The two sequels to One Part Woman may have different stories, but they demolish archaic beliefs equally.
Kali was found hanging from the branch of a tree in the family courtyard early one morning. The general explanation for his suicide was childlessness. Kali had been married to Ponna for 12 years, and they were happy like any other married man and woman. But they were also different; tying them was a kind of love that made others jealous. So when Kali killed himself, people had several things to say about his death. His family had another reason.
Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s new novel, A Lonely Harvest, brings back the couple he had made famous in his controversial novel, One Part Woman. Originally written as Madhorubagan in Tamil in 2010, One Part Woman (2013) was the story of a young couple unable to conceive. The novel led to protests against its portrayal of Hindu traditions, especially rituals about childless women meeting strange men at a chariot festival to conceive. Murugan, a college teacher in Namakkal district of Tamil Nadu, was forced to move to Chennai with his family after the protests.
Copies of the book were burned and a criminal case was lodged against the author for hurting religious sentiments. Murugan quit writing, saying the writer in him was dead. He returned to writing only in 2016 after the Madras High Court ruled that a writer should be able to write without fear. Murugan’s sequel to One Part Woman was written before the protests began in 2015. In fact, he wrote two sequels—A Lonely Harvest and Trial by Silence—that were published simultaneously in Tamil in 2014. The sequels give two different scenarios, one (A Lonely Harvest) in which Kali kills himself unable to bear the pain of Ponna’s betrayal in going to another man. In the other, Trial by Silence, he survives to live another day.
“Many readers of One Part Woman wondered what would happen to Kali at the end of the novel,” says the author in the preface to the sequels. If Murugan took the ritual surrounding a temple festival to a new level in One Part Woman, dissecting gender, divinity and love, his focus in the sequels is more on the mundane things. While Kali didn’t like it, his mother Seerayi and Ponna’s mother Vallayi and brother Muthu wanted Ponna to go to the chariot festival and meet a man there to become pregnant, as many childless women did in the community. It was a ritual that existed with everyone’s knowledge. What the family didn’t know was Kali’s inner turmoil arising from the love that binds him to Ponna.
Though the sequels start in different directions with a suicide and a suicide attempt, they both chart similar journeys in celebrating life. A major voice in Dalit literature in the country, the author gathers his characters in the two novels to question the traditions that hand over power inside households to men. In A Lonely Harvest, first published in Tamil as Aalavaayan, the community learns that Ponna is pregnant, three months after Kali’s death. Though it begins with a death, the plot unravels to chart a different journey. While the three women—Ponna, mother Vallayi and mother-in-law Seerayi—come together to write their own stories, many barriers are broken and many egos are bruised.
In Trial by Silence, published in Tamil as Ardhanaari, Kali lives to face the consequences of a ritual when he learns that Ponna is pregnant. Set over a century ago, the sequels smell of a contemporariness soaked in gender inequality and injustice. Two old women standing by a young woman, pregnant three months after the death of her husband, is an open revolt to present-day stigmas frozen in medieval mindsets. Murugan’s efforts to tie his women characters to their land form the central part of his new novels. Ponna’s farm, left idle by the departure of Kali in one and his indifference in the other, is the antithesis of the festival for divine conception in One Part Woman. If his previous novel dealt with the rituals surrounding a “half-female god”, his new novels dwell on the strengths of a woman liberated from her bonding.
The description of farm labour set in an atmosphere of harmony among people, nature and animals is a treat. Murugan places equal importance on the hard work that happens in the mind to toil against traditions. His triumvirate of hardworking women nurturing life and land against all odds makes the books a must-read.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer