Life & Style

Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi is pleasant and heartwarming but its experimentations with satire are muddled

- Richa Bhattarai, Kathmandu

Feb 8, 2019-

“A large populace reads your work only as translations. Don’t you think this creates a loss of your original text?” This question was put forth to author Perumal Murugan at the recently-held Jaipur Literature Festival.

Murugan, perhaps accustomed to the query, did not need to pause before he answered in Tamil, “Barely a quarter of the ideas in my head get transferred to paper as I write. So there is a kind of loss inherent in the very act of writing--why should it then come as a surprise during translating?”

“It can also contain the possibility of enhancement. A tightening of structure, erasure of fluff, coat of beauty. I would request you to read the translation as a literary text that is complete in itself. Do not accuse the process of translation of diminishing the value of the original text. It is all you have, all you need.”

This was interpreted excellently into English by N Kalyan Raman, the translator of Murugan’s latest novel, Poonachi. Raman himself added, “We should stop assuming a priori that translation is a loss, just because Robert Frost said so.”

Quite. Forgetting all about the Tamil version, we now have the English rendition at hand. A slim, thoughtful, sweetly-etched life story of a tiny black goat. Judged only by the style and flow of the translation, it is a smooth, pleasant and heartwarming read. The undercurrents and insinuations, accusations and symbols, though, are both joyful and laborious to untangle. And while its experimentations of merging a fable with contemporary satire are curiosity-rousing, they are also responsible for the muddles they give rise to.

The novel leads us to a hamlet, where an elderly couple ekes out a meagre living. One day, Poonachi enters their ordinary life and creates an astonishing change. The miniscule black goat, likened to a wriggling worm, takes up a huge space in their home and heart(h). This bonding between humans and animal is an emotional and intimate relation ingenuously conveyed. The little kid strengthens the couple’s ties with its neighbours, and even between the couple themselves. This arouses a tenderness in readers’ hearts, a gentleness and magnanimity rarely discovered in today’s works. As we are lulled by this simple world brimming with affection and bonhomie, the gears start turning beneath our delicately-placed feet. That there is something sinister afoot becomes evident only after the kid has nudged itself gently into the readers’ souls.

Suddenly, the reader is made aware of the unforgiving world outside this idyllic microcosm. As the old lady stands in line for hours to procure government identification for Poonachu, the sorrows of the state come pouring in. No one knows exactly what the identification does, or why a citizen has to face such misery before even getting a glimpse of a taunting, unhelpful, threatening government official. The harping about the state’s good intentions, convoluted reasons of having to stand in an unforgiving queue, the constant glorification of the regime are discomfortingly reminiscent of many countries around the world right now, including our own.

This is where we realise the story has evolved from an animal fable to a political satire. “I look even at politics through a literary lens,” explained Murugan at the festival. “But nothing is free of politics, and so it is embedded in my work, too.” This portrayal of an obsessive, watchful, oppressive state is quite similar to Orwell’s 1984, or the more recent state surveillance in Murakami’s 1Q84. It also has a jagged connection to Ishiguro’s The Buried Giant, of terror submerged beneath a seemingly tranquil façade.

The rows upon rows of villagers tottering in line to get their cattle verified, and being flogged and punished ruthlessly if they dare faint of hunger or heat, is a direct parallel to citizens outside the novel, of suffering piled on to the already deprived. Our minds will wander, angrily and fruitlessly, to fellow country people who trudge for days to fulfill an official diktat, but are spurned and ridiculed, and their work left undone. We will be enraged by recollections of students who must pay fines to get their certificates corrected even though the error was not their fault; of officials turning defensive and inserting obstacles in the procedure where there are none.

If anyone dares to protest this injustice, they are reprimanded, “Speak softly, Sir. The regime has ears.” Murugan examines these ears and exposes their worthlessness, puts them up for everyone to understand their injustice and begin to rally against them. The helplessness of the couple will ricochet back, ultimately, to the readers themselves.

This simmering resentment, anger and introspection are veiled by the childlike tale of the goat that touches the lives of everyone she meets. She is anthropomorphised, much like Premchand’s or Tagore’s animals, and serves as a careful representation of a girl morphing into a woman.

The rural milieu, its very flavour and atmosphere, is captured gorgeously by the writer through knowledgeable insights; it is a timeless representation of fresh pools, tender buds and cud-chewing cattle of a far-flung village. Yet the writer is more than aware of rural hardships, and has stopped short of romanticizing it.

The lilting story is disturbed only by the author’s insistence on treating the kid as a human--what then of the humans themselves? It ends up as a hotchpotch, an animal baa-ing for attention while its owner clamours for the same space, of an animal not remaining one and a human rendered useless.

Murugan has humorously described why his protagonist is a goat. “I am fearful of writing about humans; even more fearful of writing about gods,” he says, a jab at the huge furor that followed his One Part Woman, which talks of both gods and humans. “It is forbidden to write about cows or pigs,” he says, another sly reference to the growing religious intolerance in the country over meaty issues.

So choosing the goat is fine, but why is she burdened with a girl’s depictions of menstruation, sex and childbirth? A girl in her place would have been far more evocative, if the goat doesn’t serve a special purpose. It is a stirring read, reminding us of the goats sacrificed during our festivals, yes, but this is a not a tale seeking sympathy for a goat’s assassination. It is a call for innocence and parity, of naivety destroyed by a haranguing society, of a society trapped in nonsensical rules--the goat here isn’t symbolic enough for it all to shine through.

The satire, beginning promisingly, also ebbs and fizzles and dilutes itself, turning every which way in the author’s apparent haste to end the novel. The ending, though, is superb. Just a simple sentence, but centuries of myths and cultural complexities layered in it that makes for extensive, and very interesting, background reading.

A novel that is all heart, and yet the flesh is weak, and the fur matted almost as much as Poonachi’s.

Poonachi: or the Story of a Black Goat

Author: Perumal Murugan

Translator: N. Kalyan Raman

Publisher: Westland Books

Pages: 173

Published: 09-02-2019 07:00

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