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This is the novel that drew fire from Hindutva outfits. An exasperated Perumal Murugan then declared that he would write no more and decided to withdraw his books. The original Tamil title of the book was Madhurobhagan.
The book was translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. He has done a laudable job of it. The book manages to retain a colloquial feel without losing a grip on English language.
Kali and Ponnan have been married to each other for the past twelve years. It was a love match. Kali was friends with Ponnan's brother, Muthu. He had an eye on Ponnan since long. One night, after a bout of drinking and hanging around, Kali asked Muthu if he would like him as a brother-in-law. Muthu agreed instantly and even spoke to his parents and fixed the match.
Kali and Ponnan are blissfully happy together. The only thorn in their side is the lack of children. This lack is not just for themselves, it is an eyesore for the entire community. Anyone feels free to comment upon it, taunt Ponnan about her barrenness, Kali about his impotency. The couple tries to redress the wrong by doing everything in their power. They go to temples, take vows, make offerings, undertake difficult tasks. All their efforts to waste as Ponnan continues to menstruate each month, much to her sorrow.
Ponnan is willing to do everything, but she draws a line at the suggestion that her husband marry again. Luckily for her, Kali is as unwilling to marry again. He is deeply in love with his wife, but there are other factors that are behind this decision as well.
They are willing to live as they are. They are a loving couple and are happy in their life. But the societal pressures are too much for them. They are made to strive continuously. The constant barrage of insults and taunts threatens to tear apart their peace and harmony.
One day Ponnan's mother decides to spend a night at their place. Instead to sleeping with her daughter, the lady decides to draw her cot over to where Kali's mother sleeps. The ladies spend the entire night whispering to each other. Ponnan's mother has a scheme for making Ponna pregnant. What remains to be seen is whether the couple will agree to it.
The novel is full of a wealth of detail about the life of a young farming couple somewhere in the pre-independence era. We are used to extolling the virtues of our society and how it gives us a sense of security. Here we see its destructive side too. As long as you are going according to the general plan, marry, be productive, have children, everyone is happy. But if your life deviates from the plan, you are lambasted roundly, and anyone can take potshots at you.
This is the mean face of the society. Feuds over property are just around the corner. Your relatives are nice to you only because they have an eye on what you can give them. Even though it is nobody's business, everybody reserves the right to comment on how you conduct yourself. Such interference can not only be annoying, it can be downright destructive.
The story is set in a pre-independence era, but many of these ills are still pervasive.. Women still bear the stigma of being childless. Our neighbors and relatives still think our business is theirs to merrily comment upon.
The novel is not entirely without flaws. The story tackles some parts in a very compartmentalized manner. For instance, the details about the couple's attempts at appeasing the Gods are all put in one long stretch. Later, we are treated to long passages about how the couple deals with the suggestion of a second marriage for Kali. It reads more like a documentary instead of a story.
Towards the end, as the story moves towards a tantalizing climax, we are suddenly diverted by digressions in the story.
These flaws do not hinder the value of the story, however. We are given a very incisive look at how a narrow-minded society does not hesitate in riding roughshod over a happy couple. For this, and for a very detailed look at the way of life in those times, this book excels.