Onepart woman is the English translation of Mathorubhagan, penned by the very prolific Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan. The translation has bagged the Sahitya Akademi Award for OnePartWoman Vasudevan. The book created a lot of furore, due to the portrayal of certain ceremonies and castes, which hurt the sentiments of a few.
The story is set in thiruchengode. The protagonists, Kali and Ponna have been married for 12 years, but weren’t blessed with a child, even after countless efforts. The story sails through the journey of the couple Through their various efforts to bear children. It essays the countless myths, myriad deities and rituals, which the couple undertake and please, just to bear children. The importance of a child in an agrarian family of a Gounder, is multifaceted. It has economical, social and cultural ramifications, as the child was to be the heir to the land, and being a mother was the only way to complete and give meaning to the life of Ponna, as a woman. The stigma and frustration associated with having no children was so high in the society, that they were excluded from family functions, and were the talk of the town. They were constantly rebuked, and were the target of unsolicited advice from the villagers, who took it upon themselves to suggest second marriage, and other such insensitive suggestions to the couple. Their loving relationship was deeply affected due to all these externalities, and they oscillated between their need for a child, and the denial of the need for the same. All their hopes hinged on the chariot festival, at the temple of Ardhanareeshwara, the half female God, where societal norms are relaxed, and consensual Union between any man and woman is sanctioned, which could be their last chance to conceive a child. The story revolves around the struggle of the couple between the need for a child, their faith, collective morality, and their struggle as they pass through various phases of denial, acceptance, anger and remorse.
Perumal Murugan has wonderfully concocted very palatable and relatable characters. The characters come to life in his descriptions. Kali, the male protagonist is the husband every woman wants, whose love for his wife is second to none, and is reciprocated leaps and bound by his wife, the dainty and youthful ponna, who is the doting and devoted wife. The love of Kali and Ponna is evident, in the sensuous accounts of their conjugal bonding. The way their relationship sours over time hurts, and one cant help but feeling empathetic and taking sides with them.
The matriarch, Kali’s mother, is a very strong character in the book, challenging gender stereotypes, while still being inherently patriarchal. On one hand she manages a whole farm all by herself, with a child in her lap, and on the other hand, she adheres to the notion that only being a mother fructifies the life of a woman.
Another important character is the Uncle of Kali, who has freed himself from the orthodox clutches of the village, and is the only voice of rebellion in that vilage. Not marrying, not fathering children, travelling around the world, with his apparently distatestful sartorial sense, acerbic tongue, all led to the formation of an interesting character. He advises Kali and Ponna rationally, about the futility of the whole affair of producing heirs. His dissenting voice , is the only balm to the wounds created by the others words on kali and ponna.
Caste and the concept of duality has been adressed often in the book. The story touches upon various aspects of caste in Thiruchengode. the acceptance of the stigma of the lower caste by themselves, is evident From the treatment of Gounder(higher class) by the so called lower class. The agrarian structure entrenches the existent caste system, with division if labour according adherent to the caste structure. It is very much internalised in the society, to the extent that it is not taken offence upon, and is very commonly used in daily parlance, as jokes and insult, points to the ubiquitousness of caste system in every sphere of life.
The concept of Ardhanareeshwara stresses the duality, and the equality of man and woman, and how incomplete man is without his other half. Reflections of the same has been seen in The relationship of Kali and Ponna, and their misery when the other half wasn’t there.
It isn’t easy to find problems with the work, but one might say that the buildup to the climax could have been swifter. The narrative tended to be dally at points, and makes for a more predictable ending.
The book is definitely worth a read; To understand the culture, and the various aspects of different societies. It helps us have a better picture of the relative nature of taboo, and how the society we live in has an effect on our private life, forcing us to do things which we do not intend to, to please people who do not care about us. The story essays love; filial, conjugal, between friends, between meṅ and animals, between man and his land, and everything around him. A quote which I particularly liked :
If man had the prospect of living any longer than he already did, he would want to keep everything for himself. When we finally leave. Life strips us of even of the little piece of cloth we are wearing.