One Part Woman is the English translation of Perumal Murugan’s Tamil novel Madhorubagan.
Set sometime before independence, One Part Woman chronicles the story of Kali and Ponna, a land owning couple in a village near Tiruchengode. They have a loving relationship, they long for each other even after twelve years of being married. Their happiness, however, is never complete. They still do not have a child. In a society where childlessness points to impotence on part of the man and severe flaws in character on part of the woman, Kali and Ponna live a life of great despair. So great is their despair that they leave nothing to chance in their quest for a child. They go about appeasing benevolent and ferocious deities. They try to rid themselves of curses that might have come down through the generations. They undertake a dangerous journey around a rock sitting on a hill said to make barren women fertile. Ponna drinks bitter potions made from neem leaves so she gets pregnant. She doesn’t. She cries every month when she starts menstruating. Kali supports her through these outbursts, but is himself weighed down by his inability to father a child. His virility is often mocked, and he feels ashamed in front of his peers.
After much debate, Ponna’s family along with Kali’s mother decide to take Ponna to the chariot festival for the gods on the hill. The festival is celebrated in honour of Madhorubagan, the deity who is half-male and half-female. On the fourteenth day of this festival, it is said all men become gods. Any man and woman can lie together, and a child that comes from such a union is considered a gift of the gods. Ponna is not opposed to the idea, she would go if Kali allows her. Kali is so enraged she would even consider it that he is unable to behave normally towards her after that conversation. He reasons with himself at times – she didn’t say she would go, she said she would go if he wanted her to. But he cannot see past the idea that his wife would consider lying with someone else.
This story may take place in a time and place far away from our realities, but some of the points the author raises are immediate in their relevance. The sense of ownership a man feels towards a woman’s body – this hasn’t changed. The difference in the attitudes of men and women towards the act of sex – Ponna doesn’t view this exercise as any different from the countless other exercises she has endured in her pursuit of motherhood; Kali thinks of it as a vulgar betrayal. The pathological obsession with procreation and the effect this has on the mental state of a couple – their hope is chipped away one piece at a time until their relationship is broken. The dynamic nature of tradition – traditions keep changing, they aren’t reliable. Not too long ago, Kali argues, women could be with any number of men, as long as the men belonged to her caste. When that tradition has died, why must he agree to participate in a tradition that he finds abhorrent? The contradictions we internalize when we attempt to reason what is acceptable and what is not – a community one would otherwise consider regressive has seemingly progressive views on sex. But this attitude exists only within the framework of begetting a child. While they appear to be permissive in matters relating to sex, they still follow sincerely the practices that discriminate along lines of caste. The author also examines a counterpoint to widely held beliefs in the form of Kali’s uncle. Uncle Nallupayyan is a maverick with complete and utter disregard for every rule. He refuses to marry, mocks his people’s customs, but is without doubt the happiest person in the story. He doesn’t desert those whom he holds dear, yet he manages to carve out for himself a way of life agreeable to his philosophy. When he says we give birth to children because we need it for ourselves, I want to agree with him.
One Part Woman is almost anthropological in its level of detail, though not pedantic. It teaches us about the farm, farm animals, and even recipes. Through Kali, we come to know of how best to take care of the cattle and goats on the farm. We learn how to protect the chicken coop from birds of prey. We find out how the farmer coaxes the dry land into yielding crop. I realized how little I know of the processes that go into bringing food to my table. These details do not bore us; rather, they make the setting come alive.
This is a nuanced story. It is layered and complex, but told simply. It is sensitive too, picking apart emotions with infinite care. It might confine itself to following the life of one couple in a small village in Tamil Nadu, but it will speak to you. It would be thoughtless of me if I wrote about One Part Woman and didn’t mention the translation. This story would have been relegated to a handful of readers proficient in Tamil, if not for the effective translation by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. He doesn’t allow us to forget that we are reading a Tamil novel in English.