At the centre of my beautiful copy of Fire Bird is a tiny man, his eyes turned up towards the bright and swooping wings of the titular bird emerging onto the scene – the sole spot of colour in a horizon ruled by expansive stretches of beigey land.

Such is a snapshot (courtesy of Harshad Marathe and Ahlawat Gunjan) that sketches an immediate impression of Perumal Murugan’s novel, translated from the Tamil by Janani Kannan. Here is Muthu, a farmer from a family of farmers, as alone as he often feels throughout the story. There comes Peruma, his wife – in the form of the so-called “aalandapatchi” of the title – the burst of energy who catches our eye and vitalises the narrative, guiding Muthu out of his limbo of shock. And surrounding them, swallowing them with sheer force: vast, unending spans of land.

Always in our eyeline, it also lies at the heart of the plot’s query: what are people without their land? Murugan foregrounds this idea through a clever premise, tracing the aftershocks of an abrupt and disproportionate split of a family’s farming land to ask: what happens to Muthu and Peruma, who know nothing but this life, when left with too little for sustenance? The story follows Muthu as he searches for new land in hopes of a better life – for land is life to a farmer.

The metaphor of land

But Fire Bird does not stop at land as a literal source of life and death; rather, it carves avenues for extended explorations of belonging and longing, of land as not just acres of yield but ground on which to find your feet. Murugan uses farming as a pivot from which to tell different stories not only about the tangled relations between people and land but also about how ties between people are routed through space.

Take the very collapse of Muthu’s family: with the disintegration of the land, all old ties of affection slowly disperse into competition, disregard, and (eventually) cruelty – brother turns on brother over claims on water and soil. “By giving him the land at the very fringes, she had pushed their relationship to the fringes as well,” Muthu says of his mother, as though to iterate how the tentative economics of belonging are mediated and maintained through the sharing of space. Such things are never guaranteed, the novel points out – even a place that seems to be home, among people who have “celebrated [Muthu] as their dearest,” is making promises that it will only fail to keep.

Fire Bird never lets us forget that any sense of footing we have in this world is unstable – an understanding its narrative structure reinforces. We open with the promise of the new: Muthu discovers the land on which he will now, finally, settle. But the novel will not stay there to build a hopeful future. Instead, we suddenly escape into a scene of uncertainty, to a moment in the past where Muthu has only just begun his journey and is “unclear on which road to take.”

Murugan meanders back and forth through the past and the present alongside Muthu for most of the novel, refusing to turn this into a perfect story of before-to-after or loss-to-belonging. And even when he slows down to stay with Muthu as he labours on his new plot, Murugan throws new wrenches into the works – and ultimately ends the story with an ambivalent and resigned “Where were we born and where do we die?”

The beauty of Fire Bird lies in the way it cultivates complex ideas by carefully composing its plot. This thoughtfulness also imbues the choice of smaller stories that interrupt the larger narrative along the way – from the tale behind a local idiom to a digression into Kuppan’s life. We disappear into Muthu’s childhood to witness how his father forcibly and secretly leaves him with a toddy-tapping couple to learn the skill (after a disagreement with his own toddy-tappers), and yet the boy enjoys himself – and we are shown how caste divisions are treated as utilitarian even by those who maintain them, how working conditions are supremely tentative, and how there can be joy in discovering lifestyles unfamiliar to you.

Caste, gender, even sexual desire and harassment – Murugan leaves no topic unturned in his novel, enfolding insights on the world into the segues he takes. His observations often take the shape of rhetorical questions: Muthu’s love for the new life, for example, is unveiled in the phrase, “So what if the place brimming with happiness is but a cocoon?” suggesting that despite the limited resources, his temporary home offers the boy more freedom than that his family can. These kinds of abstract insights – concise generalisations captured in a sentence – grow out of the stories organically, spreading a beautiful fable-esque atmosphere across the novel.

The hiccups

Kannan is adept at conveying the ideas that drive these tales: she translates the careful framing of Fire Bird and its several movements across stories smoothly – shifts in time and space flow without obstruction, the plot moving freely. But one does wish for more lightness of language in the telling itself. Kannan falters by supplying one too many explanations for a Tamil word she retains, the effect of which is especially disruptive during internal monologues and dialogues. “Take the tail end on the back around the aranakayiru, the thread worn around the waist” – why would Periannan define the everyday aranakayiru in the middle of conversations?

Elsewhere, Kannan tries to stay too close to the literal meanings of the Tamil sentences rather than working with their literary manoeuvres. Murugan’s thoughtful play with language sounds stilted in sentences like “She [Peruma] was, after all, transplanted there. But it was not the same for him. He had germinated on the soil and was rooted there.” “Germinated” and “transplanted” sound like they’re out of a biology textbook, erasing the emotional potency of the line itself. Feelings suffer for want of more fluent phrasing, without which their effects are limited drastically in this novel. The translation makes these details incongruous, leaving us to rely instead on following the more fluent narrative framing.

Perhaps the novel too struggles with a similar issue: Fire Bird forgoes its trees for the forest, forgetting to tend with care to the characters and emotions that make up its tales. When Muthu runs wildly from corner to corner of his field, we wonder why, like his companion, Kuppan does. Or when Muthu feels a burst of confidence that “he could do whatever he wanted” with Kuppan by his side, we are first startled that he had ever lacked confidence in that scene – for no word or thought indicates it, and then wonder what about Kuppan’s speech (about the land speaking with him) inspires such a response. As tellingly, how did his toddy-tapping past never once come up all the endless times he wishes he could have alcohol or the times they mention toddy? Not even a passing glimpse of it for us to return to and interpret as a reference we earlier did not grasp?

This is not to suggest that there is no character formation – for there is insofar as each character has their own distinct modes of response and behaviour. But there’s too much arbitrariness to their response and behaviours, a volatility that speaks less to the unpredictability of humans and more to a lack of investment in constructing internal infrastructures for these characters.

Consequently, Fire Bird finds itself with character relations that suffer from a lack of complexity and scenes that seem random: why does Muthu cry of guilt so suddenly when he consumes too much alcohol, who till now has not seemed to feel any such sense? How is Kuppan and Muthu’s camaraderie not affected when Muthu says careless things about how Kuppan can sleep easily since he does not have money to bear?

These are questions that would need no asking or answering if the novel did not continually return to the matter of feelings and use them as accelerants to drive its narrative – lines like “The sorrow from severing a relationship aches deep within” simply lack the context that could give them weight since such lines are the only context Murugan offers.

Especially stark are the internal monologues of Muthu, which carry too little inflection of mood. (And for that matter, why is it that we can only access Muthu’s internal monologues in bursts of stream-of-consciousness? The novel switches perspectives, after all – even though that too is often haphazard. Kuppan will be our point of view into the tale for half a paragraph; a character barely mentioned (and even one entirely new) will suddenly be the central focus at the far end.

The only character who slips free of this vagueness is Peruma: the character who shapes the title of the very novel. Her sarcastic rejoinders to any situation in which she is mistreated, her bitterly steadfast decision to leave after the deep injury that her in-laws inflict, her conviction in finding a new life which drives her husband forward: all her traits and tendencies fall into place and flesh out a person.

Firebird indeed – or aalandapatchi, the insult her mother-in-law levies at her: a mythical bird known for its reticent avoidance of most people, though Murugan inverts the focus here to emphasise the bird as a source of succour for only the good. Is it this focused symbolism that forms such a distinct guiding principle for Peruma’s personality? Whatever the case, Murugan’s skill with these more abstract concepts and insights makes us wonder if the novel would benefit from dispensing with emotional proximity – and sinking instead, entirely, into the genre of more distanced observation. That novel, the Fire Bird that could have embraced the tendencies of its titular character, would have perhaps shaped its characters with more decisive force.

Fire Bird, Perumal Murugan, translated from the Tamil by Janani Kannan, Penguin India.