Wednesday, June 15, 2016

Perumal Murugan's Pyre, A Review: In TNIE

Like One Part Woman, Pyre was nothing spectacular. But that is not to say that it wasn't good. Like the controversial One Part Woman, this is an important novel, touching upon caste and portrays the politics of villages very well. Would recommend.

Read the review in The New Indian Express' magazine section here, or see below.


The ‘death’ of the writer Perumal Murugan early last year catapulted him into fame beyond the Tamil-reading audiences he was previously restricted to. Faced with violent protests against his first novel to be translated into English, One Part Woman, he wrote a poignant Facebook post announcing that the writer called Perumal Murugan was dead. On the heels of that controversial novel comes another translation, that of Pookkuzhi, in English as Pyre.

Murugan retains the theme of caste and the many issues that arise because of it in Pyre. He places the weight of the narrative on the two protagonists, Saroja and Kumaresan who are in love, and after getting married in the big town, come to Kumaresan’s village. Naively, they think that they will be able to live in peace, once the initial uproar of their inter-caste marriage dies down. They are desperate to hide this secret, and the villagers are not the sort that will overlook this effrontery. But try as they might, the question of Saroja’s caste never dies down. Soon suspicions become confirmed truths and what happens is a tragedy played out every day in the hinterlands of this country, though rarely reported.

Murugan’s characters inhabit wholly the rural geography he places them in. The tamarind trees that line the road to Kumaresan’s village, the rocks that overlook his tiny thatched hut and the politics around the tap that the women go to, to fetch water are as much characters in Murugan’s story as are the tragic hero and heroine. The intense curiosity of the villagers and the elders that make up all the rules of love, life and death are instantly relatable to anyone familiar with the workings of any village. By introducing the potent character of the caste system, Murugan makes Pyre a wholly contemporary story of villages everywhere in the country, where the question of which caste you are and how it measures in relation to everyone else’s is the only determinant of how you shall live, if at all.

Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation retains the simple rural flavor of the Tamil countryside. But the differences in dialects that Kumaresan and Saroja’s people speak refuses to come out in the translation – a fact the translator readily admits, calling it “an instance where specificity of language use resists translatability.” Some more of Murugan’s narrative style is lost in translation, Vasudevan further writes. But for a reader approaching the text in translation without any familiarity with the original, this loss is rarely felt.

Pyre’s simplistic storyline, while making it highly readable, doesn’t diminish its importance in the current socio-political landscape of Tamil Nadu, not least of the entire country.

Perumal Murugan
Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
Hamish Hamilton
Pages 200, Rs 399

What Did We Talk About When We Didn't Know About Frederick the Great?: Filter Coffee Column This Month

On the loud, loud noises on social media. Read on the Kindle website here or see below.


There is a beautiful black horse in the United States that is now being hailed as the most beautiful horse in the world. Called, very appropriately, Frederik the Great, he sure is gorgeous, with a flowing mane that supposedly takes two hours a day to care for and condition, a glistening coat that must take just as much maintenance and a showmanship, a degree of arrogance that is in keeping with his looks. The internet is in rapture about his beauty. There are comparisons being made to how romantic he is and how they could drown in his soulful eyes. There are lines being written about him that read like lines in a Mills and Boon romance.

Then the other day there was a dress that went viral because people couldn’t decide what colour it was. Or was that last year? It is so hard to keep up these days when the internet insists on changing the topic of discussion every day. What is it today? Something Rahul Gandhi said? “The climate hasn’t changed, it is we who have changed” or some such nonsense the prime minister of this country has declared? A video of a baby accidently saying a cuss word and being cute as babies as doing that? I haven’t logged on to Twitter yet today for the day’s gossip.

This is a nostalgia post. I am told I do that well. Here is how the train of thought chugged: I read about Frederik and saw how beautiful he was. Then I wanted to read more and ended up reading comments that romanticized how he looked. He’s a horse, let’s remember that. If this were a woman and so much was written about her looks, imagine how many space that story would have taken! Never mind that. Concentrate on the horse. So then I read comments that compared him to strapping young men with long hair that guaranteed their wildness – women have always loved the bad boys. Then I began to think about the many, many, Mills and Boons I read in my not-too-misspent youth and how they were such a big deal back then. Are they just as popular these days? I have always wondered if the kids these days read them, or whether they are too tame. And from there I went on to wonder at “back in our day” and what we talked about. Yes, I am old enough to be saying ‘back in our day.’

We talked about boy bands a lot I think. The first lot of them – Backstreet Boys, Boyzone and the rest chocolate faced boys – were just getting popular and we talked about our favourites and cut out their photos from magazines to keep within the pages of our notebooks. Later on in college we talked about careers (a bit), music and the wonderful movies we were studying and a little bit of campus politics. Not many of us agreed with everyone else but I don’t remember being outraged every single damn day. We said our bit when we felt like and tried to listen to the others and got on with life without wanting to lynch them. Yes, we truly did. We talked about trivia too, maybe not black horses but we did talk of inconsequential things too but we didn’t go on and on the whole day and involve the whole wide community while doing so.

Social media tires me, can’t you tell? There is so much noise there that I am turning an online acousticophobe. I learnt that word yesterday. My problem isn’t as much with the noise as it is about the frivolousness of every argument. It reaches a peak when the trolls come out in full swag and armour and then it falls flat when either of the parties moves on with something else. Not that every argument needs a conclusion, or deserves one or gets one. It is just the sheer amount of effort that is required to keep on top of everything that goes on online, at the cost of every other work of course, that makes me worry, about mankind, if you will allow me that presumptuousness.

Look at all that you need to do: keep track of what the influencers are talking about, decide which side of the argument you want to be on, decide who you want to back and who you want to pull down, be at least a wee bit familiar with what the topic is so you won’t feel wholly foolish (ignore if you are a troll), then think of some semi-intelligent side of the argument to make, then be constantly logged in to reply to said arguments and then figure out when to move on to what the twitterati has already started talking about. Timing, my friend, is the most important thing.

Back in our day we read books or watched something or went somewhere or did something and wrote about in a journal or took pictures that needed developing when the reel was finished or talked about it with friends when school reopened. Now, unless you report all this diligently on social media, it might as well never have happened.

And yet, they own you, Gmail and Facebook and the rest. They have all your information, even if you didn’t put it there. What can you do? Even a thatched hut in vanavasa might be hash tagged and geo-linked. There is always only one way that civilization will be headed in.

As for me, I don’t FB. Aren’t they all verbs now? I tweet only when I have to share published works. I do like IG. For now. I don’t quite know what Snapchat is. There will be something new soon that I will happily not know about. I look at the big black horse and feel like the ostrich with its head stuck in the sand, a story that is supposedly not true. But then, what is wholly true in what you see on social media?