Originally published in 2010 in Tamil as Madhorubagan, One Part Woman was translated into English in 2014. The novel tells the story of a couple, Ponna and Kali, whose attempts to have a child, aided by prayers and rituals, are all in vain. As the couple’s loving relationship is tested by the desperation to conceive, Ponna finds a last vestige of hope in the Ardhanareeswarar temple in Tamil Nadu, where a festival allows for a consensual sexual relationship between any man and any woman, regardless of their marital status. It’s an act that Kali views as the ultimate betrayal, driving him to despair.
The novel attracted controversy after local units of the BJP, RSS and other Hindu outfits objected to the fictional religious practises portrayed in the novel and sought a ban on it. In January 2015, Murugan announced his “death” as a writer, only returning as a novelist when the Madras High Court dismissed the case.
In these two imaginative sequels, published simultaneously, Murugan picks up the story where One Part Woman left off but with two entirely different paths. In A Lonely Harvest, Ponna returns home to find that Kali has killed himself, whereas in Trial By Silence, Kali lives but the couple must confront the remains of a once-loving relationship that now lies in shreds. These are the opening passages from both sequels.
A Lonely Harvest
Ponnayi looked up at the portia tree. The day had dawned, gently caressing the leaves before scattering its light everywhere. In that early-morning glow, the tree showed itself in full splendour.
After Kali’s death, the tree was the first thing that Ponna’s eyes would fall upon as soon as she stepped out of the hut. And, as always, her gaze leapt towards that particular branch. It looked like a blunt stump – the stub of a severed arm poking out of a shoulder – with a round scar made by the saw that sliced it. That branch looked just like a limb that was growing and extending to a side. Earlier, when little boys climbed this tree, they always hung from this branch and moved along its length using both their hands alternately to hold on to it – first making their way to one end, and then back again. After that they would let go and jump down.
Like a lance held up, Kali would stand and stretch himself and, in just one leap, he’d get hold of that branch and dangle from it. Then he’d jump down. She used to make fun of him for that: “It is just like they say. In a childless house, it is the old hag who does all the playing.”
That branch was Kali’s favourite. “Look how it stretches like a huge snake,” he’d say.
“Watch out, it might come slithering to bite you,” she’d reply.
But he remained steadfast in his affection for the tree. “No matter how much you bother it, the tree will endure it all patiently. It is only humans who are unable to withstand even the smallest of troubles, my dear.”
True to his words, the tree had indeed withstood everything. It was he who couldn’t. Somehow, she found it hard to see Kali and the tree as separate entities. That was why she was very clear the tree should not be felled.
Various people tried to persuade her to get rid of the tree. Even her mother-in-law said, “The man himself is gone. What do you need the tree for when you have lost your husband!”
Her father, standing by her and gently massaging her head, told her, “When someone has died hanging from a tree, we shouldn’t let that tree stand. It keeps asking for more and more sacrifices.” People also said, “His spirit won’t find peace in heaven. It will come and sit on this tree and just hover around here.”
But Ponna remained firm in her resolve. No one knew that her mind was suffused with memories of Kali climbing that portia. The cot that lay under that tree was a mere pile of ropes as far as everyone else was concerned – but for her it was the happy weave of all her times with him. In fact, she had not even wanted anyone to chop off that offending branch. But in the end she had to yield at least that much. Otherwise, she would have lost the entire tree.
Since this branch had a twin that had sprouted alongside it from the trunk before diverging and shooting up higher, they could not sever it too close to its base. They left a little bit of it intact. She took a stalk from the felled branch and planted it in a corner of the field. At dusk one day, she walked to the cremation grounds, her mother shouting and trailing behind, and fetched ashes from the burnt remains of Kali’s pyre, and carried them back in the loose end of her sari. She put a handful of those ashes in the little pit in which she had planted the stalk; the rest she sprinkled all over the field. Her mother-in-law, Seerayi, who happened to see this, said, “If you plant a tree in the memory of the dead man, is it going to bring him back? She has become insane! Isn’t it enough that we have one portia tree tormenting us? Do we need to fill up the field with them?”
Then Seerayi pulled out the planted stalk and flung it aside. She sang...
If she plants a tree, if she plants a tree
Will the one who has died wake up and return in haste?
Will he say, “I am Seerayi’s son,” and bring warmth to my heart?
If she plants a stalk, if she plants a stalk
Will the one who died get up and rush to us?
Will he say, “I am Ponnayi’s husband,” and bring us delight?
Seerayi broke into a dirge whenever she wanted. Even in the middle of the night, her voice rose in a cry that reached the entire village. Someone or other from the village paid her a visit the next day and comforted her. “You can dissolve your sorrow only by singing it. It is not easy to cast out his image from your heart, is it?” Though Ponna was sometimes irritated by all this, she did not say anything. Hers was the sorrow of a wife who had lost her husband. Seerayi, on the other hand, was going through the twin sorrow of having first lost her husband and now the son she had raised so protectively.
On that fateful day, before the news reached Ponna and she rushed home, they had already cut off the rope from the tree, laid Kali’s body on the cot and draped a white dhoti over it.
Tearing herself away from so many people who tried to hold her back, she ran to the body, pulled away the dhoti and looked at the face of the man she loved. It was not Kali. Someone else. Someone she did not know. The eyes bulged out and looked at her menacingly. The teeth had closed hard on the tongue, which now protruded, bitten and stained with dried blood. The lips were chapped and swollen. The muscles on his face seemed to have slipped and slid from their places, giving his visage a misshapen appearance. Even his topknot had come undone. Never before had she seen anything as gory as that. She could not believe this was the face she had once desired and relished. “Ayyo!” she screamed and fell in a faint.
Excerpted with permission from A Lonely Harvest, Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Penguin Random House India.
Trial by Silence
Kali stared ceaselessly at the stump on the portia tree where the branch had been cut down.
It looked very much like the sort of small stump that would stick out of the shoulder if an arm were severed from a body. He could still see the desiccated cuts left by the sickle on the bark. They looked like fish scales. It was he who had cut down the branch, having grown tired of his mother’s insistence to get it done. That particular branch of the tree had been a favourite of his. He used to see it as the tree kindly lowering an arm towards him, lovingly asking him to climb on to it. In moments of excitement, he would jump up and grab hold of that branch. And he would swing from it until he couldn’t bear the pain in his hands. At that point, he would heave himself to make a wide leap and land five or six feet away. The cow and oxen tethered in the tree’s shade would look at him in amazement.
Once, when his uncle’s children had come over for some festival, he set a swing on this very branch for them to play on. It took just a push for them to swing a great arc with nothing to hinder their movement. The branch held itself tight, much like the sturdy arms of a wrestler. No matter how hard the children swung from it, they never had to worry that the branch might break and fall. Kali was very sad that he eventually had to chop that branch off. But he had to – his mother was absolutely firm about that. In fact, she had wanted the entire tree to be felled. But since he had put up much resistance to that idea, she conceded to just severing that one branch.
When he looked at that branch in his beleaguered state that day, he felt as though it was calling out to him.
He had already reached a point where he was considering death as the only way he could move past the impasse in his life. What an extraordinary situation it was. So many people had conspired to fool one man. His mother, mother-in- law, father-in-law, brother-in-law, Ponna. All the others might have consented to that plan. But how could Ponna? Surely, she wouldn’t have agreed to the plan if she hadn’t secretly desired to sleep with another man? In his blinding rage, his first impulse was to hack her down with the sickle, severing her head from her body. But if he did that, she would shudder and suffer for just a little while, and then die. And Kali would have had to bear the lifelong stigma of having murdered his wife. No, that wouldn’t do. She needed to suffer for the rest of her life, agonising constantly about what she had done. And he concluded that his death would be that perfect punishment for her.
He also thought that dying would put an end to his own torment. “You should suffer for the rest of your life,” he said out loud, thinking of Ponna. He kept chanting this like a mantra for a little while. As he gritted his teeth and repeated the incantation again and again, he felt invigorated. He looked at the length of rope he had unravelled from the bundle of maize sheaths. It was an old rope, but it had several strong twining strands and it would never break. He picked up that rope and flung it over the branch, where it dangled like a snake. He pulled the other end and formed a noose. Then, realising that he would need some object to stand on – if he were to carry out his grim plan – Kali looked around for something suitable.
He spotted the big upturned basket in which they enclosed the chickens. When he picked it up, the chickens scattered in all directions, clucking in panic.
The day had not fully dawned yet. The light was so dim it seemed as though you were looking at things through a sieve. The chickens continued to run around in the darkness. Kali dropped the basket under the dangling rope. The chickens clucked even louder. At this hour, his mother, Seerayi, was headed towards the barnyard from her house in the village. She thought she would take care of all the cleaning work in the cattle shed since Kali was away. She had woken up very early, as soon as she heard the crows cawing from the tamarind trees in the village. Now as she neared the barnyard, she heard the ruckus of the chicken clucking about. Assuming it was some wildcat trying to hunt the chickens, she ran towards the enclosure, making noises to chase away the intruder. Then she saw that the gate was wide open. “It must be a thief,” she thought, and was annoyed with herself for not staying overnight in the barnyard and keeping an eye on things. As she ran in, she saw Kali. She could tell it was him even though everything was cloaked in shadow. And the moment she saw the basket and the rope, she understood.
She ran to him, beating herself on the chest, crying, “My god! My precious boy!’ and flung herself on the ground, firmly holding on to his legs to keep him from proceeding. Her grip was like iron shackles. Kali could not move even an inch. Angry that she had come at just that precise moment, he tried to kick himself free of her, shouting, “Let go of me!” But she did not loosen her grip. He was amazed that a scrawny woman like her possessed so much strength. He felt like a rat caught in a trap. He calmed down a bit and again said, “Let go of me.”
Excerpted with permission from Trial By Silence, Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Penguin Random House India.