The Portrait of a Mother- Amma by Perumal Murugan

How often do we take our Ma, Mumma, Mummy, Mom, Aai, Amma, Ammi, and the numerous names that we call her, for granted? It is only during her absence that we recall her true worth. Perumal Murugan’s biographic novel about his mother, Amma, is an homage to motherhood. The story of a vibrant lady whose values are deeply rooted in the rustic, rural traditions, Amma stands as a metaphor of the saying Old is Gold in a constantly evolving world.

Remember Khushwant Singh’s Portrait of a Lady, Amma is today’s Portrait of a Mother. A village simpleton who excels in farming, household chores, natural remedies, and has a solution to every problem. She stands between Murugan and his father who share a strained relationship often butting in between to stop their fights and quarrels. Murugan’s mother is a pillar of strength and defines his relationship with the other family members.

Amma deals with a serious issue which most housewives in the village’s do- alcoholism. With Murugan’s father being addicted to alcohol it leads to a strain on the household finances. Amma takes to working doubly hard to make sure both her sons can continue their education, she can run the house sustainably, and most importantly she can cope up with the ever-growing medical bills of her husband. This leads to regular fights, abuses, cracks in the husband-wife relation but, Amma never lets such negativity come in the way of her family and destroy it. No matter how hard the situation is she fights with a smile and looks for ways to overcome it effortlessly without letting them influence the minds of her young sons adversely. But alcoholism is an addiction which corrodes the body and mind slowly and steadily, till it withers away. It claims Murugan’s father when he is only twenty years old and transforms his mother to join the white sari-clad women of the village.

Widowhood does not come easy to anyone especially those belonging to the generation gone by and from rural life. ‘If they dreamt about a woman clad in a white sari, they thought of her as Goddess Mariamman and rejoiced; but they didn’t approve of a woman in white appearing before them in person’. Such is the irony of being a widowed woman. The hypocritical society would only respect a woman till she is clad in red but the moment her husband dies, numerous traditions and rituals are forced on them. They are often isolated from the daily village norms and made to live a life following social distancing, embracing loneliness and away from the merry-making of the village life.

Through Amma’s eyes, Murugan describes the beauty of the rural community. A community constituting of farmers, the primary unit of food-givers for the Indian society; and yet how neglected they are as a community. The worse living conditions, lack of proper farming facilities and infrastructure, social and caste-based underestimation and bullying, ever-growing prices of food in the market and not to mention the several levied taxes often drive these innocent souls to claim their own lives to escape the burden of living. Yet, when the fields are nourished and nurtured by these very hands and grows beautiful yields many take to penning down their joy and emotions that they feel by looking at them. This is another situation in a polarised world where men find joy in the simple lifestyle and yet turn a blind eye when it comes to its preservation and upliftment in the society.

With time Amma grows older and gets used to living alone. She takes to loving her plants, utensils, house, and regularly works for their upkeep. She is fiercely independent and strong-willed. However, it is a universal truth that old age takes away the ability to perform various tasks and reduces the capability of working as before. But Amma having worked all her life endlessly finds it difficult to not work at all. She cannot and almost refuses to adjust to the newer surroundings where life has been made easier with the introduction of machines. She rejects any aid from anyone including Murugan as it becomes symbolic to her inactiveness and reflects her inability in certain cases. It also makes her overtly emotional with heightened sensitivity remembering her younger days. Elders are emotional and it is the duty of the younger ones to take care of their sensitivity and emotions.

Amma’s life has been that of a bittersweet fruit with its own moments of ups and downs. Her relations have taken different turns with each member of her family and yet she stands as a rock protecting them till all her life. Her ever smiling and ever young spirit needs to be commended by the readers. Murugan pens down about his mother but in doing so he has stirred the emotions of every reader and their relationship with their mother’s. Amma is quite capable of arousing buried emotions and sentiments for one’s mother through the journey of only a few pages. Sometimes, relations should not be taken for granted and Murugan beautifully reminds the readers of the same. Amma has been translated by Nandini Murali and Kavitha Muralidharan and without them, this beautiful story of a wonderful woman would not have reached hundreds of people.

No. of Pages: 191

Publisher: Eka, Westland

Available on Flipkart / Amazon

Some Perumal Murugan Shorts Please!

With the stay-at-home routine becoming the new norm one has a whole new array of activities- work from home, household chores, reading new books, learning a new course, trying out a new hobby and spending time with family and pets that have been shelved off for too long, do add to the list if you have more activities in mind. For me, it has been mostly been catching up on my reading habits and with Juggernaut making its entire catalog freely accessible, I didn’t have to look too far, so I #ReadInstead. Being a fan of short stories, my first preference was to download a few by Perumal Murugan, one of my favorite authors. Having previously read his novels like One Part Woman, Poonachi, and others; I was keen to read his shorts. In this post, I talk about five of his short stories which I read and liked, you can find more in the short stories compilation called The Goat Thief.

The Well  – Who could have thought that something as simple as a well can give so much joy to people- the young and the old. When three children invite a man to take a swim with them in the nearby well, it does not strike him that the experience will be unforgettable. One just needs to be courageous enough to take the leap of faith. Once that is accomplished, the vast expanse of the well is their playground. The cold water caresses the body providing relief from the scorching sun complemented by the occasional cool breeze. The isolation of the well from the rest of the world gives the much-needed seclusion that one longs for. BUT, sometimes a well has a mind of its own. ‘In fact, it is the well’s trickery. Its invitation to step in. If a man visits once, the well casts a spell that goads him to return again and again.’ (translated from Neer Vilayattu by N. Kalyan Raman)

Ask for the Moon- When an otherwise quiet and content child starts wailing one night, it brings thick lines of worry on the faces of the family. Is it a bad dream? Is the child thirsty or hungry? Has the child been possessed by some evil spirit? Does the child need medical attention? But when two gibberish words come out from the mouth amidst the loud wailings, the family leaves no stones unturned to identify and present the child with what it was looking for. A very relatable story which shows that parents are willing to go to any extent in order to fulfill wishes and to see that their child is having a comfortable life. It is only a matter of time to see whether such an attitude spoils the child or makes him/ her understand the worth of parents and respect them even more. (translated from Peridhinum Peridhu)

Sanctuary- It is said that a child inside an individual never dies no matter how old he/she grows. When a middle-aged man returns to his native village and finds his old friends are either entwined in the shackles of marriage or have become intellectual beings, he tries to find solace in locating a group of children playing in the well and befriending them. His ‘primary motive must have been to win back my childhood’ but transcending the age barrier especially when it means to join those who are younger is no less a challenge in itself. What is physically possible by children in terms of fluidity and flexibility is impossible by the physique of a grown-up man which leads to the existence of a divide- mentally and physically. Moreover, children often prefer to be more attached to those within the same age –group. Will they accept an older man among them? Will the knots of worldliness be undone?  Will childhood overtake the persona of the man? Sanctuary is a story of letting go of the inner fear, shame, stigma, and prejudice to be able to complete ones transgression through age. (translated from Pugalidam by N.Kalyan Raman)

The Man Who Could Not Sleep- Muthu Pattar is a man famous for his sleep patterns. Going straight to sleep after a hard day’s work and waking up exactly when he wants to is his forte. But what happens when he suddenly starts showing signs of sleeplessness? Is it the village demon who has taken hold of him? Is he diagnosed with terrible insomnia? Is something in his unconscious mind worrying him that he has had to let go of his peaceful sleep? A simple story of how one man’s anxieties take hold of him and those around showing beautifully that sometimes problems are not only of those who are facing them but also for their dear ones. (translated from Kombai Chuvar by N. Kalyan Raman)

The Unexpected Visitor- The elders usually find a daily routine for themselves in the peacefulness of the village. They garner respect but are also victims of banters from the local men and women folk. Such is the daily life of Paati, till her granddaughter leaves her son Kunju with her. This changes the way she has been living alone for years and makes her adapt to all the changes that would ensure Kunju to have a comfortable life in the village. She starts making new dishes for him, worrying if he gets late while playing with his newfound friends, and tries to give him everything that he wants that makes him happy. It is almost as if she has a new objective in life. But with old age comes an enormous amount of self –doubt especially when it comes to taking the responsibility of a child. Will Paati ultimately be able to manage this responsibility or will self-doubt take the better of her? (translated from Veppenei Kalayam)

Murugan’s short stories reflect the simple village life but if you read between the lines of the instances, they are not –so –simple. Each story is bound to take you on a contemplating spree about life and the way we choose to live it. There are several other short stories by Murugan and you can read them in the compilation available on Flipkart, Amazon, and Juggernaut App.

So, Keep Reading until next time!

little grey lies by Hédi Kaddour

little grey lies by Hédi Kaddour bares the lies in which an individual entangles oneself in order to please the society. The storyline is simplistic. Max, a journalist meets Lena, his singer friend (read ex-beloved) in London, gets intrigued by the Battle of Mons and its veteran Colonel Strether, and starts regularly meeting him for an interesting story. Kaddour must be credited for having kept the narration simple and yet filling it in with layers of intellect and self-reflection within the lines. At times, it compels the readers to keep wondering how many lies they really come face to face with each day.

The story distinctly talks about finding one’s identity in the world. One tends to build an identity devoid of happiness and contentment for showing to the world. Lena is prone to daydreaming about a happy blissful life with her partner, which otherwise is not so happy. She tries to raise her voice in an attempt to make her opinions matter but soon tends to lose most arguments and agrees to what her partner says in order to keep him happy while lying to herself all along. Max on the other hands frequently meets Lena trying to gauge if she still has any feelings left for him. He hopes that one day they might see the world together.

Through Lena, the author shows how women are made to compromise quite so often for society and in the name of it. She understands very well that the relationship will neither last long nor have any future, but still holds onto her bondage. It is mostly because she creates a shell of false protection and hierarchy amongst her peers through her relationship. One slight mistake and her entire image will crumble down. It is not that she does not try to break free, but what stops her is the fact that it is easier to think of breaking away but difficult to accept it once done. This questions the rationality of binding oneself despite knowing the ultimate outcome. However, if she succeeds, not only will she have a happier life but also imbibe the truth that women are capable of living without support.

The era in which the story is set in plays a crucial part in shaping the mindset of the characters. London in the 1930s is completely in the garbs of patriarchy and male monotony in society. Women are not allowed to leave their homes or linger around post evening unless they are in the company of men. Forgetting the existing pay difference in the daily wages, women holding important positions in the office are ordered to vacate their seats for the war-returned heroes. They are also subjected to mental torture living with their husbands/ sons/ partners who often develop PTSD. These are clear indications that women are not allowed to have a voice of their own. That is why even Lena is almost always seen in the company of either Max or her partner. It reflects the kind of world where women’s individuality is a complete lie. But the twist in this tale comes when Max and Lena meet a stranger who is courageous enough to defy these patriarchal rules and carve out a path of existence. In a society that swears by the strict rules of conduct for women, someone dares to defy them and mingle with the society bluffing them every single time. It is actually quite shameful to see that individuals need to take such drastic steps to carve an identity for themselves.

To be honest, though the book talks of the 1930s, readers can openly relate to the scenario today and still find that nothing has majorly changed. Individuals still fight for their choices, their existence, their right to live the way they want to, and for society to accept their truth. But what has changed is that people are more accommodating towards accepting facts rather than building castles of lies around them like yesteryears. Even if they do build alternate identities for themselves, it is remarkable to see how true they appear to be and how slowly they become the truth for the individual and for the society. Hence, they become ‘grey lies’ – neither the truth and nor a complete bluff.

The novel speaks of the on-going struggles within oneself and with the society to establish an individual’s identity. Many succeed in the long-drawn and emotionally draining fight. Many succumb and continue living far from the truth in a life of little grey lies.

No of pages: 176

Publisher: Seagull Books

Available on: Amazon/ Flipkart/ Seagull Bookstore

Yours Truly has also recently been featured as one of the Top 100 Indian Book Review Blogs and Websites by Feedspot. You can check out the article here.

Sesher Kobita: Rabindranath Tagore

One banked on her sacrifice, and the other wanted her love!

My first exposure to Tagore’s Sesher Kobita was during a discussion by veteran actor Soumitra Chatterjee. But picking up bits and pieces of the story did not really help much, given that I have been hearing it’s a great narration. It was only last week that I finally completed reading the book and what would be a better time than on the occasion of Rabindra Jayanti to put forward my views of it.

Sesher Kobita literally translates to The Last Poem and definitely, the story has a loud poetic touch to it while circling around the lives of Labanyalata and Amit. Amit is the quintessential bhodrolok of Calcutta, apparently enmeshed in literature and poetry; so much so, that the readers often get glimpses of his alter ego- Nibaran Chakraborty. Labanya, on the other hand, is practical, ambitious, and even competitive on several levels, though working as a Governess has mellowed her.  She has always shunned the existence of love in her life and even shoos away the one man who has dearly loved her. Nevertheless, a sudden car collision on the slopes of Shillong introduces Amit and Labanya to each other where the former gets smitten by the latter and even musters up the courage to propose to her a few months later.

It is this proposal from whence the actual story starts.  The practical nature of Labanya poses questions to Amit which are both deeply intellectual and highly relevant. For a person like Amit who is always riding on the clouds with his thoughts, it will be sooner than later that Labanya’s mind and actions will fall short; and he will leave her far behind with his intellectual superiority.  One can question here, whether she is really being practical or hiding her insecurities in the garb of Amit’s colorful nature. Going a step ahead and metaphorically using history to continue her point, she relates that ‘To realize his [Shah Jahan] dream, her [ Mumtaz] death was necessary’; or else why will Shah Jahan take pride in a mausoleum of his lover’s death and become internationally famous? This reflects a stark understanding and hatred towards patriarchy and gender inequality through Labanya’s eyes.

Creativity and Preservation have been cleverly merged into the narration of Sesher Kobita. While Amit is creative and does not lose a chance to display the same; Labanya is quiet, conservative, and preserves moments, memories, and life. An interesting explanation given by Tagore here is that Creativity and Preservation cannot complement each other because of their functional nature. To Create is to destroy, rebuild, and renew what is preserved; and to Preserve one needs to stop creatively building upon what exists. So it can well mean that to unite, both Amit and Labanya or at least one of them has to give up their individuality. But is it worth it?

Trust forms the basis of any relationship and even if an iota of doubt creeps in; it is powerful enough to break the relation. Much that Amit loves Labanya, but her recitation of her ex-lover’s words definitely leaves a cringe in Amit’s mind. It leads him to doubt the relationship that he is aiming for. He too starts thinking practically that it is very easy to please one’s partner through mellifluous words and creative imagery during courtship, but once a union stands true both the individuals have to come together as a whole by sacrificing parts of their individuality to accept the other.

Much that we say that marriage is a union of two souls, one cannot disperse the fact blatantly that family has an important role in it. Amit belongs to the so-called elite class of Calcutta whose life is engulfed by the literary circles and social gatherings, while Labanya belongs to the scholarly middle class. Her meeting with Amit’s family renews the latent self-doubts about the unison that she has borne within herself. This along with a letter from her ex-lover gives the storyline an interesting direction.

Will Labanya re-establish connections with her ex-lover? Will she accept her relationship with Amit devoid of doubts? Will Amit’s family approve of Labanya whom they look down upon as a mere-Governess? Reading this poetic narration will give you your answers. Looking closely at the story you will find that Labanya in her quiet demeanor is the perfect rebel to the societal standards of yesteryears, quite similar to Tagore’s other leading ladies. Her questioning the unquestioned and taken-for-granted norms of patriarchy raises pertinent questions in the minds of the readers as to what will be the definition of a perfect union and how can it be achieved whole-heartedly.

I would suggest if you can read Bangla please read the original text.  Should you want to read translations like I did, the details are mentioned below.

No. of Pages: 211

Publisher: Rupa

Available on: Amazon

Translated from: Sesher Kobita by Rabindranath Tagore

Translated by Anindita Mukhopadhyay