One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

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Translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

Review by Anna Hollingsworth

An author hardly tops any lists of most hazardous jobs, but looking at the whirlwind that Perumal Murugan has endured, I wouldn’t blame you for thinking so. When One part woman was published in Tamil in 2015, the local Kongu Vellala community lashed out against it with the backing of Hindu rightwingers, claiming that Murugan was doing a gross injustice to their religious practices. As a result, Murugan declared himself dead as a writer on Facebook (he has returned to writing since), left his teaching job at university, went into exile, and encouraged his readers to burn his books. The stresses of a regular office job pale in comparison.

Perhaps unexpectedly, One part woman is a deeply personal story rather than a directly political one. It follows Kali and Ponna, who are otherwise content in their marriage — twelve years of it have seen no diminishing in their seemingly insatiable lust for each other — apart from their not being able to conceive. Between them, the couple try to convince each other that perhaps childlessness doesn’t matter, weighing out the practical aspects of their situation and even joking about how their farm animals are their babies. But the 1940s Tamil Nadu rural community is less forgiving. Ponna increasingly isolates herself from her surroundings as the community slowly cuts her off, nor is there any escape for Kali, who is continuously pestered to find another wife. Their lives are filled with prayers to various gods, visits to temples, and rituals that could cost them their life, all in pursuit of the child that convention demands they want.

The couple face it all together with remarkably little marital rift until they’re presented with an option where a religious ritual meets brutally pragmatic thinking: for one night of the annual chariot festival, all men are considered gods and conventional rules of marriage do not apply. It’s Ponna’s chance to conceive through divine intervention — a man-turned-god for that night. In today’s world, it is this ritual that provoked the local community — who differ with the author as to whether the ritual is historical fact or not — to go after Murugan; in the novel’s world, it is what risks tearing Ponna and Kali’s marriage apart.

If you’re expecting a scandalous read, One part woman doesn’t offer that for the audience outside the community affected; a sense of psychological suffocation,  rather than anything explicit and lewd,  marks the reading experience. Just like Ponna and Kali, the reader slowly runs out of oxygen observing the slow-burning inferno that the protagonists are forced to inhabit. This deep individual suffering makes the book a powerful piece of social commentary, brutally underlining how the communities that normally offer a spine for life can turn into anything but when you don’t quite fit in. Moreover, Murugan excels in interweaving religious beliefs into the everyday experience of characters; there is a sense of magical realism that isn’t magical, but simply real, for the people inhabiting the world of Ponna and Kali.

The story is largely told through flashbacks, and that’s  where its magical quality breaks down. This continuous back and forth between the now and then makes the story limp and stumble forward — and backward — rather than flow as I wish it would. Inevitably, some of the magic is lost in these transitions.

Still, it doesm’t undermine what Murugan achieves otherwise: One part woman is a powerful tale of oppression, religion, and marriage where duty and love are forced into a battle.

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Anna is a bookworm, linguistics student and student journalist.

Perumal Murugan, One Part Woman (Pushkin Press, 2019). 978-1782275466, 288pp., paperback.

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