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Excerpt: The Goat Thief by Perumal Murugan

Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s work illuminates the extraordinary acts that make up everyday lives. Reproduced here is the preface to a new collection of his 10 best short stories, where he speaks of the joys of transgression

books Updated: Nov 10, 2017 19:07 IST
Perumal Murugan
Perumal Murugan
Hindustan Times
short story,Tamil,kolam
The fine art of the kolam.(Shutterstock)

When I think of the short story, I am reminded of the art of drawing kolams practised in Tamil homes. The aim is to draw – during the early hours of morning, in the shadowy predawn light – a beautiful kolam at the entrance to your house. After spending a long time sweeping and cleaning the front yard, you pick up the kolam powder, and the idea that strikes you at that moment will take shape as the kolam. The simple one drawn with just four dots by a hand that weaves and crosses between them can be beautiful as never seen before. The grand one that is as wide as the street and drawn after hard practice over long hours can turn out to be an unsightly mess. Looking at the finished kolam from a distance, you may feel that something is amiss. A stray flower, picked up and placed at the centre, can erase the flaw and bring perfection to your doorway. It could be that nothing you do brings satisfaction and you move on, resigned to what seems fated for the day. It’s the same with the short story.

Writing a new short story within the universe of the Tamil short story, which has thrived and flourished since the 1930s, can be challenging. More than any other form, it’s in the short story that modern Tamil literature has brought off its greatest accomplishments. The number of short stories written in Tamil probably runs to hundreds of thousands; of them, at least several thousand pass muster. Among those, several hundred stand the test of time and endure. If a writer wants to write a short story that will take its place among those hundreds, an independent mind, a unique perspective on life and well-honed writing skills are essential.

When I started writing short stories, I didn’t have any such awareness. As I wrote and read more and more over the years, I became conscious of these requirements. Taking them into consideration, I set aside the problem of form and started paying attention to the theme of the story. I realized all stories fall into one of two categories. The first category focuses on the problems of living according to the rules of society, while the second concentrates on exceptions to these rules.

When he talks about rules, a writer can bring a story alive by striking a note of mild sorrow. And what is this sorrow? It is the wretchedness of taking every step in life with the fear that one might violate the rules. It’s never easy to focus on rules. It can be an uphill task to try to find a storyline inside that dreary world. On the other hand, exceptions can draw our attention easily. The lone goat that strays out of line inevitably appears distinct, doesn’t it? At the same time, exceptions are subjected to derision, abuse and apathy, and constantly run the risk of being rejected.

It’s my nature to feel concerned and affectionate towards those who are exceptions. They are afflicted with the misery of being unable to live according to rules. They face endless harassment and vilification. Isolating themselves from others, they create their own private worlds. Nevertheless, they experience the immense joy that transgression brings. They are the ones who render the old rules defunct and lead us to new ways of being. They function to the best of their creative abilities. In this way, they fulfil their historical role of taking society forward. My own choice is to know and to follow the rules, and to live under their authority. Even so, I look upon this as a stepping stone to a mode of conscious defiance.

Talking about exceptions requires great courage. One false step, and the rules will turn up in their thousands like a giant swarm of ants and tear your flesh apart. I’ve written with a sense of caution; I’ve written without it too. What can I do? Exceptions have the seductive power to make you forget yourself. Once we are trapped by the magic of their allure, we can no longer carve our own path. They will take us wherever they want. Everything we encounter along the way is bound to be new: new sights, new beings, new objects. Exceptions have a way of demanding and bestowing new perspectives.

Read more: The return of Perumal Murugan

Ten years ago, I published a collection of stories called Pee Kadaigal (Shit Tales). I know people who were furious on hearing the title, others who were ashamed to buy the book, still others who felt too shy to carry it in their hands after having bought it, those who took it home and kept it under wraps, and those who read it in secret. For all that, the stories in the collection were just plain, ordinary tales. All that the tales did was expose what were classified as euphemisms in traditional Tamil grammar and were hidden out of sight. Even today, when I am introduced at a literary meeting, Pee Kadaigal is not included in my list of books. I’ve always considered the omission inadvertent and habitually referred to it in my subsequent talk. Indeed, why would a person who writes of ‘The World of Exceptions’ worry overmuch about civility and refinement?

First Published: Nov 10, 2017 16:48 IST