God’s Own Child-6: Revisiting Perumal Murugan’s magnum opus that sparked outrage

Murugan’s intent wasn’t historical accuracy but to weave his surroundings into a fictional narrative that captivates readers.

BySaket Suman

Published May 17, 2024 | 2:00 PMUpdatedMay 18, 2024 | 11:07 AM

Perumal Murugan in front of a sculpture of Rohith Vemula.

Driven by genuine passion rather than external validation, Perumal Murugan’s dedication to his craft shines through in his magnum opus, writes author-journalist Saket Suman. This is the sixth of the ten-part series exclusively on thesouthfirst.com.

Most writers harbour a personal project, and cherish above all material possessions. Initially, these endeavours are vague, lacking a clear destiny, and may leave the writer uncertain if they will ever come to fruition.

Yet, the desire to bring them to life becomes irresistible, propelling the writer into uncharted territories and revealing undiscovered facets of their abilities. It evolves into a life’s purpose, providing solace as the writer dedicates themselves to what may eventually become their most significant work, their magnum opus.

Perumal Murugan’s journey into writing stemmed from life’s circumstances; adversity created a void that writing filled. He committed himself to this craft, honing his skills with utmost sincerity.

His motivation wasn’t accolades or wealth but a genuine vocation to express his best through his writing. Initially unsure of his literary potential, he continually challenged himself, ascending the skill ladder with each work.

Societal scorn

His novel, “One Part Woman,” which later sparked controversy, depicts the plight of Kali and Ponna, a childless couple facing societal scorn. Murugan’s intent wasn’t historical accuracy but to weave his surroundings into a fictional narrative that captivates readers.

The story opens with a portia tree grown during Kali and Ponna’s twelve-year marriage. Ponna’s anguish is palpable, and societal pressure intensifies, implying her culpability for their childlessness.

Their desperation leads them to worship Goddess Pavatha, similar to Murugan’s parents’ prayers for a child. Despite hopeful signs, each menstrual cycle dashes their dreams, deepening their despair. Ponna’s health deteriorates as they perform desperate rituals, like sacrificing a rooster to appease the goddess. Murugan’s narrative underscores human vulnerability and societal pressures, conveying a timeless tale of longing and suffering.

In search of God

They journeyed from temple to temple, diligently offering their prayers. Murugan portrayed their struggles, while Kali was ready to relinquish their possessions if their prayers were answered. They also frequented the Tiruchengode temple.

As outlined in the novel, albeit fiction, they followed rituals which mandated passing through the forest where the Pavatha shrine was nestled, ascending further to reach Pandeeswarar Temple atop the hill, dedicated to the deity Pillaiyar. The ascent required not only physical strength but also determination and willpower.

The couple’s profound desire for a child drove them to undertake even perilous tasks. When Ponna resolved to ascend the hill, Kali fretted over the risks involved, fearing he might be blamed if any mishap occurred.

Weight of depression

Ponna tearfully expressed her willingness for him to remarry if anything happened to her, but Kali dismissed her despondent words, asserting their contentment despite their childlessness. He proposed various solutions to their predicament, such as donating their land to a temple or someone in need.

Despite Kali’s declarations of love and concern, Ponna remained determined to complete the ritual. She harboured a belief deep within that enduring this arduous test might finally elicit the gods’ mercy. With Kali’s guidance, she navigated the precipice and, though challenging, successfully completed the task. Praying fervently, she implored the gods not to let her be labelled as barren.

In the end, Kali reached out and assisted Ponna across to his side. Embracing her, he kissed her, but she began to cry. Enduring the criticisms from nearly everyone for a prolonged period had taken its toll on her.

She couldn’t help but feel that those with children were seen as fortunate, while those without were condemned to face constant judgment and mockery. Some neighbours even had the audacity to expect the couple to leave their possessions to non-existent heirs.

Depression and fear

Over time, Ponna withdrew from social engagements. She declined invitations to events and ceremonies, often expressing her frustration with not having children, declaring her home unfit for hosting gatherings.

Feeling the weight of depression, Kali overheard his mother and mother-in-law discussing something secretive. Though Ponna seemed oblivious, they suspected their parents were contemplating a second marriage for Kali. The mere thought shattered Ponna, who confided her fears in Kali. However, Kali reassured her of his unwavering love, rejecting any notion of being with another woman.

Confronting his mother, Kali demanded to know what they were plotting behind his back. His mother, seemingly fearful of being silenced, confessed their futile efforts to conceive despite countless prayers and visits to shrines.

Reminiscing about the loss of Kali’s father, she emphasized the uncertainty of life and the significance of companionship.

A crucial chapter

Following the initial setup, the novel embarks on a sequence that becomes a point of contention and significantly impacts the author’s life. A crucial chapter depicts a temple chariot festival, highlighting ample celebrations and cultural performances in the four main streets.

However, at the peak of the celebration, rules are relaxed, particularly evident on the fourteenth night when consenting adults engage in sexual activities across various locations like narrow lanes, fields, hill rest stops, and open rock surfaces.

This revelry exposes primal instincts in individuals, with unmarried women typically avoiding the festival but those over thirty participating widely. Young men roam, seeking companionship, often experiencing their first sexual encounters, with women serving as their guides.

The narrative reveals Kali’s attendance at the festival before his marriage, as he habitually lingers near the lane even before the evening.

Kali’s mother suggests sending Ponna to the temple on this significant day, but Kali vehemently opposes, distressed at the notion of sacrificing his wife to fulfil societal expectations of childbearing. Despite Ponna’s eventual awareness of the plan and Kali’s past attendance, she reacts angrily, resenting both the conspiracy and Kali’s participation before marriage.

Divine blessings and strange connections

Within Murugan’s fictional world in “One Part Woman,” various characters, notably Ponna’s brother and female relatives, promote the tradition of attending the festival’s fourteenth day for fertility purposes.

The novel depicts this practice as longstanding, where barren women hope to conceive by mating with anyone during the festival, believing it garners divine blessings. However, the protagonists, Kali and Ponna, resist this tradition, unwilling to partake in its perceived risks and moral compromises.

On the fourteenth day of the festival, Kali unwittingly drank alcohol while Ponna went to join the festivities. Surrounded by dancing people, she felt a man’s touch, causing her to panic and leave. Eventually, she yielded to the charms of a young boy, realising Kali’s fears.

The characters’ psychology in the controversial novel mirrors the state of mind of the author’s parents before his birth. Murugan’s mother had experienced a miscarriage, yet the desire for another child persisted, leading his father to seek blessings at the Palani Murugan temple.
Their faith was so strong that they named Murugan after the god. In the novel, Murugan challenges this notion, delving into the story of conception.

Although novels are products of imagination, Murugan had incorporated elements of his hometown and the revered temple where the ritual occurred, blurring the lines between fact and fiction.

His note on historical research revealed insights about Tiruchengode, shedding light on its significance and the societal belief in “god’s children” born after prayers.

This exploration inspired the novel’s development, allowing Murugan to depict familiar places and faces from decades past with clarity and measured pace.

(Saket Suman is an independent journalist and the author of The Psychology of a Patriot. Access the fifth part here.)

(Edited by VVP Sharma)