Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman was originally written in Tamil and was translated into English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. Set in a time immediately preceding Independence, the story follows Kali and Ponna through the troubles they have gone through over twelve years of marital life, to conceive a child. Unable to endure any more of the taunts of friends, relatives, and just about anyone, they consider the option of Ponna going for the chariot festival in the temple of Ardhanareeswara (literally – the Half Female God), when any consenting union between man and woman is allowed. The suspense around the story is on how this would come to affect their marriage, which was otherwise filled with tenderness, love, and desire.
As a woman reading this book, a line from “A Thousand Splendid Suns” by Khaled Hosseini kept ringing in my head – “Like a compass facing north, a man’s accusing finger always finds a woman. Always.” Maybe, it was the times they lived in. Maybe, it is the place they hail from. Maybe, it is the caste they belonged to. Whatever it is, you cannot help but feel a little angry at Kali for the better part of the narrative, as he finds it convenient to hate Ponna for agreeing to go ahead with the idea he put forth to her. It also seems like he silently blames her for their childlessness. And he certainly seems to lack the courage to tell people off when they bring up the matter.
The love, passion, and desire that these two characters hold for each other oozes through the narration. As Ponna’s mother puts it, “These two are all over each other as if they just got married”. This, after 12 years of being married! Therefore, when Kali visits the Ardhanareeswara temple for a prayer offering, and the priest explains the significance of the temple, “In other temples, you would see separate shrines of Eeswaran and Ambal. But here they stand together as one. He has given her the left half of his body. It is only when we give half of ourselves – both body and mind – to the woman that we can be good husbands.” you are almost convinced that you could draw parallels on the relationship between Kali and Ponna with Shiva and Parvati. However, as the story unravels itself, you sense the void that has crept in between them as they have struggled to conceive. It might seem too harsh to measure Kali (a mere mortal) against Shiva. And maybe, only Gods were built to be “good husbands”. (Also, Eeswaran and Ambal are not exactly childless!)
When people suggest that Kali get a second wife, it is always Ponna who manages to say something bileful to drive them away. Kali just silently endures any attack on people his potency. Barring the one instance when Karuppannan had repeatedly harassed Ponna, Kali never feels the need to step in to rescue Ponna from a situation. This could either be a sign of his confidence that his wife would handle the situation, or his own reluctance to speak up. However, you know that Ponna expected Kali to speak up in her defence at least on that one occassion when she goes one month without talking to Kali after an incident on the way to the chariot festival a few years ago.
When his mother first brings up the suggestion of sending Ponna for the last day of the Chariot festival, Kali is stunned. He seems to associate Ponna as part of his honour, and by that definition, if anyone were ever to sleep with her, it would be an attack on his honor. He would rather not have a child, and suffer the taunts for an entire lifetime than send Ponna to the Chariot festival.
Therefore, it is only closer to the next Chariot festival that he finally picks up the courage to talk about this to Ponna. When he finally asks her this, she murmurs, “If you want me to go for the sake of this wretched child, I will.” This one reply, pretty much destroys all the love and affection Kali ever had for Ponna. He increasingly takes it out on her in bed. You see that “His embrace was no longer whole-hearted. There was no softness when he made love to her, not the usual generosity that let him include her in its sway.” Sex becomes an increasingly impersonal act that Kali performed on Ponna, devoid of the earlier intimacy between the two. He would occasionally feel guilty about it and be more affectionate, but this was only a brief interlude before the torture resumed.
This was perhaps the point in the story when Khaled Hosseini’s words from A Thousand Splendid Suns rang within my mind the loudest. Kali is angry with his mother. He is angry at his mother-in-law. And he finally takes it all out on Ponna. Looking at it objectively, you see that Kali’s anger at Ponna was unwarranted. At the moment when Kali puts across the proposition, Ponna does not in her wildest dreams expect that Kali would go on to withdraw from her the way he does. The emotional abuse she endures following this is just as bad as (if not worse than) any physical abuse he could have subjected her to. The whole while, Kali is secretly convinced that Ponna cannot be trusted anymore, and seems to feel justified in venting out his anger on her this way. You also feel that it is a little unfair in the large scheme of things, that all it took for twelve years of love and trust to be blown into smithereens was that one single response from Ponna.
There is also the contrast between how Kali takes refuge in his barnyard in order to hide from the world outside, while his childhood friend (and Ponna’s brother) Muthu is constantly in search of new hideouts in order to escape from domestic life. Also, we have Kali and Ponna who did not consciously choose this fate, but are constantly plagued by it, whereas, there are people like Uncle Nallupayyan who had decided in his childhood against the idea of getting married or having children and were completely unrepentant about their choices.
One thing that rings true to this day, however, is the fact that, somehow the entire world seems to be bothered by the couple’s plans on if and when to have a child. And seeing a couple childless still makes it everybody’s business to give their two cents on the matter.