by Perumal Murugan (translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan)
Publisher: Penguin India (2016)
“Young love pitted against chilling savagery”, reads the description on the cover of the book. But, the fate that was impending on the characters of this book is far from what a reader could anticipate. Perumal Murugan’s book Pyre narrates the story of a young couple Saroja and Kumaresan, who are working towards keeping their marriage alive in a community that considers caste as a high priority.
Kumaresan goes to a town for work, and here he meets Saroja. Initially smitten by each other, they loved just looking at each other from a distance, both afraid to initiate a conversation. Slowly easing into conversation after Saroja’s first attempt, they fully fall in love and decide to get married to celebrate it. Even though their differences in caste did not stand as obstacle for the couple, they knew it would prove difficult with their families, and so they got married secretly. The book begins with the newly wedded couple coming back to Kumaresan’s village, and hinting at the things that are awaiting them.
The relationship between Saroja, Kumaresan and his mother Marayi is an interesting one. There is a striking difference between how Saroja is treated by Kumaresan, and how Marayi treats her son’s bride. Saroja and Marayi are strong, opposing characters who have their own set of beliefs, ideas, and frustrations which are in some sense justified and translated into their behavior towards each other.
Worried that her name is ruined in the village, and frustrated with her inability to undo her son’s decision she persistently hurls insults and unpleasant comments at her son’s new bride. She would say things like, “All our bodies are withered, exposed to the elements. But hers is still golden. Why don’t you wrap her around your neck!” She even took her lamenting outside their hut, to evidently imply the distress that her son’s actions had stirred in her.
Hurt by her mother-in-law’s cold behavior towards her, Saroja would turn to her husband for comfort which he always provided with his charming words. When Marayi’s words would leave a painful wound, the words of her husband would soothe the pain. If he said “everything will would go well”, she would believe him.
Perumal Murugan through his book Pyre addresses the evils like the Caste system, honor killing and their prevalence even in today’s society. Throughout the story, Saroja remains an outsider, unable to fit in regardless of her best efforts. “But she was new”, she’s described in the beginning but for Saroja she would always remain as someone disrupting the system that was in place in the village.
Even if the supposed mistake was made by both Kumaresan and Saroja, the consequence of their marriage was almost entirely borne by Saroja. “What did you do to bewitch my son? How many men have you done this to?” said Marayi when Kumaresan and Saroja first entered the village. Although the three main characters are in control of the narrative, the people in the village are the driving force in some sense who enforce the system that would eventually ruin the lives of Saroja and Kumaresan. In the village, it was always her against the rest of Kumaresan’s community.
Perumal Murugan’s style of writing has the power to rope the reader in, and to make us be fully invested in the lives of his characters. His rich description of their lives and the steady progression of the story makes it hard to keep the book down without the temptation of reading just one more chapter. There is no dragging in terms of the plot; his narrative is direct and appeals straight to the heart.
The narrative of the book is happening in the village, and we read as Saroja having to deal with the unpleasant behavior shown towards her by the rest of the villagers. But one of the aspects I enjoyed very much in the book is that how in some parts we are relieved of this negativity when she thinks about her life back in her town, and the relationship she shared with Kumaresan back there. The narration of their filmy love story, and the pleasantness of her past in some ways lets us readers believe that things will get better for the couple.
As a reader, I found myself hoping sincerely that the union of Kumaresan and Saroja finds acceptance in the village, and that like a fairytale, they would by the end of the story live a ‘happily ever after’. There is a fear however that comes with knowing that something bad is about to happen, but like Saroja, every time Kumaresan says “Everything will be alright”, as a reader I accepted it and believed that it would.
The steadiness of the story is kept us enabling the belief that they will find happiness, until the last few pages where he snatches it away from us. When I finished reading the book, I was looking for an appropriate feeling that I should be feeling. There is no resolution provided for the couple, and in some ways I think it reflects on how there is no clarity or reasoning when it comes to the savagery of the caste system.
The chilling savagery is not a description that is used entirely for just the ending of the book, but is rather for everything that is done to Saroja and Kumaresan who fell in love, and thought everything would be alright.