Distance allows us to be dismissive of the lives of other people, to filter their narratives down to a few essential keynotes and tragedies. In One Part Woman, translated into English three years after its Tamil original garnered widespread acclaim, Perumal Murugan turns an intimate, crystalline gaze on a married couple in interior Tamil Nadu. It is a gaze that lays bare the intricacies of their story, culminating in a heart-wrenching denouement that allows no room for apathy.
Kali and Ponna, land-owning farmers in Thiruchengode, enjoy a completely happy marriage on all counts but one. Despite over a dozen years together, they are yet to have children. Theirs is a sexually-charged and mutually fulfilling relationship; it is neither for lack of effort nor of intent that they are unable to conceive. The couple perform countless acts of penance, entreating various deities – among them the half-male, half-female god on the hill attended by a Brahmin priest and the tribal goddess Pavatha of the same hill, to whom blood sacrifices are made. Ponna weeps at the onset of every menstrual period. Neither love nor their thriving land is enough to keep at bay the despair of being without offspring in their community. They are constantly on the receiving end of disparagement from the people around them: Kali’s sexual potency is the subject of sly and open taunts, while every slip or argument Ponna has with another is turned on her using her childlessness as an indication of her character or capabilities.
The disparagement arrives in wounded, less unkind guises too – particularly from their mothers, who tell stories of hereditary curses that could explain their misfortune and sing dirges lamenting the couple’s barrenness. Eventually, the two women decide that there may be only one way. Every year, on the fourteenth day of the chariot festival to the androgynous deity on the hill, the rules of all marital contracts are relaxed. Any man is allowed to lie with any woman – a tradition acknowledged as being a socially and divinely sanctioned method of conceiving should a husband be sterile. Ponna’s mother and mother-in-law, in the hope that it is Kali who is the cause of their infertility, suggest the solution of sending her to participate. The resulting anxieties and attendant manipulations challenge the marriage, and alter its course.
One Part Woman is a powerful rendering of an entire milieu which is certainly still in existence, which it engages with insightfully. The author handles myriad complexities with an enviable sophistication, creating an evocative, even haunting, work.
The novel is also acutely sensitive in its approach toward gender and sexuality and humane in its treatment of longing. While fundamentally an emotional work, driven by personal desires and losses, it also unsettles the reader with what it frankly reveals about simplistic ideas about progressiveness. The society in which the book is set in is permissive in ways that the urban middle-class in the same state at large is not, even though known markers of suppression, such as caste laws, hold sway. But, here as elsewhere, the true hindrances to happiness and progress come in much more personal forms.
Murugan’s writing is taut and suspenseful, particularly as the book progresses towards its climax. At a slim 230 pages, the novel moves quickly, but with such a finely-wrought intensity that tension remains high right up to the final paragraph. Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation deserves mention – the language is crisp, retaining local flavour without jarring, and often lyrical. Highly recommended.
An edited version appeared in The Hindu Business Line.