'One Part Woman': the novel that Tamil writer Perumal Murugan is being hounded for

An excerpt from the novel by Perumal Murugan that is under fire, literally, for being sexually permissive.

Though Kali had resumed normal conversation with Ponna, he was constantly haunted by her words.

He was now convinced that women were terrible creatures. Mother tells the son, ‘Send your wife to another man.’ The other mother is ready to take her own daughter to it. And Ponna says, ‘I will, if you are fine with it.’ No one seemed to have even an iota of hesitation anywhere. He, on the other hand, was still hesitant to talk about those long-gone days when he had been to the fourteenth day of the festival. While a man felt so shy about these matters, look at these women! What they dared to do! If someone told them that the only way to have a child was to drop a rock on his head while he slept, would Ponna be ready to do that too?

These thoughts drained his trust in her. A falseness entered in his sweet words to her. His embrace was no longer wholehearted. There was no softness when he made love to her, not the usual generosity that let him include her in its sway. He came to be possessed by a fury for revenge, a desire to pound her violently and tear her apart. It was hot in the barnyard those days, even at night. He’d wake up suddenly and go home. Ponna kept the earthen wick lamp burning softly through the night. He would peep through the gaps in the wooden planks on the door to see if she was asleep. Sometimes he even went back to the barnyard without waking her up. Whenever he saw that the light inside was put out, that there was nothing but darkness, he panicked. On such days, he listened carefully for any sound that came from inside the house. Sometimes, his tapping on the door woke his mother. When she asked, ‘Who is it?’ he replied shyly, ‘It’s just me. Go back to sleep.’

A sense of urgency and carelessness started pervading all his actions. However much she tried to hold him tight and take him inside her, all he wanted was to hold back adamantly and ejaculate as soon as he could. Whenever he decided to drink loads of arrack, which he knew would knock him out till morning, he asked her to come and stay in the barn. He would force her to drink. Earlier, on the nights he drank, his body lost its harshness and spread on her like a fluid. He would chatter happily for a long time. On such nights, he wore only the loincloth. She’d playfully pull it open. But he would feel no shame. She would say in mock anger, ‘You have no shame. Look at you! Sitting with nothing on.’ And he’d reply, ‘Why should I feel any shame in front of you? Why don’t you be naked too?’ But there was none of that intimacy now.

Now he downed the arrack like water in quick gulps and passed out right away. At whatever time he came to at night, he jumped on her and took control of her. It took him several mornings to regain a sense of balance. ‘The drinking is getting out of control, maama. Please drink less,’ she said lovingly. He responded with a slight smile. His face never blossomed again in a full smile.

Whenever he crushed her underneath him, she begged, ‘Maama, please don’t show your anger on me this way. It is unbearable. Just hit me. Get a club and beat me to pulp if you want. But please don’t torture me like this.’ His heart went out to her. His embrace and kisses then said to her, ‘It was my mistake, dear.’

When she menstruated every month, she came to sit and cry in the barn. It was consoling to bury her face in his lap. He’d ruffle her hair and say, ‘Let it go. We should be used to it by now.’ But she kept hoping things would change. Sometimes, her crying made him cry too. So they cried together, lamenting their fate. Ironically, it made him happy on the inside whenever she got her periods on time and came crying to him. The way his mind worked, she was trustworthy as long as she was menstruating regularly.

Subsequently, he reasoned: ‘Poor thing. How can I be so suspicious because of just that one thing she said? She only said it in the urge to do something to have a child of her own. Does that mean I can conclude she would go with any man? Didn’t she come to me complaining about Karuppannan’s advances? She said what she said because of me - she said it for me. She said, “I will go if you ask me to.” And I didn’t ask her to. Then why would she go?’ This made him treat her with affection, and it looked as though the Kali she knew was back.

But it lasted only a week. He then got back to being irritable, and she was at a loss for words to placate him. But since she was annoyed too, it was easy for her to raise her voice. It put him in place a little if she shouted at him. He never raised his voice. Even when he had to call out to her from the field, he didn’t yell. He’d move closer and call her in a voice that sounded like he had a raven hidden deep inside his throat. She felt bad that she needed to shout and fight with him. This went on for a year. She had no other way but to observe him closely and choose her responses accordingly.

Excerpted with permission from One Part Woman, Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Penguin Books.

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