Pyre by Perumal Murugan | Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan | Grove Press, Black Cat, USA | February 15, 2022
Reviewer: SHALVI JAXAY SHAH
Perumal Murugan grew up in a family of farmers in Tamil Nadu. Internationally, he is known widely for One Part Woman, which was longlisted for the inaugural National Book Award for Translation. When the book was first published in India, he was attacked, threatened, and forced to write an apology by a caste-sensitive and religiously fanatic mob. In the aftermath of this violence, he announced to the world: “Perumal Murugan, the writer, is dead.” After some time passed, although the justice system in India upheld his right to write, he continued to state, “I am fearful of writing about humans.” Later, he wrote The Story of a Goat, an Orwellian parable of female trauma written from the perspective of a female goat. While beautifully executed and rendered into fluid English by N. Kalyan Raman, there was a missing facet to the narrative that could only have been layered in with varied gender-related and hierarchy-driven intersectional human behaviors.
In Pyre, Murugan returns to the human world with prose so sparsely translated that it hits hard like a sledgehammer. Translator Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s style ranges from lyrical to thrilling, but the simplicity of the prose never veers from the equally stark, rural surroundings described in the book. In his note, Vasudevan proclaims: “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 . . .”
Belonging to different castes, Kumaresan and Saroja is a traumatized married couple hounded by Kumaresan’s village-folk and family. Kumaresan’s widowed mother welcomes Saroja home by belting out an unsettling funeral dirge. The other men and women around the husband and wife take pleasure in comparing Saroja to food, animals, witches. “She seemed like a lush crop of corn—perhaps a little withered and dull right now, but easily refreshed with just a drop of rain”; “Such a rare piece of sweet jaggery!”; “But he has unleashed a cat upon us”; “Ride a double bullock cart” (referring to Kumaresan’s apparent inevitable cheating.) And these appear in just the first four chapters of the novel.
Whenever women talk in the novel, they display an inexplicable tendency to shove their own kind out of the conversation, focusing on how men are the sole affected victims of inter-caste marriages. There’s a particularly strong inclination in their language to blame the woman, delineating Murugan’s apparent thesis of caste being a socio-patriarchal construct. It fails the Bechdel rather spectacularly and the sleight of hand in narrating it is less subtle than is typical of Murugan. Caste is clearly something he is inordinately sensitive about, and for good reason.
The great Dr. Ambedkar saw caste as a restrictive, confined social interaction goaded along by inter-religious dogma, where the ultimate goal was a perfected structural breeding program. There is a matching frenzy in the xenophobia expressed by the village citizens, which eventually escalates to violent oppression.
Kumaresan and Saroja are not star-crossed lovers. The term “star-crossed” is indicative of an equal, universal fate, which is denied Saroja in this story. Kumaresan, too, eventually fails to rise to her expectations. He is nothing like the knight she had previously envisioned him to be. Battered by the relentless nagging and ostracizing of his village elders, he begins to doubt himself and his ability to lead Saroja to the conflict-free, happy life he’d promised her. Engrossed in starting his own soda-bottle business, he extricates himself from Saroja’s trauma altogether. She is slapped, shoved, insulted, shunned. All we see from Kumaresan in response is the instruction for her to remain voiceless.
When the issue of their marriage eventually reaches the political strata of their village, we see how intertwined political ideology is with propagating modern caste norms. It becomes impossible to separate the language of those in power from the language of those who are consequently oppressed. The couple is so left out, so relegated to subaltern spheres, it is a monumental task to distinguish between cruelty, callousness, and cold-hearted calculation. In a similarly twisted trick of the times, Saroja eventually realizes she is pregnant—news that brings her more trauma. Now fearing for her life—stories of ‘honor killings’ prevalent enough in pastoral parts of the country—we are left with an undecided fate for her, urging us to come to our own conclusions as to the end of Murugan’s story. It is disheartening to leave Kumaresan and Saroja there; it is equally thought-provoking to lead the reader to learn the biases of their own expectations. Therein lies the simple brilliance of Murugan’s story: he does not seem to deal in platitudes; in his stories, the responsibility of inferring the current state of the populace is left entirely to the reader.
While not exactly fulfilling a line of thought the reader assumes the plot is leading to, Murugan nevertheless has powerful imagery to help us facilitate an approximation of our own conclusions. Much more can be discussed about the beautiful natural description that sets the atmosphere of the book. For those uninitiated to Murugan’s writing, the ecology can sometimes take over the metaphors in what this reviewer sees as a satisfyingly meaningful way. “The path ahead of her was strewn with long, slithering white snakes whose heads or tails she could not discern,” Saroja proclaims in the beginning of the book, hauntingly echoing and setting the tone for the rest of the book, where caste acts as a Medusa-esque enemy, impossible to behead in its entirety.
As much as it is a privilege to have Murugan’s commentary on caste with us today, maybe we would be better off to take it as warning. After all, Murugan’s intention may only be to make us think. How wonderful would it be to take it as a call to action.
Shalvi Jaxay Shah is a writer and translator based in Ahmedabad and New York City. She has an MFA in fiction and literary translation from Columbia University, where she taught writing. Most times, she can be found indulging her dog and drinking tea. Twitter: @shallwe_write.
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