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 novel. Deftly 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.