Perumal Murugan‚Äôs One Part Woman caused the author to announce his death as a writer. This was brought on by a violent backlash by the Kongu Vellala Gounder community in Tamil Nadu. The story revolves around a loving, childless couple and a temple ritual that lets a storm into their life.
Kali and Ponna are a couple deeply in love. Their relationship is filled with warmth and understanding. Kali is quiet to the villagers' taunts about their childlessness but Ponna uses her words like a sword to fend them off. In the end, compelled by her mother and mother-in-law, she participates in the village‚Äôs temple festival which allows a childless woman to sleep with a man, a physical representative of the temple deity who may impregnate her.
Perumal brings out the conflict in the lead characters as they navigate the oppressive social pressures and the strain it puts on their deep love and companionship. On reading the well researched book, it was difficult to understand what was offensive about it. A masterful storyteller being silenced by the mob was a sad outcome. Luckily for readers, the writer has resurrected himself with two rich sequels to One Part Woman, titled A Lonely Harvest and Trial by Silence.
The author presents two alternative endings to the events that culminated in the parent novel. A Lonely Harvest begins where One Part Woman ends. Kali, feeling abandoned and bereft, commits suicide by hanging himself on the very same portia tree that Ponna and he rested and frolicked under. He act is fuelled by the need to punish Ponna through her lifetime, as if she were the cause. Ponna is devastated.
Perumal is unafraid to place the details of what such an unhappy death brings. He speaks of the eyes that pop out, the smell and the biting of the tongue in the struggle. And yet, it is just another event in the continuum of village life. The reader, while empathising with Kali at his sense of loss, is still shocked by his final action. One then expects the book to plunge into a sort of darkness and tragedy. The atmosphere expected is one of depression. It is here that the author surprises us. Ponna‚Äôs and Kali‚Äôs mothers Vallayi and Seerayi respectively close ranks in their grief. Having lost one child between them, they both guard the other zealously. They watch her like a hawk and keep vigil through their grief by sharing stories.
Ponna after initially being exhausted by grief and rage in turns, steps out to tend to their farm. Here she sees Kali in everything. The brinjal saplings, the water from the well, the bullocks who help on the farm. These details and the rhythm of work and life lightens the book greatly. Even as Ponna‚Äôs childlessness still hangs in the air, as does Kali‚Äôs death, life takes Ponna back in its arms.
Reading the book, one can see pastoral scenes and the way of life in the village unfold. Several characters, human and animal, are brought alive. Sridevi, a cow, is beloved and respected for bearing many calves and being very productive through her life. In death, Kali accords her a respect not given to animals when he refuses to sell her for meat or skin.
A Lonely Harvest is a novel also about longing and needing. Is Ponna angry at being childless, merely because of being singled out socially or because she deeply yearns for a child? Does she feel it fulfills a purpose or because she needs a child to love and nourish? Is she torn between her love and understanding for Kali and her possible chance to bear a child by another man?
Perumal relays this landscape of grief, conflict, yearning and hopes in Ponna‚Äôs mind in a way that truly stirs us. The title takes on new meaning towards its explosive end. Finally, Ponna emerges as the lead who has agency as she moves forward with greater understanding of her reality, embracing the future even as she makes peace with the events that led to the loss of Kali.
For readers who wonder what if Kali had not killed himself, Perumal has written Trial by Silence. Kali, who is unable to bear the thought that his wife was loved by another man, even if it was just one night, burns with shame. His attempt at committing suicide is thwarted by his mother Seerayi. Kali decides to punish his beloved Ponna by eschewing all contact with her. The only form of communication is the meals Ponna cooks for him. Kali‚Äôs punishment and his inability to come to terms with the new reality forms the crux of this novel.
If there was an unexpected lightness in A Lonely Harvest, there is a deep heaviness in Trial by Silence. Kali loses his head and his sense of duty. He feels overwhelmed by the turn of events and quietly rages against Ponna. He sees Ponna‚Äôs ability to be sexually free with a stranger as a betrayal and he is morally outraged. This is ironic, considering Kali had participated in the very same custom during the temple festival as a bachelor and he did not see himself impure in any way.
Parallel to the stories of the unhappy couple, Perumal beautifully crafts the village‚Äôs way of life through characters other than the lead pair. For instance, Seerayi talks about the unwanted advances she had to fend off as a young widow. Old women who share tales of their youth and difficulty, an ageing aunt who finds Kali‚Äôs behaviour rather childish, all give us a flavour of the community life in the village. Nallayan uncle, who has lived most of his life as a merry bachelor, now in his twilight years seeks to settle down with a young girl. Through him we know about several explicit stories, that can turn one's ears blue.
These stories give insight into a permissive society that seems to be the underbelly of rural life of India in the 1940s. Despite the apparent vulgarity, it informs us that society was less rigid and more open to human needs and wants. Kali undertakes a pilgrimage with Nallayan uncle and begins to see that the world does not live straight and narrow all the time. The women on the other hand, despite their heavy hearts get down to work. They put their practical heads together to tend to their home and farmland. Ponna has the extra load of child bearing, but she manages everything efficiently.
Kali‚Äôs intransigence and a sense that he can punish Ponna by withholding himself from her in every way, does not endear him to the reader, even though we might understand. His love, it seems, is available only if she behaves in a way that he thinks suitable, as if she were a thing that belonged only to him. At the end of reading both the books, I felt satiated with the answers that were left hanging in the air in One Part Woman, and this has a lot to do with the translation from the original works in Tamil to English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.
It is not necessary to have read One Part Woman to start off on these book of possibilities. In both the books, Perumal, the consummate storyteller, is in top form and makes the reader come face to face with questions of morality, fairness, faithfulness, family, grief and hope time and again. He has the ability to speak of intimacy, lust and love with equal sincerity and ease. A generous and free writer, he shares his uncanny understanding of human nature.
If A Lonely Harvest is a story of hope and renewal in the time of grief, Trial by Silence is one of reconciliation and new beginnings.
Sheeba is the co-founder and editor at Little Kulture, a parenting website dedicated to helping parents discover the best resources and advice for children every day.