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‘One Part Woman’: A Book review of a heartbreaking book and some impressions on the pain of dissent in India

I really have to work on those long titles.

Dissent is not dead in India. It exists and is robust. It pops up often like a hard to remove carbuncle on a vain person’s nose, in the middle of summer. However, dissent in India is painful. Kind of like that carbuncle. Some would argue that it should be. Would dissent really be dissent if it was convenient? But we shall return to this theme later. Right now I want to tell you about ‘One part woman’.

‘One Part Woman’ is a book written by author Perumal Murugan, a well known Tamil writer and poet. The reason I ordered this book, was that I wanted to take my own personal revenge on fundamentalists.But the book came to mean much more to me.

You see, Perumal Murugan was hounded by fundamentalist groups who protested his portrayal of certain practices that took place in relation to the Ardhanareeshwar temple in Tiruchengode. For my non-Indian readers, Ardhanareeswar is an androgynous form of the God Shiva and the Goddess Parvati. Ardhanareeswar is depicted as half-male and half-female, spit down the middle, and can be considered to be the ‘perfect being’ due to the balance of the male and female elements. The ancient practice, described in the book, that stirred up a hornet’s nest was that of ‘Gods’  having sex with women who desired to have a child. This practice took place on the 14th day of a famed Chariot festival in Thiruchengode. Of course, there were no ‘Gods’ that were impregnating the women, but the mere mortals from that area. But the practice, in the guise of divinity, had everyone’s approval.

The protests by the fundamentalist groups, who were incensed at the portrayal of the practice, were successful. The author decided to not write anymore.

“Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone,”  He said.

In those words I can sense his pique and anger. But it is a pity that Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. Because his book is breathtaking. I bought this book as my own personal act of dissent, sitting in faraway South Bend, Indiana (unsure of what it would be like and what it was about).

The book tells the story of a childless couple Kali and Ponna, who are deeply in love. But they are constantly reminded of what they lack, by everyone around them. Ponna is considered barren and inauspicious, while Kali’s manhood is doubted on every occasion.  Things go on this way, till Ponna is pressured to go to the festival on the fourteenth day, to get the gift of a child from Gods. Does she agree? I will not giveaway anything here, because that is not really the point of a review.

What is remarkable about the book, is that despite its piercing and acute social commentary, on gender, women’s rights, caste, and masculinity, it remains a book about love. Murugan provides insights about a love that can only be born of years of knowing each other, burrowing into one another’s bodies. He describes longing and desperation in a couple in far away Thiruchengode with a universality that can touch cords in people everywhere. He describes in painstaking detail all the things that the couple do to please the Gods. The endless sacrifices, the penances, the sinking feeling when Ponna’s period comes with clockwork regularity every month.

Kali and Ponna could be any other couple, in another context, trying to attain what is unattainable.  And haven’t we all been there. Running after a scorecard, or a waistline, a salary, or love (depending on what your poison is). We have all had the crippling anxiety that makes us forget to live in the moment, and be prepared to make sacrifices before an unyielding idol. We have all allowed others to determine what makes us happy. That cruel master: social approval.

The author also uses a portia tree as a beautiful metaphor for the relationship between the couple. The tree is a source of cool shade, support, and when times are bad, a sinister menacing presence. As we turn a page we hope that the couple will find peace, will be able to live in the bubble of their love, without worrying about not having a child. Out of every page in the book there emerges a sort of lyricism, that enchants you and ultimately leaves you heartbroken.

But what left me more heartbroken was the fact that ultimately, a bunch of people who do not have any appreciation of art won. What sort of a person does it take, to read something so delightful and heart wrenching and then say that I shall have it banned? What left me the saddest was Perumal Murugan ‘the author’ is dead, though P Murugan the man lives. I always had an idea of my country in my head, and it was never one where fundamentalists thrive and authors hide.

I was asked at a dinner party in the United States, to name the one thing I loved and hated the most about America. I made up some polite sounding bullshit. But what I took away from living there was a sense of freedom. I know that not everyone enjoys that freedom to the same extent, and America (like any other nation) has insidious divisions. But I remembered the sense of freedom with which I could express myself there, and think. Nuance, that elusive thing, hovered in and out of discussions. Perhaps it was the university environment, but the sense of freedom was like coming up for air. Now I feel that I shall have to spend my entire life, unlearning that. That every expression of a contrarian view will be a struggle. The recent spate of bans does not make me any more confident. But I may be wrong. Are most of our universities still centers of intellectual curiosity (I know some are)? Is a divergence of views respected? Have you, dear reader, enjoyed an academic and cultural environment where you learnt to dissent, to question? Can we be a nation where authors can thrive, and fundamentalists respect their space to do so? ( In their defense, they would not be very good fundamentalists if they did so). Leave your views in comments below, and don’t forget to read this book.