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by Perumal Murugan
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Saroja and Kumaresan are young, naive and in love. And that usually spells problems - depending on when and where, the problems are different but the story is almost always the same. Except for the endings - sometimes it is a "happily even after", sometimes not so much. So how about a story set in rural Tamil Nadu in India in the early 1980s?
The text is not dated explicitly but we are told that Kumaresan was sorry that he was not a year younger - he had to leave school after 11 years and the 12th was introduced a year too late for him. That maps with the Indian school reforms of the late 70s and as that had happened a handful of years before the main story, it gives some idea of the timeframe. Other from that we know it is a somewhat modern tale because there are cars and radios that can show pictures and the British are nowhere to be seen but other from that, the tale can happen at almost any time - remove these parts and the story still works.
So what causes the problems for our young lovers? They belong to different castes. Saroja grew up in a town - taking care of her brother and father, spending her days in their one-room house (when not delivering them lunch), waiting to be married. Kumaresan grew up in a village in the Tamil Nadu where people are dirt poor and stick to the old ways. They meet when Kumaresan moves to the town so he can make some money and while learning how to make and sell soda, he convinces himself that he can marry Saroja and his mother and village will accept her. So they elope and return to the village, where things do not go exactly as any of them expected. And things are not helped by his decision to hide the difference in caste and to insist that they are the same caste - despite the difference in their skin tones and the fact that this is easy to check.
I am not sure if Kumaresan was just too optimistic and naive or if he was so used to being accepted and loved that it never crossed his mind that his mother, family and village may not accept his choice. Even when the initial reaction shows that he underestimated their reaction, he still does not realize just how badly things can turn out - refusing to return to the town with his new bride, going on with his life as if people would just forget and forgive and let him be.
Most of the story is told from Saroja's side - with us seeing her thoughts and memories. In these memories we see the two of them falling in love and courting but in her reality we see her dealing with a mother-in-law who thinks she is a witch (and worse) and a village which is not ready to accept her. She cannot even understand them half of the time - their Tamil is different from hers and the local dialect sounds almost like a different language (we also see Kumaresan struggling with that in the town and yet, when he brings her home, he never thinks for a second that this may be a problem). Kumaresan is mostly oblivious to Saroja's suffering - but then we have some hints that his mother behaves a bit better when he is around - Saroja wants her mother-in-law to explode in front of him so he can see what she lives through. The shock of living in an isolated hut in the middle of nowhere when she is used to the modern world does not help things much either. But she tries to hide even from herself how much this marriage had been a mistake - she is still in love, she still hopes that their love will be enough but she is losing her naivete and she is starting to realize that she cannot live there and that they need to find another way.
The end was almost expected. The author chose not to show us the very end - it is implied but there is enough of ambiguity to allow for a different interpretation. I usually dislike open endings but this one works (and depends on how you want to read it, it may not even be an open one - the implication is strong enough to count as a fact if one so chooses).
We are never told which caste is the higher one. Indian readers possibly would know that but even if you don't, it is never a question of grades - they are different so that's all that matters. Kumaresan's refusal to accept the reality and understand his mother's viewpoint drives the story towards its end. And right there, in the crossfire between tradition and love, between stubbornness and pride, is sitting Saroja - the naive young bride who just wants to be happy.
It is an interesting story of a place I don't know much about. I knew it won't be a happy story when I started reading it but I did not expect it to be as sad as it turned out to be. But I could not stop reading - the story, as predictable as it can be, has enough local color to make it worth reading. The author's choice of non-linear story (we get a lot of the action in memories from a year or a day ago) makes the narrative a bit jumpy and while it works in some places, it feels like an interruption in others (almost like an ad in the middle of a movie - you want it to end so you can get back to the story). Despite that, I was never sorry I picked up the book.
PS: A note on the cover - maybe whoever designs covers need to read the books they are designing the covers for. The bicycle is indeed important for the story but she never sits in front of him... so maybe when looking for an image of a couple on a bicycle, someone should have noticed that...
Kumaresan and Saroja meet in town, where she has lived for as long as she can remember. He has come from a village to learn the soda trade--bottling, cleaning the bottles, delivering. She keep house for her father and brother, who both work in a leather factory (is that the same as a tannery?). They flirt, fall in love, and run away to marry. Kumaresan takes her home to his village and mother. Where they are ostracized for marrying between castes.
Murugan never tells who is the higher caste, he just gives clues. Saroja is pale and stays at home keeping house for her family (her mother is deceased), who work in the leather factory. Kumaresan grew up with his widowed mother, in their village where they keep goats and chickens. He has been doted on by his uncles. I imagine Indian readers know who is higher caste, and perhaps how much higher.
Well written, the flirting and love is quite sweet. I enjoyed the book and was left wondering--how did these two not understand how their marriage would be seen? Saroja is used to being in a mixed-caste neighborhood, but might be a bit naive. But what was Kumaresan thinking? His mother admits to spoiling him, did she not teach him? Did his uncles' lackadaisical approach to finding him a wife leave him thinking they did not care? The misunderstandings and misinterpretation are everywhere, yet not discussed by all involved.
I look forward to reading more from this author.
The story opens with young lovers Saroja and Kumaresan making their way to the latter's village, somewhere in the western region of Tamil Nadu, India. They belong to different castes, and their hasty marriage is a decision that goes against everything the people around them believe in.
Early on, the reader can feel Saroja's sense of displacement very strongly. Having left her hometown and her family, she is now transplanted to a village she has never been to, she knows nothing of, and to which her only connection is through her new husband. Her predicament, however, is only visible to the reader and her.
Kumaresan, although nervous, expects the problems that may arise from their caste differences to dissipate quietly. He tells Saroja as much, when she keeps imploring him to find answers that might reason with the villagers' prying questions.
Their sweet bubble of calm is burst soon, however. They're excommunicated and ostracised, their access to the local well is cut off, their relations with their family members sour, and life becomes difficult. What follows is a difficult read, as the reader witnesses how caste differences poison the lives of Saroja and Kumaresan.
Pyre is set in the 1980s in a remote Indian town, but the story rings true even today. It is a tale of blinding hatred spurred on by communal differences. Perumal Murugan captures the claustrophobic atmosphere the lovers live in rather well. The book was originally written in Tamil, and there are parts of the book where the loss of vernacular nuances, as it often happens with works of translation, are felt greatly. But Aniruddhan Vasudevan has managed to reproduce the original work in English with as much integrity and as little compromise as possible. The book leaves you with a deep sense of dread and anguish.
Saroja and Kumaresan are young and in love. After meeting in a small southern Indian town, where Kumaresan works at a soda bottling shop, they quickly marry before returning to Kumaresan's family village to build a new life together.
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Melvil Decimal System (DDC)894.8Literature Literature of other languages Altaic, Finno-Ugric, Uralic and Dravidian languages Dravidian literatures
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Review of the Black Cat/Grove Press paperback edition (February 2022) of the English translation first published by Penguin India (2016) translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan from the Tamil language original "பூக்குழி Pookuzhi" (2013).
Kumaresan has eloped with his new wife Saroji and brings her back to his home village from the larger town where he was working and where they met. Despite his supposed 'all contingencies' preparations, they are met with complete rejection by his mother (the father having died at a young age) and the rest of the community. The reason being that the community do not recognize her as part of their caste and are offended accordingly. This escalates into mockery, shunning and even physical attacks until the tragic conclusion (which is slightly telegraphed by the title, but not quite exactly as you might expect)
I had numerous problems with this book and the presentation of its translation which account for my low rating. This is an outlier opinion though, so you should look to the average 4 rating reviews for more positive reactions. My issues summarized as bullet points were:
- The translation reads very oddly in parts, the title itself seems wrong to start with (see Trivia below) but the entire book reads with the unreality of a fable. Constantly referring to the home as 'the rock' is another example of an odd context which is repeated constantly. The fable aspect extends to very standard archetypes, the evil 'mother-in-law', the innocent bride, the oblivious son, the herd bullying mentality of the relatives and the community. So people just don't feel 'real'.
- There doesn't appear to be any effort made to adapt this for the international market from the original 2016 translation as published by Penguin India. The glossary is completely inadequate and misses dozens of words which I tried to look up (many unsuccessfully). Several of those could be understood in context as a food, an item of clothing, a term of endearment, a family relationship, etc., but most were still frustrating to puzzle out, e.g. Tamil 'maama' is apparently 'uncle', and not an alternative for 'mother'.
- The whole issue of caste is not explained or given any context. You have to research that yourself if you are unfamiliar with it. The villagers condemn Saroji as 'not of our caste' and treat her as a so-called 'untouchable'. Untouchables are not a caste however and fall outside of it. Again, an Afterword or an expanded Translator's Note would have been helpful here, but nothing was provided.
I read Pyre due to it being longlisted for the 2023 International Booker Award. You can read further about the longlist of 13 books and the shortlist of 6 books here. The shortlist was announced on Tuesday, April 18, 2023 and Pyre was not included. The winning title will be announced on Tuesday, May 23, 2023.
A song from the film Graamathu Aathiyam (1980) (Tamil: A Village Chapter or A Village Episode) becomes the soundtrack to Saroja and Kumaresan’s courtship which is seen in a flashback, and it also helped to situate the time setting of the book in the early 1980s. The song was easy to find on YouTube and one of the comments (in Tamil) even provides the lyrics (which Kumaresan quotes). Listen at Aatthu Mettuley.
An extended video of songs and clips from the movie can be seen here, Aatthu Mettuley is the first song in that sequence.
Trivia and Links
I may be completely off-track here, but a google search for the original Tamil title பூக்குழி [Pookuzhi] leads to Wikipedia pages for a fire-walking ritual ceremony associated with a temple festival, such as here in English and here in Tamil. This is perhaps the festival that the village was preparing for when the council decided to exclude Saroja and Kumaresan? The title then seems to be something much more complex than just translating it as “Pyre”, which raised quite different connotations for me.
To read further about the caste system in India see the Wikipedia article here, or read this article here. ( )