As I close the book Mathorupagan by Perumal Murugan, and struggle to gather my thoughts on this book, particularly in the backdrop of the furore its translation (One Part Woman by Aniruddh Vasudevan) has created and the resultant decision of the author, I realize that this is one of those books which will stay with me for a long long time.
Kali and Ponnaa, farmers in a small village of Thiruchengodu area, enjoy a happy and fulfilling marriage. Inspite of a happy and sexually-active life, they are childless. Though they yearn for a child, it is the social stigma more than the personal need that drives them to perform various penances and rituals, drink all the herbal potions and even undertake some perilous athletic feats to satisfy and appease their Gods Mathorupagan (the part-male part-female form of the Hindu Gods Siva and Parvathy) and Puvatha, of whose wrath they may have earned by the wrong-doings of their ancestors.
People have this cruel way of pinpointing one’s deficiencies with the only aim of scoring a point over the other person, and the couple’s barrenness comes in handy for anyone who wants to win an argument over them. Open attacks, sly taunts and vehement arguments later, both Kali and Ponna withdraw themselves into a shell consisting of their home, their fields and their farm.
One night, when their mothers are heard construing a plan, Ponnaa is curious as well as worried that it might be a plan for a second marriage for Kali. Though Kali yearns for a child, he is not ready for another marriage, because he feels that Ponnaa might feel wounded if the other wife conceives, or it might be an injustice to another woman if she too does not conceive, thus proving Kali sterile.
It is at this juncture, that the controversial social practice is introduced. During the 15 day car festival of the Thiruchengodu temple of Mathorupagan, on the 14th night , there is (apparently) a custom where the rules of marriage are relaxed and a childless woman can choose to be with any man of her choice, considering him as her God. If a child is indeed conceived by this social and divine sanctioning, the child is considered God-given. [Note: The author quotes oral tradition as the evidence for this social practice; it is around this reference that the present controversy lies.]
Kali is hurt by the suggestion whereas Ponnaa is ready to oblige if he thinks they should. While Ponnaa’s helplessness and the innumerable insults that she has borne through the 12 long years make her say this, Kali is unable to tolerate even her readiness. The resultant emotions, the eventual choice of Ponnaa to do the unthinkable and the events that manipulate her to make the choice form the rest of the story.
+ + +
- The author has painted a beautiful picture of the life of people of a certain period (appears to be around the 1940s) in the kongunadu area — the local dialect, the nuances and the day-to-day life, pleasures and struggles of farmers.
- The emotions and feelings of Kali and Ponnaa at each stage of this journey leading to the climax have been captured with sensitivity.
- The Nallaa chithappan character, a rebel who cares a tuppence for the social mores, has been etched very well. Some of the questions raised in passing by Perumal Murugan through this character, are very critical and pertinent to our society.
! ! !
- Before the days of in-vitro fertilization and artificial insemination, what did our society do to face such an issue as childlessness? Second marriage of the man was an option that came in aid when the woman was sterile. The custom highlighted in the book shows that people did explore the possibility of male infertility and a potential solution was thought of, though covert.
? ? ?
- When we can easily accept bigamy, mistresses and even occasional and random waywardness in a man, why do we find it so difficult to accept such a one-time event for a purpose, when it concerns the woman? When Kali himself has been to the 14th night festival as a youngster, why does it become intolerable when it Ponnaa wants to make use of this custom? Isn’t this an expression of the male attitude of considering the woman as a possession?
Social and emotional drama/trauma