Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint
Illustration by Jayachandran/Mint

Perumal Murugan’s renewed voice

A new translation of a 2013 Tamil novel on inter-caste love and the societal scorn it kindles

A few days after they arrived in Kattuppatti, Saroja sat for a long time in the shade of the neem tree, staring at the winding path that led away from the rock. Kumaresan hadn’t returned yet. It was midday, and the sun glowered overhead. Her mother-in-law had gone somewhere, herding the goats. There was no telling when she would return. Hoping that Marayi would say something to her before leaving with the goats, Saroja had walked up to the end of the rock. But the other woman had stayed resolutely silent; she did not even turn to look at her. Saroja had waited alone, standing in the sun’s glare. And now she could not recollect how she had found her way to the shade of the neem tree.

The only thing she found comforting about this place was the rock. Her feet were accustomed to plain ground and concrete floors. She had never set her bare feet on a rock before. It touched her with the combined sensation of Kumaresan’s soft hands and his rough embrace, the memory of which made her shiver with pleasure every time she walked on the rock’s surface. But she had to be cautious. Even a slight stumble and her toenails might get wrenched out, or she might fall face first. Eventually, she got used to walking barefoot on the rock. Like a child learning to walk, she carefully placed one foot in front of another. Then she tried it with her slippers on. It felt like she was constantly alternating between bumps and dips.

She remembered what her mother-in-law had said once while herding the goats away: ‘Your flower-soft feet might hurt themselves walking on the rock. Be careful.’

But Saroja could not tell if Marayi had been talking to her or to the goats because she had not turned towards her. She must have been speaking to the goats, Saroja concluded. And even if those words were meant for Saroja, it was probably best to think of them as having been intended for the goats. But ever since she had not felt like walking on the rock. Instead, she sat a little distance from it, looking at its expanse.

Right after he set up the bathing enclosure, Kumaresan had carried a pot to the well and brought back some water. Since the well was quite a distance away, it took a long time to fetch even one pot of water. He then placed a large pitcher inside the makeshift bathroom. The pitcher had a small mouth that led to a large belly. She kept bending down to look into it. ‘Be careful, don’t get your head caught in it,’ he teased. When she set out to fetch some water, he stopped her: ‘Soon you will have to do it yourself. But not yet.’

She could understand why he wanted to keep busy and dissolve his energy into work.

One of the visiting women gossiped, ‘As soon as he got a wife, he made an enclosure for her to bathe in. All these days he had a mother. She never got a private spot like this.’

‘Can a mother and wife ever be equal?’ retorted another woman.

The women laughed scornfully. Kumaresan did not respond to any of this. But another man spoke on his behalf: ‘The girl has come from the city. Do you think she will disrobe and bathe in the wide open like you all do? Doesn’t she need some privacy?’

A woman mocked him: ‘Yes, all our bodies are withered, exposed to the elements. But hers is still golden. Why don’t you wrap her around your neck!’

During a brief reprieve from the influx of visitors, Saroja took her first wash in the bathing enclosure made of thatched screens. When she looked up, she could see the sky through the palm trees that leaned over and peered inside. As they swayed in the wind, it appeared as though they were bending and craning their necks to look at her. Two little sparrows observed her for some time and then flew away. She felt shy to even take off her clothes. Still, she somehow washed herself hurriedly and got out. When she returned to the hut, she realized that it was made of thatched palm leaves as well. Something rustled. Every sudden swish frightened her.

How am I going to live here? Will I ever get used to the rock? Will I make friends with the palm trees? Those birds that flew away after looking at me bathing, what must they have thought about me? If I ask Kumaresan about it, he’ll probably say something like, ‘They must have gone all over the village and said to everyone, “Mohini, the enchantress, is bathing there."’ Is that true? Am I truly a celestial Mohini? Is that why they think I’ve enchanted him?

But she had no time to indulge in such flights of fancy; visitors kept coming.

The same people who laughed and joked outside with Kumaresan changed their demeanour when speaking to Marayi. Once they entered the hut where she was lying down, they spoke as though expressing their condolences.

In turn, Marayi talked to the visitors in a low, laboured voice, like someone who had been sick and bedridden for a long time.

‘They have come to commiserate, as if some big thing has happened,’ Kumaresan said to Saroja, and laughed. Then he whispered in her ears, ‘Here, when we say “big thing", we mean a death.’

Excerpted with permission from Penguin Random House India.