Written by: Siddhartha Krishnan . 3 Min Read
In Poonachi, it was a one-day old black goat, and in Pyre, it is the feeble and gullible Saroja. After I was done with it; I wondered why Perumal Murugan chooses such naïve and timid characters as his protagonist. Having read three of his novels, and upon some introspection, I found two reasons. One, that it helps him magnify the inequities and power imbalance, which is an underlying theme of most of his books. Two, and this is the more important reason, that this style of characterization serves him well, to ask questions to the reader, without really asking them. Like, what drives groups of men and women in positions of power to hurt such fragile creatures who cannot retaliate? Or, what is that animalistic trait within us that fuels this hate and drives us to madness?
That said, his novels aren’t just one thing. It is an emotional journey, always. At least that has been my experience so far. The people, cultures, places may not be familiar to me, and yet when I read about them, they seem miraculously tangible. He has this remarkable ability to help the reader inhabit the minds of these characters, and be one with the world they inhabit. Aniruddhan Vasudevan in his translator’s note writes – ‘His works invite vulnerability on the part of the readers and draw us into their rich details of life, landscape, ecology, and social life of a region.” I agree. In recent times, I can’t think of any other writer who has been able to do that to me. This process is meditative.
Pyre opens with Saroja and Kumaresen getting off a bus with the sun blazing on them. They are deeply in love. But they have a secret, that theirs is an inter-caste marriage. Trusting Kumaresen, the lighter-skinned Saroja has come along to his village, hoping that his mother and villagers would accept them, eventually. All she needed to do was to let him do the talking. His house is on a rock surrounded by barren land. The remoteness of the place is terrifying. She is from a busy town. The language of his people seems unfamiliar, as does their food. But it’s their gaze and constant mumble that alienates her. Kumaresan’s mother is scathing in her taunts. She sings a dirge now and then, lamenting the mistake her son has made. He is dead for her. It’s a crime that cannot be forgiven! Their hate is formidable against the love the couple holds for each other. Saroja gives into Kumaresan’s belief that he will turn things around one day. But is faith, love, and hope enough to survive?
The Pyre is tense. It’s simmering from the very beginning and rages on till it decimates everything. It offers respite only in places, and these moments felt like a traveller has found an oasis in the desert after days without water. The writing has cinematic power to keep you at the edge of your seat. But it is also lyrical, layered, and highly evocative. The title is apt, but you need to wait till the end to understand the meaning of it in totality.
There are three central characters. Saroja and Kumaresan, the lovers and Kumaresan’s mother, Marayi. Their backstories have been revealed in detail, but most of it happens when the characters go into a reverie. These episodes end with them harbouring several unanswered questions, which in turn are probing into the mind of the character. I found Marayi’s character the most interesting. You begin by hating her. But once her back story is revealed, you understand where her angst is coming from, although you do not agree with her actions.
Neil Gaiman, in his thought-provoking piece – “The Mushroom Hunters”, talks about the power of observation and how it is intrinsic to human nature to observe and find answers to our most important questions. It is the way of the seeker and the inventor. Murugan’s power of observation, for me, is his greatest strength as a writer. I remember reading a passage in Poonachi, where he describes how goats play and seduce a possible mate. I was stunned, because he wasn’t attributing any human-like qualities to these animals, and yet the details were mesmerizing, and I could fully understand what they were doing. You see this in Pyre as well when he describes the arid, rock-strewn landscapes, the rituals of the people, the contrast in cultures between communities, their language and mannerisms. The translator deserves all the accolades that have come his way for seamlessly incorporating these details into his translation.
Writers like Perumal Murugan are a rare species. Discovering his work has been an enriching experience for me, both as a reader and a writer. He has found ways to address the elephant in the room without the need to be scornful in his narrative. His deep understanding of the topics he chooses helps him tell his stories with empathy and grace. For that, he needs to be read.
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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