The Goat Thief

Language is no bar when it comes to reading good literature provided one has access to excellent translations. I only have to think of all the Russian literature I have devoured without knowing a word of Russian. One area of literature that has remained relatively unexplored till recently is regional writing from India. The market is flooded with works by Indian writers writing in English but the rich range of works in local languages from India has only recently become accessible thanks to dedicated translators who have not only elevated translation to an art but have also made it an industry in its own right.

One such work that I read recently is a collection of short stories entitled The Goat Thief, written by the prolific Tamil writer, Perumal Murugan, and translated into English by N. Kalyan Raman. Set in rural Tamil Nadu, the stories paint a vivid picture of life in the countryside – the slow and languorous passing of the days, the sprawling rice fields under the scorching rays of the sun, mischievous children climbing up palm trees and the petty gossip of the villagers on the ‘pyol’. The everyday events describing family and village life sometimes take a dark and melancholic turn. It doesn’t take much for the ordinary to become ominous, the mundane to transform into the macabre.

In the Preface to this collection of stories, Murugan compares the art of writing a short story to designing a ‘kolam’ or floor art made with rice flour in many Tamil homes. According to him, it could be a simple design with just four dots by hand or a more intricate one but there is a geometrical pattern and if something is amiss, you fix the flaw by perhaps placing a flower on the design and you follow the same method with a story. Though his stories are very vividly described, I thought they were not developed enough. Murugan succeeds in creating an atmosphere of tension but there is no definite plot and the stories end abruptly. I am usually a fan of ambiguous endings. I don’t need all the loose ends tied up but I need something to work with. There should be some sort of a twist or an open ended conclusion at least. In my opinion, the ‘kolam’ pattern is left incomplete by Murugan in almost all of his stories.

Photo- Kolams of India Website

The stories are well-written and I was struck by the importance Murugan gives to inanimate objects. They are often anxiety provoking and they serve to define or explain the characters. They are endowed with human attributes and sometimes even with supernatural powers. In ‘The Well’, a grown man is having a delightful time swimming with a group of children but the story takes on a sinister turn. The well that ‘held a hoard of miracles within’, the well that was ‘full of compassion’ becomes a death pit. Even the innocent children turn into evil ‘demons’.

In ‘Musical Chairs’, an object becomes a bone of contention between a newly married couple. They have a peculiar attachment to a chair which the husband seems to monopolize and the wife insists on purchasing her own chair. He covets her chair too and what ensues is a battle of wills. In ‘Mirror of Innocence’, the parents and grandmother of a little girl are baffled by her constant sobbing in the middle of the night. She refuses to sleep and rejects all her toys. The parents finally realize that she is asking for a ‘uppu kundaan’ or a salt bowl which they use to scoop sugar. A worthless object becomes a source of agony for the child and her parents who pass a sleepless night. 

Murugan seems to have a strange fascination with excrement. Yes, shit. There are two stories in this collection dealing with the subject. He even penned an entire collection of stories centered around shit entitled Pee Kadaigal ( funnily, the Tamil word for shit is ‘pee’.) or Shit Stories and in the Preface he mentions that the book is often not included or mentioned in the list of books authored by him at literary meetings as people are embarrassed or outraged by the title and theme. I did not find the topic revolting as such but as his descriptions are so striking, I had a hard time controlling the urge to throw up. I could literally see and smell the shit while reading.

In ‘The Wailing of a Toilet Bowl’, a newly married lady is bothered by the foul smell emanating from soggy rice fermenting in the large vat of left over food in the kitchen. Yet she doesn’t reduce the quantity in her cooking in case unexpected guests show up. Her husband solves the problem by pouring the contents of the vat into the toilet bowl. Literally the rice is deposited in shit. The toilet bowl shrieks, screams and howls with hunger pangs every day in anticipation of the left over rice and becomes an insatiably hungry beast. It even assumes the shape of a skull. The lady is so frightened that the toilet or her ‘adversary’ would gobble her up that she doesn’t go to the bathroom when her husband is not home.

Then there is a story entitled ‘Shit’ about five bachelor men who live in a house in a remote suburb enjoying their independence. A horrid stench enters their rooms. The pipe from the toilet to the septic tank had broken in the middle and a shit heap has accumulated at the back of the house.  A sweeper is willing to remove it for 500 rupees but they are annoyed and bargain with him despite his protest: “ I have to put my hand in your shit, sir.” It is heartbreaking to see this man from a lower caste viewed with disgust and treated with derision when he is trying to solve their filthy problem. A tumbler that was a coveted object becomes one of revulsion when handled by the sweeper. This is a powerful story about caste dynamics and the best and the most complete in the collection. Murugan may have a penchant for writing scatalogical stories but unfortunately I don’t fancy reading them despite their brilliance: they are described in such graphic details and are so visually powerful that I could literally feel and smell the shit in a visceral way. My poor olfactory buds were protesting vehemently. Again, in the shit stories, the toilet bowl and the tumbler are objects imbued with symbolic meaning.

Many of the stories have a supernatural element. There is a sense of foreboding in the air. In ‘The Night The Owls Stopped Crying’, the night watchman in a farm house hears that a ghost of a young girl gang raped and killed resides on the property. He believes he senses her presence and starts having conversations with her.  

The stories also capture helplessness and the feeling of being trapped physically. In the title story, ‘The Goat Thief’ when Boopathy, the thief, realizes he is being pursued for stealing a goat, he jumps into a torrent of sewage water-  he is surrounded by all sides by the villagers and escape is impossible. There are thickets of sedge grass and snakes and insects in the water and he gets trapped in a patch of quicksand. His legs are buried deeper and deeper in the mire.

The remaining stories are snapshots of village life in Tamil Nadu. Whether it is the account of an old woman entrusted with the responsibility of looking after her great grandson in the summer or the incident when a grown man regresses to his childhood by playing with young children in the well or the story of an old man with a thatched shed who is tormented by jealousy on seeing a younger man build a house with a tiled roof, Murugan brings the bucolic countryside to life on every page.

The stories are evocative and awaken all our senses. They capture the local color very effectively. As an Indian and specifically as a Tamilian, I could relate to a lot of the cultural elements as observed in the behavior of the characters- applying holy ash on the forehead, praying to the local clan Goddess and believing in the power of the evil eye. The stories have a folktale feel to them- I can imagine them being narrated in the village square in front of a banyan tree. The translator has done an excellent job retaining the flavor of the original idiomatic expressions.

The stories were engaging but I felt they could have been developed further. They also did not resonate that much with me as I felt they were a little androcentric. I understand that they are penned from a man’s perspective but I think Murugan could have focused a bit more on the women and their issues. In some of the stories, he hints at the sense of loneliness and displacement felt by newly married women in their new homes. I wish he would have dwelt a little more on that subject. Maybe it wasn’t the best idea to start with a collection of his short stories. Perumal Murugan is a prolific writer in all genres and most well known for his novels. I should get hold of one of his novels next for I have a feeling that the ‘kolam’ pattern may then turn out to be not just beautiful and intricate, but complete.

 

 

 

 

The Ministry of Utmost Happiness: Non-Fiction Under the Guise of Fiction

It was a long and excruciating wait for the fans of Arundhati Roy’s fiction, dazzled by The God of Small Things, her Booker prize winning debut novel. It was not a literary hibernation as it is made out to be. Roy had never stopped writing. She was just delving into a different genre. She had turned her attention to people’s movements in India and published articles and books on political topics ranging from environmentalism to government corruption and land rights of tribal communities. And now after a hiatus of twenty years, the publication of her second work of fiction is taking the literary world by storm just like its predecessor. Everyone who has read it has a strong opinion about it. Most people either love it passionately or hate it vehemently. Some have gone as far as  comparing it to One Hundred Years of Solitude by Márquez and La Condition Humaine by Malraux.  I fall somewhere in between the two categories of readers and have mixed feelings about it just like I did about The God of Small Things.

Roy’s lush and lyrical prose in The God Of Small Things instantly transported me to the personal and private world of Rahel and Estha’s Ayemenem in Kerala. I soaked myself in all the sights and sounds made alive by her sensuous imagery but the ending ruined it for me ( It’s not a trope I’m comfortable with) although I understand her reasons for concluding the story the way she did. I was fortunate enough to obtain a signed copy of her new fiction at The Old Church in Boston earlier this year where she read an excerpt from her book and participated in a question answer session beginning with a quip :”There is a Hindu nationalist movement in India and I’m talking from the pulpit of a church.”

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The Hindu nationalist movement has been the butt of her criticism and the new novel doesn’t spare it either. In fact the fiction feels in parts like non-fiction. And therein lies the failing of what could have been a powerful work. It’s an ambitious but disjointed novel with a plethora of plots and characters- a kaleidoscope of a huge diverse nation with huge and diverse issues and she seems to have addressed them all- the caste system, Hindu- Muslim rivalry, the Kashmir insurgency , cow vigilantism, the Bhopal Gas tragedy, the Gujarat riots, the riots of 1984 to name a few.

There are two distinct plots: one, the story of Anjum, an intersex individual born as Aftab and the other of Tilo, an architect turned activist presumably modeled after Roy herself. Anjum, is a Hijra ostracized by society for being neither boy nor girl. She eventually retreats from the ‘duniya’ or the outside world to live in Khwabgah ( dream house)  in the company of other hijras. She starts raising a child called Zainab,  has a series of surgeries and revels in her femininity by wearing sequined clothing, flashy jewelry and bold makeup. Eventually she moves out of the khwabgah and constructs a home on a graveyard aptly named as Jannat ( Paradise) Guest House as it becomes a sanctuary for other outcasts living on the fringes of society. One of them is a dalit ( ‘untouchable’ ) who assumes a Muslim identity by changing his name strangely to Sadaam Hussein after his father gets lynched by a crowd who accuses him of killing a cow.

I enjoyed the story of Anjum as it shed light on a community shrouded in mystery and secrecy. Hijras are cross-dressers, intersex and transgender individuals who make up what has recently been recognized as the third sex by the Supreme Court of India. The stereotypical image of a hijra is a somewhat aggressive and intimidating person who accosts you for money at traffic signals. They have been part of the subcontinent long before labels like transgender became de rigueur in the West. They have a paradoxical position in society- they are revered and considered auspicious and are invited to dance at weddings and bestow blessings on the birth of a child but at the same time they are discriminated against and are one of the most marginalized communities in India. The conflict within the hijras who defy binary constructions of gender is a metaphor for the religious struggle and identity crisis within India. As one hijra in the novel tells Anjum: “The riot is inside us. The war is inside us. Indo-Pak is inside us. It will never settle down. It can’t.” The novel could have been a brilliant one if only Roy had stuck to Anjum’s poignant story.

But the story abruptly shifts to Tilottama and the three men in her life who have all loved her at some point. Tilo, Musa, Naga and Biplab called “Garson Hobart”  have all known each other from their theater days in college. Years later their paths cross again. Garson Hobart is Tilo’s landlord in Delhi and later becomes an officer in the Intelligence bureau. Naga becomes an incendiary journalist. Tilo travels to Kashmir where she meets her old flame Musa whose wife Arefa and daughter Miss Jebeen have been killed in a riot. Musa supports the separatist movement in Kashmir with the aim of overthrowing Indian rule. He butts head with the ruthless Major Amrik Singh, the Indian military officer who represents the atrocities of the Indian occupation of Kashmir in handling counterinsurgency efforts. The two disparate plots converge when Anjum and Tilo wish to save an abandoned newborn baby, Miss Jebeen the second.

Apart from the two plots, we have a dizzying number of secondary characters. To that mix, Roy throws in poems, slogans, songs, letters, entries from dictionaries, quotes and even a Kashmiri English alphabet and an entry from the Reader’s Digest book of English Grammar. She has taken many liberties with the writing style which would never be forgiven in a novice writer. To put it simply, there is more telling than showing. I wasn’t entirely comfortable with the penetrating gaze of the omnipresent narrator ( the kind who interrupts the flow of the text with asides in parentheses) whose presence we never forget. Interestingly, there is one section in the book where Tilo remarks on writing a bad novel.  In The God of Small Things, I marveled at Roy’s striking and unexpected metaphors. Here the writing is visceral and raw especially when she depicts the chilling never-ending bloody conflict in Kashmir but we also have passages that are passionate and poetic:

Martyrdom stole into the Kashmir Valley from across the line of control … it stayed close to the ground and spread through the walnut groves, saffron fields, the apple, almond and cherry orchards like a creeping mist. It whispered words of war into the ears of doctors and engineers, students and laborers, tailors and carpenters, weavers and farmers, shepherds, cooks and bards. They listened carefully and then put down their books and implements … they stilled the looms on which they had woven the most beautiful carpets and the finest, softest shawls the world had ever seen and ran gnarled, wondering fingers over the smooth barrels of Kalashnikovs that the strangers who visited them allowed them to touch. They followed the new pied pipers up into the high meadows and alpine glades where training camps had been set up. Only after they had been given guns of their own, after they had curled their fingers around the trigger and felt it give ever so slightly, … only then did they allow the rage and the shame of the subjugation they had endured for decades, for centuries, to course through their bodies and turn the blood in their veins into smoke.

The book is fittingly dedicated “To the Unconsoled”, The story begins and ends in a graveyard- the in- between world which seems to be the fate of many in India, hanging precariously between life and death. As Musa says, in India only the dead are living and the living are dead. The necropolis becomes a symbol of hope for the abandoned, the marginalized, the misfits in a country whose wounds are still festering. I found the book to be an engaging read in spite of the flaws. Kashmir is an emotional subject for anyone from the sub- continent. For me it was an eye-opening account of the atrocities but I can imagine it to be a frustrating read for people unfamiliar with the political scene in India as there are too many culture-specific allusions with no explanation.

If Roy had just stuck to the personal plight of Anjum and the story of Tilo and let the characters and the stories speak for themselves, it would have been a compelling read. But the digressions into diatribes about the general political scene in India make it read like a history text book or a didactic political pamphlet. I would have liked to see more of Roy the artist than Roy the activist. Her work is as fascinating, incoherent, chaotic and complex as the democracy she writes about. It makes me wonder then if she flouted rules of structure and narration to mirror the sprawling mess of the country. Her novel can be compared to the beautifully woven Kashmiri carpets she alludes to often. She has threaded together her own carpet made of many interesting and intricate motifs in eye-catching hues but in the end it makes for a very busy pattern.