This book review is part of #TSBCReadsIndia, a reading challenge wherein one reads a book from each State and Union Territory of India. Presenting the second of 36 books to be read — the book from Tamil Nadu — in this literary journey across India.
Prior to the controversy over the Tamil novel, Madhorubagan, I hadn’t heard of either the novel or its author, Perumal Murugan. Or about the English translation of this book, One Part Woman, by Aniruddhan Vasudevan.
I first heard of the controversy on Twitter. What started off as a few stray tweets in the morning, had turned into a full-blown outrage by the afternoon. Normally, I ignore twitter outrages as I find them tiresome, but this was different as it was about a book.
I followed the outrage that day on Twitter and then as Twitter predictably found something new to outrage about the next day, I moved to other sources of information. I also bought a Kindle version of the book with the intention of reading it at the earliest. Soon the controversy died down, the media moved to other stories, and the book remained unread.
Then #TSBCReadsIndia happened and I decided on Tamil Nadu as the first stop in my literary journey across India. That’s when I remembered One Part Woman, and realised that it was a book that fit all my criteria for the reading challenge — it was translated, it was recent, and the controversy surrounding the book was the bonus. 🙂
On Part Woman is set in pre-independent India (late 1930s to early 1940s) in and around the temple town of Thiruchengode (in present day Namakkal district) of Tamil Nadu. The original Tamil, Madhorubagan, was published in 2010, and the English translation, One Part Woman, in 2013 by Penguin India.
The book, which has a simple storyline, draws its name from the principal deity at the main temple situated on the hill and is known as Madhorubagan or One Part Woman. Another, more familiar name for the deity is Ardhanareeshwara or the half man, half woman form of Shiva.
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Kali (short for Kaliyannan) and Ponna are a childless couple from the Gounder community. When the story begins, they have been married for 12 years. They are very happy together and love each other deeply, but childlessness is a heavy burden for them to bear. Left to themselves, they might have come to terms with it, but society around them does not let them.
Everyone had been patient for six months after the wedding. But there had been innuendos even before that. Then they started asking direct questions. The only way to save oneself was to conceive in the first month of marriage. Otherwise, the interrogation would begin in some form or another. His mother, who was patient for six months, started her treatments soon after that. (pg. 42)
Ponna does everything and anything that is asked of her — take bitter potions, undertake special fasts, visit temples, pray, offer sacrifices… Along with Kali, and in the matter of prayers, they do “not discriminate between small and big temples.” (pg.49) Ponna and Kali often console each other by saying…
So what if we don’t have children? We can still triumph. We can write off the little land we have to some temple. Or else, we can leave it to someone who has nothing. Let him make a living out of it. (pg. 54-55)
Kali and Ponna deal with their childlessness very differently. Ponna makes her frustrations public and anyone who passes nasty comments gets a tongue lashing or a cheeky retort. As for Kali, he suffers questions and comments of being impotent and stops socialising with his friends unless absolutely essential.
But as the years go by and comments from family and villagers increase, so does their desperation to have a child. There is pressure on Kali to remarry, which makes Ponna very insecure. It doesn’t help that her own parents support a second marriage for Kali, with the condition that Ponna must be taken care of well. Kali does consider a second marriage, but
he… abandoned the idea. In truth, the thought had occurred to him once or twice, but his mind simply could not see any other woman in Ponna’s place. (pg. 78)… Although he had no children, Kali was very happy with Ponna. (pg. 82)
Months and years roll by and Kali and Ponna keep trying for a child in the hope that a miracle will happen. One day, Ponna’s mother comes to invite her daughter and Kali for the annual temple chariot festival at Thiruchengode. The festival is an annual 15-day event and everyone in the villages surrounding the temple town and beyond congregate for it. This is also the time for Ponna to visit her natal home.
There is nothing unusual about Ponna’s mother’s visit or her invitation; what is unusual is that she spends the night at Kali’s mother’s house, which is next door. The two old women are up the whole night whispering to each other. Both Kali and Ponna are convinced that it is one more attempt at a second marriage for Kali, but they are wrong.
A few days later, Kali’s mother seeks him out in private to tell him of what she discussed with Ponna’s mother. It is one more way that he and Ponna could have a child. It is an ancient custom, well-known, but not spoken about much and centres around the chariot festival at Thiruchengode. On the 14th day of the chariot festival, when the gods were returned to their temple abodes in the hill, a special night unfolds at Thiruchengode. It is a night where all social rules are broken and
Any consenting man and woman could have sex [in Thiruchengode]. In the narrow lanes, on the fields around the village, in the rest stops on the hill, and on the open surfaces of the rocks… Darkness cast a mask on every face. It is in such revelry that the primal being in man surfaces. (pg. 98)
Kali is told that the two mothers approve of this method. It is now upto Kali to give his approval to send Ponna to Thiruchengode on the 14th night of the chariot festival. Kali is shocked at the suggestion, and refuses to consider it. He also doesn’t tell Ponna about it. In fact, for the next two years he neither visits the chariot festival nor lets Ponna visit her natal home.
When the time for the chariot festival comes along in the third year, Kali knows that he can’t keep quiet any longer and risk Ponna being told about this by someone else. So one evening, he tells Ponna about what his mother had told him and asks her:
Will you listen to your mother and mine and go on the day when the gods retreat?’… His heart was thumping, waiting for her reply. She murmured: ‘If you want me to go for the sake of this wretched child, I will.’ (pg. 107)
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And that is all I’m going to say about the story of One Part Woman, for this marks the turning point in both the narration and the relationship between Ponna and Kali. Also, I cannot go any further without being accused of revealing the whole story !
Childlessness, societal pressure, rules, regulations, morality, empowerment, double standards, legend, myth, drama, values, cultural practices… all merge seamlessly to create One Part Woman. The book unfolds at an unhurried pace. I don’t mean to say that the book is slow; far from it. It just gives the right amount of time to savour and understand the context, the setting, the time period and, of course, the characters.
The are no elaborate descriptions of attire or clothes, but the unwritten rules of dressing for men and women from the Gounder community are conveyed effortlessly. Similarly, the time period of the novel is very casually inserted in the story very naturally. Ponna and Kali are the main characters, but there are a host of others who have pivotal roles to play — Muthu (Ponna’s brother), Nallayappan (Kali’s distant uncle), Kali’s mother, Pavatha (the hill goddess), among others.
The book is very visual and as I read the book each scene unfolded just like a movie. Aanangur, the village where Kali and Ponna stay, their farm, their barn and the cows and goats they raise, the portia tree at both Kali’s house and Ponna’s house would come into focus as I read the book. Kali and Ponna’s life, their little tiffs and sulks, the nosy people around them, Kali’s irascible and eccentric uncle Nallayappan… all became very real. I could feel the sting of arrack that Kali’s mother had to steady her nerves before telling him of the 14th night of the chariot festival.
You can feel Kali’s despair at the latest ‘solution’ being offered for childlessness and Ponna’s blind acceptance of whatever her husband decides for her. You feel Ponna’s hurt at being called barren and being left out of fertility rituals. You also feel Kali’s shame at being considered as impotent by his friends. You wonder at the stigma of being childless and you also notice a parallel theme of the stigma of being single. Most of all I wonder at what happens in the end as the book ends in a very intriguing manner.
Then again, one also wonders at the controversy surrounding the book and what was the reason behind banning it. According to the right-wing Hindu factions in Tamil Nadu who wanted the book banned, the book showed Hindu women in a bad light. I read the book twice and both times I didn’t find anything objectionable or derogatory or vulgar to Hindu women (presuming it is one homogeneous group !). If the right-wing Hindu groups found the practice of sex between consenting adults for the sake of a child derogatory, what would they have to say about the Pandavas who were born to different fathers, or Draupadi who had five husbands? But I must thank the controversy for I may have otherwise not discovered this gem of a book.
I loved One Part Woman. I found in it a raw energy that questioned and probed society attitudes in such a sublime manner. The translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan is spot on and I never felt that I was reading a translation; I felt that I was reading the original. That, for me, is the mark of an excellent translation. If there is one regret I have, then it is about not being able to read the Tamil original.
I read the book twice and each time I got further insight and clarity on the book. I have a feeling that when I read it again, I will not be bored; instead I would probably be relishing some new insight.
It’s that type of a book !
- I don’t know the length of the physical book of One Part Woman; on the Kindle, it was 240 pages long and all page numbers quoted here are based on the Kindle numbering.
- If you need more details on #TSBCReadsIndia, please head to the TSBC blog, or you could leave a comment here which I’ll be very happy to answer.
- If you want to know more about The Sunday Book Club then you can read more about it on my blog here or head over to the TSBC Blog.