Book Review: One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

The Book that evoked the wrath 

Hurting sensibilities, invoking the wrath of the right-wing groups, the controversy surrounded the book ended on a sad note with the author, Perumal Murugan declaring an end to his literary career. Titled as One Part Woman, another name for Ardhanareeswara himself, the Lord combined with the Goddess. Based on the ethos of ‘no female without the male and no male without the male’, the novel delicately traces the relationship of Kali and Ponna, who although fused into one, tears apart. Narrated in great detail, lending credence to the times it is set in; the novel explores the private and the public with great authenticity and the power held by the public over the private.

In exploring the psyche of the entire community, the author makes a social comment on the rural community which is beset by traditional practices and outdated worldview and that collectively schemes to destroy the union of a loving couple.

Unquestioned adherence to societal rules

A world where a childless couple is hounded and denounced at every turn, where a woman’s worth is measured by her ability to reproduce, where the subject of second marriage of a man is approached openly by anyone and everyone due to the couple’s disability to reproduce, where societal expectations to bear a child trumps even love. Married for twelve years, Kali and Ponna, unlike other married couples around them, are very much in love. “Although they had no children, Kali was very happy with Ponna. He would also ask her now and then to make sure she was happy with him.” A community where man’s worth is determined by his ability to induce “morning sickness in his wife in the very second month” and woman’s significance is gauged by her ability to produce a child, Kali and Ponna becomes a butt of ridicule. Constantly prodded upon, they perform endless rituals, make offerings before different gods. “In the matter of offering prayers, Kali and Ponna left no stone unturned. They did not discriminate between small and big temples. They promised an offering to every god they encountered. For the forest gods, it was a goat sacrifice. For the temple gods, it was pongal…But no god seemed to pay heed.”

Innate acceptance of importance of bearing a child to establish one’s worth as a human being in the world by the entire community places unbearable strain on their relationship which is enthused with tenderness and love throughout. Ponna’s unresistant acceptance to go to chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara on the fourteenth day changes the entire contour of their relationship. “Though Kali had resumed normal conversation with Ponna, he was constantly haunted by her words…If someone told them the only way to have a child was to drop a rock on his head while he slept, would Ponna be ready to do that too?…A falseness entered in his sweet words to her…He came to be possessed by a fury for revenge, a desire to pound her violently and tear her apart.”

The Chariot Festival, the answer to Ponna’s problems or reflection of society’s hypocrisy

The Chariot Festival, very much like the Carnival, when societal rules are relaxed and nothing is held sacrosanct, where for one night the consensual union between any woman and man is sanctioned, gives an opportunity to Ponna to end their suffering and humiliation but also puts their marriage to ultimate test.

The festival, although approved and to an extent, endorsed by the society, is itself derided upon and its values are questioned by the narrator.

Depicted in Shakespearian tradition, acting as the author’s mouthpiece,

the clown challenges the sanctity behind the festival and in the event, subverts and desecrates the customs and conventions venerated by many.

“This man says the god and goddess roamed around the villages. But are they jobless like you? Wherever they roam about they have to come back here eventually. That’s why we have this fourteenth day of the festival.’ Scoffing the ethos behind the festival, the clown comments “Those without husbands will be blessed with husbands and those do not have wives will be blessed with wives. Isn’t that so?”

Is Uncle Nallupayyan the alternative?

However, the clown is not the only disruptive voice in the novel; Kali’s Uncle Nallupayyan is afforded a plenty of space within the narrative and is exhibited as an alternative by the author. Trespassing boundaries, challenging norms, he debunks the tenets which are held dear by the likes of Kali. Co-existing with other villagers, he reveals the paltriness and hollowness of the moral fabric practiced by the community as a whole. Explaining Kali, the futility of begetting children, he says, “You keep saying that we need an heir to what wealth we have saved, don’t you? But what’s the use of having a child? Even those parents who have four or five children have been left to take care of themselves. They all die alone. But I won’t die that way….The other day, I said, just for the sake of it, that since I didn’t know who was going to take care of me, I was planning to write my property off to Sengottayan and Pavatha temples and then go die in a monastery somewhere. Since then, I am sent a big portion of whatever is cooked in my brothers‟ homes! Do people who have children get treated this way? Don’t worry. In the future, you will get all this attention, too.”

Living on the periphery, he constantly counters the notions of honor, Ponna’s obsession with giving birth to a child, “Why do you think we have and raise children? For them to grow up well? No. We do it because we seem to need it for ourselves. That is why we have children and raise them. And then in old age we complain that those children are not taking care of us. This is all plain madness…”

In portraying Uncle Nallupayyan as an alternative to the present, the author has provided the readers, a glimpse into the parallel world whose existence is very much conceivable and possible within the space offered by the present narrative.

Distressing and heart-wrenching in its narration, the novel skillfully explores the multiple attributes of the village life with simplicity that is still wrought with obsolete and archaic traditions. Although imbued with a sense of romanticism usually associated with the past, the author does not blindly endorse the tenets held by this long past world which ultimately ravages and wreck the relationship and love of the childless couple.

Written with force and urgency that ultimately culminates in the tragedy, the author skillfully unravels the tenderness and warmth of Ponna and Kali’s relationship and intertwines it with their desires and refusal to condemn the conventions that ultimately destroy them.

Title: One Part Woman

Author: Perumal Murugan

Publisher: Penguin

Pages: 256

Genre: Classic

Rating: 4.5/5

Buy it from: Amazon Flipkart

About the Author

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. (Courtesy: Goodreads)

3 thoughts on “Book Review: One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

  1. Pingback: Book Reviews Archive | My Writing Den

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