The birth of communities and kinship among prehistoric mankind remains a matter of great interest for anthropologists and social scientists. Far away from the halls of academia heaves the pugnacious world of communities and caste in India, primitive in their hegemony of territories, and vicious in their obsolete rules of honour, kinship and domination of individual choice and personal freedom. Here, community elders double as the mob that act judge and jury about the conduct of individuals, especially in the most personal of individual choices: marriage and female conduct and honour.
In 2014, Perumal Murugan’s Pookuzhi (the translation, ‘A pit of burning flowers’, is really a metaphor for a trial by fire) was a direct response to the violent death of a 19-year old Dalit student, E Ilavarasan from Dharmapuri in western Tamil Nadu, in 2013. Ilavarasan had earned the wrath of the community as he had eloped with a girl from another caste. Murugan, a chronicler of human experience, wrote Pookuzhi as a serial in a Tamil magazine and later worked it into a novel. His dedication of the novel to Ilavarasan ruffled feathers in Tamil Nadu, though not to as dire consequences as the violence unleashed after his earlier work, Madhorubagan (released in an English translation as One Part Woman).
Murugan mines brutal reality and transmutes the experience into literature with a felicity that makes his stories compelling. This has earned the author — who chronicles his native Kongu Naadu, comprising the agricultural and industrial towns around Coimbatore, Erode, Salem, Dharmapuri and Namakkal — an important place in Tamil literary fiction.
While Tamil literature has had prominent writers whose works have put their various regions and communities on the literary map — this includes Dalit literature, works on the modern world, upper caste experiences, and the ‘Karisal region’ literature of the south — Murugan’s works document the lives of the Kongu people. This was last done by R Shanmugasundaram in the 1940s with the novel, Nagammal. Though Murugan chronicles contemporary Kongu Naadu, the human experiences in his novels remain universal.
Pyre, ably translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, is a story of the love between Kumaresan and Saroja. Set in 1980, the novel is a time capsule where ‘colour cinema’, village tales by filmmakers from Tamil Nadu’s rural outposts and Illaiyaraja’s music swept into the popular culture of Madras. It seems only natural that a lilting melody from a Tamil film, Gramathu Athiyayam (A Village Chapter), playing on the radio conveys the joy of two young neighbours who fall in love in a town that affords people the freedom of anonymity away from their community elders.
Kumaresan, a school drop-out with no prospects in his village, comes under the affectionate patronage of Bhai Anna, a free-spirited Muslim who takes him to town to learn a trade in the soda-making business. The soda bottle man, a recurring paternal figure in Murugan’s work, is a nod to the author’s own father, who ran a soda bottle kiosk at a cinema. He too had chosen a wife outside his caste and his rejection of community codes is reflected in Murugan’s works.
The story shifts to Kumaresan’s village, which is a rude contrast to the busy town. The barren landscape, its thorn bushes and the thatched dwelling on a cluster of jagged rocks act as metaphors for the bleak fate that awaits his “fair and golden bride”. Murugan brings out Saroja’s loneliness and the tenderness of the couple in a manner that’s compassionate without being mawkish. Saroja wilts under the taunts of her mother-in-law and the village women, who are repelled by her independence in choosing a man. Between the village men’s leers and the women’s insults Saroja withers in fear and seclusion.
Much like Madhorubagan, Murugan’s work brings to life the region’s capricious landscape, which can be both cruel and fecund. If the rocks and springs in the hilly forests of Madhorubagan were a refuge for the characters, in Pyre the burning rocks and thorns prickle Saroja’s emotions like a bur on the flesh.
At a time when community honour, caste pride, religious order and contempt for individual freedom are tetchy matters, Pyre is a reminder of the barbarism that leads guardians of societies to quell dissent and individualism.
PP203, Rs 399