This month, Penguin Random House India released the translations of Tamil author Perumal Murugan’s sequels to One Part Woman—A Lonely Harvest and Trial by Silence—by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. However, I cannot but refer back to the first book in the series, which, in 2014, set the literary landscape of India ablaze when Hindu nationalists protested, gave death threats and even called for a ban, leading to Murugan announcing his death as a writer. He eventually came back in full form this year in March.
One Part Woman is all kinds of awakening. Yes, it jolts an urban reader—usually brutally numbed by everyday sexualisation—out of their bubble by confronting them with a lived reality of (a) extramarital sex and (b) inter-caste sex. But Murugan has also managed to provoke our collective wokeness by fuelling a chapter with a hazy, flush-inducing foreplay scene in what otherwise has been agreed upon as a “harrowing account” of a young couple’s love torn apart by a community’s “pathological obsession” towards, well, sanskaar.
I admit I wasn’t exactly comfortably placed when I reached Chapter 32, perched on my rickety office chair that was susceptible to sudden, umm, quivers upon the slightest movements. A little recap of the story: A childless couple, Kali and Ponna, find themselves at crossroads when the wife is slyly taken by her in-laws and parents to a famous chariot festival dedicated to lord Ardhanarishvari (half-man, half-woman; hence the title), where sex with strangers is cool, and the subsequent child is considered a blessing. Which leads us to Chapter 32.
Most steamy scenes start slow and then build up. But Murugan’s is different: They’re languorous, subtle and thrive on an ambiguous form of morality, one that mixes a very human inability to figure out the right from the wrong. The intertwining of the two affects us as readers as well.
We find Ponna in the middle of this festival, where the lights are bright, colourful and hazy, and the mood, that of ecstasy and feverish enjoyment. Men sashay in their dhotis. She’s rubbed against and grazed, and she can’t quite classify those touches. She rejects some men, without the intention of rejecting. “Clever!” she tells herself. Men come, and perch their chins on her shoulders. One of them lets out out a “heavy sigh” that wafts in the air. “How easily he asked for what he wanted even in the middle of such a crowd!” There’s annoyance and delight with this realisation.
Sample this: “She was thirsty. Was it her mind’s thirst that was peeping out through her tongue? On the west street, there were four or five unmanned water pandals. Anyone could help themselves to the water. She drank some and splashed some cold water on her face. She felt refreshed.”
The gaze of the woman here to seek blessings of a god quickly turns into a lustful search for her own “god”. She looks on with desire at men—there are more colours, more joy—and she watches their dhotis moving in a way that is “so intense that it wrapped itself around everything in the vicinity”.
She finally finds a piercing gaze when someone blows some air on her nape. He’s an absolute stranger, evoking a thrill of a different kind in her. And me. I felt that air travel down my neck even sitting in my air-conditioned office. I went on reading. “It was never easy for a new face to make its place in a shelf of faces. ‘This is how I expected you to be, god,’ she thought.” She walks ahead and he follows her. “His lips grazed her ears when they said, ‘Shall we eat puttu?’ A male voice dripping desire and intoxication. She didn’t even think. She nodded. He peeped into every store, but didn’t stop at any.”
There’s a certain delight when the writer makes you forget what era the book is set in. Murugan does exactly that. This pivotal scene—which acts as a catalyst for One Part Woman’s sequels—is a heady reminder that lust, no matter where you place it, even in a provincial town in pre-Independent Tamil Nadu, is timeless. But much to the chagrin of my derelict chair, Murugan ends the scene with nothing more than this: “Like a rain-soaked chicken, she huddled in his warmth. It appeared that he was taking her far away from the crowds and the noise.”