“The mob was frantic with delays and would hear to nothing but burning at the stake.”
In 1899, newspapers in Florida reported the lynching of Sam Holt, a black man who was tortured, mutilated and burned in front of 2,000 people. In 1997, almost exactly a century later, 58 Dalits were massacred in the village of Laxmanpur Bathe. All 26 of the accused would be acquitted for lack of evidence some 20 years later when the final verdict in the case was pronounced.
It is assumed often that the madness of crowds is dangerous, that a mob running amok is a fearsome thing. This is only partly true. Far more frightening and commonplace than the madness of crowds is the assent of the majority, the complicity of crowds, the agreement between ordinary citizens that their neighbours deserve, for whatever reasons, death.
This truth is something that the best of our novelists know – writers like Bhisham Sahni, Vivek Shanbhag, Arundhati Roy, and now Perumal Murugan: violence and complicity is a timeless Indian theme.
Murugan’s Pyre (Penguin India/ Hamish Hamilton) was published in Tamil in 2013; this sensitive, richly-textured translation is by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, who has also translated One Part Woman (published in Tamil in 2010).
“This is a novel about caste and the resilient force that it is, but it is also about how strangely vulnerable caste and its guardians seem to feel in the face of love, and how it often seems to assert itself both in everyday acts of discrimination as well as in moments of most unimaginable violence,” writes Vasudevan.
[Read: N Kalyan Raman in Caravan on Perumal Murugan’s Kondanagu novels:
The Korean novelist Han Kang said recently that she sees the world as a place of mingled violence and beauty, a phrase that perfectly captures Murugan’s landscapes. In Pyre, the new bride, Saroja, thinks when she sees the cremation ground in front of her husband’s village: “This place hid all sorts of secrets within itself while displaying a modest appearance to the world.” Kumaresan’s village is set in “a barren landscape scorched into whiteness by the heat”; his home is a thatched hut set on a sun-scorched rock, the colour of a dried-up stream of blood.
The cruelty of the villagers, and of Saroja’s mother-in-law Marayi, is casually relentless; the dislike of an interloper, the implacable determination to cast out the outsider is so well portrayed that the reader shrinks a little inside her skin, along with the bride. The village’s insistence on purity outweighs humanity; and yet, Pyre is a love story, too, and Murugan writes with a gentle, sensual tenderness that is unforgettable.
Kumaresan worries that his wife, faced with the hostility of the relatives who “curl like worms” around them, might splutter and wither “like a little sesame seed on this heated rock”. But later, it is through the landscape that Saroja begins to feel a sense of home, so difficult to come by when the crowd outside her hut brings only hard words and an unfriendly curiosity as their rough gifts. “She had never set her bare feet on a rock before. It touched her with the combined sensation of Kumaresan’s soft hands and his rough embrace, the memory of which made her shiver with pleasure every time she walked on the rock’s surface.”
The village council excommunicates them, Marayi’s tirades start and stop their days as Kumaresan attempts to run a soda shop some villages away, and Saroja dreams of losing herself in the safety of town crowds who would not care about her caste, would not call her a witch.
And yet, even here, there is a touch of tenderness; Marayi has her own memories, shadows and small almost-forgotten joys, her anger is love gone sour. Murugan writes with cinematic power, and the final images of Pyre will sear your heart, though he makes sure that the reader writes the ending with him.
One Part Woman was met with intolerance of such a degree that it forced him into silence. Pyre, written before the storm of bigotry swept through the author’s life, is even more accomplished, bitterly haunting, a love story, and an indictment of those who hate with such staunch righteousness.
[Read: Perumal Murugan’s poems, translated in Guftugu:
Published in the Business Standard, April 2016