books

Thoughts on One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

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I had never thought that there’d be a day when I would blog about a book I have read. For an overthinker like yours truly, I surely never articulated the power of literature to change things. Well, unless I decided to seriously pursue writing. I think that’s maybe because I asked myself why I wanted to write besides the momentary joy of it.

As a reader I believe that books come to you when you are ready for them. The seemingly inanimate pages displaying strings of characters and words collectively carry something palpable, something so intimate that the reader lives the words. Isn’t that the singularly most awe inspiring and powerful thing about the written word? Starting with simpler books for young adults, I read a varied set of books, each of which leave me with something new. Of course, there have been occasional instances of a few books that don’t sit well or put me to sleep within a few pages. Those, I leave.

Until 2017, I had never been the one to actively aspire to read a certain number of books through the year. In 2017, I decided to keep track of my reading, if not have targets. I am reading 3 wonderful books while the ones that I have read lie happily with slightly worn off pages in my bookshelf. Of these, the one that compelled me to write this is Perumal Murugan’s ‘One Part Woman’.

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I stumbled upon this book through an artist who recommended the read. Her work and her style continues to inspire me and I decided to give this book a shot since the basic plot type has seldom seemed inviting to me. When reading up about the writer after reading it, I realised that Murugan was in fact, the writer who somewhere stirred the desire of writing professionally, in me. I was pursuing my Masters when I had read extensively about him as a writer who was harassed for his work. I remembered being in awe of the offense taken at a work of fiction by a mass of people and the subsequent responses of the writer to not write anymore. I had decided that I want to be such a writer, who would however, continue dissent.

When I started reading the book, I fell in love with the imagery created by Murugan – the portia tree, the farm, the forest and the mountains, Kali’s drowsy body staring at the canopy, Ponna’s beauty – all of it made me feel like I was a voyeur in the most tender and intimate lives of the two. So, Ponna’s pain and anger made me sad and want to reason with her that being childless is no sin, Kali’s listless personality and eventual mistrust of Ponna made me weep wanting to reach out and tell him the truth.

Once the emotions faded, the crucial importance of this book is what stayed with me making me want to write this. Through the narration of the life, love and loss of Ponna and Kali, Murugan very intelligently displays everything that feminism speaks against, everything that is wrong with the patriarchal world view. For Indian feminists, I think the book serves as the go to book to identify and work through typically Indian realities in a discourse dominated by non-Indian writing.

That patriarchal mindsets are poisonous for every individual, became the truth for me through an independent research project that had cleared the picture. ‘One Part Woman’ further makes the damages of patriarchy so simple, bringing it in rural Indian context sharing thereby, how the rigidity of these ideas and rituals destroys human happiness of a daily basis.

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Kali and Ponna, the two protagonists in the story, through the eventual destruction of their love, display the seemingly micro yet key impact of patriarchal beliefs. Ponna is unable to bear a child which is a cause of much shame and sorrow. To an urban mind, this would of course feel exaggerated. One would want to say to the woman and her kin in such a case, that they need to just shake off the worry and adopt of maybe just understand that giving birth to a child is not the be all and end all of a woman’s existence. However, the writer is able to share just how painfully real these beliefs are and how what is required is a larger, cultural thought revolution. I have, through various tools, shared the hypocrisy of Indian society when it comes to honour engendered in the female body. On one side here, adoption does not seem like a possibility (which is the case even for urban Indians), the other side has the family contemplating getting Ponna impregnated (after all pleas and fasts to god fail) by taking her to a religious festival where for a day “gods” descend from the hills to bless women with children. Note, these gods are men, penis-bearing male bodies, intoxicated and let lose for a day to sleep with any woman that comes their way. Also note, that on this day, any woman is allowed to sleep with the man who becomes god for a night.

The two are tricked by her parents and brother wherein Kali isn’t told about Ponna’s going to the festival while Ponna is told that Kali approves. What then happens is where the intelligent storytelling comes in. True to expectation, while Kali, who had become aggressive as a husband often raping his wife every other night in a state of drunkenness and anger at her even asking him if they should consider the festival as the way to have their child, is heartbroken eventually and directs all his anger towards his wife; Ponna, on the other hand, is childlike and enjoying the new sense of adventure that her life seemed to have brought in through this desire to seek a god to help her. It is in this sequence when the narrative tone changes from Ponna’s true identity, her likes, dislike, sorrows, disappointments, all brought to the fore while Kali’s constant benevolence at being okay without a child yet still craving fatherhood, sling away into the shadows of his sorrow.

What had seemed like the most passionate love for Ponna with vivid descriptions of Kali’s sight, his expression of love for her by nuzzling his face between her breasts; turns out to be yet another story where the woman’s voice was stifled. Ponna had been in love with someone else but, it was custom for her to not fight for it and give in to the family’s decision to marry Kali. Ponna was Kali’s first love but, not the first one to be made love with.

One Part Woman therefore, becomes an essential read for Indian readers to share the key reason for feminism – the culture of silence breeding a continuous quiet among its women. As far as one can think, whether physically same or not, a woman is a human being first. Why silence her voice then?

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Healing, growing… Nostalgia.

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I haven’t really blogged with my thoughts on here in a long time. There is an anon blog for that and also, I am a little old school with my pen and paper for things that I need not share on the internet. Yes, even those who know me, don’t really want to believe that I might have a whole lot of private and personal stuff in my heart. I cannot blame them ’cause I always do have a lot of stories to share.

Anyway, I felt like rekindling this blog to a more personal one as opposed to regular thoughts on the difficult realities in the world that we have created. I started reading a book called Remnants of a Separation by Aanchal Malhotra who is a Delhi based artist and explores the partition through personal stories and reminders in terms of objects that people carried as they fled across the newly created borders back then.

As I go through the endearing accounts and stories (yes this isn’t a book review!), my head swims in a different space altogether. From what I have known, I had been a sucker for nostalgia and continue to spin stories and memories as if they were right in front of my eyes. I don’t know if it happens with everyone but, when I remember certain magical parts of my life so far, my mind actually plays a very mellow sound and I feel the same warmth and happiness that was felt when I was younger and would soak in the warmth of the winter sun with a copy of Harry Potter, undisturbed for hours. That is the thing about nostalgia, you start once and it plays an entire film in front of your eyes.

When I started working, I realised that my obsession with nostalgia was maybe keeping me somewhere close to a part of the past that was safe and warm, trying to keep me sane in the reality of my present or the clouds of the future. I clung to the toasty warmth of my memory blanket as I walked on ahead into what seemed like a long, dark tunnel with the only light that was there, within. There came a point that I had to drop the blanket midway, squaring my shoulders to walk straight into the abyss, without a care of what would happen. I kept going with my mind protecting the warmth for contingency expecting darker demons to confront me as I walked on. Then, finally, I found myself on the other end.

This time around, however, I chose my stories carefully, making sure that none of them had father in them. I was afraid of being labelled as the girl without a father, the poor soul that was still in remembrance of him, even after all these years ’cause maybe she has never gotten better. Maybe, she was still there. I shut my father away from all my memories and continued to remember the sunny afternoons from a decade ago. Only, this time, the sun seemed a little cooler and the blanket, a little thinner. Discovering the artist in me taught me how to isolate my mind that remembers from all the naysayers that whispered in my head. And finally, after 8.5 years of his passing, my mind has healed itself and the sun is warmer again.

These thoughts were churned as I entered the give – away contest for Aanchal Malhotra’s book where I had to write about my favourite object. Among many tokens from the past, I immediately had my answer ready. Only the reason was that the act of writing about it told me. Here is what I wrote (and got the book! :D) –

It is quite difficult for me to pick one favourite object. I have many tokens of memory from many stories in the life that I have lived so far. There are bus tickets, shells and stones and even paper bags that tell stories from my past.

However, my favourite, that comes to mind right now, is a bundle of pages that together form the photocopy of a Thai cookbook. My father was a writer and reader and so am I and that, and a love for food and history was what was common between us. Well that, and curiosity about everything related to culture. From an afternoon  when I was 13 years old and browsing through cookbooks since I had started experimenting with food, I remember picking up a Thai cookbook that taught the basics of Thai cuisine – tricks and tips and tools needed for these. 

My frugal father’s response was a flat no. I remember being surprised at the no since no matter what, I was never denied a book. I have never bought anything much in life as opposed to books and for the first time, he said no. I didn’t protest because I believed that he saw reason in not buying it and internet had slowly come into our small town by then hence, he suggested we find these tricks on the web. I agreed and we moved on.

Within a week, as I headed towards my study table – my study and his table were in the same room – I find a black and white picture of the same Thai cookbook’s cover! It was a bundle of pages all tied together. I flipped through it and realised that he had found the book and taken a copy of it. I have changed 5 cities till now and it still is with me safe in a plastic folder with all my important documents. 

I had lost him 5 years later and this book lives with me as a reminder of the millions of stories that he has taught me through his actions. 

Home

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Home

Have you been home lately?

That place… do you remember?

where winter afternoons were spent 

basking in the golden glow of the sun

as trees danced a shadowy dance.

Where summers were spent in the 

cool recesses of the shade that home provided.

Where every time the skies poured, it felt like 

the clouds too, were party to this bubble of happiness.

You have been, you say?

Isn’t it truly home? Wont you go back soon?

Wouldn’t it be lovely…

and right, to be home at last?

What? You say you’re home?

I am confused now. 

Dont they say, ‘home is where the heart is’?

Isn’t your heart in the past?

Isn’t nostalgia home?

Huzun

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While some stories are hungrily devoured, not giving the characters a rest nor the plot, there are always those that are meant to be savoured one page, one instance at a time. Memoirs are such. They are meant to be enjoyed gradually, like sipping wine and reveling in the slow warmth that the liquid releases once inside the mouth.

Pamuk’s memoirs in ‘Istanbul’ of his having lived the city, identifying the characters of Istanbul as a collective entity rather than a sum of masses is what is the most striking style of writing. From what I believe, writing comes out best when it comes not from a superficial, pseudo-academic understanding of the subject, it being the city here but, from living the subject. One must note here that I do not, in any way, intend ‘living the subject’ to be a deeply philosophical insight but, merely as the writer’s style to note the simpler facts about the subject as opposed to glorifying the external. For one to write a more honest account like Pamuk’s, I believe one needs the time and openness to experience and immerse oneself in the colours (might be grey!) of the city one wishes to write about. Then, there’s also the fine difference between letting the city naturally, gradually, inundate the writer with its pace on the one hand and the deliberate attempt that many mistake to be natural in order to ‘save’ time and believe themselves to have experienced the city. Maybe the latter is the first step towards the former, more nuanced style of writing. However, I do believe that it is the ability and openness of one to really ‘see’ things that bring out such memoirs. Probably, its this slow-cooking of observation and experience because of which Pamuk’s analysis always has a lasting impression on the reader.

Anyway, the point behind this post isn’t to analyse the entire memoir on Istanbul but, to merely record the connection I draw between a part of Istanbul (both, the city and the book) and a poem I recently re-read. This is a poem by Omar Ali, who generally wrote poems on Bengal, reading which again today reminded me what Pamuk calls Huzun in Istanbul. This poem called ‘The Lonely Man’  is, in my opinion, one of those literary pieces that aren’t meant to be analysed from a strictly academic understanding (I’m sure they still will end up doing that!). Instead, Ali’s writing is meant to be just read and without any ‘expert’ analysis, the reader can understand what was meant to be conveyed lies in the simple words he uses. Reading the poem, all I was left was Pamuk’s huzun, re-emphasising the beauty of honest expression. Read for yourself-

He was sitting alone:

sad, weary

with a tear – stained face.

I asked him: why?

He looked at me silently

and kept quiet.

I asked him again: why?

again he looked silently

into my eyes

and said nothing.

Then he got up and went away

leaving behind his silence