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.