Let us start with the preface, as one does with a Perumal Murugan novel. It begins with his exasperated comments: “All that I have written and all that I write is fictional. Not a word is truth.” He immediately appends this with the idea that there is, in fact, no truth, but only things that appear true, like his previous writings.

This novel, he tells us, is different. It is written with the express intent of giving “fiction the appearance of fiction.” And so, it won’t be about humans, whose perfect world cannot be written about anyway. This novel will be about Asuras whose world is characterised by imperfection and rottenness, the perfect ground for a writer of fiction. We are expected – even instructed – to be unfamiliar with the characters, events, places in the novel; this work is strictly fictional.

In the wake of an onslaught of examination results and the increased resistance to student involvement in political discourse, Estuary – translated from the Tamil Kazhimugam by Nandini Krishnan – feels like a serendipitous novel. Add to this the rising uncertainty of how college life will look like in a pandemic-ridden world.

A lot of us have had the privilege of having a “normal” exam schedule, results, and that most daunting thing for parents and students alike, a ranked list of colleges to choose from. Every campus visit is an implicit prayer to the gods above, or something similarly ubiquitous.

For the parents, it is the expectation that this college is going to make their children employable graduates who don’t go out of hand. For the children, it is the expectation of a freedom that had been denied to them until then and the fear that something “unsavoury” might catch their parents’ eye. College is a coming-of-age saga, not only of the student, but also their parents, especially the ones most resistant to the change.

Escaping school

Kumarasurar, the protagonist, is the loveable but gruff government-employed father with strict ideals and a growing suspicion of his adolescent son and his loyalties. His image of his son, as the boy he sent to boarding school to prepare him for his exams, is increasingly threatened as Meghas starts showing signs of becoming his own person, potentially with differing views. His son, first, does not pick a college of his father’s liking. As if to add salt to the wound, he speaks more to his mother than to him, a distance that Kumarasurar does not understand how to bridge.

Kumarasurar’s troubles reach their peak when Meghas asks him for a new phone. Suddenly, all that the father can think about is the spoilt nature of the current generation and how his son will fall prey to technology and be lost to him forever. Remember, this is strictly fictional.

Meghas has just exited a horrible hostel school system, where all phones and contact with the outside world is banned, where the only concern is marks and ranks: big boards mark the entrance with top rank-scorers and their faces. On the day his parents come to pick him up, a mini-riot ensues inside as the boys violently damage school property and beat up the personnel just as they leave. Clearly, those students have been through a lot.

Meghas’ and his classmates’ entire school life is characterised by the same optimism that is fed to most students: just get through these two years with a good score and your life will be sorted. Of course, come college, the same story is fed again with promises of a great salary package and the same old ‘settled life’. In fact, this is what Kumarasurar uses to try convince Meghas to choose the college he is impressed by (with some really fascinating features).

But the environment inside the school has only made Meghas more aware of his own desire for freedom. He cannot tolerate colleges that force girdles on their students to keep their eyes always focussed ahead of them and shut out “unnecessary noise”, with robots that monitor student interaction and attack the students when they speak to someone of the opposite gender, with custom-made canes for punishments.

In the girdle-college, the campus tour representative details the safety measures of the girdle, the request to add a bridle that will shut the mouth of students, the security features to ensure that the girdles aren’t stolen (especially for the upper class, rich student parents who want gold and silver girdles for their sons and daughters). In fact, a snarky remark about protests is also added here: the government is looking at introducing bridles to the general populace anyway because of “disturbance of normalcy due to protests.”

A dangerous place

For anyone familiar with most colleges in Tamil Nadu (if not in India), this kind of policing is not uncommon: from bans against wearing leggings to disciplinary slips for interacting with students not of their own gender, from bans on mobile phones and other devices to the administrative crackdown on students protesting the CAA/NRC. Reading about the colleges Meghas and his father visit is merely a reiteration of memories of college trips or stories one hears on a daily basis, but in a slightly absurd mode. I say “slightly” because some of the events of the past year have significantly altered our conceptions of absurd, so much that it feels absurd to even begin to categorise it.

In the college that Meghas does choose, there are no strict curfews, no designer girdles, no custom-made handcrafted canes to punish students. The students are allowed their own phones, men and women can dress and interact with each other freely, the students are also rumoured to drink and do drugs (and we know how the gossip circles weave this one). Meghas, of course, has other reasons to go to the college as well: a friend’s brother studies there, there are very good prospects for pursuing studies abroad after the degree, the programme is great.

But almost every adult around Kumarasurar is convinced (much like the middle class uncle groups that populate our nearest vicinities) that colleges like these are the beginning of social ruin. Kumarasurar, of course, is ultimately helpless against his son’s pleas and sends Meghas to the college of his choice. But the anxiety continues to gnaw at his insides.

Even though there is nothing in Meghas’ behaviour that indicates his ‘going out of hand’, Kumarasurar struggles to confront change. Meghas, for all practical purposes, remains a studious, steadfast son, who has done nothing at all to warrant his father’s suspicion. Even his request for a new phone is well-reasoned. But Kumarasurar, suddenly confronted by the news around him, can only replay scenes from newspapers of young students dying in cellphone mishaps. Remember that period when all everyone could talk about was how selfies were causing people’s deaths?

Kumarasurar’s anxiety reaches a crescendo when he realises the potential of the internet after being introduced to pornography by a workplace junior. All he can see are naked bodies, people on the streets, the bus, his wife, himself, all of them seem naked. He obsessively washes his eyes with soap, refuses to exit his room or switch on the lights, and finally does so after three days, thoroughly scaring his wife and son.

But who are these asuras?

Already, one is forced to confront a fantastical world that is not too different from one’s own. But the final nail on the coffin is delivered by Perumal Murugan’s decision to entirely skip descriptions. It is not unknown that when we read, we picture a medley of things we are familiar with unless we are given the description for an alternative picture.

Descriptions are, by far, the best way to make us, the readers, not confuse the characters we are reading with our neighbour uncles, for example. In the absence of descriptions, what we have is almost entirely the constructed images from our own lives.

The reason for his choice of course, Perumal Murugan says, is that each of us have our own image of the Asura. It is not hard for the reader to imagine them. They are just “super-sized” humans; “it isn’t particularly difficult to imagine roads broad enough for Asuras to walk on and buildings tall enough for them to live in.”

We can make up our own versions of their world, their body build, their voices. But our world is characterised by the same rottenness and imperfection that he cites as reasons for setting the novel in Asuralokam. And so, we imagine the Asuras like ourselves. We imagine their world like ours.

And it is to our horror that we find that the face of Kumarasurar, the protagonist, is indeed that of our neighbour uncle, or worser still, our own father. But it gets worse, we realise that everything else exists in Asuralokam as well: that local laughter club, that jealous uncle who makes snide remarks about you, selfie-maniacs and their tragic ends, over-protective but easily compromised mothers, local roadside shops for tea and snacks, noisy children, barking dogs and lapping seawaves, incompetent governments and the fear of criticising their leaders, cut-throat college admissions, and the advent of internet and technology and the eternal paranoia of an older generation forced to make the shift. This world might as well be our own.

One can now imagine a cheeky wink at the end of every line of the preface. It is self-aware, it knows that it has made a huge novel joke, and is delightfully gleeful about it. This isn’t incisive commentary about Asuras, it is about us (and maybe all of us are indeed asuras). But then, from an author who used a goat to comment on humans, why can we not expect Asuras? And Murugan seems to ask: if all of us are Asuras, can we expect a change of heart and perception?

Estuary, Perumal Murugan, translated by Nandini Krishnan, eka.