Review: Estuary by Perumal Murugan
Happiness, apparently, has a U-shaped trajectory in life: we’re happy when we’re young and then again when we’re old but midlife is supposed to be isolating, grim, draining and empty. Kieran Setiya, a philosophy professor at MIT, described the slippery challenge of midlife in his 2018 book, Midlife: A Philosophical Guide, as coping with the “emptiness of the present, the sense that satisfaction is deferred or left behind, that one’s relentless striving is self destructive.” The self-contained midlife — presenting in itself a conflict and resolution — is fertile ground for literary fiction. In novels, men especially have spectacular, spiralling mid-life crises: they have affairs, get divorced, buy cars, blow up their lives.
In Perumal Murugan’s newly translated novel Estuary, the midlife implosion is a quiet, inward one. It is a sincere portrayal of the crumbling of a middle-class Indian male stuck in a deepening chasm of isolation.
First published in Tamil in 2018 as Kazhimugam, Estuary has been ably translated into English by Nandini Krishnan. It is Murugan’s first book about modern city life and the second novel since his literary resurrection a few years ago.
In 2015, Hindutva groups had hounded him and burnt copies of his novel One Part Woman for depicting a sex ritual. Murugan — a prominent Tamil writer even then, with nine published novels — went into exile, declaring, “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead…An ordinary teacher, he will live as P Murugan. Leave him alone.”
He returned to writing only after the Madras High Court dismissed objections against his book and pronounced his resurrection. But the controversy, he has confessed in interviews, instilled in him a self-censor. He has been steering clear of writing about humans. Poonachi — The Story of a Black Goat — is about a goat. Kazhimugam — Estuary — is a thinly-veiled allegory set in “a world with no values, a world of greed and desire and cruelty, a world that has rotted from all these that best lends itself to fiction, and this world is that of asuras.”
Asuralokam, though, isn’t much different from the modern monstrosity we now inhabit. It is almost thrilling to enter the novel looking for clues about this peculiar place (in the preface, Murugan asks his readers to conjure up its details themselves — supersized, he suggests) and to find only familiarity.
Kumarasurar is a government servant who upholds a higher moral standard possibly because he was “assigned to a department with no scope for bribery.” He belongs to a generation of men derisively called Boomer uncles for their resistance to change. He believes in making safe, standard choices because “the last person to finish a task never got into trouble.” This made him a tech Luddite:
“It made him anxious to even look at computers. The wires that coiled around them like snakes made him tremble. He was certain that one could be electrocuted if one’s arm or leg happened to graze these wires. He touched the keyboard with one hesitant finger and decided he was too old to learn how to type on this newfangled equipment.”
His depression simmers in the isolation of being disconnected in the digital world. His friends are also suspicious of technology and its effects on their children — “Kanakasurar often said, ‘If only one snatched all phones from today’s youngsters, they would collapse on the road, have a fit and die like so many worms in the sun.’”
The story of Kumarasurar’s mental health is told through his relationship with his son. And so he must face the new world to understand his son.
But this world is a tricky place — asuras are trained to be unquestioning, to keep their heads down and perform their duties. Estuary is a commentary on a growing authoritarian society which values its citizens’ submission and compliance. It is structured like Matryoshka dolls with each layer identical in its attempts to stamp out individuality. Father and son navigate one of the core institutions of this structure: higher education, a “curated cemetery.” In Asuralokam, colleges use a variety of techniques to tame their students, including making them wear bridles to ensure their “peripheral vision was cut off. Problems arose only when one’s gaze wandered. The bridles saw to it that students retained their focus.” A society that trains its students to not think is one that will insist the same upon its people. And so the state too was “considering the use of bridles among the public. All problems are caused by lack of focus, lack of the direct gaze. Protests, disruption of normalcy due to protests … you-name-it.”
Before readers draw any parallels or jump to any conclusions about which world really is the world of asuras, Murugan opens with a disclaimer and some wisdom: “All that I have written and all that I write is fictional. Not a word is truth. I would go so far as to say there is no such thing as truth. There are things that appear true.”
Literary fiction often shies away from giving solutions — especially to complex problems of depression and anxiety in these times of technology and rising authoritarianism. But Murugan so plainly shows a way out of misery, it felt almost simplistic at first. But I’ve been thinking about it for days. Reconnecting with nature seems like such a platitude — and yet it is often effective and especially powerful in Murugan’s vivid descriptions of Kumarasurar at an estuary — the river on one side and the sea on another, “the stretch of sand between the two comprised linked hands reaching out towards both the stillness and the turbulence.”
In Midlife, Setiya argues that “the problem with being consumed by plans, obsessed with getting things done” is that in many instances, “success can only mean cessation.” Getting into a top engineering college, for instance, is not the same as being in one or having graduated from one. “The obsessive pursuit of happiness interferes with its own achievement.” The idea is to also undertake activities that are ends in themselves — like meditation or walking. Or standing at the confluence of the river and the sea, letting the water still the turbulence of the mind.
Saudamini Jain is an independent journalist. She lives in New Delhi.