Written by Siddhartha Krishnan . 4 Min Read
Over the last ten days, every evening when I stared at the cover of this book, a feeble looking goat stared back at me with its innocent, marble eyes. It took me a while to understand the power of its gaze, but when that happened, I was shaken!
The story is set in a nondescript village in Tamil Nadu. One quiet evening as an old man watches the sun set over his village, a mysterious and unusually tall man, approaches him and gifts him a one-day old black goat. She is the seventh child of her mother, so delicate, that her fragility becomes a cause of wonderment for all in the village. The goat is therefore treated as a tiny miracle by the old man and his wife who do everything within their capacity to keep it alive. Thus begins the story of Poonachi, the black goat.
Poonachi, is a political novel that takes a look at society, it’s abuse of power, gender inequities, greed, surveillance and the resultant subjugation of the weak. But all of this from the perspective of a goat. As a result, comparison to Orwell’s Animal Farm or Kipling’s Jungle Book are obvious. But as testified by the scroll, in this story the animals are not sacrificed at the altar of allegory. This is what differentiates, Poonachi, from other famous works in this genre. The title therefore is conclusive – it is the story of a black goat, and all that we draw from the book as human beings is an accompaniment to that story. To understand this aspect better, it is best to quote an excerpt from N Kalyan Raman’s translator’s note – “As we track the destiny of this orphan goat, shaped by a force-field of humans and animals, we realise that the author’s real theme is our own fears and longings, primordial urges and survival tactics.”
However, the novel does resort to anthropomorphism (attribution of human traits, emotions, intentions on non-human beings) to make the animal characters relatable while also retaining their animal behaviour. This fine balance that has been struck in the narrative along with an eye for detail is an astonishing feature of the writing. Only a person who has a deep understanding of animal behaviour could have pulled this off. This, I am assuming has come from years of close observation.
The other commendable aspect of the storytelling is, how deeply layered it is? Every sentence carries weight, no word is wasted, and paragraphs often end with some message conveyed. The translation is brilliant, and despite the absence of Tamil words in the narrative, I felt that I was a part of that village. I may have missed some hidden references intrinsic to the culture but that does not rob me of understanding the perspective. Yes, it might take time for one to fully relate to the story, since it is written from the perspective of a goat, but that investment is surely worth it.
But the standout feature of the book, for me, is the tenderness of the storytelling. Despite being a political novel with a powerful message, the empathy displayed even while describing the most macabre moments mesmerized me as a reader. It helped me connect deeply with the characters and their journeys. Only a truly gifted writer can pull this off with such finesse. Through, Poonachi, I am now introduced to the genius of Perumal Murugan, and I am kicking myself as to why I had not read any of his books up until now?
Well, I guess there is a time for everything.
The book was shortlisted for the 2018 JCB Literature Prize, and I think it is best to end with the jury’s comments –
“Funny and warm, Poonachi is a book that forces us gently to look at ourselves and our contribution to an unequal world. Perumal Murugan is a master storyteller who reflects profoundly on our transactional society and its inequities and struggles. Through the character of the lonely goat, he has written a powerful modern fable.”
Siddhartha Krishnan is the author of Two and a Half Rainbows – A Collection of Short Stories. He is also an enthusiastic blogger and, on his website, www.whatsonsidsmind.com, he regularly puts out his essays, articles, travelogues and movie reviews.
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