With the backdrop of Hindu nationalist fervour gripping India, One Part Woman finds a historical parallel in Rushdie’s Satanic Verses after the infamous fatwa. The story at the book’s core has been similarly overshadowed by offended sentiments and speculation surrounding the author’s future. In Murugan’s case, the Kongu Vellala community, backed by local Hindu rightwingers, claimed the novel showed their religious practices and their women in a bad light.
The novel, set in 1940s Tamil Nadu, is the story of Ponna and Kali, a farming couple whose happiness is marred by their inability to have a child. Ponna is a doting, obedient, subservient wife, the kind who comes running at a snap of her husband’s fingers, and who only exists in the Tamil male imagination. Kali treats her with utmost affection, and has a primal, reflexive desire for her that cannot quite qualify as love.
Seen by society as a “barren” woman, Ponna is insulted and excluded by the community, while Kali is goaded to take a second wife. Twelve years of childlessness are accompanied by thousands of temple visits, prayers, offerings. When nothing yields fruit, the couple are advised to participate in the festivities of a local temple: for one night the norms of society are relaxed, all men are deemed gods and women desiring children are permitted to have sex with strangers. In the leadup to its climax, the artful narrative is as frenzied as a religious festival; present and past come in and out of focus as if to the cue of loud cymbals.
Murugan’s unsurpassed ability to capture Tamil speech lays bare the complex organism of the society he adeptly portrays: the double entendres men use towards Kali affirm their own masculinity as much as they mock him; women employ their only freedom, the freedom of speech, to put other women in their place; and most of all, the unsparing barbs of a judgmental, caste-ridden, patriarchal society alienate a couple longing to be like any other.
Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s idiomatic translation preserves the mood of the original, and serves as a constant linguistic reminder that, as readers in English, we are but visitors to this realistic pre-independence Tamil world. For a book that earned its author death threats and was burned by mobs, One Part Woman is a surprisingly tranquil, sensuous read.
• One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, is published by Pushkin (RRP £9.99). To order a copy go to guardianbookshop.com or call 0330 333 6846. Free UK p&p over £10, online orders only. Phone orders min p&p of £1.99.