As Eru Veyyil gets an English translation, Perumal Murugan revisits his 1991 classic tracing deterioration of rural idyll
In Rising Heat one can spot traces of the author’s unflinchingly honest and poignant narrative produced years before the terrible controversy around One Part Woman led him to make the sorrowful announcement that ‘Perumal Murugan, the writer, is dead.’
Perumal Murugan’s debut novel, Eru Veyyil (Rising Heat), is a stirring narrative of a village in firm clasp of urbanisation, while his own everyday life in sharp contrast, a reflection of the idyll of the countryside. Just before sitting down to talk with Firstpost about this 1991 work – which was recently translated into English – he was out grazing his two buffalo calves and in the weeks following the coronavirus -related lockdown, the author had taken up farming at his home in Namakkal, Tamil Nadu.
He has hardly felt the pinch of social distancing, Murugan concedes, having written and published Estuary, a collection of short stories in July. The principal of the Namakkal Government Arts College has also been compiling several stories about his students when he is not doing office work or attending video meetings or reading different interpretations of the Tamil text, Thirukkural.
Murugan, however, is by no means immune to the drastic collateral damage of the COVID-19 crisis which has wreaked havoc on the lives of thousands across the country. “Today with this coronavirus everywhere, with people having to move away or to lose their property, he is able to empathise with them because of what he has been through,” the author relays through his translator, Janani Kannan.
For he was but an 11-year-old when his family’s land and his grandfather’s 11-acre fields were taken away for development by the government. Agriculture was the way of life for the rural folk in his region and his young eyes watched their livelihoods being washed away, leaving behind a state of confused despair.
“Where to live? How to make a living? They had no clue. So, they were all shaken like never before.”
These wounds kept weighing him down and 14 years later, Murguan published Eru Veyyil, a fictional account of one such village thrust into the lap of industrialisation. In the novel, translated by Kannan from Tamil into English, he describes land as though it had a beating heart, writing of their lost fields:
“That land which had embraced securely the life of every dispersed pearl millet grain and corn seed. The laughter of the cotton flowers. The strength of the groundnuts. Everything had turned lifeless. Edifices sprung everywhere from a land where crops once flourished. Boulder-like buildings, everywhere. Across the entire hundred acres.”
A total of 100-acres was taken away for development projects displacing many villagers in this region of Tamil Nadu, the author’s home and the setting of this novel. So, for the 25-year-old writer, all those years ago, putting this story down into words alleviated some of his pain, he says.
But Murugan wanted his narrative to transcend the heartbreak of one boy, to make it not only about himself “but also about the people, that whole community, that region and the changes they went through.” Switching from the first-person narrative in the first draft to the third person in the final version, Rising Heat then became a book which encompassed the caste politics, economic disparities and domestic relationships unfolding in the village following this big change. And Murugan’s protagonist, simply referred to as ‘the boy’, became the silent observer of these socio-political developments.
The novel, brimming with dramatic feats performed by seemingly simple characters discovers the depths within common peoples’ hearts, the rustic landscape rendering a suitable backdrop for their suffering as Murugan writes of the protagonist’s Akka (sister), who elopes with a boy from a lower caste, of Annan (older brother), who remains in the shadows until he sets their house on fire in an inebriated state and of his Paati (grandmother) whose resilience pushes through every obstacle in a rapidly changing world.
Kannan for her part says that she enjoys this character development in Rising Heat. The deteriorating relationship between the protagonist’s parents in particular, the translator notes, is built up so carefully that in the beginning every fight where the husband hits the wife, and she endures his beatings is laid out but at the end they reach a point where they simply fight and, “there is no need for explanations.”
But the endearing moments in the book are captured by the boy’s memories which alone have the strength to cast a light on a disappearing village life. Memories of the old buffalo that grew up in their cowshed, the small boxes brought from a local fair which would be filled with money and the palm fronds from which his father would drink toddy, create an evocative imagery transporting the reader into the boy's village as it had once been.
Kannan says, "I remember feeling really sad after reading this book,” because such descriptions were things she could relate to having spent her holidays with her family in their village. And now she notes how every time she visits, those swathes of green have given way to buildings, stretches of green land taken over by more and more concrete.
However, Murugan never completely disregards the positives of economic and industrial development. He draws particular attention to the caste system that prevailed when agriculture was the primary occupation and the labourers in the fields would be at the mercy of the landlords. He says, “The Dalits or the lower caste people were literally enslaved, like ‘bonded labourers’ and they had to work in these farms for nothing.”
“People were giving their entire lives to landowners. They would own almost everything they had, and what they did, what they ate, everything was sort of dictated by the landlords.”
But over the last thirty years, “people have veered off to owning lorries or keeping poultry farms and providing rickshaw services and running powerlooms in the region.” So due to the change in business, the feeling of ownership has disappeared. “Nobody feels they are in the position where they are being owned by the higher caste people. That sort of enslavement has definitely decreased.”
In Rising Heat one can spot traces of the author’s unflinchingly honest and poignant narrative produced years before the terrible controversy around Madhorubhagan (One Part Woman), the winner of the Sahitya Akademi Translation Award, led him to make the sorrowful announcement that ‘Perumal Murugan, the writer, is dead.’
But at that time too, this sharp writing brought its share of trouble. Veeran, one of the characters in his book, described as an amputee who walks with a limp and has political connections was enough to incur the ire of the real-life person it was based on.
“One of the readers, a teacher in a little village close to where this story is based, was standing at the bus stop referenced in the book as well,” begins Murugan, “and he noticed a person who was limping coming in and the description matched what was in the book.”
The reader approached him and on finding out about this reference, the person was sufficiently annoyed for Murugan to start avoiding trips back home. The author was studying in Chennai at the time and when he did go back, he arrived only at night and stayed indoors, within their property.
But the part that helped him, translates Kannan in this interview, is that, “what he had written was not untrue, it was this person and he had done these things.” Ultimately, that was his strength “because the real ‘Veeran’ could not admit in public that the character was based on him as that would paint a bad picture about him.”
However, what Murugan does convey is that while we have never enjoyed the freedom to write what came to our mind, today the climate is more intolerant and controlled than ever. “Because everything seems to come with a backlash, how it is going to be interpreted is a concern.”
In Poonachi: Or the Story of a Black Goat (2018) or even Estuary, the canvas of the work of this resurrected writer is therefore more subtle, and symbolism stands in for the real. He says, for instance, that he has chosen to refer to people as asuras (demons) and by relegating all actions to the realm of the netherworld he “does not have to explain to anybody why somebody behaved a certain way.” As for the story of the black goat, he notes in his preface to Poonachi that he is fearful of writing about humans, or gods, so he is writing about animals – a goat — because it is problem-free and harmless.
Perumal Murugan’s Rising Heat, translated by Janani Kannan has been published by Penguin Random House
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