Perumal Murugan remembers Amma in his latest book. ♦
Originally published in India Today.
I’d been waiting a couple of days to hear back from the writer Perumal Murugan, via an editor who promised to translate my questions into Tamil and his replies to English. That this kind of exchange is possible at all is amazing, and a sign of the vibrancy of India’s blossoming translation scene. Murugan, the author of 11 novels (several translated to English), memoirs, short stories, poetry collections and more academic work, is one of this landscape’s brightest blooms.
It’s a busy time for publishers though, and Murugan’s replies were slow in coming. Eventually, an editor’s mother stepped in to help — marvellously appropriate given that the interview centred on Amma, a set of stories about Murugan’s mother recently translated into English by Nandini Murali and Kavitha Muralidharan.
The Tamil title of the collection is Thondra Thunai, ‘Invisible Companionship’, a nice phrase for describing the often self-effacing work that both translators and mothers do. Murugan has achieved success among English readers thanks to the efforts of translators like V. Geetha, Aniruddhan Vasudev and C.S. Lakshmi. Yet he may never have achieved his reputation in the Tamil literary scene if it hadn’t been for Amma, who “took this shy, introverted child by the hand and pushed him out into the world”, as he writes in a prefacing chapter titled ‘I Breathe through Amma’s Heart’.
A “mother’s boy”, Murugan describes himself as a snail in the shell of the world his mother, Perumayi, created: “I always return to wrap myself in the mundhanai of Amma’s sari.” Amma not only gave Murugan life, but a way of observing the world with particular attention to detail. In One Part Woman (the translation of Murugan’s controversial novel Madhorabagan), the protagonist Kali describes the portia tree he planted. His mother-in-law cleans the dishes under it and keeps a pot of water there for hand-washing, ensuring that it always gets enough in a region reliant on rain-fed agriculture. Amma does the same thing with her curry plant and coconut trees in ‘A Life Bestowed by Trees’.
Murugan is hesitant to draw direct parallels between Amma and his fictional characters. “In the case of fiction, generality is important; whereas in non-fiction, individuality is important,” he says. His female characters have only “shades of my mother’s characteristics”. While people, events, places and relationships in Amma find echoes in Murugan’s fiction, he rarely makes an explicit connection here between his life and his art. A notable exception is ‘The Corral’, a vivid description of how high winds on a stormy night almost carried away the family sheep, but also breathed life into his previously banal poetry.
Murugan’s effortlessly detailed descriptions of rural life are a highlight of his writing. It is through his mother that he learns both the practical aspects of this life, as well as how to make meaning of the processes of planting and harvesting; social mores related to caste, religion and clothing; the rhythms of cooking, eating and drinking.
The poetic and the practical contrast beautifully in two sequential chapters, ‘A Ploughman’s Accounts’ and ‘800 Square Feet’. The latter describes how Amma handled family finances: “There was only room for income. The expense column was minimal; it was difficult to extract money from her, and she would hand it over only if she was fully convinced that it was necessary.”
In ‘A Ploughman’s Accounts’, mother and son argue about planting sesame after some unseasonal rainfall. He sees it as a financial risk, recording every hour of labour as an expense in his notebook. She laughs at his book-keeping; for her labour itself is profit. “A farmer must not do accounts. Do you remember how the entire field was glowing in white when the sesame flowers bloomed? Let me see you put down a price for the joy you gained by merely looking at them!” Before he wrote it, Murugan wasn’t sure if this story merited inclusion. “It is nature’s law of creation that day-to-day events that are easily overlooked, unknowingly gain importance once they come into writing,” he says. The story, however, became “an article that expresses not only the life of the mother but also the life of the farmer. This is the alchemy of writing.”
Murugan says he chose memories that he could tackle “without getting emotional”. Writing them was a form of catharsis after Amma’s death in 2012. Some stories, like the suicide of his elder brother, were not yet ripe for the telling. “I will write about it when I get a suitable opportunity,” Murugan says. “For that I pray my mind gets even stronger.”
Readers who enjoy Amma can look forward to the English translations of Murugan’s two memoirs, Nizhal Mutrattu Ninaivukal and Nilamum Nizhalum, on theatre and film respectively. Meanwhile, there’s his fiction, unconstrained by the limits of painful memory. “The truth is, there is more freedom in writing fiction,” Murugan says.