The experience of reading Perumal Murugan’s ‘One Part Woman’ made me pick up the latest of his works translated into English, ‘Pyre’.
Saroja is a motherless girl was brought up in a town in Tamil Nadu by her father and elder brother. Kumaresan, a fatherless boy comes to that town in search of a livelihood. The fall in love, elope and get married. Kumaresan takes her to his village hoping that his light skinned bride will eventually be accepted. But their secret is an open one. Everyone known that Saroja belongs to a different caste. The author never mentions their castes or even whose was higher making the story transcend regional boundaries. The tragedy is in the background from the first line. The hatred that everyone and everything spews at the couple is bound to triumph over the tender love they have for each other. The author doesn’t try to mask this eventuality.
An important theme the author brings out is the relatively blurred caste lines in towns and cities as compared to villages. This is apparent in the fact that Saroja doesn’t even know which caste she belongs to. She has faced discrimination in the town she lived in when an ‘upper caste’ neighbour refused to take the snacks she had prepared but not to an extent where she was ostracised.
Narrated from Saroja’s perspective, the story alternates between the past and the present. Saroja’s helplessness stands out. She led a sheltered and comfortable life in her hometown. Here she is surrounded by a harsh environment and hostile people. She had left her comfortable life placing all her faith in Kumaresan and his love for her. But he is absent for the major portion in search of business opportunities and she is left all alone to fend for herself.
The author subtly uses dialect, diet and customs to alienate Saroja from people of Kumaresan’s caste. Ironically it was a word for match-stick that she used (which was different from what Kumaresan called it) that marked their first encounter in the town and he would say that word whenever he wanted to make her smile.
Perumal Murugan’s ‘Pyre’ translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan is a tragedy from the word go and those of us living in the big cities cushioned from the ‘caste politics’ need to read this tender love story that is trumped by centuries of hatred. This is an account of the human capability of savagery and is a perfect piece of contemporary writing.