Perumal Murugan's fiction has the enchanting ability to fill you with dread.
To all appearances, his stories are straightforward and simple. But a couple of pages in, you start feeling the robust muscle of society coiling around your neck in a chokehold. Over the next hundred or so pages you find yourself sitting upright in your chair, bed or floor, willing yourself to read as fast you can while simultaneously hoping never to get to the end of the story.
What makes his writing even more chilling is the knowledge that this story could be true in thousands of villages in India, however removed you are from them. Why villages alone? These stories of caste brutalities could be true in a majority of families in India.
Originally written in Tamil as Pookkuzhi (2013), and translated into English in 2016 by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Pyre is Kumaresan and Saroja's love story laced with the poison of caste.
Saroja, the darling of her motherless household, meets Kumaresan in her town Tholur, where he works. They are neighbours. The young lovers get married and move back to Kumaresan's house on the rock, in the village of Kattuppatti.
From her complexion, the villagers doubt that she is from a caste higher than their own. Kumaresan's mother, Marayi, who single-handedly raised him after being widowed at a young age is not happy about her son's hypergamy. She reacts with an endless litany of laments mostly aimed at Saroja.
On the other hand, Kumaresan reassures an inconsolable Saroja, "Whatever I say, Amma will listen... She will worry about what others will say, but it will be all right soon. Don't be afraid."
The tremors of their decision to get married ripple outwards from the hammock on the rock and soon his uncles and grandparents disown him. Finally, on the pretext of the local temple festival, the village decries to isolate the family by not interacting with them. In a terrifying twist, we get to know that the village, including Marayi, shall not rest without exacting bone-chilling vengeance.
One of the central themes of the plot is the difference in culture between Kumaresan and Saroja's people, marked by the significant difference in their dialects.
I don't begrudge Aniruddhan Vasudevan his role as translator because English has a way of smoothing over all vernacular nuances. It is incredible how he has managed to retain the sense of their cultural differences without the trope of dialogues at his disposal.
With this translation, he has managed to create a novel with a personality as fiery as its heart is delicate. It retains the essence of Perumal Murugan's works, but carries itself with élan dressed in English.
Written based on a real life incident of the death of a youth who married outside his caste, Pyre is a reminder of the profound symbiosis of self and society that we are not always conscious of.
Kumaresan is a courageous and confident young man with a positive outlook and an entrepreneurial streak. A hard worker, he is committed to his work, never looking for shortcuts to success. He is also sincere in his love for Saroja. He is incapable of duplicity and grossly underestimates the extent people, including his own mother, will go to for the sake of saving face in the community.
He is defeated by his own naive faith in the goodness of people. As if in a self-fulfilling prophecy, the hollow, irrational arguments of belonging rise high and bright from the pyre of young love.
'He was welcome through the neighbourhood; wherever he went people offered him a cot to sleep on'. Bhai Anna, the Muslim egg trader from Tholur is the most interesting character in the novel.
"Kumaresan's mother often said to him, 'Bhai Anna, you don't feel like a person from another place at all. You are just like one of us in this village. The only difference is that you go down on your knees every now and then to pray to Allah.'”
This gracious benevolence that the village extends to Bhai Anna, who is from another religion altogether, comes as a shocker when juxtaposed against their hatred for Saroja, a young woman whose only 'crime' is not being from their caste.
Later in the narrative, Kumaresan thinks in anger, "Caste! Which caste is Soda Shop Bhai [a relative of Bhai Anna] from? Wasn't he the one who offered me the job? If he hadn't done that, how could I have made some money? Which man from my caste came to my aid?" In his inimitably simplistic style, Murugan shows us the intensity of the caste sentiment. It's not based on logic. Neither do its laws apply equally to everyone.
"Have I done such a terrible thing, he [Kumaresan] wondered. Was it such a sin to get married? Can't I marry the woman I love? In what way have I wronged anyone by doing that? She loves me with all her life. I love her the same way, I have not gone to anyone asking for money. Why is everyone chasing us away?...I will be a good husband no matter who I marry. What's the harm in marrying the woman I love?"
Murugan's male protagonists are typically good, kind men. I love that. But in Pyre, Saroja is devoid of any agency at all. Other than falling in love with Kumaresan and going away with him, she never asserts herself.
While I understand that this serves in underlining the fact that it is often difficult for individuals especially women to get out of the deadly clutch of caste, I would have loved for Saroja to be feisty, standing up for herself instead of curling up in her bed shivering, regardless of how the novel proceeds.
Marayi on the other hand, is a more rounded character, presumably from being a single mother and having had to face dire straits. In the beginning, the venom she spews on her son and daugther-in-law can be justified as the anger of a mother whose dreams for her son are thwarted. But her willingness to work against the wellbeing and happiness of her only child, the one she spent her entire adult life caring for, is yet another example of how deep-seated caste feelings are within most of us.
Most often, I catch myself thinking back in hope of what became of the couple. The optimist in me fights hard with the pessimist who thinks that you cannot reason with the inherent mob mentality of caste. If you have set views on the superiority of 'your people', however you might define them, this book is definitely for you. May the heat of the pyre singe some sense into you!