked the book so much I am going to read other books by Perumal too. I heard Pyre by him is a very good book too.
Have you written any translated works in regional languages? Which are your favorites?