21 October 2016

Review #540: One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

My rating: 4 of 5 stars

"There is no female without the male, and no male without the female. The world goes on only when they come together."

----Perumal Murugan

One Part Woman, the book which erupted fires of scandal through the right wings forces and other caste groups and that which finally put an end to the career of Perumal Murugan, a popular Indian Tamil writer, is one hell of a striking and extremely poignant book that is a must read and must be worshiped by all literary fans of India, not because of the story but of the finest writing style that is rarely found among the huge crowd of Indian writers.


All of Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child—from prayers to penance, potions to pilgrimages—have been in vain. Despite being in a loving and sexually satisfying relationship, they are relentlessly hounded by the taunts and insinuations of the people around them. Ultimately, all their hopes and apprehensions come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of the half-female god Ardhanareeswara and the revelry surrounding it. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test. Acutely observed, One Part Woman lays bare with unsparing clarity a relationship caught between the dictates of social convention and the tug of personal anxieties, vividly conjuring an intimate and unsettling portrait of marriage, love and sex.

Kali and Ponna has been married for the past 12 years, although they have strong desire and passion for one another, which they have ushered to one another for so many years, yet they are still not blessed with the seed of their own. Through the years, they have prayed to so many gods and goddesses and sacrificed a lot in the name of a child, yet they remained childless and were subjected to constant humiliation especially for Ponna, it was difficult to go outside without hearing a bad thing about her fate of not being able to give birth to a child. But their despair and grief might finally come to an end on the last night of the chariot festival of the goddess, Ardhanareeswara, the half-female god, when any man and woman in their village can consensually join one another into sexual pleasures. Although that might put a big question mark on the sustenance on their marriage.

The author's work is incredible, as the story highlights the shortcomings of the Indian society's norms and customs, the narrow minded ideals and the vagaries of such a society put a tight grip on the minds and the souls of those who exist in such a place. Similarly, Ponna and Kali are two such humans who are also trapped into a world where there is either black or white and no gray shade, although Ponna depicts that kind of freedom, self-esteem and individuality to fight back through it, yet still their fate could not escape it.

The author, no doubt, draws a bold line while craving this story as the way he has reflected sex in the culture of India where virtue and shamelessness comes dangerously close to one another, but then again, we, readers are used to author's imaginary worlds and stories, but there are some people who fail to grasp the knowledge that there is a stark difference between fiction and non-fiction and have a habit of creating an uproar if they find it too realistic. I respect the author for creating an imaginary story based on a holy festival's customs, but then again, not everyone holds that power to think beyond reality. The town that the author has portrayed in the story is very much real, even the temple of that god too, but the customs surrounding the chariot festival is fictional, and that have left the Indian culture in a bad light by being fictional. So talk about freedom of expression, I think that too is a myth!

The author's writing style is extremely coherent rich with deep emotions and proper layers with depth that will make the readers easily comprehend with the plot as well as with the writing. Now the translated edition of the book has some flaws, especially in the narrative, where the author uses the local dialect along with its translation right beside it and sometimes, the translation is missing all together, so that might be bit tricky for foreign or other regional readers to contemplate with the dialogues. The story is narrated in so many layers and back stories that make it only enriching and thorough that will let the readers visually imagine the scenes right before their eyes.

The characters are crafted really well in this book, complete with their flaws and strong aspects that will only look believable in the eyes of the readers. The main characters, both Ponna and Kali are bold characters reflecting realism in their demeanor that will earn respect from the readers for their brave attitude and confronting the remarks and negative comments about their lives. Ponna is depicted with freedom, sensuality not only in her body, but also in her soul, that gives her a fetching outlook. While Kali is a loyal husband with a funny bone in his system, who will lighten up the gloomy mood of the story almost all the time, yet this man too blindly obeys all the social and religious customs to remove his curses from the gods. Ponna is strong while Kali exists within her shadow. Both are extremely striking characters and are bound to leave a lasting impression in the minds and the hearts of the readers.

In short, this is one of the most captivating and though provoking tales that I have read in recent times, and with a lustrous writing style and exquisite and almost lyrical prose, it makes the story into something evocative and extremely satisfying to read.

Verdict: Fine quality of Indian literature that we rarely come across these days.

Author Info:
Perumal Murugan is a well-known contemporary Tamil writer and poet. He was written six novels, four collections of short stories and four anthologies of poetry. Three of his novels have been translated into English to wide acclaim: Seasons of the Palm, which was shortlisted for the prestigious Kiriyama Award in 2005, Current Show, and most recently, One Part Woman. He has received awards from the Tamil Nadu government as well as from Katha Books.
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