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International Booker 2023 longlist | Perumal Murugan’s haunting tale of caste oppression

After Geetanjali Shree's 'Tomb of Sand' won the 2022 International Booker Prize, another Indian novel is in the running for the International Booker this year.

March 18, 2023 / 08:01 AM IST
In his translator’s foreword, Aniruddhan Vasudevan explains that the book is

In his translator’s foreword, Aniruddhan Vasudevan explains that the book is "about caste and the resilient force that it is, but it is also about how strangely vulnerable caste and its guardians seem to feel in the face of love”. (Photo: Azraq Al Rezoan via Pexels)

Earlier this week, the Centre opposed pleas in the Supreme Court for the statutory recognition of same-sex marriage. This step, the government argued, would affect the country’s “social fabric”. However, the practice that has arguably done most damage to the stated fabric is that of caste discrimination.

The powerful fiction and non-fiction of many Dalit writers over the years has laid bare its appalling effects, and the same subject has often animated the work of Perumal Murugan. Though not himself a Dalit, his novels show how structural oppression leads to individual degradation. As Nilanjana Roy has written in an earlier piece on Murugan, “violence and complicity is a timeless Indian theme”.

The brouhaha over his One Part Woman led to Murugan’s declaration that the writer in him was dead. One of his poems from that turbulent time reads: “Someone has painted over my head a pair of horns/everyone can see/Someone has turned me/into a strange beast.” Thankfully enough, there was a resurrection, and other work soon followed.

Before that incident, there was Pūkkuli, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan from Tamil into English as Pyre. It was on the DSC Prize longlist in 2017, and published in the UK and US last year. Now, it has earned a place on this year’s International Booker Prize longlist, the only work from India to be included.

Reading the novel is like watching a fuse burn down to the incendiary conclusion foretold in the title. Pyre is the haunting story of a fateful union between Kumaresan and Saroja. He first meets her when he leaves his village to work in a shop at a nearby town, where she lives with her father and brother. The initially shy and stumbling relationship soon blossoms into marriage.

When the couple returns to his village, the overriding question asked by others is: to what caste does she belong? Kumaresan dismisses these enquiries by claiming that it is the same as the rest of them, but they aren’t quite convinced. To Saroja, he says: “If they ask about your caste, don’t say anything. I will answer.”

Among the most relentless detractors is his widowed mother, who berates them regularly and wails about her fate to anyone within listening distance. In the background, venomous village gossip swells like a Greek chorus.

The union between the two remains strong, despite Kumaresan’s despairing efforts to find independence through work and Saroja’s passive bafflement at the state of affairs. She starts to think of her life as a plant that had been uprooted from a place it had flourished. “Would its roots hold on to the earth in this unfamiliar place? Would the soil accept this new plant? Would the plant like the taste of the water here?”

The gibes the couple have to face become hostile, and give way to open threats. “The entire village bears a mark of impurity,” they are told, “if there is a woman here whose caste or family are unknown”. The consequences are tragic and predictable.

Murugan drives home his theme through a series of telling contrasts. The inquisitiveness of village life is compared with the relative indifference of a town; the rocky patch of land on which the couple live is markedly dissimilar to the surrounding area; and the private tenderness between individuals is at odds with the so-called public honour of a community.

His prose is simple and effective, with the ability to capture shifting nuances and fluctuating hopes. In particular, the device of moving between past and present by having characters reflect on earlier times is fruitful for the way it reveals their fears and expectations.

In his translator’s foreword, Aniruddhan Vasudevan sums up the spirit of the book by writing: “This is a novel about caste and the resilient force that it is, but it is also about how strangely vulnerable caste and its guardians seem to feel in the face of love.”

With Pyre, Murugan has once again spotlighted the inhumanity of everyday acts of discrimination and the ways they can spiral out of control.

Sanjay Sipahimalani is a Mumbai-based writer and reviewer.
first published: Mar 18, 2023 08:01 am