Perumal Murugan’s Kazhimugham is an ugly novel. Ugly, that is, as Umberto Eco would have it: its subject is ugliness and it is a work that the author claims breaks the conventional rules of beauty.
The novel’s contemporary small town setting is depicted as the world of demons; even the characters’ names are suffixed with “asura”, a word for the devils in the Hindu hell. Translated as Estuary by Nandini Krishna, the novel is a case study in the pleasure of deviance.
The protagonist is the middle-aged Kumarasurar who receives a phone call from his son. His demand for a high end cell phone makes Kumarasurar reflect on several aspects of his being: past, family, friends, and all the institutions one is a part of from cradle to grave. The result is a brilliant critique of modernity as different generations in India experience it. Here is a professor describing his college to a group of “thrilled” parents:
We refer to our students as rats. We treat them as one would treat rats. What do rats do? When you block one hole, they dig another. Every hole you block, they dig out a new one. But can we stop blocking those holes? Let the rats dig their holes. We will seal them. If you parents join hands with us, it will be easier to prevent the rats’ escape. It takes two hands to clap. This is why we respect our students’ parents so much. Please don’t worry that your cooperation will entail your frequent presence at the college. The helping hand we need is that you pay the fees on time. That is all.
The college is known for the bridles (normally used to tame horses) that it gives for free to the students so that they don’t get distracted. Kumarasurar, the parent, is excited and asks his son to try them out just for kicks. The latter yells: “If someone gave you shit for free, would you gorge on it just for kicks too?”
In his attempt to understand mobile phones and technology, Kumarasurar comes across pornography on the Internet thanks to his younger colleague; nothing is the same for him after that as he is disgusted by everything he sees around him:
Kumarasurar finally looked up. He got a shock. Not far away, a group of women stood naked, handbags slung across their shoulders. What the hell, he thought, and swung his head around. The men and women he saw on the other side were naked too. He looked about himself in horror. The people walking on the roads were naked. The people climbing into buses were naked. The crowd before him was naked; the crowd behind him was naked. The whole world had lost its clothes.
Estuary extends the bildungsroman to accommodate a much older character. Very tenderly, Murugan has Kumarasurar move from innocence to experience. The journey of getting to know himself deeply while also getting to know the world deeply causes the hero to rethink such basic life issues as parenthood, youth, career, marriage, education, politics, responsibility, love, and self-love.
Estuary is a delightful treat for everyone who loves the world and recommended reading for everyone who hates it.
Murugan’s declaration in the Foreword that he has deviated from the rules of writing—that his descriptions are deliberately vague, for example—turns out to be a ruse. All this description, unnecessary if not taboo as per EB White’s classic Elements of Style, is simply unavoidable in the author’s style as it comes through in the English translation.
It would be the rare reader who would want to change anything about the novel: everything is precious, beautiful, and central to the world as created by the author. His hell is beautiful; his demon finds dirt and nakedness disgusting. The demon finds a moment with nature so serene that his outlook towards everything changes.
An estuary is where the freshwater of a river meets the brackish sea; it is also a place that helps Kumarasurar make sense of contradictions and his own fears as the origins of his depression. Estuary is a delightful treat for everyone who loves the world and recommended reading for everyone who hates it.