In India, when it comes to the English-speaking elite’s understanding of vernacular literature, it is zilch. It is akin to the West’s perspective of the East a few centuries ago. In the modern world, few have similar opinion about a few African tribes. These intellectuals shower their compassion on the regional literati just like those who shower their compassion on the downtrodden. The sympathy of some, particularly English-speaking elite is full of self-reproach and becomes unbearable for those whom they shower it upon. As an example, I can cite the research work in Chennai on dalit literature. Those who take it up are predominantly from the upper castes and hence they pick up mediocre works which can never be qualified as literature, elevate and brand it as dalit writing. I don’t see any difference between “gentlemen” who are amazed to see minimally clothed African tribals and these alleged upper-class dalit researchers.
I could see that this forms the backdrop of Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (Maadhorubaagan in Tamil). Thanks to the interjection of strange sexual practices in a developed community and the attack on the author by a gang that had no clue about literature, the novel received tremendous popularity. That book is nothing but a normal masala-Vijayakanth potboiler except for the sex-with-stranger-in-a-temple-function part.
Now, Perumal Murugan’s Pyre stoops to a much lower level than his previous novels and laments, in a horrendous way, quite similar to the day to day scenes we witness outside our places of worship throughout India — the beggars exhibiting their purulent scabs and wailing for money. The rich who commute in cars sling awards and amazing reviews saying that they have never come across such a beautiful novel. Shame on us!
In my opinion, Pyre is a bad read. It has no literary nuances whatsoever. The incidents and the language they are described in are not good and they resemble the scenes of masala films. When the protagonist Kumaresan reaches his village after marrying Saroja, he comes across a middle-aged man and he introduces him to Saroja as Podharu (which means bush in Tamil referring to his hairy body). He adds that had he not been wearing the loincloth and the towel, he would have looked exactly like a dark pig: “We call him Podharu because that is exactly what he looks like — a bush.” Thus, throughout the novel, Kumaresan’s fellow villagers are treated as a bunch of low lives. Notwithstanding external appearances, the novel portrays these villagers as savages who treat Saroja like an animal because of her fair complexion, just like an actress and because she comes from the city, hinting at her upper caste.
The author has conjured his novel based on a lie. In reality, a woman who resembles an actress would be treated like a goddess in a dalit community, not unlike the general Indian attitude of reverence towards anyone with a fair complexion.
As a matter of fact, it’s dalit men who are tormented and killed by the families of upper-caste girl’s. Since 2014 till date, 81 people have been killed in the name of “honour”. Once, an upper caste politician mentioned love between dalit men and upper class women as purely cinematic.
But Pyre puts up a false front by narrating how an elite, beautiful, fair-skinned girl was burnt to death by ugly, lower caste men. What an anti-dalit regard! Even if the author argues that the men he portrayed were not dalits, the novel clearly delivers the fact that an upper-class woman was harassed and killed by people who were socially inferior to her; whereas in real life, those who suffer come from the lower rungs of society.
Moreover, the idea that a village whose people live in misery, who have been working like slaves for centuries together and who are used to genuflection and thrashing, will be so ruthless towards a woman because she is beautiful sounds implausible. In reality, the villagers would have regarded Saroja as a person with power and praised Kumaresan for bringing her to them. Indeed, the reality of Tamil Nadu is that neither would it have been possible for Kumaresan to lead a happy life — if Saroja’s kin did not kill him — nor could the loincloth-clad people, who lack arrogance and authority, ever think of setting a woman on fire!
Pyre reminded me in many ways of Taslima Nasrin’s Lajja, which depicts all Bangladeshis as anti-Hindus who brutally rape Hindu women. Pyre too, has a similar hatred as its undercurrent. Literature is love, not hatred.
Since we are bereft of heroes, we keep searching the society’s divisions for a hero — heroes in politics; in social life; among intellectuals; among average men — and Perumal Murugan is a hero to those English-speaking intellectuals who do not have a clue about the local color!
Published in The Asian Age and Deccan Chronicle on 22 May 2016.