Cuts like a diamond: Perumal Murugan’s Pyre review

Perumal Murugan’s Pyre glows with as much power as Maadhorubaagan did, and adds immeasurable value to contemporary Indian literature.

April 09, 2016 04:10 pm | Updated March 14, 2023 05:39 pm IST

Perumal Murugan’s Pyre , translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, is on the International Man Booker Prize long list for 2023.

“Meditative, joyous, humbling” — three words Aniruddhan Vasudevan uses in his translator’s note. Words that describe perfectly the sensations with which you put down Perumal Murugan’s Pyre , a book marked with the same quality of luminous integrity and beauty seen in Maadhorubaagan (One Part Woman) . What a world of hidden treasure is being unveiled by this writer and his sensitive translator. Like the creepers and tendrils of the Kongu land he describes so lovingly, it twines around and holds you fast.

It should not have taken the senseless raging against Maadhorubaagan for us to notice this extraordinary writer. Our literary ecosystem should have quivered with recognition when his first books emerged but conditioned as we are to reading second-hand accounts of ourselves we are mostly blind to the flames beyond our neon-lit windows. And now I find myself instead being grateful in a grotesquely inappropriate way to the poisonous controversy that brought Perumal Murugan within my ken.

In reading someone like Murugan, there is always a sense of wonderment and mourning at the resonances lost in not reading in Tamil, but Aniruddhan translates with a fine ear that preserves beautifully the music of the original. You hear the lilt of yen thanga katti, yen kannu kutty in the brother’s endearments to his sister: ‘My piece of gold, my little calf…’ When Saroja sits in her best sari on the blazing rock to wait for her husband Kumaresan and her mother-in-law curses her for “looking like a lush erukku shrub”, the picture comes alive. Seeing the fair and fragile Saroja, the villagers predict that she will splutter and die in the unforgiving heat like “a little sesame seed”.

Pyre is the love story of Saroja and Kumaresan, who belong to different castes. They run away and get married, and then they go to Kumaresan’s remote village to face a mother and a family and an entire community rearing in fury at this breach of faith. It’s a wrath they soon realise they have nothing to fight with except the strength of their love.

I have yet to read an Indian author who writes of love as beautifully as Murugan does. As in Maadhorubaagan , here too, the love between man and wife glows with a sweet, strong passion that draws you into its folds like the drowsy buzzing of bees on a heady summer afternoon. Describing the look in Kumaresan’s eyes when he gazes at Saroja, he says they came alive like the brilliant “glow of ashen embers” when you blow once upon them. When Kumaresan cups Saroja’s face in his hands, when he kisses her temple, when he smiles at her and calls her pilla , the tenderness pours off the pages like golden honey.

And yet, this is also a story of blinding hate, a hate that is all the more dehumanising because it is engendered not by personal enmity but by the impersonal, communal, and all-encompassing demands of caste. There is an ominous passage when the villagers come to serve an ultimatum and ask Kumaresan, ‘Do you think you can antagonize the village and remain alive?’ It is echoed a little later by his mother Marayi who says, ‘You will have respect as long as you stay with the crowd’.

We who have grown old reading news articles about boys like Shankar and Ilavarasan murdered for marrying upper-caste girls are numb to deaths now; they wash over us like faraway fairytales about evil ogres. But Murugan doesn’t allow you that luxury. By drawing you deep into the lives of Saroja and Kumaresan, into the rhythms of their land and language, their trees, their birds and goats, he makes you complicit in everything that happens in the village. And by the end of it, Murugan makes you mourn with Marayi as deeply as you want to run away with Saroja.

Marayi’s is a powerful voice — it stands for centuries of unquestioning obeisance to the gods of tradition and caste purity. Her laments and the litany of the villagers’ commentary are an unremitting and dark Greek chorus. Marayi’s monologues, like Maurya’s in J.M. Synge’s Riders to the Sea , ring in your ears with their keening long after you’ve turned the page, and you know why Saroja is slowly losing her mind as she sits alone on that strangely anthropomorphic rock outside her new home. As in Riders , Murugan’s characters are powerless in the face of a larger power that bears down upon them with all the relentlessness of an act of god.

Nature is a constant protagonist. The rock, the neem tree, the thorny copse, the long, winding road — the writer makes every familiar sight throb. Take this passage, for instance: ‘She had never set her bare feet on a rock before. It touched her with the combined sensation of Kumaresan’s soft hands and his rough embrace, the memory of which made her shiver with pleasure every time she walked on the rock’s surface.’

This is Murugan’s rich Kongu land, which he has mined so deeply and well. It’s a barren, sun-scorched and unforgiving land but it comes blazingly alive in the writer’s eloquent voice.

To classify Perumal Murugan’s books as vattaara ilakkiyam or sub-regional literature would be tragic, because he succeeds in universalising Kongu Nadu to such a degree that place and person fall away and all that remains is a hard and glittering gem of a story.

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