Book Review: One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

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One Part Woman

Perumal Murugan

Pushkin Press

Perumal Murugan’s One Part Woman (translated from the Tamil by Aniruddhan Vasudevan) tells the story of Kali and Ponna, a southern Indian couple whose marriage appears perfect in every aspect aside from one – they are unable to conceive a child. What might be raising some eyebrows after a year or two, soon becomes a source of unbearable humiliation; but despite bargaining with every god and brewing every fertility herb, Kali and Ponna remain childless. Recalling the Baileys-shortlisted Stay with Me by Ayọ̀bámi Adébáyọ̀, One Part Woman is a moving examination of the toll that infertility takes on a marriage in a society that sees having children as the ultimate purpose of life.

Murugan sets the story in a stifling rural community where everyone seems to believe that they have the right to prod, judge and offer unsolicited advice, even to people they barely know – and in a way that becomes a form of mean entertainment:

It annoyed Kali that though they might have a million things wrong with their own lives, people found great pleasure in poking and prodding other people’s miseries . . . What kind of pride comes from knowing that the other person does not have what one has?
— Ona Part Woman, p. 19

But despite the awareness that many comments come from petty cruelty, Kali and Ponna find them increasingly impossible to deal with. They are shamed and ridiculed to the point of being pushed to the fringes of society, ostracised because of something they have no control of – while those with children “could do anything they wanted.” When praying for a child in one scene, Kali is quite open about what the prayer is really about: “Please save me from being the talk of town.”

This is what makes Murugan’s novel truly harrowing: not the couple’s infertility itself, but the repeated suggestion that they could have a fulfilled marriage without ever conceiving a child. After more than a decade, Kali and Ponna still have an affectionate relationship and a deep, almost mysterious connection (“Wherever in the house she was, he always knew what she was up to,” Murugan writes about Kali, “she pervaded his thoughts”). They reject the idea of Kali ever marrying another woman. Inspired by a childless relative, Kali realises, “Uncle didn’t give a hoot what anyone thought, and he wanted for nothing. How happy he was! . . . What if I decide I don’t need a child at all?” And anonymous in a festival crowd, without family or acquaintances around her, Ponna is suddenly “delighted at the sheer number of options she had” – just from being momentarily away from social expectations.

Written in simple but evocative prose, One Part Woman is both engaging in its social commentary and haunting in its portrayal of a relationship gradually falling apart due to outside pressures. Translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan, One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan is published in the UK by Pushkin Press on 25 July 2019.

Alice Piotrowska