Award-winning Tamil writer Perumal Murugan’s Pyre, recently translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, tells a haunting tale of love threatened by societal prejudice.
Saroja and Kumaresan are in love. After a hasty wedding, they arrive in Kumaresan’s village, harbouring the dangerous secret that theirs is an inter-caste marriage. Kumaresan is confident that all will be well. But the villagers strongly suspect that Saroja must belong to a different caste. It is only a matter of time before their suspicions harden into certainty and, outraged, they set about exacting their revenge.
Murugan conjures a terrifying vision of intolerance in this tale of innocent young love pitted against chilling savagery. Read an extract from Pyre...
He had already explained to her that once they reached the village, he would do most of the talking, and that no matter what his mother or the others in the village asked her, she need speak only a word or two in response. He had repeated this to her several times — both when they left Tholur together on the bus, with her head resting on his shoulder, and when they resumed their journey after they got married — to make sure she understood clearly.
‘Whatever I say, amma will listen,’ he reassured her many times in many different ways. ‘She will worry about what others might say, but it will be all right soon. Don’t be afraid.’
Saroja nodded like an obedient child, hanging on to his every word. Although it was uncharacteristic of her garrulous nature not to talk, she realised how important it was to act according to his wishes while in the village. Later, when things had settled and she learned everything about the situation and the people, she could probably chatter as much as she wanted to. But until then she had best follow his instructions.
He even told her that he had hinted at these possibilities to his mother already. Apparently, the last time he was in the village, she had said to him, ‘What do you say? Shall I start looking for a girl for you?’
‘No rush,’ he had replied. ‘We can talk about this at leisure some other time.’
‘You live in a different town. Please don’t come back here dragging along a girl from a different caste,’ she had said, fixing her gaze on him.
Laughing, he had responded, ‘So what? If I don’t find a girl for myself, you think you will? I am the one who has to live with her.’
His mother had not said anything more on the subject.
He believed he had given her enough to think about. When he took his leave, she had merely grunted a non-committal ‘Hmm.’ He had had such conversations with her a few times already. Now he assured Saroja that his mother wouldn’t be entirely shocked.
‘Can anyone who looks at your face not like you, my dear?’ he asked her. ‘They will just be won over to your side. They might even forget me. “Look at the good fortune of this foul-mouthed fellow!” the fellows will jealously say.’
Every time he called her ‘my dear’, she shivered in delight. Even though she couldn’t tell if he actually meant it or was saying it in jest, it still made her secretly happy in her heart. The expression in his eyes was always very earnest, without any hint of exaggeration in them. If she said, ‘You are fooling me,’ he would surprise her with his response: ‘Are you the kind of girl that gets fooled?’ His very words embraced her and carried her along.
Kumaresan turned on to the mud path that forked away from the road. ‘This is the royal highway that leads to our village,’ he said and looked at her.
‘What do you mean?’ she asked. He often scared her with such grandiose language. Sometimes she simply could not understand what he said. When he spoke very fast, it sounded like a whole new language to her and she would wonder if he was just being mischievous.
‘A royal highway,’ he explained, ‘is what they lay out with soft flowers for a king and his queen to walk on. Now you and I are the king and queen.’ He laughed. In the heat of the day, it looked to her like the path ahead of her was strewn with long, slithering white snakes whose heads or tails she could not discern. Was this really a royal path? She felt a rush of affection for him and for the way he could joke and laugh even at such a time of anxiety.
The dust on the path stuck to their feet, searing their soles. She pulled the loose end of her sari over her head.
‘Don’t cover your head like that; remove it,’ he said. ‘In these parts, covering the head is a mark of mourning. Here, use this.’ He spread a small towel over her head. Once they decided to get married, he had started saying things like ‘Don’t do it that way. It will be misunderstood there,’ and ‘This is how they do it there.’ It continued even now, but she still did not know what to do and how exactly it would be perceived. She was fearful about how the villagers would interpret her actions. Every time she wondered if she would have to change herself completely, the heaviness in her gut grew. If she had to learn everything afresh, she might as well become a child again. But who would raise her then? Was Kumaresan ready for such a prospect? She kept touching her head to make sure the towel didn’t slip off.
After a while Kumaresan decided to stop under a large neem tree by the wayside. Its branches had spread over the entire width of the path, all the way to the other side, making the tree look like a giant umbrella. She looked up at it, but was unable to tell how tall the tree was; she had never seen a neem tree this huge. As soon as they halted below it, all her pent-up anxieties seemed to vanish, as though the tree had sucked the summer heat into itself. It was pleasant there in the shade. Glancing around the canopy, she remarked, ‘What a massive tree!’ She felt comforted by it, as though it had gathered her and seated her in its lap. She trusted that Kumaresan would similarly offer her refuge in his lap.
Right then, in a teasing tone, he said, ‘This is my village’s — no, no — our village’s kaanakkaadu,’ and pointed behind her. Confused, she looked at him. He explained, ‘This is the cremation ground.’
The lap that had given her refuge only a moment ago now pushed her away and shrank back into itself. Fearfully, she looked at the cremation ground. It lay beyond the neem tree, a vast outgrowth of bushes and huge trees that rose to the sky. There was no sign of anyone being buried or cremated there. The place hid all sorts of secrets within itself while displaying a modest appearance to the world. Saroja turned away, but something from behind her kept its gaze on her. She wanted to leave the place soon.
She was trying hard to resist looking at the bushes with their closely guarded secrets when she heard a voice: ‘What is it, Mapillai? Why are you standing here?’
She whipped around to see a man on a bicycle, standing with one foot on the ground. He had called out to Kumaresan with a friendly term of address commonly used between men.
The man was wearing a loincloth and had a towel tied around his head. He looked middle-aged, with a swollen belly and thick hair covering his entire body. Had he not been wearing the loincloth and the towel, he would have looked exactly like a dark pig. Saroja felt both ashamed and amused at the sight of the man, but she noticed that he was sizing her up carefully. As his bee-like eyes bore into her, she lowered her gaze to protect herself from his unsettling scrutiny.
Kumaresan replied calmly, ‘This is my wife, Maama. We got married just this morning.’
‘Look at that! You went away to work, but you managed to find yourself a cow! Does your mother know?’ he said, and scrutinised Saroja again from head to foot.
Saroja wondered if he would come closer and inspect her teeth. Although she was not wearing silk, she looked very much like a new bride in her new sari and blouse and the yellow thread of the taali around her neck. Her face, strained by the exhaustion of the journey, looked like a painting shrouded in smoke. She tried to shrink her frame and hide behind Kumaresan, but the man’s gaze hounded her wherever she moved.
‘Amma will know only once we get home,’ Kumaresan said.
‘You have done something unexpected, bringing a girl from elsewhere. What caste?’ the man said.
‘Our caste only,’ Kumaresan replied.
Since he wanted the man to leave, he kept his answers short. But it didn’t look like the man had any intention of leaving. He got off his bicycle and leaned around Kumaresan to get a good look at Saroja. Seeing her struggle to hide herself, he frowned, hummed, and furrowed his eyebrows in suspicion.
‘Can’t I tell by the face?’ he prodded relentlessly. ‘This is not a face from our caste, Mapillai. Does a face that wander over fields and rocks look like this? This is the face of someone who hasn’t toiled, a body that hasn’t suffered summer’s heat. All right, tell me the truth — whatever it is... Is she from our caste?’
‘Yes, Maama,’ Kumaresan replied patiently.
Once the man realized he wouldn’t be able to drag out any more information from Kumaresan, he intoned, ‘All right, all right, this heat is punishing. Go home. There must be some leftover rice gruel for you to drink. Your mother might even become overjoyed at the sight of her new daughter-in-law and decide to kill a chicken, and make some kozhambu and some sambar rice with cumin and everything. This is the first time such a daughter-in-law has come to our village, isn’t it? Such a rare piece of sweet jaggery!’ Saying this, he pedalled away, his bicycle moving slowly as its tyres pressed into the mud on the path.
Saroja and Kumaresan could see the loose end of the man’s loincloth dangle in the air when he hoisted himself up from the seat and pedalled with force to move faster. He turned back many times to look at them. Saroja watched with fear as the man pierced through the day’s heat, leaving a trail of dust suspended in the air.
Extracted from Perumal Murugan's Pyre, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, with permission from Penguin India