Perumal Murugan’s collection of essays about his mother is a labour of love that captures beautifully the essence of a remarkable, resilient and resourceful woman. It is his first work of non-fiction to be published in English and it is every bit as superlative as his fiction. This is the work of an extraordinarily gifted writer in his prime.
Given that Amma is a son’s attempt to pay homage to his deceased mother, while finding an outlet for his grief, it is surprising that this is not a sickly sweet sentimental portrait which attempts to deify the dear departed. Rather, it abounds with pithy descriptions of the agrarian way of life, code of conduct, prejudices and superstitious beliefs along with an inspiring work ethic which is sans greed or wastefulness. His treatment of someone who clearly has such a big place in his heart is honest to the point of brutality, while also being graced with infinite tenderness and Murugan’s trademark compassion for his characters.
It is easy enough to pity a woman like Amma who on the face of it, dealt with more than her fair share of hardship. Losing her mother at a very young age, dealing with a negligent father, having no access to education, getting married at a young age and ceaselessly toiling till the end of her days, life had not been fair to her. If that were not enough, she also had to live with an alcoholic of a husband who was not above hitting her every time their arguments got out of hand, the loss of a child at birth, another to suicide and the crippling financial burden he left behind. Yet, this was a woman who cared nothing for pity and lived a full life with pride and honour.
Amma laboured endlessly because she believed honest labour, even if it were literally backbreaking, was its own reward. She cared neither for riches, glory or possessions but lived with a quiet dignity, honour and pride. Of course, she was not without her flaws and clearly had a sharp tongue as well as a marked caste bias though that did not detract from an innate decency reflected in her courteous treatment of her daughter-in-law who belonged to another caste.
There is a touching simplicity to Murugan’s words and yet, make no mistake this is writing at its most profound, layered, and heart-breaking. It is not often that one is fortunate enough to pick up a book that is hugely entertaining and edifying at the same time. As you turn the pages, you will be surprised at how often you are left smiling or with a tear in your eye.