Book review

Perumal Murugan’s short stories hold the depth of his novels but with an added touch of lightness

‘The Goat Thief’ is the Tamil author’s first-ever anthology of short stories to be published in English.

Perumal Murugan’s succinctly titled Shit is a short story about a multicoloured plastic tumbler. It is a coveted object, fought over by five young men – in whose large, messy house it lies – whenever they decide to host a gathering to drink. By the end of the story it lies forgotten, eschewed by the same people who once argued over the honour of gulping from it. The tumbler’s change in status bookends a story about caste privilege, manual scavenging and human hypocrisy, but it is the tumbler that lingers after the story is over, brought almost eerily to life by Murugan’s writing.

“It was a plastic one, with a light brown lower half and a white upper half. When it was filled to the brim with beer, it looked like a pregnant woman. Elegantly shaped and almost weightless, it was easy to hold and handle. Like a wasp burrowing through those happy times, its giant shape adorns my dreams. Whenever the quantity of beer in the tumbler goes down, a bottle suspended in mid-air fills it promptly to the brim. The purple of grapes, pale yellow and amber, the black of a cave spring. The liquors blend together, creating a chaos of colours. A subtle variation in the sound as the liquor is poured, the discordant slosh when it falls into the tumbler.”

It’s a particular skill – breathing life into an inanimate object and nearly elevating it to a central character – that Murugan wields with a balance of imagination and control in several of the ten stories that form The Goat Thief, the first-ever anthology of his short stories to be published in English. The Tamil author has written more than 80 short stories since his first one almost 30 years ago, but for English readers who have only known Perumal Murugan the novelist, this is their first introduction to the short story writer.

From the margins

Murugan picked these ten stories from his oeuvre because of their “successful realisation of the form [of short story writing]” and because they are about exceptions to the rules of society. “Exceptions have the seductive power to make you forget yourself...Everything we encounter along the way is bound to be new: new sights, new beings, new objects. Exceptions have a way of demanding and bestowing new perspectives,” he writes.

Most of the stories in the collection take place in rural settings that the readers of Murugan’s novels are familiar with. The few that are set in the city feature characters who are new to and profoundly uncomfortable with their urban surroundings. For Murugan, who grew up in a family of farmers and owned and looked after goats and cattle on his farm up until a few years ago, writing about the soil he worked and grew up on comes easily. But he is equally adept at invoking the anonymous fears of the city – his characters becoming “exceptions” exactly because of their displacement.

N Kalyan Raman, who has masterfully translated Murugan’s Tamil prose for The Goat Thief, says that by virtue of their exceptional nature, living on the margins and consequently their aloneness, the characters in these stories are almost set up to “go down fighting”. But it is the nature of this fight that takes on intriguing forms.

Mundane becomes menacing

In the story Musical Chairs, a wife who refuses to take second place, becomes obsessed, along with her husband, with retaining control of their favourite chair. In The Night The Owls Stopped Crying, a night watchman who lives an isolated life in the alienating world of darkness falls increasingly and hopelessly in love with the ghost who haunts the property he woks on. Sanctuary tells the story of a man who returns to his village for the summer in a listless stupor but is drawn to the public well, spending almost all his time there as he sinks deeper and irrevocably into a state of suspended childhood. In another tale, a new wife finds herself living in the city for the first time. She spends all her days alone in the apartment while her husband is at work, tormented by the oppressive smell of fermented rice and the toilet bowl that wants to swallow her alive.

In all these stories, characters become increasingly obsessive, to be wholly and entirely consumed – by a chair, a smell, or another person. Mundane lives take on an dream-like hue as the story progresses, permeated with an understated but omnipresent air of menace. It’s a distinctive marker of Murugan’s writing, one that runs through his novels as well. Murugan’s novels are carefully constructed and layered – a web of human relationships shaped by community, customs, caste and geography. But if his novels are experienced as a walk through the meticulously-sown fields that he so lovingly describes, his short stories are like taking a dip in the dizzying wells that feature in several of his tales – rewarding yet unpredictable.

The characters in the stories that make up this collection are deeply flawed – doubtful and insecure, prey to their fears and prejudices. But while detailing their stories with empathy, Murugan deftly sidesteps the potential pitfalls of the form of the short story, leaving them devoid of judgment, morality and very often, redemption. The likeable goat thief from the titular story quickly earns the reader’s sympathy but does not necessarily find a tidy end to his story. A lonely old woman suddenly finds purpose in the form of an unexpected visit by her grandson but not for long. They are afforded dignity but spared the heavy-handedness of sentimentality.

Warmth and humour

When Murugan announced his death as a writer in 2015 following threats and protests over his novel Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman in English), progressive and literary circles declared solidarity with the writer. The protestations against his statement were as much from a sense of loss if he stopped writing as they were from a strong belief that he must fight, at any cost, against attempts at censorship. Here, after all, was a literary hero who wrote with sensitivity and honesty about the marginalised. Abdicating this role would mean defeat and we like our heroes to be grim-faced warriors. Murugan wrote about this period with great vulnerability in a collection of poems written during his exile, Songs Of a Coward.

But within this political hero, there also exists Murugan the cheeky storyteller. At a recent launch event for this book, Murugan spoke about naming the goats on his farm, about the thrill of the nighttime, about having published a collection of stories called Pee Kadaigal (Shit Tales), often breaking into a boyish grin as he recounted the ingredients of his stories. It’s a twinkle that peeks through these hand-picked stories from his past, streaked with humour and a warmth that’s restrained and carefully balanced in Murugan’s style, but all the more infectious for it. Here is a hero we need.

The Goat Thief, Perumal Murugan, Juggernaut.

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