Book Review: Lonely Harvest & Trial by Silence

Perumal Murugan offers two superb endings for Ponna and Kali’s entwined lives after ‘One Part Woman’

Iconic Tamil writer Perumal Murugan, author of the controversial novel Madhorubagan (One Part Woman, in its English avatar), wished to respond to reader queries about what would happen to the enraged and helpless male protagonist Kali at the end of his novel. How would Ponna and Kali, so much in love through 12 years of a childless marriage, face life after The Happening? And hence, these two alternative sequels.

I am happy to state that both alternatives are worthy follow-up to the sensitive and poetic first book. I read Trial by Silence first since this is the book where Kali is allowed to survive his suicide attempt. I sensed a more positive tale. Then I read the alternative sequel, A Lonely Harvest, which starts despairingly, with Kali’s successful suicide — and still discovered an engaging book with a hope-filled conclusion that is more of a new beginning.

To understand these two stories, it is not strictly necessary to read the original book. The author weaves the essentials into each sequel, skillfully, sublimely. Set in pre-independent 20th-century India, in the hilly area around Tiruchengode, the author’s home territory of old Kongu Nadu, in present-day Tamil Nadu, the original tale starts as a love story set in an agrarian arcadia.

But the burden of childlessness weighs heavily on the shoulders of Kali and Ponna, even as they get inured to the taunts of villagers. Vows, rituals, prayers, nothing works and ultimately, Ponna reluctantly agrees to a family plan — unaware that Kali has been skillfully left out of the loop since his early rejection of the idea.

Ponna is prevailed upon to attend the last day of a local temple festival, the one day in the year when conjugal union between strangers gets the sanction of the Tiruchengode temple god Ardhanaariswar. The child born of such a union, a last resort of childless couples, would be termed a holy child of god himself. And Ponna’s one-time-out-of-wedlock coupling happens.

Madhorubagan concludes with Kali’s discovery of Ponna’s act, the enormous hurt to his self-respect, his helpless fury, his drunken scream — “All of you have gotten together and cheated me. You have cheated me, you whore…”

The more positive-seeming sequel starts with Kali’s mother Seerayi saving her son in the nick of time. Horrified, saddened and angry altogether,  she sets up an impromptu dirge, in the manner of many an Indian mother, especially a widow who has just saved her only child from eternal doom: “When even ripe old palmyra trees are shining and thriving here, the fresh new leaf wants to take leave….’

Soon enough, Ponna arrives from her parental home where she was supposed to rest awhile. She is furious, with her family especially, at the discovery that her act was done without the knowledge and approval of Kali, a loving loyal husband who now rejects her contemptuously.

She plods on sadly, soon picking up the pieces of her now shattered marital life, the best way she can. Ponna and mother- -in-law Seerayi now bond together, trying to get the farm going, considering Kali’s disinterest in life itself.

The temple festival method has worked and Ponna is pregnant. Except for the numb and still sorrowing Kali, the oncoming motherhood of Ponna brings cheer to all concerned.  And it is now that one gets re-introduced to the eccentric maverick from the original book — Nallayyan Uncle, a middle-aged bachelor who has given up trying to fit into conventional rural domesticity.

It is this crazy entertaining raconteur who rescues Kali from his pit of silence and disinterest. Eventually the story steers towards childbirth, continued rejection from Kali — and a final dramatic resolution that bodes well.

The alternative sequel, A Lonely Harvest, has a slightly different trajectory considering the male protagonist has died right at the beginning. In this book, Ponna’s mother joins forces with Seerayi, as they help the young widow cope with life without Kali. Also helping significantly is an important character, Ponna’s brother Muthu, who also happens to be Kali’s childhood friend — this gentle human gets better treatment in this book, considering he got thrashed black and blue by Kali in the other book. Ponna herself has an attitude that sees her picking up the pieces of her life firmly, welcoming the baby, refusing to be a victim. There are village paatis who sing songs for the pregnant Ponna, ease her journey in many ways.

The ever-cheery Nallayyan Uncle appears again in a cameo that seems overlong. And a panchayat meeting tries to determine whether the child of the young widow is indeed the husband’s.

And yet, whatever the story details, typical of the era — there is a progressive air to these two sequels, be it female bonding or an unorthodox uncle handing out wisdom of the ages, unfettered by convention. There are passages which come across as risqué and bawdy when rural humour and attitude to sex is seen to be eternal, without pretence.

And details of agrarian practices in pre-independent India — they reveal a life that was ecologically sensitive, humane to animals — basically a gentler, better world.

Translator Aniruddhan Vasudevan has done a commendable job in bringing out the Tamil tone and mood. As Kali notes in Trial by Silence: “His mother and wife were working together now. Though there was a time when they were like snake and mongoose.”

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Book Review: Lonely Harvest & Trial by Silence

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