Book Review: ‘The Pyre’ – A Powerful Caste-Focused Romeo and Juliet Fable

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By David Mehegan

The Tamil version of bonfireunder the title, Pukkuliwas dedicated to a young man murdered in his community for having made an inter-caste marriage.

bonfire by Perumal Murugan. Translated, from Tamil, by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. Grove Atlantic / Black Cat Books. 202 pages. Paper. $17.

For most of us, the greatest risk in writing fiction is that of our labor being despised or ignored, or, even if we are published, the tragic fate of the rest of the table. It’s good to be reminded from time to time of the price of personal risk that many artists face in pursuing their work and the courage it takes to persevere.

Born in Namakkal district in the southern state of Tamil Nadu, Perumal Murugan is an Indian professor of literature and the author of eleven novels and several collections of poems and short stories. He writes in Tamil, one of the twenty-two officially recognized languages ​​in India. Unlike many urbanized English-speaking Indian writers known in the West, Murugan is a product of village India (his parents were farmers) and his works are set in this world. His two best known are the novels Woman in one part (2010) and The story of a goat (2017).

part of a woman, located in a small village, concerns a couple without children. Desiring to have a child, the woman participates in a local religious festival during which, for one night, unrestricted sex is allowed to all. The book was acclaimed in literary circles, but it sparked outrage from some conservative supporters of BJP, the Hindu-nationalist party of Prime Minister Narendra Modi, who denied the existence of such a practice and saw the book as an attack on rural Hindu morality. . A flurry of threats and attacks followed and Murugal was kicked out of his teaching post at Namakkal. The protests were finally quieted when in 2014 Murugan was forced to sign an apology for the book and agree to the withdrawal of all copies. A lawsuit against him was eventually dismissed by the Madras High Court.

Exasperated by the harassment, Murugan announced in 2015 that he was giving up writing: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead,” he wrote on his Facebook page. “As he is not God, he is not going to be resurrected. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live under the name of Fr. Murugan. Leave him alone.”

The self-exile did not last, however, and other works emerged, the most famous The story of a goat. that and Woman in one part have been shortlisted in the United States for the National Book Award in Translation. Murugan admitted in interviews that he couldn’t deny himself – he had to be a writer.

bonfire, released in 2013, apparently did not cause public controversy, although one can imagine that it would, given its subject and plot: the cruelties of the caste system. It’s a fable of Romeo and Juliet, centered not on family rivalry but on caste. The young Kumaresan, raised in the village of Kattuppatti, had been sent to work in a soda bottling company in the big city of Tholur, where he met and fell in love with Saroja. She agrees to run away with him and return with him to Kattuppatti, where he hopes to start his own soda business.

Like most young lovers who believe that Amor omnia vincit, Kumaresan and Saroja have a rude awakening. All anyone in Kattuppatti wants to know about Saroja is what is her caste? Kumaresan assures them that she is of their caste, but her fair complexion and townsman ways tell them otherwise, and the result is hysterical rejection by her widowed mother, Marayi, and unrelenting hostility from everyone else in the town. town. “Why did you do this?” Marayi shouts at Kumaresan as he arrives with his new wife. The news had preceded him home. “She clutched his shirt in her fist and slapped him repeatedly…. And then, turning to Saroja, she cried, “What have you done to bewitch my son? How many men have you done this to? »

OK, we see where this leads, and Saroja sees it too. Strangely, however, Kumaresan fails to see this and persists in believing that the opposition can be overcome by his love for Saroja and his determination that the family and neighborhood will accept his choice. He takes his wife to visit a beloved uncle in a nearby village, thinking that filial ties will surely outweigh the primal obsession with caste. Surprise – it doesn’t.

“His support [uncle] was a tall, well-built man. He rushed towards Kumaresan and kicked him hard, shouting, “Why did you come here, you shameless dog?”

Grinning at this stinging slap, Kumaresan backed away, but his appuchchi dragged him forward and hit him several times.

“’You ungrateful dog!’ his appucchi shouted, “I raised you. I fed you.

“Kumaresan did not expect such a welcome.

He didn’t, but the reader did. This pattern continues throughout and the situation culminates in the terrible but ambiguous conclusion of the book. Saroja is in a spiral of fear from the moment she arrives in Kattuppatti. She finds herself the object of unlimited hatred from people who don’t know her, and she begs Kumaresan to take her away, to bring her back to Tholur, or at least to a town where they could be accepted. But no, he cannot renounce his belief that his people will give in sooner or later, even though his mother had explicitly warned him during a recent visit: “Please don’t come back here dragging a girl from a different caste.”

What we have here, it seems to me, is a plot plan that forces a character to do what doesn’t make sense. Kumaresan’s refusal to face the facts has tragic consequences that we see coming, and it is hard to believe that anyone could be so dense with the evidence of their senses and experience, given that they have been brought up in this world and surely knew how much caste dominates community thinking. and values. But it must be so if the author is to tell the grim tale of the inhumanity of folk customs that have no respect for individuality or self-love. The Tamil version of bonfireunder the title, Pukkuli, was dedicated to a young man murdered in his community for having made an inter-caste marriage.

Many of us have recently been exposed to the idea of ​​caste from Isabel Wilkerson’s 2020 book, Caste: the origins of our discontent, which analyzes what WEB Dubois called “the color-line problem” in America from this old systemic practice. According to this rigid mentality, humanity must be organized into strata, and the most important thing is that those in the upper strata stay there and maintain the lower orders where they are. This is a simplification of Wilkerson’s thesis, but his approach is consistent with what we have seen and experienced throughout the history of white supremacy.

Author Perumal Murugan will not be silenced. Photo: Common Wiki

But in bonfire, caste is never explained or openly defended or deplored, and is not understood in terms of what we are used to calling ‘race’. Castes are never named. They have more the fatality of the weather. Kumaresan is often asked, “What is his caste?” “, but he only answers:” The same as ours “, which exasperates the questioner. That seems to be what matters: neither skin color, nor region or religion, nor even that his caste, whatever it is, can be inferior to that of the inhabitants of Kattuppatti. Difference itself is feared, hated and fought. More than what we consider racism, it is the realm of tribalism: not that “she is less than us”, but more simply, “she is not one of us”.

Murugan’s style is as simple and clear as Kattuppatti’s impoverished setting, as bare as Marayi’s goats, food and huts in which people live. It’s almost in the style of what we would call a young adult novel, and indeed young people in any language could understand it and learn from it.

Fear and hatred of difference runs even deeper than racism and underlies it, in my view, and undermines civilized society wherever it reigns unchallenged. His defiance and rejection in his literary art at least once got Perumal Murugan in hot water, but it seems he can’t be silenced.


David Mehegan is the former book publisher and author of book rhythms of the boston globe. He can be reached at [email protected]

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