Perumal Murugan crafts a new kind of urban-realist fiction with Estuary

It is unsurprising that smartphones are viewed as culturally disruptive objects in Murugan's Estuary, and are the novel’s device of choice to excavate changing social attitudes. ARUN SANKAR / AFP / Getty Images
28 July, 2020

As a child, Perumal Murugan was cruelly assigned the epithet “eruvukali”—one who “shits his pants in fear”—by his father. The anecdote is sparingly laid out in Amma, his recent collection of essays dedicated to his late mother. 

A complicated father-son relationship takes centre stage in Estuary, Perumal Murugan’s latest novelDeftly translated from the Tamil by Nandini Krishnan, the book’s breezy take on parental anxiety is proof that Murugan’s dexterous imagination lends itself terrifically to narratives of urban unease. 

A seemingly innocuous request by his teenage son throws Kumarasurar’s life into disarray. Meghas, halfway through his first year of computer science at an engineering institute requires an expensive, state-of-the-art mobile phone. Kumarasurar’s wife, Mangasuri, who dotes on their son, urges Kumarasurar to give in and buy one. The demand is troubling for the forty-something civil servant who ekes a modest income and is yet to pay off his house loan. Fuelled by everyone around him, his imagination conjures up a Dantean descent for Meghas that leads to internet addiction, sexual perversion and death.

An air of geniality suffuses the proceedings in Estuary despite the protagonist’s overactive anxiety. Kumarasurar, a part-time poet, works as a supervisor in the sleepy Department of Statistics: “He was the tiniest cog in the government’s machinery. However hard these little cogs worked, they had all the influence of a molar in one’s mouth. It was one’s front teeth that shone in photographs.” 

His routines are predictable. He takes the same path to his workplace every day and goes for morning walks with his childhood friend Kanakasurar. He’s a prude, embarrassed by double-entendre in song lyrics and salacious dance sequences. His meekness extends to almost every corner of his life: “He often said that a government servant ought to follow this golden rule—never be the first to do anything; always make sure someone precedes you.” He is a naïve and old-fashioned family man, who is very much stuck in the regressive rhythms of his mind. He considers it his paternal duty to remind his son that his obligations towards the family involve academic excellence followed by recruitment by illustrious firms. He overthinks his interactions with Meghas, structuring his nightly phone calls with him around seven questions, even as the moody teenager barks monosyllabic answers to him. 

Mangasuri enjoys a significantly warmer relationship with Meghas, and functions as the conduit for demands to his father. She warns Kumarasurar: “All you have for him are instruction and interdiction. What can he say to those?” A deepening loss of control and isolation permeates Kumarasurar’s interactions with his family after his parents pass away. “Their deaths had made him a lone soldier. His wife didn’t think his word was law. She tended to take the opposite point of view, and when his son was involved, she always took the boy’s side.” 

Seemingly stuck in a time warp, Kumarasurar has a crippling fear of technology. He keeps the computers issued to his department locked away in a cupboard: “It made him anxious to even look at computers. The wires that coiled around them like snakes made him tremble. He was certain that one could be electrocuted if one’s arm or leg happened to graze these wires.” When Meghas tells him he can make calls for free, he wonders if they are fraud. “What kind of businessman would be altruistic enough to manufacture a net card which allowed everyone to speak for hours on the phone without paying a dime, forgoing all the money he could make?”

His anxiety begins to unravel as people around him reinforce his paranoia. His young colleague shows him news articles on young men falling off to their deaths while attempting to take selfies. He also corroborates the easy accessibility of internet porn. A relative tells him how their son succumbed to a crippling video-game addiction in college. Kumarasurar’s mind is swarmed by dreams in which Meghas gets hit by a train while attempting to take a selfie on a train, is beaten up by a mob, and is trapped within the screen of a phone.

It is not surprising that the smartphone is viewed as a culturally disruptive object and that it is the novel’s device of choice to excavate changing social attitudes. Murugan’s Tamil readers now live in a state that boasts the second-largest density of smartphone use in rural areas. Smartphones have played a huge role in cultural movements across the state, including the Jallikattu protests, where clips of musicians extolling the value of Dravidian nationalism spread like wildfire among the youth. Smartphones drive the plot and several characters to their death in 2.0, the biggest Kollywood hit of 2018. The science-fiction blockbuster features an ornithologist villain, Pakshiraja, played by Akshay Kumar. Pakshiraja, a ghost whose corporeal body is made up of cellphones, grimly declares, “Everyone with a cellphone is a murderer.” In 2018, cellphones were even banned across college campuses in Tamil Nadu. 

The key to why Murugan is so unnerved by these devices might lie in their surveillance capabilities. In 2015, right-wing organisations raked up a furore after the release of the English translation of One Part Woman. Threatening phone calls, protests by Hindu groups and a bandh prompted the author to post on Facebook that “The writer Perumal Murugan is dead.” When he made his literary return, Murugan retaliated with the searing poetry collection Songs of a Coward. In the poem “A Strange Beast,” he writes, “They text from their cell phones under the table/ informing god knows who about my visit.”

Estuary is also notably concerned with the manifestation of toxic masculinity in young men. Kumarasurar is surrounded by friends, colleagues and relatives who warn him about the innate deviousness of boyhood. He overhears someone in his office canteen remark how boys who are not disciplined in their adolescent years become indolent. “Let them cry…Cry today, laugh tomorrow.” On his morning walk, Kanakasurar points out how boys have bull-like physiques, voracious appetites, and are already secretly addicted to intoxicants. In one of his diatribes he states: 

Every male asura who’s over ten years old behaves like a dog…They’re rotten pieces of trash, offering their age as their excuse. Their appearance and speech and manner and gait make them look like animals that have been dressed in asura clothes. You know how they chop off the balls of dogs at the veterinary hospital? They should do that to all these boys.

A relative warns him not to give in to Meghas’s demand saying, “You can drive away spirits by exorcism. But this demon is impossible to exorcise.” Yet, Meghas, who has a mind of his own, continually demonstrates that he cannot be boxed in. “In the fourth house on the street, there’s a drunkard. Ask about the drunkard and everyone will know. Our street is known as “Drunkard Street”…Does that mean everyone on the street is a drunkard?”

One might tend to forget it while reading but Estuary is set in Asuralokam, the abode of the asuras. Murugan only occasionally draws our attention to the novel’s fantastical elements. Early on, the description of a morning walk draws our attention to the slight incongruity of its world: “…until the very earth began to quake under the thom-thom of asura feet. Middle-aged asuras with powerful bodies and prosperous stomachs stomped their feet, lifting their legs off the ground and even leaping for good effect.” There are references to Devas and the mythological two-headed andaranda bird, and at one point Meghas sleeps for a ten-day stretch after returning from school. Despite these touches, asuras, subject to every earthly affliction of social conformity in the novel, might as well be earthlings.

Modest ambitions aside, Estuary unfolds at a steady clip. The reader is privy to Kumarasurar’s hermetically sealed chamber of dread. Even decisions like which seat to take in a sleeper bus are mediated through this haze of anxiety. Mangasuri, unfortunately, isn’t featured as prominently. This is not to say that she is a one-dimensional character. Like Saroja in Pyre and Ponnu in One Part Woman, Mangasuri is portrayed neither as a shrew nor a hapless victim, but a woman carrying the weight of patriarchal expectations. We even come to see Kumarasurar through her eyes: “He would turn the smallest things over and over in his mind before he made a decision. In the meanwhile, he would destroy everyone else’s peace of mind too.” The more we learn about Kumarasurar, the more inaccessible he becomes. In a sleight of hand, by feeding on our accurate assumptions about the character and exponentially delivering on what we expect, Murugan crafts an unpredictable climatic moment that seems designed as a joke at the reader’s expense. It’s a hoot.  

In the foreword, Murugan notes that he has deliberately made errors that are described as antithetical to great writing. “One could call it deviant to be excited by errors,” he writes. “Deviance has been the starting point for various arts. I cannot decide whether here, this has stopped with deviance or turned into art. I leave that decision to the readers.” Estuary is looser and more self-indulgent than Murugan’s other works. There are extended sections where, like Kumarasurar, the reader needs a break from his alarmist peers, though some of the digressions are delightful. 

In one absurdist section, as Kumarasurar and Meghas embark on a college tour, Murugan lampoons the educational paternalism of engineering colleges in Tamil Nadu even as they tout their world-class facilities. One college refers to students as rats and offers them a selection of bespoke bridles, including gold ones, so that their attention is focussed on education and nothing around them. When parents gleefully try on bridles, the narrator remarks, “Some even trotted, jumped and neighed like horses, and laughed at their own exploits.” Another university has lifelike asura androids operating as 24x7 campus surveillance. They force-feed students who have not finished their meals, slap and chase male asuras who look at women, and redo women’s hairstyles and clothing to ensure their appearance is appropriately demure. A third educational institution, started by the proprietor of a buffalo farm, recruits professors based on their ability to drag buffaloes. Students are liberally beaten and a memorandum of understanding is signed to import bamboo canes. A professor remarks, “It is our responsibility to ensure that your son’s body doesn’t have a single scar when he returns to you in five years.” 

With Estuary, Murugan follows in the traditions of Tamil writers, such as T. Janakiraman, who have excavated the disruptions endemic to urban life. Kumarasurar comes to the realisation that control of his son and the ways of life he sought to preserve are habits moulded by retrograde ideals. As his friend reminds him, he once wrote a poem extolling adaptation: “In the hills, we’re peacocks; In the trees, we’re koels.” Murugan has proved more than capable of articulating the ideological ambiguities of this era in his earlier works. PoonachiSeasons of the Palm and Amma rely on the interruptions of quotidian rituals of the farmland. Pyre, One Part Woman, A Lonely Harvest, and Trial By Silence position individuals against inflexible social hierarchies. Estuary, however, in a postmodern twist, tells us the real ideological battleground was in the mind all along.

Murugan’s first novel, Eru Veyyil, was translated into English by Janani Kannan as Rising Heat  and also published this month. A stark contrast to his latest work, it will satiate those who are looking for bleakness, agrarian settings and a focus on caste relations—features one associates with Murugan more easily. Yet, it’s tantalising that Murugan, the most well-known contemporary Tamil writer in the Anglophone world, has deliberately eschewed the tropes associated with his work. Estuary could have neatly fit into the genre of urban realism if not for Murugan’s insistence on adding in elements from folklore to satire. In the process he has reiterated that the Tamil literary landscape is one of multiple modernities: 

Everyone lived within a set of boundaries that circumscribed one’s life. When one stood within one’s ambit and looked at someone else, it appeared the other person was crossing his limits. When they were circumscribed by invisible lines, how could one tell what was right and good within the boundaries?