One Part Woman
by Perumal Murugan
translated from Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan
This novel is set in early 20th century India, focusing on a couple who are farmers in a rural area, steeped in religion and superstition. So it is perhaps surprising to find that it is one of the most relatable stories I have read in a while.
Kali and Ponna have been married for 12 years. They love each other and their little corner of Tamil Nadu, but their inability to conceive a child has come to overwhelm everything else. Ponna is excluded from the community, and even family flinch if she touches a child. Kali is alternately mocked and advised to take a second wife. They’re not sure they even want a child, but it seems to be all that the rest of the world cares about.
Their simple lifestyle means that the exact date when this is set was unclear to me, though references to British rule give at least some clue. (There are mentions of certain politicians and events that apparently reveal to those with better historical knowledge than mine that this is the 1940s.) So fertility treatment is limited even for those who have money and access to doctors.
For Kali and Ponna there are no doctors to help. Their only recourse is religion. They endlessly pray, visit shrines and temples, perform rituals. They search their family histories for wrongs done by their ancestors that they can put right. They spend their meagre income on offerings to deities. Hundreds of deities.
“The male and female together make the world. To show that to us, the Lord stands here combined with the Goddess…He has given her the left half of his body. It is only when we give half of ourselves – both body and mind – to the woman that we can be good husbands…Considering all this, elders have called him Maadhorubaagan, One Part Woman. There is no female without the male, and no male without the female. The world goes on only when they come together.”
Kali and Ponna question their marriage and their ability to be happy, although it seems that if the rest of the world would stop treating them as outcasts for being infertile, they would be perfectly happy. They clearly love and desire each other. Ponna is pushing harder than Kali to try everything possible, but then she is treated worse, as the publicly stated opinion is that she is at fault. Is that purely superstition and gossip, or is it also a reaction to Ponna’s temper? Though she is a devoted, obedient wife, with everyone else her temper is quick to flare, often badly enough that relationships are permanently severed.
This small novel is building up to a local festival that could be make-or-break for Kali and Ponna. On the last night of the festival, all men are considered gods, which means that any two people can have sex without judgement. It has been known for women struggling to conceive to take advantage of this, and for a few years now, Kali and Ponna’s parents have been suggesting it to them. But it’s such an extreme step. Could their marriage survive it or is Kali’s jealousy insurmountable?
Kali and Ponna are so adorably in love and are often teased for how much they still desire each other. Murugan writes beautifully about their sweet moments and their sensual ones. They are successful farmers, working hard all year round. Kali has carefully planned his farm, restructuring it over the years. Ponna sometimes muses that if they had a child, she couldn’t spend all the hours that she does in growing flowers, herbs and vegetables. And she loves nurturing plants and seeing them flourish.
“In front of the cave was a vast shaded space. They would talk non-stop. Now when he tried to remember what they talked about, Kali could not recollect a thing. Perhaps such incessant chatter was the prerogative of youth alone. Once he grew up, the brain might have decided that it was all meaningless and erased all memory of that prattle.”
Though the reaction of society to their childlessness is perhaps exaggerated by the period setting, as well as for literary effect, it is still such a common problem. There is an assumption about the correct way to live and an expectation that you should do everything in your power to achieve it, and I don’t think anyone is 100% immune from that. Murugan explores this with a simple story that is sometimes funny, sometimes sad; somehow both realistic and slightly magical.
Maadhorubaagan published 2010 by Kalachuvadu Publications.
This translation published 2013 by Penguin Books India.
First published in the UK on 29 July 2019 by Pushkin Press.
Source: A copy was kindly sent to me by the publisher in return for an honest review.