It has been just over nine years since I first met Perumal Murugan, in January 2014. It so happened he was in town for the Chennai Book Fair, where his then-latest novel Pookkuzhi – which would be translated as Pyre by Aniruddhan Vasudevan in later years and is currently longlisted for the International Booker Prize – was being released. I was interviewing him for a profile commissioned by Open Magazine, which had found his Madhorupagan interesting enough to merit several pages of coverage long before the controversy that would prompt Murugan’s declaration that he had committed literary suicide had erupted.
I would next meet him in 2017, at The Hindu Lit for Life. He introduced me to his wife, saying, “Prachanaikku munnaadiye ennai aangila pathirikkaikku petti eduthaanga (She interviewed me for the English media even before the controversy).” His wife frowned as if puzzled and asked, “Eppadi (How come)?”
When I first met him, Perumal Murugan was leading the quiet existence to which most vernacular writers are doomed unless fame or infamy makes them nationally or internationally relevant. I found his writing nuanced, surprisingly economical in a language whose writers tend to delight in description and detail, character-driven, and – to me, most interestingly – informed by the psychological effects of events or the mental makeup that triggers events, rather than on events themselves. In some ways, it is reminiscent of the work of Ashokamitran, a household name in Tamil Nadu but largely unknown outside thanks to the absence of the aforementioned fame or infamy.
Perumal Murugan the person remains the same, in my view, to those outside his intimate circle. His writing now avoids overt references to caste – although the names are a giveaway to those familiar with the language and culture – but, in spite of his insistence that he now censors himself, contrives to subvert the very idea of censorship.
I’m glad I met him when I did, because Perumal Murugan has now become a brand in the media. Soon after the court ruled in his favour in 2016, an article appeared in The New York Times that marvelled at his never having owned a pair of shoes and at his not recognising Barkha Dutt, compared in the same piece to Oprah Winfrey for the benefit of Americans. “That’s the sort of thing people like to write and read about India and Indians, no?” one of his friends, who is conversant with English, told me later.
Profiles of this kind mushroomed when Perumal Murugan first attained national and international recognition. He was painted as a wide-eyed, small-town man who writes in a regional dialect and who challenges social structures through his work and life. His wife, who is in reality of a caste that is more or less compatible with his own, is often erroneously referred to as Dalit. Pyre, then, is seen as near-autobiographical. Perumal Murugan is in fact a scholar of Tamil who uses regional dialect only in dialogue spoken by characters from the said region; he is highly-educated and speaks little English for the same reason that I speak little Russian – he had never formally studied it, and had no need or use for it. Unlike many vernacular writers, he does not consider it a disadvantage either, and doesn’t bemoan the fact that he can only be accessed in translation by most of the world.
When he was asked by the Tamil magazine Kumudam about being longlisted for the International Booker, he responded with a casual, “This book has for its crux a love marriage, an inter-caste marriage, and the story goes to the extent of aanava kolai. So it sells.”
The phrase “aanava kolai” is often mistranslated as “honour killing”. “Aanavam” is not “honour’, so much as “arrogance” or “chauvinism”. The term used for the murder of Dalit men who marry caste-Hindu women is usually “jaathi aanava kolai”, which literally translates into “caste arrogance killing”. The novel Pyre is dedicated to the victim of one such murder, Ilavarasan.
Murugan told me in that first interview that he did not like to think of literature as a campaign vehicle. His themes are not overtly political. He deals instead with the effect politics of various persuasions have on the lives of individuals. Pyre is a departure from the norm, in the sense that the dedication makes it immediately political. The novel is perhaps his most issue-driven one, where the characters are the means to his making a statement on society. It is the woman’s label, rather than her appearance, personality, or individuality, that drives the novel.
Yet, even nine years after reading it, I remember certain sentences vividly. On the rare occasion I sweep my own courtyard, I think of a scene where Saroja goes to the site of a shop Kumaresan plans to set up in a village some distance away from his hometown and sweeps the floor and courtyard. The women in the neighbourhood look at her approvingly and tell her they’re glad Kumaresan has married; he used to be a typical messy bachelor, they complain, before adding, “Now that you’re here, everything will be different.” In an endearing description of the first encounter between Kumaresan and Saroja, when she has to borrow a matchbox from him, Murugan has her use a particular word for “matchbox” – “thee suppala” if I remember right – to which Kumaresan latches on and about which he teases her.
Saroja is so named because of her fair skin, which leads her family to see her as beautiful, and name her after the leading lady in cinema of the era, Saroja Devi. Without directly alluding to it, Perumal Murugan often evokes the irony of Saroja being considered too good for Kumaresan, whose family members walk around in loincloths and spray betel-flavoured spit copiously, because of her looks and sophistication – until people learn of her caste. This is what sets Murugan’s writing apart – his exploration of the psyche.
Pyre ticks all the boxes for an international audience, and often an intellectual domestic audience – it pits the individual against society, it has caste for its primary focus, the savagery of the rural Indian for its secondary focus, and it can therefore be pitched as a portrayal of a third-world country’s barbarian practices.
But it also has the elements that mark it out as the work of a master craftsman, the elements I feel one should look out for in all his writing. Murugan writes about women with a sensibility few other male writers can claim to have or use – often, one feels one is reading Saroja’s diary when she talks to herself. There is never a jarring note, never a cliché that could remind one that it has been written by a man speaking as a woman.
He never explains his characters, or the way their minds work, and yet manages to show the reader who they truly are. For much of the novel, Saroja tries to persuade Kumaresan they should move to another village. She tells him she does not feel safe with his family. He simply does not see it. He even mocks her paranoia. He does not give her fears credence because he does not and will not share them. Murugan does not say this, but somehow conveys it to the reader. Just as most schoolboys never understand why their female counterparts begin to stoop as they reach adolescence, just as most grown men never understand why their female colleagues ask for an office car rather than regular cab fare reimbursed when they have to work late, Kumaresan does not understand why his wife is uncomfortable around the people who love him most – it does not occur to him that safety is subjective.
In that first interview, Perumal Murugan told me that when he started writing, he chose to write about his own life, and then graduated to writing about the lives he knew, and eventually the lives he saw. I didn’t realise just how keen an observer of human nature and human foibles he was until I graduated from reading him to writing him.
It is often said that translators are an author’s closest readers. It was not even when I read Estuary, but only when I had to rewrite it in English, that I realised how appropriate Jane Austen’s description of her own writing in her famous letter to her nephew James Edward Austen-Leigh would be to speak of Murugan’s writing. Austen wrote: What should I do with your strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow? How could I possibly join them on to the little bit (two inches wide) of ivory on which I work with so fine a brush, as produces little effect after much labour?
She was joking about the prospects of her having stolen two and a half chapters that went missing from his manuscript.
In Murugan’s case, the “strong, manly, spirited sketches, full of variety and glow” might well refer to the blurbs, which essentially become pitches for his work. The reader picks up a book expecting an issue – female infanticide, gender subjugation, caste-driven violence, generation gap, and finds it all too easily. But this reader might miss the details he has worked into his two inches of ivory – the sexual frustration of a man who is eventually turned on by the shadow of a woman, only to realise the woman is his mother; the tacit acknowledgement of male sterility that informs the custom in Mathorupagan; our inability to put ourselves in a loved one’s shoes; a man’s struggle with acceptance of failure to live up to the promise he had shown in youth.
It may have been the theme that has led to Pyre being in the running for the International Booker Prize; but I would urge readers to look for Murugan’s craft, his engagement with character, and his style.
I’m often asked whether I found it hard to translate the dialect of Kongu Naadu. I have the advantage of being able to turn to the man himself when I don’t understand a word, so that aspect was not hard. The linguistic challenge I faced was replicating the way he plays with words and rhythm, the same challenge Geetanjali Shree poses to a translator. One needs a deep understanding of the source language and a flair for the target language in order to do a writer of this calibre justice.
Another aspect of Murugan’s writing that can be lost in translation is how easily he inhabits the skin of each character, to the extent that one finds the characters’ language and not the writer’s language on the page. It is the observant writer who notices that a friend tends to say “Actually…” every few words, that an acquaintance ends every speech with, “You know what I mean?”, that a boss is fond of a particular curse word, and a son partial to another one. Perhaps it is his ability to spot the foibles in language that enables him to wear the heads of his characters. He can think like a teenage boy who is frustrated by his father’s ignorance of technology and by his mother’s paranoia; like a woman who is made uncomfortable by the lecherous male gaze and double entendre; like a man who is ridiculed for his infertility.
He retains the outsider’s perspective so firmly that he is able to detect their mental health issues, but refrains from making his characters lab specimens. There is the teacher who is obsessed with cleanliness, order, and propriety; there is the factory worker who chooses fantasy as a means to deal with reality, escaping it in his head in order to occupy it with his body; there is the woman who is so in love with actor Arvind Swamy that she eventually makes a life choice the heroine of one of his films does, almost as a way of honouring him.
There are two approaches to reading Perumal Murugan. If one stays on the surface, one can ride out his stories, for he is a gifted narrator. But if one chooses to plunge under, one sees the layers, and worlds within each.
As Murugan finds more time to write, having opted for voluntary retirement from his teaching, I sense that he enjoys creating those worlds in the great deep, in all their complexity and beauty and ugliness. They deserve an audience that sees the themes of his novels as incidental to the lives of his characters, that sees Ilavarasan as the starting point of Pyre and not its driving force.