By Amulya Anita Gurumurthy
In Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman, Ponna remarks, “In seeking a life we have pawned our lives” (p. 56). Murugan’s novel explores how a couple, Ponna and Kali, are tossed between hope and resignation, as their repeated efforts to bear a child come to nothing. Murugan captures the ruptures that grow in the couple’s relationship, as their desperation for progeny escalates to a point where the couple end up transgressing the very social values they seek to uphold. Through Ponna and Kali we do not only bear witness to the joy and intimacy, and jealousy and mistrust that characterize their relationship, but also visit the landscape of a colonial Tamil Nadu village in the stranglehold of caste and patriarchy. The novel explores how Kali and Ponna must navigate the looming presence of society at their bedside, how their childlessness is not a personal travail but a societal transgression, and how they must endure harrowing alienation, constant innuendos, and utter disrespect for contravening the social order.
For Kali and Ponna time is marked only by the birth of a child. Regardless of where the story is located in time, Ponna menstruates every month, a painful reminder that emphasizes how their lives are stagnating. Murugan skilfully employs the tool of flashbacks to show how she and Kali are locked in a vicious cycle where there is no differentiation between today and tomorrow until the possibility of Ponna bearing a child at the festival through intercourse with a god is presented. Rather than following a chronological narrative in One Part Woman, the past and present frequently intersect. Murugan breaks from a conventional format, aptly taking the novel into a non-linear progression that steps into murky territories where laws governing sex are challenged and caste, gender and class are questioned.
Gender and social hierarchy
Motherhood is a central theme of this novel. In Tamil literature, motherhood is viewed as bestowing women’s bodies with divinity and purity. The mother’s body is construed as a means of asserting the purity of a lineage (Laxmi, 1990, p. 2). Thus, within herself, the mother contains the identity of her community. The mother metaphor is a patriarchal construct as it presupposes that for women, motherhood is a natural instinct, and because it conjures up an image of the ‘Mother’, who in reality exists only in the Tamil male imagination (Kandasamy, 2019). Significantly, barren women are marginalized from a culture that derives purity from the ability to bear children. Hence, Ponna’s angst over the inability to conceive is also because the task of proving her purity belongs to her child. Therefore, until she gives birth, her body is considered both impure and unnatural. Through the creation of the mother metaphor, the purity and chastity of any other element, is validated. (Laxmi, 1990, p. 4).
Moreover, a woman’s fertile body also becomes a site that establishes the fertility of land. Ponna’s infertility is ascribed as the reason behind her neighbor harvesting a poor yield. Additionally, when Kali’s mother states how she derived her ‘only hold on life’ through him, it becomes apparent how women’s status is contingent on their ability to reproduce (p. 94). Thus, the novel reveals how this particular imagination of motherhood oppresses women.
The phenomenon of the barren woman has been explored at length within the feminist tradition in the west and in India. Radical feminist, Shulamith Firestone, views pregnancy as enforcing dependence of women on men, and she emphasizes how the route to liberation is to conceive outside, through technology (Livesay, 2014, p. 126). Thus, simply because Ponna cannot bear children, it still doesn’t connote that she is resisting the patriarchal system as she does not live in an epoch where technology can enable her emancipation. On the other hand, theories by radical feminists such as Stanworth, which regard pregnancy and other feminine attributes as vital to womanhood, can result in marginalizing women like Ponna (Stanworth, 1987). Periyar asserts how the ‘site of enslavement of women’ is ‘their wombs’ (Laxmi, 1990, p. 7). Thus, barren women are seen as resisting the patriarchal order as they are not dependent on their husband financially, to raise a child. Contesting this, C. S. Laxmi argues how it is not pregnancy itself, but the norms and values surrounding it that view the womb and femininity as sustaining Tamil culture, which result in the subordination of women (Laxmi, 1990, p. 8). Hence, Ponna’s inability to conceive does not imply that she is emancipated from the chains of patriarchy, because she has to challenge patriarchy both at the physical as well as notional levels. Therefore, rather than being viewed as a woman outside the patriarchal system, Ponna can be considered a subject of that very system, which values an ideal of womanhood and not women themselves.
Caste and patriarchal control
Values that are centered around chastity and purity promote endogamy, thereby reproducing the caste system because, as Ambedkar asserts, ‘caste and endogamy’ ‘are one and the same’(Ambedkar, 1917, p. 7). Kali and Ponna’s brother, Muthu, attempt to preserve the caste order by controlling Ponna’s sexuality. As women’s bodies are markers of caste, when women deviate from norms governing sexual intercourse, it results in blemishing the honor of their community. Kali fears that if Ponna sleeps with an ‘untouchable’ man, it will not only render her body ‘impure’ but also compromise his social standing. The purpose of procreation that society attributes exclusively to women ties them down to their bodies. Hence, by violating caste laws, women effectively transcend the body. As a result, there is no longer a ‘site to situate control on them’ (Laxmi, 1990, p. 8). Kali raping Ponna when she wishes to go to the festival, and Muthu asking Kali’s permission to take Ponna to the festival are both instances when Ponna is denied ownership over her own body. Thus, the numerous occasions where Ponna’s sexuality is controlled are a means to enforce conformity to the caste system by subjugation of the body.
The narrative situates the hierarchy of gods in the traditional caste system, weaving in divisions based on offerings. Murugan writes how ‘for the forest gods it was a goat sacrifice, for temple gods it was Pongal’ (p. 47). This reveals the role caste plays in informing forms of worship as well as constructing a pecking order of the deities (Valk, 2010, p. 3). While lower caste gods receive arrack and roosters, upper caste gods can only receive vegetarian offerings. Additionally, with regard to forest gods, a lower caste man makes the offering. The man who conducts the ceremony for Devatha is a manual laborer. In contrast, it is the upper caste Pujari who manages the affairs of the temple.
However, the strict caste-based separation in modes of worship at times give way (Valk, 2010, p. 9). Ponna, who is presumably from a middle caste, land owning community, mentions how she attends the yearly festival at the Mariamman temple. Mariamman is a goddess with the body of a lower caste woman but whose head belongs to Renuka, an upper caste woman (Valk, 2010, p. 5). Thus, she receives both vegetarian and non-vegetarian offerings and is revered by lower caste communities as well as the Kongu Vellar Gounder community Ponna belongs to. The chariot festival too represents a moment when caste boundaries become liminal, as Ponna seeks blessings from a lower caste deity, Maadhorubaagan. This is an act of Dalitisation where Dalit practices are being adopted and Ponna is acquiring a ‘new consciousness’ by learning from the ‘Dalit waadas’ (Kannabiran, 2009, p. 4). As Kancha Ilaiah argues, Dalit society is more democratic and affords women greater equality (Kannabiran 2009, p. 4). Thus, when Ponna wanders in the festival, one witnesses how she is experiencing greater sexual freedom. We learn of her sexual desires, of how ‘everything known to her’ has ‘taken leave of her’ and essentially how she is exercising agency, perhaps, for the first time (p. 201). Thus, Ponna’s act is a departure from the norms of legitimate sex, but it is also an act of resistance as it qualifies as Dalitisation.
Class and the monogamian family
Engels provides an account of the monogamian family, which develops in a particular historical juncture, entails the subordination of women’s interests and the supremacy of a patriarch (2004, p. 70). Its development can be traced in terms of changing material conditions that also resulted in altering gender relations. Domestication of animals generated greater wealth, and the monogamian family ensured accumulation of this wealth (Engels, 2004, p. 74). Thus, as a result of a shift from property being communally owned to privately possessed, the patriarchal family came into existence. The monogamian family enabled the ‘begetting of children of undisputed paternity’, thereby ensuring limited and legitimate heirs (Engels, 2004, p. 73). Ponna and Kali’s is a patriarchal family as the unequal power relations, wherein Ponna runs at a mere wag of Kali’s finger, are quite apparent. In this family structure, while men are afforded infidelity, women are compelled to face severe sanctions, if they challenge sexual norms. Thus, while Kali is goaded to take a second wife, when Ponna goes to the festival she is referred to as a ‘cheat’ (p. 239). Therefore, through this novel one can discern how a family structure which preserves private property is not only conserving the class system but also the patriarchal system. Thus, caste and patriarchy are constitutive elements of holding up class derived ideological apparatus.
In conclusion, Perumal Murugan places the biographies of the characters in their historical context; assesses the personal against the political and the individual in light of the structural. While his characters operate within the confining cartography of the village, they are complex and agentic, often negotiating systemic oppression. His novel reveals how the tapestry of Tamil Nadu can only be mapped by adopting a combined lens of caste, gender, and class.
 As there is no disjuncture between manual and physical labor and because ownership of private property is rare, Dalit society is more egalitarian. Thus, Kancha Ilaiah advocates the process of Dalitisation, where practices of the Dalit-waadas are extended to the rest of society.
Ambedkar, B. R. (1916). Castes in India: Their Mechanism, Genesis and Development. Indian Antiquary, 41, 1-14.
Engels, F. (2004). The Origin of the Family, Private Property and the State. Australia: Resistance Books.
Kandasamy, M. (2019). One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan review – a skilful Tamil tale. Retrieved May 8, 2020, from https://www.theguardian.com/books/2019/jul/25/one-part-woman-perumal-murugan-review.
Kannabiran, K. (2009). Sociology of Caste and the Crooked Mirror: Recovering B R Ambedkar’s Legacy. Economic and Political Weekly, 44(4), 35-39.
Laxmi, C. S. (1990). Mother, Mother-Community and Mother-Politics in Tamil Nadu. Economic and Political Weekly, 42(25), WS72-WS83.
Livesay, C. 2014. Cambridge International AS and A Level Sociology Coursebook. Cambridge: Cambridge University Press.
Stanowrth, M. 1987. Reproductive Technologies and the Deconstruction of Motherhood. Minnesota: University of Minnesota Press.
Valk, U. (2010). Caste Divisions in the Religious Folklore of Tamil Nadu. Nomos Verlagsgesellschaft, 205-213.
Amulya Anita Gurumurthy is a student of law, who is interested in Marxist and Ambedkarite theory and politics.
Cafe Dissensus Everyday is the blog of Cafe Dissensus magazine, born in New York City and currently based in India. All materials on the site are protected under Creative Commons License.
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