Perumal Murugan is an author, scholar and literary chronicler who writes in Tamizh. He has written ten novels; five of them have been translated into English. As a professor of Tamizh literature, he has made several contributions to research and academic study of Tamizh literature specific to Konganadu region. He courted controversy with his book Madhorubhagan which made him announce, ‘Perumal Murugan the writer is dead’. His novel Pookuzzhi (Pyre) was originally published in Tamizh in 2013 and translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan in 2016. It has now been longlisted for The International Booker Prize 2023.

Pyre is a heart wrenching story of an intercaste couple, Saroja and Kumaresan. Saroja elopes and marries Kumaresan, who then brings her to his remote, arid and decrepit village of Kattuppatti, in the hinterland of Tamil Nadu. Upon arrival, the couple are welcomed with abuses, mourning and threats. Saroja becomes their easy target, and is showered with expletives and profanities, especially from the womenfolk, and Marayi, her mother-in-law. Each passing day becomes a living hell as the villagers become hell bent on knowing Saroja’s caste. As the story progresses, there seems to be no sympathy or changed behaviour by the villagers towards the couple, who believe that this marriage is an impending doom, and start plotting a heinous crime against them. The couple though, remain in love, crave love yet have no idea that the same love is a harbinger of hatred and enmity.

Pyre is a grim telling of the realities of caste differences and discriminations present in our society. Through this lens, Murugan tells a riveting tale of the people who put caste on a pedestal. He centres caste as the unrelenting, unforgiving protagonist in the book. You may despise its presence, still remain helpless, just like Saroja and Kumaresan. The internalised misogyny that Marayi spews onto Saroja, is a depiction of the ways in which caste and such other forms of bigotry manoeuvre, such that those who are oppressed become the oppressors.

The harsh landscapes and terrains of Kongunadu form an integral part of this story. The barrenness of the land which the author describes evocatively becomes deafening through the narrative. The villagers’ reverence to caste whilst ignoring its beguiling notoriety to cause persecution remains a passive subtext all through. Perumal has fleshed out his characters; be it a listless yet restive Saroja, a pensive yet petulant Kumaresan or a scornful and savage Marayi. Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation of Perumal’s crude and caustic prose is unparalleled. He has managed to imbibe the nuances of the original language during the tender moments in the book as well as during the diatribe. Being a Tamizh speaker myself, I appreciate and applaud the sensitivity and restraint in Aniruddhan’s translation.

Pyre is a disturbing read. Perumal Murugan writes to unnerve you, to push you out of your bubble, to give your prejudices and preordained thoughts a 360 degree spin. He makes us, the reader, a mute spectator to the atrocities as they unfold. But isn’t that true in real life too? Aren’t we/ haven’t we become mute spectators to all kinds of caste, gender, religion, social status based atrocities? Aren’t we/ haven’t we become complicit in this despotism?


Author: theshinydiaries

Being authentic; one day at a time!

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