ONE PART WOMAN/ MADHUROBAGAN by PERUMAL MURUGAN
BOOK REVIEW OF TRANSLATION by ANIRUDDHAN VASUDEVAN
‘One Part Woman’ is the English version of Perumal Murugan’s book in Tamil ‘Madhurobagan’. The translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan absolutely brilliant and lyrical in its rendition won him the Sahitya Akademi Translation Award for the year 2016, while Perumal Murugan finds himself in the midst of a controversy and ostracism from his community for his alleged blasphemous depiction of certain rituals which were said to have been prevalent during the early part of the twentieth century. Despite the excellent translation of Aniruddhan Vasudevan which I could read, I am sure that the original flavor of the novel written in the native tongue with its peculiar nuances in the dialect of the region and the caste would have been diluted to an extent.
The English title is derived from the Tamil Madhurobagan which is a translation of the name of the deity Ardhanareeswara which means one part woman and one part man in this case Parvati and Shiva. In fact, the Ardhanareeswara is the presiding deity of the temple in Tiruchengode.
The story has its setting in the early part of the 20th century in a village near Tiruchengode where Kali and Ponna belonging to a lower caste in a society ridden by stringent caste divisions, are a childless couple. The plot revolves around the rituals and practices that are said to have been prevalent during the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara at Tiruchengode. This is elaborated in the following extract from the book -
“For the people of Tiruchengode the chariot festival was a three-month affair.
At the peak of the celebration, all rules were relaxed. The night bore witness to that. Any consenting man and woman could have sex. In the narrow lanes, on the fields around the village, in the rest stops on the hill, and on the open surfaces of the rock bodies lay casually intertwined. Darkness cast a mask on every face. It is in such revelry that the primal being in man surfaces.
No one sent unmarried women to the festival. But women over thirty were to be seen everywhere. Young men roamed all over the place. These men tried to lure as many women as they could on this one night. This was also the night when many of the young men had their first taste of sex. And women took on the role of their teachers.
This was on the night of the fourteenth day of the festival and was accepted as a means of helping a woman bear a child after having consensual sex with a faceless stranger who for all practical purposes was considered as a god. This is said to have been an accepted ritual. In the story Ponna is persuaded by her mother-in-law to go to the festival
“Ponna, please go to the fourteenth day of the festival” said her mother-in-law to her happily.
“Your brother will take care of everything. How long can we keep looking at each other’s faces in this house? Don’t we want a child to bounce around this place?”
Her mother-in-law had told her “What is there to think about? This is God’s work. You are going to be with whoever appears as God to you. God will show you the way.”
Ponna does go the festival assuming that it has her husband’s acceptance having been tricked into believing it is so.
It is possible that in a typically caste ridden agrarian society of those times especially the lower caste smaller farmers and laborers the need for a progeny and the stigma attached to a barren woman is so great that the possibility of such rituals being prevalent during those times cannot be ruled out. It appears they did exist and have been documented.
The hue and cry raised by caste based outfits against the author for what they consider as portrayal of historical traditions of the temple rituals in a bad manner and calling for withdrawal of his books from circulation only served to fuel the controversy surrounding an author’s literary freedom. In fact, Perumal Murugan unable to withstand the onslaught against him decided to leave his native place after declaring that he was giving up writing stating that ‘Perumal Murugan the writer is dead’.
The protests have since petered out after the Madras High Court disposed of the petitions filed by protesters in favor of the author. Perumal Murugan is a Professor of Tamil and teaches at a college in Namakkal. He has won State awards for his works and three of his books have been translated into English – the other two being Seasons of the Palm and Pyre.
In a sense the controversy surrounding ‘Óne Part Woman’ has catapulted him onto the national stage. The other books are also rooted to the traditions and behavior patterns of the society in which he had grown up and touch on caste divides and depictions of real life patterns. One can say his writing is simple and truthful and since I have read only the English translations a lot of credit is due to the translator and perhaps that is why the Sahitya Akademi Award 2016 for Translation has been given to Aniruddhan Vasudevan. An Award for the Original author would have been a befitting response to his detractors.
I am only left with certain questions – 1) why rake up a controversy over a custom which no longer exists especially when the story is set in the early part of the last century? 2) though the entire story has an underlying element of sexuality at no point has the author transgressed the rules of decency, in fact at no point does one feel distasteful while reading the book. 3) our epics especially the Mahabharata is replete with examples of children born through the intervention of the Gods. Here in the book the consensual partner is referred to as a god. May be the ritual traces back its origins to the epics (or is this a controversial statement that I have made?).
In the end of the book while Ponna goes to the festival assuming that her husband is aware and his acceptance is there, the truth is far from that. This does raise the question of the morality of all such practices.