The ‘death’ of the writer Perumal Murugan early last year catapulted him into fame beyond the Tamil-reading audiences he was previously restricted to. Faced with violent protests against his first novel to be translated into English, One Part Woman, he wrote a poignant Facebook post announcing that the writer called Perumal Murugan was dead. On the heels of that controversial novel comes another translation, that of Pookkuzhi, in English as Pyre.
Murugan retains the theme of caste and the many issues that arise because of it in Pyre. He places the weight of the narrative on the two protagonists, Saroja and Kumaresan who are in love, and after getting married in the big town, come to Kumaresan’s village. Naively, they think that they will be able to live in peace, once the initial uproar of their inter-caste marriage dies down. They are desperate to hide this secret and the villagers are not the sort that will overlook this effrontery. But try as they might, the question of Saroja’s caste never dies down. Soon suspicions become confirmed truths and what happens is a tragedy played out every day in the hinterlands of this country, though rarely reported.
Murugan’s characters inhabit wholly the rural geography he places them in. The tamarind trees that line the road to Kumaresan’s village, the rocks that overlook his tiny thatched hut and the politics around the tap that women go to, to fetch water are as much characters in Murugan’s story as are the tragic hero and heroine. The intense curiosity of the villagers and the elders that make up all the rules of love, life and death are instantly relatable to anyone familiar with the workings of any village. By introducing the potent character of the caste system, Murugan makes Pyre a wholly contemporary story of villages everywhere in the country, where the question of which caste you are and how it measures in relation to everyone else’s is the only determinant of how you shall live, if at all.
Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation retains the simple rural flavour of the Tamil countryside. But the differences in dialects that Kumaresan and Saroja’s people speak refuse to come out in the translation—a fact the translator readily admits, calling it “an instance where specificity of language use resists translatability.” Some more of Murugan’s narrative style is lost in translation, Vasudevan further writes. But for a reader approaching the text in translation without any familiarity with the original, this loss is rarely felt. Pyre’s simplistic storyline, while making it highly readable, doesn’t diminish its importance in the current socio-political landscape of Tamil Nadu, not least of the entire country.
By: Perumal Murugan
Translated by: Aniruddhan Vasudevan
Publisher: Hamish Hamilton
Price: Rs 399