The Tamil author, who declared his literary demise in 2015, has resurrected himself. And how. His latest, Fire Bird, bears his signature style — raw, immersive, and resonant

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Tamil writer Perumal Murugan made news when he declared his literary death after protests against his novel Madhorubagan (One Part Woman, 2013) in January 2015. He was so upset that he was thinking of giving up writing. The years that followed witnessed one of the great Indian stories of literary resurrection. Murugan, with his distinctive style of weaving stories around an agrestic setting, is inspired by a life he is familiar with. His stories are about complex social mores, rituals, practices, patriarchy and caste dynamics playing out mostly in a family; this makes him not just an important author of our time but also a great social commentator.

His latest novel, Fire Bird, translated by Janani Kannan (Penguin Random House India), which recently won the 2023 JCB Prize for Literature, is another addition to the array of works that manifest the legacy he has created. It is the story of Marimuthu, a landed farmer. He is left with literally nothing when his father, Ramannan, divides property among his four sons, and has to fend for himself and his family. This leaves him disappointed and disillusioned: he cannot figure out what to do and does not want to leave his village as the allure of the estate has shattered his family. Being the youngest, he never thought that the tight bond he shared with his eldest brother, Perianna, who treated him as an eldest son, would “one day come undone”.

Remembrance of things past

Peruma, Marimuthu’s wife, is sad, after the division of property, but too proud to leave her husband and go to her parents’ home. At some point in the novel, a drunk Perianna sexually assaults her, and grabs her breast, finding an opportunity when Muthu is not around. Though she somehow flees from the scene at that time, it leaves her deeply anguished. This unscrupulous act, however, is justified by her mother-in-law when Peruma narrates her ordeal to her. She remains unfazed and instead questions Peruma only: “How is it a crime if an older brother grabbed the wife of a younger brother? In our times, the sacred wedding thread was tied by one man, but his brothers were all husbands in practice.”

Muthu, with nothing much in his hand, leaves his village on the insistence of Peruma, in search of security and permanence. He thought of buying some land in another village with the money he received from the property division, as Peruma did not want to live in the village anymore. Their search for permanence, and how Muthu struggles to attain it, gives the novel its edge. Like his other works, Murugan’s writing is steeped in drama, suspense, and elements of a thriller, but all in his characteristic Murugan-esque style. In his novels, he creates subplots, and interesting narratives within a story, which is told in the simplest manner possible, whether it is One Part Woman, Pyre (2013) and Poonachi: Or the Story of a Black Goat (2016), among others, or even short stories like ‘Blouse’. Each of his books bears his unique stamp.

In the International Booker-longlisted Pyre, the depiction of the complexity of the relationship between Saroja and Kumaresan’s mother, Marayi, is a very important part of the story. Murugan paints a vivid portrait of the two women who come from very distinct backgrounds — while Marayi brought up her son as a single mother in a caste-ridden village society, Saroja grew up in the city without a mother. Yet, they have a similar longing for Kumaresan. Saroja’s frustrations and fear, and that of Peruma in Fire Bird, despite not too many similarities in their circumstances, are related: both are dependent on their husband, having left their parents’ home.

Fire Bird, By Perumal Murugan, Translated by Janani Kannan, Penguin Random House India, pp. 304, Rs 499

Interestingly, In Murugan's stories, dark and foreboding days — those heralding impending misfortune or leading to ominous events — hold a special weight; they carry suspense, and careful set-up. For instance, when Periannan sexually assaults Peruman, leaving her shattered and angry, the incident becomes the reason Muthu had to leave the village; its culmination may be cryptic, but it keeps readers hooked. Murugan’s characters rarely travel far, both temporally and spatially. In One Part Woman and A Lonely Harvest (2018), both of which span just a year, characters don’t travel or travel only to nearby villages from their ancestral villages. Perhaps this is so because in rural India travelling far from your ancestral village is often constrained as people are bound by multiple ties. But characters often go back and forth between their memories and experiences of the past.

The cult of Murugan

Another interesting thing about Murugan is that he thinks of writing as writing only. He doesn’t seem to think his stories serve a higher purpose. That is why his stories, despite highlighting the caste system, patriarchy, and social mores, hardly attempt to advocate anything. He likes to believe in raw or simple forms of storytelling. Such writings always remind you of the pleasure of reading. Fire Bird reminds me of the greatest Hindi novelist, Premchand. Murugan, who crafts family feuds in rural settings somehow evokes the ambiance of Premchand’s world. Premchand was a master at creating characters from farming families, whether in his masterpiece novel Godan or in short stories like ‘Poos ki Raat.’ He could engage readers through his character development, even if the individual was distant from his own world.

The first chapter itself reminded me of Premchand’s story ‘Do Bailon Ki Katha’ (The Story of Two Bullocks). The relationship between Muthu and his helper Kuppan, who is a lower-caste man, is also interesting. He feels his master is benevolent because he eats food cooked by him. Such a character can be found in Premchand’s stories too. Though both authors are different in their style and writing, their understanding of social customs, rituals, and rural setting make their writing elegant.

Fire Bird has been neatly translated. Kannan has tried to keep most of the local references, ensuring that the nuances of his writing remain intact. There is scarcely anything that is lost in translation. Even as a non-Tamil reader, it did not feel that I was missing out on anything. One can safely say that the resurrection of Murugan after his literary death has been absolutely phenomenal. He has created a cult for himself, and his writings are getting popular among Indian and Western readers. Now, it would be interesting to see how he takes his legacy forward. He has a typical style and genre — will he be innovating or trying something new in his upcoming stories? Whether he does it or not, one thing is for certain: his next will be as immersive as his previous books.

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