I must admit I bought this book when I heard about the surrounding controversy. But reading Perumal Murugan’s Madhorubagan (translated as ‘One part woman‘ by Aniruddhan Vasudevan ) was an illuminating experience.
Whatever the custodians of culture claim, essentially this is a tale of love, loss and hope. Though set in the 1920s-40s, in a remote village in Tamil Nadu, you can relate to it even today.
Kali and Ponna are a fairly young couple who are loving, loyal and supportive. They share a passionate relationship, but the lack of a child, after twelve years of marriage, makes their lives incomplete.
They try various measures – prayers and promises to Gods, bitter potions and arduous temple treks. But Ponna still bleeds every month. She and her husband are subjected to ridicule, pity and insinuations. Their well-wishers want him to take a new wife. Some men think Kali is impotent and want to seduce Ponna. The women make life hard for her at social gatherings. The couple is desperate and miserable. Their mothers come up with a plan.
Every year, the last night of chariot festival at the Lord Ardhanariswara (The One who is half-woman) temple is witness to a strange ritual. That one night, the bonds of matrimony are relaxed, and childless women can have intercourse with any man of their choosing. That stranger who gives them the gift of motherhood is seen as God, and a child resulting from this union is considered God’s child.
When it is suggested to Kali that Ponna be sent to this festival, he cannot bear the thought of his Ponna being with another man. Much like Ardhanariswara, she is part of him and he is her world. Amidst mounting social pressure and the hope of an heir, will she agree to choosing another man, even for a night? Will their love survive? That is what we readers are dying to know by the end of the book.
Perumal Murugan, is known for his true to form depiction of village life, and he doesn’t disappoint in that sense. However, I found the story meandering through some extraneous characters and unnecessary scenes, IMHO. Perhaps he needed them to supplement his vivid and colourful canvas of Kali and Ponna’s world. Either way, this book explored a bold subject, with some rather unfortunate consequences.
Do read it once if you like Indian fiction and aren’t particular about fast-paced, single layered plots.