Book review

Perumal Murugan’s ‘Poonachi’ is a fable about a goat that tells a story of humans, love and freedom

The Tamil writer’s first novel after the violence over ‘One Part Woman’ is filled with tenderness.

In 2013, the Tamil professor and novelist Perumal Murugan’s novel, Madhorubagan, was published in English translation as One Part Woman, bringing Murugan’s work to the notice of a non-Tamil readership for perhaps the first time. In 2015, Murugan abandoned his lifelong home in the Tamil Nadu town of Namakkal following threats and intimidation about the novel’s portrayal of life among the Gounders of Kongunadu, and gave up literature for a brief period. In 2016, Tamil Nadu recorded its lowest annual rainfall in 140 years.

This crude timeline forms the backstory to Poonachi, Or The Story Of A Black Goat, now available to English-language readers in N Kalyan Raman’s silken translation. “I am fearful of writing about humans; even more fearful of writing about gods,” Murugan writes in his preface to the novel, which was published in Tamil in December 2016. Animals, at least outside of cows or pigs, will do less damage. “Goats are problem-free, harmless and above all, energetic.”

Scrappy proletarians

Murugan knows animals well, and they help create much of the life and atmosphere in a lot of his work. Goats and sheep – the scrappy proletarians of farm life – are of particular importance. The protagonist of his book Seasons In The Palm spends his days herding sheep. In One Part Woman, a woman, telling her loving husband about the bitterness of fertility tonics, whispers, into his “double-curve-studded ears, ‘If you had married a goat instead of me, it would have given birth to a litter by now for all the shoots she must have eaten.’”

Murugan’s novels, beginning with Eru Veyyil, his 1991 debut, have established him as one of the pre-eminent literary chroniclers of life in the rural west of Tamil Nadu. They recreate the rhythms and landscapes of marginal farmers and labourers, for whom grain cultivation is a luxury, and rearing livestock a way of life.

In Poonachi, one such unnamed old man brings the smallest goat he has ever seen home to his wife, an unnamed old woman. The kid is a gift from a mysterious and very large stranger: “At first, it felt as if a hammer had grazed his hand; the next moment, he found a flower on his palm.” She is pitch-black, a rare colour in the goats of the region. Beguiled by the strangeness of it all, the old couple assumes custody of this caprine wonder and call her Poonachi.

The world is harsh, even for a miracle kid. A distant, authoritarian government keeps near-paranoid count of all the livestock under its regime. Poonachi must be tagged at an office, where the bureaucracy literally bleeds her out. The landscape is semi-arid from drought and no creature can be assured of a full belly. Male animals are compelled to breed and the females compelled to give birth. They struggle to feed newborns just as their human masters despair of making ends meet. The orphaned Poonachi meets disdain and neglect from her new tribe in the couple’s shed, and must be fed by human hands instead.

A full inner life

Time typically passes deliberately and routinely in a Murugan novel. The exterior world moves slowly and inexorably, closing in on characters fizzing with energy, practically spinning towards disaster. Poonachi is a taut, suspenseful extension of that universe, but with a difference – it is transformed by the sweetness of his protagonist. She is detached from the burdens of caste and religion, as her author intended. But more than that, this tiny goat, full of joie de vivre, is irresistible.

She clings to life like an indomitable little crab, and braves hurt and hunger to retain her individuality. Challenged at every frisky step of her path, she gains, and deepens, a full inner life, and we start to see the other characters from her point of view. Returning from grazing, for example, she tells the old lady everything about her day. “Of what she recounted, the old woman would understand some things and not others,” Murugan writes, disarming and dexterous as he switches between human and animal experience. (The goats often speak more directly and musically than the folks.) She even runs away briefly, lured by thoughts of freedom in a distant forest, and falls headlong in love with a young buck.

Singular though she is in many ways, Poonachi cannot, ultimately, escape the mould in which she is cast. Murugan makes our hearts well with tenderness for her. So did the Victorians soften us up for the blows of pastoral tragedy. Through the late 19th century, in George Eliot and Thomas Hardy’s England and elsewhere, innocent young lambs filled the pages of novels with life and beauty, only to have their light extinguished by the harshness and cruelty of a corrupt world. Even goats cannot escape the curse of gender expectations – and life is even more a sorrow to them than it is to us, for it is, to borrow Eliot’s memorable phrase, “sorrow without foreboding.”

Murugan knows this world so well he can anthropomorphise his animals without destroying or cheapening their goaty vitality. Poonachi is a political novel, but it does not sacrifice its animals on the altar of allegory. Still, as hunger and despair lay siege to Poonachi’s pastures and sheds, she suffers just as human women do, and is transformed forever by that suffering. For goats, as for humans, Murugan implies, love is easier to come by than freedom, and respite easier than mercy. In this small, stirring fable about a goat, we are reminded, and bereft to be reminded, that man is wolf to man.

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