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Examining the Problem Novel in “Pyre”

Examining the Problem Novel in “Pyre”

My knowledge of Tamil is limited to my father’s voice. It is not his first language but it’s the one, to him, forever linked to literature. I recognize the lilt and sounds of the Tamil language but am unable to read it written, or even parse out individual spoken words. It is with gratitude that I read Aniruddhan Vasudevan’s translation of Pyre by the well-known Tamil writer Perumal Murugan. Partly to appreciate an author I’d heard so much about, and partly in hopes of comprehending a little of what my father loves.

Murugan’s best-known novels, One Part Woman and The Story of a Goat, center on social issues in rural India. This is no exception in Pyre, nor does Murugan shy away from controversy. With inter-caste violence at the novel’s center, he depicts the travails of a young couple, Saroja and Kumaresan, as they marry and settle in Kumaresan’s village. This decision proves ultimately perilous as the villagers immediately suspect disparate castes, citing Saroja’s fair skin against Kumaresan’s dark skin, and set their minds to destroying the union. No specific castes are named, an intriguing choice that keeps the narrative somewhat ambiguous, but the imbalance is clear from the very onset. 

The novel is noticeably short and sticks to a single, linear plot with only a few flashbacks and deviations from the story at hand. In this respect, the work is a triumph, understanding its inherent simplicity and wasting no time in setup and execution. We are immediately shown the harsh, inhospitable landscape of Kumaresan’s farming village, and how greatly it contrasts Saroja’s native city. We watch Saroja cut her feet on rocks, watch her led into a stranger’s home and try in vain to defend herself against lewd eyes and horrid accusations. We are shown immediately that while both perspectives are shown, including Kumaresan’s struggle to create and maintain a happy family, it is Saroja who lives in danger. As an outsider to the community, and especially as a woman. 

Murugan’s prose is plainspoken and eschews romanticism for arid landscapes and backbreaking labor. A tone of unsteadiness begins from the moment Saroja steps off the bus and continues to the novel’s hurtling, uncertain end. We are given few moments of respite to catch our breath, only crumbs of levity, and none of us hold out hope for a miracle. This renders the novel not especially complex, and one wonders if more nuanced characters in the face of caste violence would lead to a more compelling narrative. Elevating this book from “problem novel” status is the focus on the romantic relationship between Saroja and Kumaresan, a genuine longing between them that is shown in both perspectives. Most pointedly, her sexual desire is as evident as his, a refreshing take on otherwise old-world themes. The romance makes further events of the book all the more heartbreaking, and serves to flesh out at least these two characters.While Pyre is an exploration of the regional and specific, what with its integration of Tamil words even in the translated text, along with regional foods and turns of phrase, the broad strokes characterizations of caste and familial dynamics hinder the book from being as effective as it could be. Nevertheless, within its short page count, Murugan gives us a tight narrative, a memorable love story, and a truly unforgettable ending. This is far from my last exploration into Murugan’s work, let alone Tamil literature in general. Although, after reading this one and squeezing my eyes shut at the very end, I can completely understand my father’s lifelong preference for comforting Tamil comedies rather than dramas.



See Also

by Perumal Murugan, Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan

Grove Press, Black Cat

Published on February 15, 2022

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