When I read a recent review by fellow blogger Sudhagee, I couldn’t resist buying the book. The book ‘One Part Woman’ by Perumal Murugan was in the news last year as some political group was offended by his work. As a result, the multiple award-winning author who writes in Tamil, said he will not write again in future. He said, Perumal Murugan, the author is dead. Due to this controversy, I was aware of the book. But the review mentioned above, got me hooked.
The book ‘One Part Woman’ is the English translation of the Tamil book Madhurobaagan.
The book is about the life of a childless couple Kali and Ponna. They are very happy with each other and have no complaints in life. Except for the fact that, they do not have children even after 12 years of married life. This story may have been set in the early 1940s or 50s though the author doesn’t set a year, but it is relevant even today. Kali and Ponna at every turn in their lives are reminded of their childlessness. It is the way, the two deal with it. Ponna is ready to pick up a quarrel with anyone who even hints at her childlessness. Be it their neighbours who let their children at Ponna’s home, or relatives who hope the couple will leave their inheritance to one of their children. Or it could be any simple thing, like getting ready for going for a festival, and Ponna if so much as asks someone, ‘Where have you been?’ and gets responses like ‘Oh you can be on time as you don’t have children to look after.’ Her parents, brother and in-laws are always hoping that she will get pregnant soon. If Ponna’s menstrual cycle is delayed by even a day, everyone gets their hopes up. But, when it comes, the house goes into mourning. Ponna is left depressed and crying for days.
Then there is Kali who prefers to keep quiet if someone throws a taunt. Sometimes, Kali gives back the medicine but in a more tactful manner. So, Kali gets the villagers’ sympathies while Ponna is portrayed as the less deserving . Many even think that God is right in keeping her childless.
Ponna is also fearful that Kali may marry someone else to get a child. Ponna, whose whole world revolves around Kali, cannot even bear the thought. Kali is instructed by his mother, his friends and even by Ponna’s parents to marry another girl so he can have a child. But, Kali loves Ponna too much and he knows it will absolutely break Ponna’s heart who is already grieving for being childless.
There is the social ostracism for being childless to deal with. No one wants Ponna to touch the newly-weds or even be prominent guests at their wedding. In a child’s naming ceremony, no one wants Ponna around. Even in their community farming, Kali and Ponna are ostracised. But, even if Kali and Ponna want to be left alone, nobody lets them. Anywhere, anyone mentions any ritual to be done, or food to be taken at a particular time to have a child, then Kali and Ponna are ready to do it. This also includes some death defying ones. At such moments, they reflect, do they really need a child so badly that they are ready to even face death. What would life be without the other? Is having the child, the solution for everything?
Then one day, Ponna’s mother and Kali’s mother come up with a last resort plan. It is a plan which will completely change the lives of Kali and Ponna. They want Ponna to go to the Thiruchengode festival which goes on for 14 days. On the last day, when the deity goes back to his abode in the hill, all the people are considered as gods. The deity is having the form of Ardhanareeshwar, which is One part man and One Part Woman. This deity is called as Madhurobaagan in Tamil which is the title of the book. On this last day, the rules are relaxed and any consenting man and woman can have sex. Will Ponna and Kali agree to it? How do they take it? This forms the crux of the book and is dealt with beautifully. I ended the book with a lump in my throat. The writing is absolutely beautiful. Considering that this is a translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, he also deserves applause. I wonder if there is an award for translators. If the translation is so beautiful, I can only wish I could read it in the original language, Tamil.
It is indeed sad that a controversy created by people who may have not even read the book, has got a brilliant writer to stop writing. The loss is ours to be borne. In an age, where mediocre writers are thriving, we have lost a brilliant one.
Here, I leave you with one of the many beautiful lines from the book where Ponna is playing with the long hair of Kali. It sums up her love for Kali and their wish for having a child.
‘She often untied it and played with his locks, often by braiding them. “Your hair is thicker than mine, maama,” she’d say. “But there is no little petal of a hand that could hold this and climb up your shoulders.”‘