Somewhere on a grander stage, India inches towards independence from colonial rule, while in the interior of Tamil Nadu, a childless young couple have neither inkling of, nor interest in these developments. Their most important concern is only how they can bring a baby into their otherwise fulfilling marriage.
For over a dozen years, they offer entreaties to the deities, suffering insults from those around them, even as the harvests they reap are abundant, the animals they raise thrive, and the portia tree that Kali plants spreads its branches across the sky. Perumal Murugan’s acclaimed and controversial One Part Woman opened and ended with that very tree: as the novel closed, Kali was considering whether to tie to a noose to it, feeling betrayed by how his wife Ponna had chosen to participate in a temple festival in which married women without offspring have sex with strangers over a single night, often returning home pregnant, blessed by the grace of the god Maachaami in the body of an anonymous man.
Acts of transgression
In that novel, we only saw Kali’s contemplation, drunk beneath the portia tree. What may have followed continues in two newly-translated sequels, A Lonely Harvest – in which Kali takes his life, and the pregnant Ponna must balance grief, guilt and her pregnancy, and Trial By Silence – in which Kali’s suicide is prevented by his mother, who then has to take charge as her son descends into an alcoholic sulk and her daughter-in-law grapples with being rejected by her husband even as she expects a child.
One Part Woman vividly recreated the oppression that its protagonists felt, assailed at every turn by reminders and cruelty about their infertility. In the novel, the social derision is so severe that Ponna even refrains from playing with children. This sense of oppression is absent in both sequels, for tongues actually do stop wagging when Ponna becomes pregnant. Even the gossip that surrounds her pregnancy as a widow in A Lonely Harvest doesn’t have the same effect that the insults about childlessness did. And when she is made to undergo an archaic custom, announcing to the village that the child is her deceased husband’s, those who care for her rally around her so she is not insulted.
Having tangled if not crossed moral lines, but with a reward that trumps all else, the characters are faced with something which resembles but is not quite freedom. In these sequels, we experience the protagonists’ own sense of boundlessness, of having transgressed their own and others’ ideas of right and wrong, and of realising that protocol is nothing but popular opinion. They continue to exist – to survive – in the same society, while only they have changed. Much is possible in this delicate and liminal space of choice and consequence.
Both books can be read as feminist in distinct ways. The powerful A Lonely Harvest is unequivocally about female solidarity, within a nuanced range of contexts. Those who remain find ways to gather strength and rely on one another. In the opening crisis, Seerayi is the single mother who loses her adult son to suicide. Her daughter-in-law Ponna must deal with her husband’s sudden death, which he chose in order to punish her. In this nearly unbearable situation emerges unlikely hope. Ponna’s bereavement is movingly rendered: she wonders if Kali will return to her as a crow, as a stone, in a dream, and ritually disowns her natal family in anger. Her emotions move through many stages, and the plot is so rich that grief alone doesn’t overwhelm it. The subtle beauty of the novel’s politics is that it is unclear whether the surviving characters emerge stronger, or if they had in fact never been weak all along.
Trial By Silence is close in tone and nuance to contemporary discourse on toxic masculinity. In the book’s most tender section, Kali takes a cow in heat to be inseminated by a particularly virile bull three villages away. The bull’s owner suggests that Kali’s cow mate with two bulls that morning to better her chances of conception. They discuss the quality of semen in both bulls, and later that night, Kali thinks about the physical attractiveness and self-assurance of the bull said to have watery and weaker semen, and considers his own selfhood. The contemplation of masculinity – devoid of chest-beating and laced with vulnerability – is the novel’s most interesting element. Late into the book, Kali has a chance to talk directly to a man whose beloved little daughter has been birthed through the same means of surrogate impregnation that his wife underwent. Gradually, he sees that there is nothing in his world that will accept his bitterness, and he must choose whether to persist in his isolation or return to the fold.
Small but revealing sections of Trial By Silence are harbingers of current affairs. Beef-eating is touched upon, as is widow remarriage, a significant feminist concern of that period. A wealthy landlord says: “If the white man weren’t there, our people would fight against themselves and die”. The sequels, having entered that ambiguous post-trangression territory, open a wider lens onto society and politics than the first book, which evoked the sense of being suffocated by small-hearted ways.
Muddying the discourse
The One Part Woman trilogy essentially captures a moment when the sense of morality that conservatives now definitively claim to be Tamil (or Indian, or Hindu) culture was crystallising, cleverly revealing how its tenets are hardly a century old. The shift is shown as having occurred in Ponna and Kali’s generation. Even in One Part Woman, it is their own peers, married people of their own age who are raising families, who most frequently and most maliciously gossip about their childlessness. It is Kali’s own inability to accept the idea of his wife sleeping with anyone else that determines how the first book ends, and how these two follow.
Their elders have a different worldview. In the first book, it is the couple’s mothers who get together and hatch the plan to ask Ponna to get pregnant through a different man. In the wake of Kali’s suicide in A Lonely Harvest, they discuss their decision not with sorrow as much as with disappointment that the man had been so small-minded in relation to themselves. They exchange stories with one another of how different sexual mores had been earlier, including how Seerayi’s grandfather and father were in fact brothers, born to the same woman who had been expected to sleep with multiple men in her family. Thus, they laugh in a house of mourning.
This is not a feminism that will stand up to contemporary rigour, obviously, but certainly one that muddles the discourse in productive ways. In the sequels, particularly in Trial By Silence, Kali’s uncle Nallayyan is drawn as much more than a repository of dirty humour, with a lifestyle that aligns with his stated politics, and thanks to being well-travelled is the one who brings a range of alternative perspectives to them through a mix of fact and exaggeration.
Trajectories of possibility
But the most interesting, and enjoyable, subversions are in the form of the elderly ladies, the paattis. Both books contain sequences in which they come visiting when the midwife arrives to confirm Ponna’s pregnancy. The younger midwife is teased mercilessly by their double entendres, particularly in A Lonely Harvest (once more, in a bereaved house, it is old women who inspire gaiety). Here, their risqué conversation says everything about how much the tide had changed by the middle of the 20th century, and remains to this day. For evidence, on only has to look at the torment the author underwent at the hands of rightwing groups following the success of One Part Woman.
These endings beyond an ending come to their own starkly different denouements. Close to these, when Ponna’s child of an indeterminate father is about to be born, is where the plotlines and small details of both books overlap; until then, their trajectories are far removed. With the baby’s birth, once again, the stories diverge.
Trial By Silence has what can be perceived as a comfortable ending, satisfying both dramatic and neat-closure criteria, but it is also one which contradicts Ponna’s growth over the year after her night at the Maachami festival. Beyond that last page, we cease to wonder what becomes of Ponna, Seerayi and Kali’s lives. But A Lonely Harvest, certainly the stronger of the two sequels, culminates on an eerie and promising note that is hard to stop thinking about even if it is the sequel that was read first. Its final pages are the ones that linger, holding in its conclusion the possibility of further trajectories, other turns of life.
Trial by Silence and A Lonely Harvest, Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, Penguin Random House India.