In many ways, Poonachi’s arrival in Odakkan Hill is like that of Saroja’s in Murugan’s 2013 novel Pyre.
The goat was a day-old and all black. The giant-sized man holding the kid wanted to sell her to a kind-hearted person. In Odakkan Hill, where rains are sparse, that tag fell on an old farmer from the community of Asuras. The old man receives the goat, the last of a litter of seven kids, as a gift because kind-hearted people are not easy to find. It is difficult for his wife to believe the goat’s story, but the old woman takes her in and names her Poonachi. That is how Tamil author Perumal Murugan begins his new novel. Only, if it were that simple. In Odakkan Hill, raising goats and sheep requires registration with the regime. Every new goat and sheep get their ears pierced by a government official—an animal’s own Aadhaar. The poor people take their cattle to the registration office, but the rich can get the work done by receiving officials at their homes. Given as a gift, Poonachi thus becomes a part of the system.
In many ways, Poonachi’s arrival in Odakkan Hill is like that of Saroja’s in Murugan’s 2013 novel Pyre. If Kattuppatti in Pyre was a remote village in Tamil Nadu in the Eighties, there is no reference to the time in Poonachi’s case. If Murugan put the curse of caste system at the centre in Pyre (the story of Saroja, who comes into the home of her husband belonging to a different caste), the system itself comes into focus in his new novel, published in 2016 in Tamil under the title Poonachi. “There is an old saying that the regime is deaf,” says a resident of Odakkan Hill. “It’s deaf only when we speak about our problems. When we talk about the regime, its ears are quite sharp,” replies another. There is also a mention of the damage to the environment, a hint to the present times the novel is set in. Poonachi is lost in a forest during a four-day walk of the old couple with their goats. There are no wild animals to pose any danger to her except some wild boars. But a woman who lives on the fringes of the forest laments that, once upon a time, wild hounds, jackals, leopards and herds of deer had lived there. “Now, there were only wild boar.”
Murugan doesn’t stop with the system and the environment. He returns to the chaos of the community, as he did in One Part Woman (2010), the story of a childless couple that set off protests in Tamil Nadu, forcing the author to temporarily stop writing. Or in Pyre, where the community of Kattuppatti turns violent when the arrival of an outsider unsettles the purity of its life and tradition. The chaos in Poonachi is not restricted to the community, it spills onto nature and into the minds of society. The goats in Odakkan Hill suffer silently as their masters engage themselves in politics of power and greed.
“I am fearful of writing about humans; even more fearful of writing about gods,” says Murugan in the preface to Poonachi, in an apparent reference to the protests against One Part Woman that questioned his right to freedom of expression as a writer. “I can write about demons, perhaps. I am even used to a bit of the demonic life… Yes, let me write about animals,” he adds. Murugan continues his mocking of the unruly protests against him. “It is forbidden to write about cows or pigs. That leaves only goats and sheep.”
Murugan’s translator N Kalyan Raman adds a note of his own at the end of the novel, warning readers to expect an intensely political work like George Orwell’s Animal Farm and Mikhail Bulgakov’s Heart of a Dog. “…Murugan makes us reflect on our own responses to hegemony and enslavement, selflessness and appetite, resistance and resignation, living and dying,” writes Raman. The author leaves no one in doubt about the characters he creates. In his first work after he faced protests, Murugan once again gets behind the weak and the powerless. His new novel is at once a document of pain and suffering, and a strong statement.
Faizal Khan is a freelancer