Boats Against the Current

The Kongunadu novels of Perumal Murugan

01 December, 2013

THE NOVEL FIRST CAME TO TAMIL, as it did to other Indian languages, in the latter half of the 19th century, when the country was under foreign domination. Its early practitioners belonged to the upper castes and tended to be partial to themes of social reform, such as women’s education, abolition of child marriages and rehabilitation of widows. When the modernist writing movement was kicked off in 1934 by the group of writers associated with the magazine Manikkodi, its central themes were the human condition in the 20th century and the interrogation of traditional values, including belief in the divine. While Tamil society, largely confined to the villages, was organised essentially on pre-modern lines, including the observance of rigid caste divisions, it is interesting to note that its fledgling modern literature came to be shaped by a belief in the universal principles of liberty and progress, and faith in the primacy of a central authority—ideas derived from the colonial administration of that time.

These ideas were also appropriate to the emancipatory thrust of the nationalist movement, which saw its mission in Indian society as one oriented towards progress and moral refinement. Literary works in this period, written chiefly by upper-caste elites, revolved around abstract ideals, philosophies of existence and moral values, all of them pegged on the individual. There was little in them that arose from the actual lives of Tamil Nadu’s villages, inhabited by close-knit communities of long standing, confined to their immediate geographic area. When stories about such communities were written at all, they were hailed for their mann vaasanai (fragrance of the soil) but relegated to the category of vattaara ilakkiyam, or sub-regional literature.

In traditional parlance, a vattaaram or sub-region is a small constituent part of a large geographical area. If, among the people inhabiting a specific area, there are similarities in social customs and regulations, types and availability of land and water resources, and in linguistic and cultural aspects, such a zone can be identified as a vattaaram. Some writers recognised that it was the vattaaram, rather than a more generic unit such as the village or city,that afforded scope for portraying people’s lives under specific socio-economic conditions, in the context of a community co-existing in orderly relationships with other caste groups.

The first significant departure from the individualist modern norm to a naturalist description of community life in a particular locale came in the form of Nagammal (1942), a novel describing the trials and tribulations of the eponymous protagonist, a young widow in a joint family of landowning peasants who falls in love with a younger man, leading to tragic consequences. Its author, R Shanmugasundaram (1917-77) came from the southern part of Kongunadu, the sub-region which comprises nine districts of the lower catchment basin of the Kaveri: Coimbatore, Thiruppur, Nilgiris, Erode, Karur, Salem, Namakkal, Dharmapuri and Krishnagiri. It has been pointed out by critics that Shanmugasundaram, a follower of Mahatma Gandhi, might have been inspired by Gandhi’s insistence that India lived in her villages. Nagammal was the first instance of a novel being written around the economic life of a sub-regional community—the Gounders—with its distinct traditional skills, social customs and spoken language. It was hailed by critics as a landmark in vattaara ilakkiyam.

The other celebrated writer to give us narratives of community life in Kongunadu was Ku Chinnappa Bharathi, who was born in 1937. A communist from a village near Namakkal in northern Kongunadu, Chinnappa Bharathi’s focus on the problems of the working class led him to write two outstanding novels set in the region: Dhaagam (Thirst, 1975), about the struggle of bonded agricultural labourers in the region and their efforts to form a union; and Sangam (Union, 1985), which dealt with the problems of hill tribes of the region around Salem, oppressed at every turn by forest officials, moneylenders and government functionaries. His subsequent novels, including one about the condition of miners in Jharkhand, Surangam (Mine, 2006), have not met with the kind of critical acclaim his earlier works did, perhaps because of their overt ideological slant. Other notable novelists from Kongunadu include CR Ravindran and Suryakanthan.

From the 1970s onwards, vattaara novels have come to be written about diverse communities across Tamil Nadu, ranging from the Bharathavars (fishermen) near Thoothukkudi along the southern coast, to the Pallars in the blacksoil (Karisal) region in south-western Tamil Nadu, and Piramalai Kallars in the region around Madurai. Sub-regional fiction is no longer relegated to the margins, although purists still think it lacks the “universality” of mainstream literature and remains aesthetically inferior to it.

However, contrary to those beliefs, sub-regional fiction has undeniable contemporary relevance. Narratives of community life in a specific locale unavoidably involve the subject of relations between castes. Anti-caste discourse in Tamil Nadu has never adequately addressed the problem of casteism among non-Brahmin caste groups. Sub-regional fiction may help bring the fact of widespread casteism in daily life to the public at large and engender a collective political response, something that is lacking in the current situation, where caste identity is fostered as a means of social advancement, especially among dominant castes.

The work of Perumal Murugan, the accomplished Tamil writer, whose novel Mathorupagan (2010) will shortly appear in English translation from Penguin India as One Part Woman, indicates a future in which new generations of writers from the rural hinterland will continue to tell their own stories. Rather than remain hostage to an urban-centred discourse trafficking in secular abstractions about caste, writers like Murugan set their own political agendas.

PERUMAL MURUGAN, 47, was born into a family of marginal farmers with a small land-holding in a village near Thiruchengodu, a temple town in northern Kongunadu. His native region is at a higher altitude than the southern districts of Coimbatore and Erode, and has a rough terrain and a rain-fed, cattle-based agriculture, mainly millet cultivation. The single largest agrarian caste group in Kongunadu are the Gounders, to which Murugan’s family belongs.

Unable to support the family through agriculture alone, Murugan’s father ran a soda shop in a cinema theatre in Thiruchengodu town. A lonely child and the only one in his extended family who was keen on education, Murugan started writing from a very early age. He wrote lyrics to children’s songs, many of which were featured in a children’s programme broadcast by All India Radio’s Trichy station. Murugan went to college in Erode and Coimbatore, where he studied Tamil literature for both his undergraduate and post-graduate degrees. In 1988, at the age of 22, he came to Chennai to pursue his MPhil in Tamil studies at Madras University and went on to earn a PhD. Here, he came into contact with a splinter group of the Communist Party of India-Marxist Leninist, called Makkal Kalachara Kazhagam (Ma Ka Ka), then led by writer and veteran journalist Paa Jeyaprakasam. Murugan’s interaction with the writers belonging to this group, along with his study of essential Marxist texts, led him to decide that his fiction would be primarily about the region and community of his origin, and the life he knew from direct experience.

It must also be mentioned that the subject of Perumal Murugan’s doctoral thesis was the novels of R Shanmugasundaram, the Kongu author of Nagammal. Murugan wrote and published more than a dozen short stories in Ma Ka Ka’s Manavosai journal between 1988 and 1991. His stories were well received and established him as an important new voice in the Tamil literary milieu. (A selection of these stories was published in his 1994 collection, Thiruchengodu). It was at this time, while spending a lonely, two-month summer vacation in his village, in a simple hut with a thatched roof in the middle of a field, that he wrote his first novel, Eru Veyyil (1991), which can be loosely translated as “Rising Heat”. Eru Veyyil was the beginning of a flourishing and important literary career during which Murugan has published six novels, four short story collections, four poetry collections and six non-fiction books mostly to do with language and literature. He has also edited half a dozen fiction and non-fiction anthologies.

Eru Veyyil (1991), published when Perumal Murugan was only 25, describes, from the perspective of its youngest son, the problems faced by a peasant family when its small landholding is acquired for the construction of a housing colony. The family is torn apart by the pressures of urbanisation. Human relationships become the first casualty. The elderly are abandoned to fend for themselves; the young are ruined by temptations, old and new. The sale of their land—a permanent anchor for this family of peasants—under steady pressure from real estate brokers, robs them not only of their place in the world but also of self-worth. All around them they see graft, avarice and the treachery of political agents along with the steady degradation of poor labourers from the oppressed castes. There is no longer any place for camaraderie and filial affection. The boy manages to finish school amid all these dislocations and disruptions and joins college, even as the landscape of his childhood days lies in ruins. Eru Veyyil is a study of people caught between their reluctance to accept the changes wrought by the new and the circumstances that make these changes unavoidable. The heat keeps on rising.

Murugan’s second novel, Nizhal Mutram (1993), translated into English by V Geetha as Current Show (Tara Books, 2004), draws on the author’s experience of helping his father run a soda stall in a cinema theatre in Thiruchengodu in the 1970s. Young soda-seller Sathi, like other boys of his kind at the theatre, is overworked, vulnerable, desperate and has no future to look forward to. This is, as Perumal Murugan says in his memoir of that time, Nizhal Mutrattu Ninaivugal (2013), “life lived in the shadows of show business”, drawing Sathi and his friends inexorably into the sleaze and petty commerce that surround film exhibition in the hinterland. Nizhal Mutram was acclaimed for its frank and vivid portrayal of the conditions under which the children toiled, their small joys and the sense of freedom they derived from being completely dispossessed. The spoken language in Nizhal Mutram is profane and crude but expressive of the children’s shifting moods. The novel was also noted for its clear-eyed narration of an unremittingly bleak scenario.

Working in the stall taught Murugan many lessons, as he recounts in Nizhal Mutrattu Ninaivugal:

It was the movie theatre which helped me acquire an outlook that transcended caste during my schooldays, when I had no theoretical understanding of casteism. There were many boys from the movie theatre who came to our house to run errands and work on our fields. They would do any work so long as they received a good meal. But if they faced discrimination or interference in their freedom, they would run away. Because I interacted closely with the boys from the theatre who seemed to enjoy every kind of freedom, I never experienced caste sentiment. I was able to get along naturally with everyone at all times, without feeling any difference.

It is this secular outlook that underlies but never intrudes into Murugan’s fictional narratives.

Murugan’s third novel, Koolamadari (2000), translated by V Geetha as Seasons of the Palm (Tara Books, 2004), is widely considered a tour de force. It narrates the many adventures and sorrows of Koolaiyan, a pre-teen goatherd boy from the Chakkili caste, who is bonded to work in a Gounder household towards repayment of a loan taken by his invalid father. Koolamadari describes the many days that Koolaiyan spends on the grazing fields with his flock of goats, in the company of his friends—children who are also in similar bondage with other Gounders of the village. Koolamadari is a layered narrative that covers several themes: the young ones’ yearning for acceptance and friendship; their search for secret nooks in the fields to protect their stash of fallen palm fruit and cucumber; the risks they take daily, like swimming in other people’s wells, to recover a sense of their autonomy amidst the daily grind; the inner volatility typical of teenage children; and the humiliation to which they are condemned by birth. The burden of a responsibility that they are too young to handle fills their lives with danger and menace. The boys and girls of the novel experience the harshness of their daily existence with a mixture of courage, imagination, vulnerability, innocence and sense of doom.

PERUMAL MURUGAN’S FICTION has many features that are special to his chosen setting. The cultivator’s life, with its range of tasks, implements and infrastructure, is described in fascinating detail. Through his eyes, we experience the method used to clear virgin land of rocks and stones, the strategy for rearranging palm fronds on a tree for tapping toddy, and the way to cook millet over a wood fire to produce a tasty dish. Some critics have seen shades of ethnography in Murugan’s work. However, unlike in ethnography, which often functions like Medusa’s head, freezing the community in a set of unchanging customs and practices, Murugan uses the details imaginatively to bring the terrain and people alive, giving them dignity and legitimacy. Through close descriptions of the wealth of knowledge and skills in a farming community, the reader also becomes intimately familiar with the community’s inner life and the challenges that confront it continually.

Agriculture in northern Kongunadu is not based solely on cultivation. Livestock and poultry are important sources of income and food for the peasant’s family. In Murugan’s work, we learn much about the upkeep of animals and the many riches they yield. Goat pens are shifted periodically in order to spread the benefits of their nutrient-rich droppings across the field. Like the farmhands, we pass daily between different kinds of terrains—rocky, arable and pasture lands—and infer that barnyards with cattle are normally adjacent to the house, whereas goat pens are out in the field, requiring them to be guarded at night.

In a community where there are no secrets and people’s view of their neighbours is consistently harsh, characters frequently seek out secret niches to hide their small treasures in, or nooks in which they may, for a night, enjoyably indulge themselves in toddy and meat, or nurse a private grief, undisturbed. Boys like Koolaiyan who forage in the woods for produce they can sell or eat must discover places where they can hide their stash. But no place is safe. When it comes to nature and man, there is no difference of time or place. One is reminded of Oscar Wilde at the close of his epistle, De Profundis: “...but Nature, whose sweet rains fall on unjust and just alike, will have clefts in the rocks where I may hide, and secret valleys in whose silence I may weep undisturbed ... she will cleanse me in great waters and with bitter herbs make me whole.” This is how Murugan’s goatherd children seek, without self-conscious articulation, safety and solace in the landscape around them.

Coming from an oral tradition, his people have for long constructed a world of meaning around local deities in order to feel safe and protected, and so as to keep on the right path, not just as individuals but also as communities. As a consequence, the force of myth shapes the consciousness of all his characters. Very often, in times of stress, these characters enter a reverie in which boundaries between the world of myth and their immediate reality is obliterated. The dream world of myth can potentially offer an escape from danger, whereas the real world offers none. Often forsaken by family and trapped in remote places in the dead of night, his characters draw on their fierce belief in the protective power of spirits and deities.

The Gounders of Kongunadu were justly famed for their ability to transform rough, wooded terrain into arable lands with their hard work and expertise. In this effort, they were aided by the landless Chakkilis (of the Telugu-speaking Arundhatiyar caste) whom they have always treated, and still do, as low-caste untouchables. Murugan describes the various dimensions of this relationship in great detail in all his novels. The absence of political resistance to such absolute caste dominance is remarkable, particularly in a state like Tamil Nadu with its brand of progressive politics. But the oppressed employ their own forms of resistance. Urbanisation provides them with more avenues to work as daily wage labourers and even travel across the country with mechanized rigs to dig borewells. As more and more Gounders are dispossessed of their land due to urbanisation or intrafamilial disputes, they are also forced to move closer to the Chakkilis in these new domains, where the age-old caste hierarchy still persists but is becoming less and less viable.

Depending solely on land and without much of the formal education that could facilitate their entry into the cushy world of white collar jobs, Kongunadu Gounders adopted the small family norm long before it was advocated by the government, mainly to keep the size of their landholdings from dwindling to nothing over a few generations. The methods of foeticide, according to Murugan, were traditional (and too well known to bear repetition here). Since the late 1970s, when technology began to enable pre-natal sex determination, the sex ratio in the Kongunadu Gounder community has decreased to alarming proportions, with the result that there simply aren’t enough potential brides available for young men to marry. Extended bachelorhood has become unavoidable for a sizable number of young Gounders, Murugan said to me during a recent conversation.

It was this unnatural situation that prompted the author to write his novel Kanganam (Resolve, 2008). By a strange twist of fate, Marimuthu is still unmarried at the ripe old age of 32. His earlier attempts to marry were foiled, perhaps unintentionally and perhaps not, by his mealy-mouthed kin, especially his mother. Murugan’s work is full of instances of contests of power between women in a family, played out violently in a confined space, often with tragic consequences. This again is the result of a fixed resource, land, having to be shared within the family, giving rise to high levels of insecurity and pathological conduct. When his Chakkili farmhand asks Marimuthu for a loan in connection with the wedding of his 18-year-old son, Marimuthu resolves that he, too, will be married in six months’ time. The novel is a fascinating study of how a community handles this personal crisis, with very few people—relatives or friends—willing to aid and support Marimuthu in his natural and legitimate aspiration. The only ones who do are Raman, a Chakkili classmate from his schooldays, and his cousin Selvaraj, who is himself waiting to marry a girl of his choice from outside his caste. The utter loneliness and sexual deprivation of the unmarried Marimuthu, and the havoc it wreaks on his life are described with empathy. Marimuthu is not allowed to marry out of caste, though he could, like other unfortunate young men from his region, go far afield to Dharmapuri and marry a girl from a dirt-poor Gounder family. It is hard not to conclude that Marimuthu, a hard-working and well-meaning young man, is being forsaken and destroyed by the particular historical situation of his community and the insensitivity of his immediate and extended family.

In his latest novel, Aalandap Patchi (which translates loosely as “The Misanthropic Bird”, 2013), Murugan describes how a young man, Muthu, who is forced out of his land and village by his own brother, struggles to find inexpensive land in an adjoining area and moves there with his family to build a new life. The traditional Gounder expertise in working on fallow, uncultivable land and making it yield its riches is on full display here. Muthu is faced with the unkindness of both friends and strangers, but there are those who, like the eponymous giant mythical bird which stays away from humans but makes an exception to help people good at heart, facilitate his migration. The novel describes the complexities of a farmer’s migration to a new location full of spiteful strangers, the forced separation from family, the long wait of a few years for the new land to become viable for farming, and the goodwill that exists between farmer and farmhand, even if they are of different castes. White collar migration is, by comparison, child’s play.

PERUMAL MURUGAN HAS BEEN A PROFESSOR of Tamil for the past 17 years, during which time he has developed considerable expertise in three different areas: building a lexicon of words, idioms and phrases special to Kongunadu; researching Kongu folklore, especially the ballads on Annamar Sami, a pair of folk deities; and publishing authoritative editions of classical Tamil texts. Murugan’s output in these areas over the past decade has been substantial. It was his continuing interest in Kongu folklore that prompted him to apply for and obtain a grant from the India Foundation of the Arts, Bangalore, to undertake research on folklore surrounding the temple town of Thiruchengodu, a town he knew very well from his childhood but, in another sense, did not know at all.

There are many idols on the Thiruchengodu hill, each one capable of giving a specific boon. One of them is the Ardhanareeswarar, an idol of Shiva who has given the left part of his body to his consort, Parvathi. It is said that this is the only place where Shiva is sacralised in this mythical form. Murugan was intrigued on encountering several men in the region past the age of 50 who were called Ardhanari (Half-woman) or Sami Pillai (God-given child). On digging further he found out that till as recently as 50 years ago, on a particular evening of the annual chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara, childless women would come alone to the area alive with festival revelries. Each woman was free to couple with a male stranger of her choice, who was considered an incarnation of god. If the woman got pregnant, the child was considered a gift from god and accepted as such by the family, including her husband.

As a farming community, the Gounders tend to be unsettled by childlessness, by the lack of male heirs for the family property. In the Gounders’ worldview, the hard work put in by a Gounder male in his adult life is meaningless if there is no son to inherit the fruit of his labours. As a result, childlessness is brutally stigmatised in the Gounder community. In Murugan’s One Part Woman, Kali and Ponna, a couple madly in love with each other, remain childless for more than 12 years after marriage. During those 12 years, in the period immediately preceding the country’s independence, they have run the gamut of prayers to various deities, vows and penances, but to no avail. Kali’s mother tells him that his family is cursed by Pavatha, a ferocious female deity in the jungle, for a past crime against a young girl, and that the males in his family are doomed to remain childless; if a child is born to them, it will be short-lived. Kali and Ponna offer votive sacrifice at the altar of Pavatha and climb the varadikkal, barren woman’s rock, on the hill of Thiruchengodu, but these efforts do not bear fruit. Meanwhile, both of them endure, in their own way, an endless stream of taunts and insinuations from everyone around them, including strangers hitching a ride with them to the temple. In this scenario, Ponna’s family—her mother and brother—as well as Kali’s old mother, conspire to send Ponna alone to the festival to receive the blessing of a child from an anonymous Sami. Mathorupagan is the harrowing account of how a community’s pathological obsession tears a loving couple apart and destroys their marriage.

Translated elegantly by Aniruddh Vasudevan, a professional bharatanatyam dancer attending graduate school in the United States, One Part Woman is a rooted and passionate novel that, as the blurb says, “lays bare with unsparing clarity a relationship caught between the dictates of social convention and the tug of personal anxieties.” The tradition of seeking impregnation by an anonymous male in the name of god seems to have died out decades ago. Kali and Ponna must have been among its last victims.

Versatile, sensitive to history and conscious of his responsibilities as a writer, Murugan is considered to be the most accomplished of his generation of Tamil writers. Apart from his profound engagement with Kongunadu and its people, he is also a writer of great linguistic skill, being one of very few contemporary Tamil writers who have formally studied the language up to the post-graduate level.

It is a curious paradox that even as progressive Indians would like to abolish the caste system, they have little or no understanding of the lived reality of specific caste groups in their traditional homelands. Even as these communities are stalked and often dispossessed by the forces of modernisation, they remain hostage to the ways of the past that have sustained them for centuries. Will they ever be able to enter a secular future? Perumal Murugan has at least shown us a glimpse of what our collective struggle may be about.