by Prathap Kamath
How good is Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (Madhorubhagan, 2010)) as a novel? Considering the amount of energy spent on the controversy it originated, this question may occur as redundant. Why take heed of a novel, even if to take moral offence of its propositions, if it is not good enough for serious consideration! Underground or substandard literatures abound in severer heresies and blasphemies. But who cares! So, Murugan’s novel’s claim to significance is undisputable, also given that even the learned judges of Madras High Court have attested to its noteworthiness in their eloquent judgement. Its literary merit has been endorsed earlier by the awards it had won during the time before the controversy erupted. That Penguin chose to publish its translation in English itself is enough to authenticate its merit. Therefore the original question might be discussed only on the slippery grounds of critical impressionism, and the bailout would only be the claim that all judgements are primarily cradled on personal impressions.
A critical judgement on a novel’s generic “goodness” would be conditioned by the reader’s aesthetic expectations and also by his/her criterion of its significance. I shall base my judgement here on Murugan’s novel in the light of two criteria, one aesthetic and the other, its significance. I limit my aesthetic criterion to its unity of impression or effect, and my criterion of significance to the relevance of its theme.
I believe that One Part Woman is an instance of technical failure. That is, it would have been much palatable aesthetically had the author chosen to weed out its redundant and fortuitous passages. Because of their presence the novel reads as disorganized and insufficiently processed. Its readers would have felt impatient with the digressions he resorts to from the moment Ponna begins her fatal journey to the temple at Chapter 22 till the narration of the ‘climax’ she and the novel reaches at Chapter 32 with her falling head over heels for her god/paramour. This journey is the turning point in her as well as the novel’s life, and the novel has reached this point after convincingly building upon the circumstances that have led her to this juncture of moral compromise. This is when the spectre of logorrhoea possesses Murugan; it seems that his need to increase word count overcomes his sense of narrative economy. This malady grips him at a time when he has pushed the reader to the acme of suspense so much so that his/her yearning for relief from its tension is at its peak. Now, the only thing the reader would want to know is if she actually succumbs to the call to mate with a stranger. But Murugan makes you feel as if having to stand waiting in front of the loo for the insider to get out (and it seems he would never) with your bladder full to the point of bursting. Or was Murugan just yielding his sense of proportions to the market needs of the publisher? I prefer to believe in the latter reason. Thus, the novel falls short of delivering its aesthetic promise because of this avoidable clumsiness of craft. Its translated version cannot be evidenced for the quality of Murugan’s language, though Anirudhan Vasudevan, the translator, needs to be appreciated for encasing it well into the English idiom. Murugan’s eye for the details of agrarian rural life and culture is commendable and happens to be the saving grace of the novel.
Murugan’s motivation to write the novel seems to have been more to cash in on the sensational ritual that had supposedly existed at the Tiruchengode Ardhanareeswara temple than on representing the existential agonies of childlessness. The latter, though a universal theme and has caused agony of varying kind and degree contingent on its socio-cultural context, is clichéd as a subject for a contemporary novel unless some peculiar effects of it validates its selection for novelistic treatment in the present. Thus, for instance, it may be evoked to consider the problems of asexual surrogacy which is a contemporary reality in the wake of scientific invention. This factual base in reality is necessary for treating a social subject in a novel that makes no claims of being a fantasy like Harry Potter. Therefore, the thematic significance of One Part Woman should be grounded on the historicity of the said orgiastic ritual that licenses Ponna’s deviation into adultery. Murugan had reportedly written a preface to its original version in Tamil claiming that he possessed documentary evidence of the said ritual. (Interestingly, Penguin did not include this preface in the English translation.) However, he failed to produce the evidence at the peace meeting initiated by government officials at Thiruchengode consequent on the agitations against the novel. The judgement of the High Court assumes that Murugan was coerced into making an apology at the meeting by the violence taking place because of him. However, there is no denying the fact that the practice at the temple in which childless women mated with strangers for begetting child had not existed in the modern times. It has been anachronistically thrusted on the fictive events located in the 1940s in the novel. That which provoked the protests is the author’s unsubstantiated claim regarding the practice’s existence in the novelistic time of 1940s. This might be compared to a situation in which a novel claims within a realistic framework that sati (banned in 1861) was being practised in the mid twentieth-century Kerala or Tamil Nadu with public sanction. Only Murugan’s claim is worse considering the slur it castes on women’s morality. It would have been a greater artistic challenge for him to frame the ritual in his novel within its original historical context. But he chose the easier way by cheating on the reader’s trust in his claims.
Prathap Kamath is Associate Professor of English at Sree Narayana College, Kollam affiliated to University of Kerala. He has published two books in English: Ekalavya: a book of poems (2012, Rochak Publishing) and Blood Rain and Other Stories (2014, LiFi, Delhi). He writes in Malayalam too, and has published in it two short story collections.