There are two stories here about public pressure leading to unhappy consequences. The first is the story of the childless couple in rural India in the 1940s. Public pressure to have children drives a wedge between them. The second story concerns the book and the author following publication. He was driven to give up writing for a while in the face of extreme pressure.
Perumal Murugan is a successful Tamil writer, with ten novels and five collections of short stories to his name. This novel was first published in 2010. In India it was very successful, selling more than 100,000 copies. The English version, translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, was first published in 2013.
My copy was provided by publisher, Pushkin Press.
One Part Woman
The novel is located in south India in the 1940s, in a rural community. Kali and Ponna have been happily married and enjoy living quietly tending their farm. It becomes apparent that one of the reasons they live so quietly is they are upset by the taunts of their community because, despite twelve years of marriage, they have no children. Nevertheless, they have a good understanding of each other, and in time might have come to terms with their lack of children. But their families and the villagers will not leave them alone.
The couple try all kinds of prayers, lotions and potions. Fearing it might be the result of some ancestors’ insults that have offended the gods, they make all kinds of offerings to the deities. They allow their family and friends to recommend all kinds of remedies, often involving rituals, or diets and yet nothing works.
Their families suggest Kali takes a second wife, but he rejects this as it will not satisfy Ponna, and he is quite happy with her. One drunken night Kali is talking to a man whose wife is pregnant again and who does not know how they will manage.
‘All right, don’t worry. Just give me the child that is going to be born. I will raise it,’ Kali said to Mandayan. …
‘Samee, don’t you have a child yet?’
‘Don’t get me started on that. There is nowhere we have not prayed, no god we have not made offerings to. Nothing has happened, Mandaya. That’s why I am asking you for your child.’
‘That’s it, then. I will give you the child that is going to be born. You raise it.’ (201)
Mandaya’s wife objects. Kali in his drunken state, had been tempted, but he wondered if it would have satisfied his wife.
The story follows the growing division between husband and wife as they try to resolve their situation. Eventually her family put pressure on Kali to allow Ponna to attend the Hindu festival in which men and women are allowed to behave without normal restraints and in which all men are considered gods. They want her to conceive and argue to each partner that the context of the festival makes this course of action moral.
Kali forbids it the first year, and Ponna has said she would only agree if he does. The next year her brother tricks her into believing Kali has agreed. He removes Kali so he does not know what has been planned for his wife. The novel finishes as Kali returns home and realises that Ponna has gone to the festival.
We see the tensions created by these strong cultural conventions about marriage and how the couple are gradually driven apart. The novel has many sensuous aspects, especially related to food and to physical relaxation and the demands of farming. The writing about the love between Ponna and Kali is especially tender.
Social convention and pressure on couples to have children, the taunts and humiliations that Kali and Ponna experience ensure that the love between the individuals will not survive.
Perumal Murugan lives and writes in Tamil Nadu. When the book was published the Kongu Vellala community, backed by local Hindu right-wingers, claimed the novel showed their religious practices and their women in a bad light. He was forced to apologise after the book was burned, there were public protests and a court case. The author claims he had evidence of the existence of the festival.
‘Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. Leave him alone,’ he wrote on his Facebook page after he was forced to apologise for his book.
Eventually the Madras High Court upheld his right to free expression.He has taken up writing again since.
One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan, first published in Tamil in 2010 and in English translation by Pushkin Press in 2019. 245pp
Translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
Thanks to the publisher for supplying my copy.