If a society’s pathological obsession with child bearing rends a loving family and sets a couple against each other in Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubagan (translated as One Part Woman), in his Pookuzhi ( Pyre), a community’s pathological compulsion with caste leaves us shaking and speechless at the violence of intent and action of humans.
Riveting in its chronicling, Pyre drags the reader through the rollercoaster of emotions that Kumaresan and Saroja go through after the couple, from different castes, elope and marry. It is easy to see how the forcefulness of the slender novel impelled the International Booker Prize panel of judges to put the book on its famed longlist.
The International Booker Prize is chosen from a shortlist of six books, derived from a longlist of 13, and this year, the jury chose the ‘Booker Dozen’ from a total of 134 submissions (published in the U.K. or Ireland between May 2022 and April 2023). Murugan’s Pyre, originally published in 2016 and brought out in a new edition by Pushkin Press in August 2022, is the first Tamil translation to enter the list.
‘Challenging to translate’
Pyre is translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan who began a fine job rendering the Kongu region’s earthiness and dialect with his first translation of the author’s Madhorubagan ( One Part Woman, 2013). Here, he carries on, this time acknowledging in his note that the dialogue in the book was challenging to translate — “the specificity of language use resists translatability”.
Reading the Tamil works of Murugan, an author who effortlessly uses a certain dialect and descriptive narrative style to document not only the humdrum and the quotidian, but also a rather modern Dickensian world-view of society, reveals the niche his body of work occupies, and the challenge any translator would have.
No doubt then that despite his protestations, Vasudevan has done justice; in his translation, the conversations, endearments, hopelessness, villainy and anger don’t sound alien. The smell of the earth is intact, packaged in a language that familiarises something distantly familiar, renders it perceivable and yet, unique.
“Perumal Murugan is a great anatomist of power and, in particular, of the deep, deforming rot of caste hatred and violence. With flashes of fable, his novel tells a story specific and universal: how flammable are fear and the distrust of others,” the jury records on the Booker website.
The books, authors and translators the prize celebrates offer readers a window to the world, and the opportunity to experience the lives of people from other cultures, the website says.
The ‘Madhorubagan’ controversy
Murugan, incidentally, declared himself ‘dead’ after a massive controversy broke out over Madhorubagan, which chronicled a community’s practice of allowing its women who have not borne a child in marriage to spend a night with a stranger, and considering the offspring from such a union as a gift from God. It was this controversy that truly shone a light on the genius of Murugan, making it clear that a literary sun had risen in the Tamil firmament.
Here is a writer who couches his entire world in a specific dialect, and within that, he immerses his readers, particularly urbanites, in a world they slowly manage to figure out, even if they understand the compulsions that drive his characters only at a conceptual level. In Murugan-verse, one can rest assured that the window to the world inside the novel or short story swings wide open at the word go.
The powerful portrayal of community values — caste, untouchability, the rigid emphasis on family, the position of woman, feudalism — that sculpts his characters’ world view is sometimes delivered as a fell blow, as in Pyre, or as a gentle and fatalistic narration, as in Poonachi (2019).
Murugan, who now has under his belt a collection of 10 novels, five collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry, is an author who not only intensely understands his protagonists, but also unerringly captures the mind space of his female characters, whether it is Saroja of Pyre, or Ponna of One Part Woman, or even Poonachi, the female black goat. Critics who have pointed to a simplicity of premise and plot in his novels have marvelled at how they have still borne such complexities as often boggle the mind.
The author told The Hindu after the Booker announcement that he was “extremely happy”, qualifying that his joy comes from the fact that Pyre is “the first Tamil novel that has found a place in the Booker longlist”.
It remains to be seen whether Pyre will go on to set the path on fire in its Booker journey. After the English translation of Geetanjali Shree’s haunting Hindi novel on the Partition (Tomb of Sand) won the International Booker last year, it is not quite avarice to hope for Tamil’s triumph on the same podium in 2023.