“Pyre” by Perumal Murugan

A novel with a title like Pyre is unlikely to have a happy ending. Nevertheless, the journey towards this inevitable outcome delivers a disturbing insight into human bigotry and brutality whose application extends far beyond the novel’s treatment of inter-caste marriage in contemporary Tamil Nadu.

Pyre, Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan (Hamish Hamilton, April 2016)
Pyre, Perumal Murugan, translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan (Hamish Hamilton, April 2016)

Much like Romeo and Juliet, the protagonists commit the ultimate sin of falling in love with the wrong person. Kumaresan has left his village to work in a soda shop in the nearby town of Tholur. Here he encounters Saroja, who lives with her father and brother in a neighboring house. Despite both parties being cripplingly shy, they manage to acknowledge their shared feelings for each other. There’s just one problem: they’re from different castes.

In metropolitan Tholur, where attitudes are more relaxed, marrying out of caste is a possibility. Going home to the village, however, would present a very different scenario, as Periyasami, Kumaresan’s co-worker at the soda shop, explains:


And if I do marry a girl here, I can never go back to my village. I’ll have to sever all ties with the people of my caste, and live here. If I dare to go back, they will poison me, or beat me to death.


Headstrong Kumaresan ignores this warning and presses ahead with the wedding regardless. He and Saroja then return to his home in Kattuppatti where, predictably, the welcome is colder than ice. From the start, Kumaresan’s widowed mother, Marayi, takes against his new wife and holes herself up in her hut to sing funeral dirges.

Meanwhile, Saroja’s fair skin gives the lie to Kumaresan’s public declaration that she is from their own caste and the villagers choose to shun the entire family. Outcast, the family struggle on until one day when Kumaresan has gone to the nearby town to oversee the new soda shop he is trying to establish. Saroja is left alone in the village with fatal consequences.


The translation from the original Tamil relies on simple English and the occasional American idiom yet comprehensively captures the claustrophobic atmosphere in which the lovers exist. Saroja, for example, correctly identifies that the villagers will never accept change:


Not even the wind from elsewhere could enter this space. The air in these parts had circulated within the confines of this place and had turned poisonous. The space would not allow anything to enter.


Kumaresan recognizes, even if he cannot voice it, that self-interest sustains the status quo. His uncles may have helped raise their fatherless nephew but then “they were merely protecting their own”. More importantly, they didn’t contribute any financial assistance—in sharp contrast to the soda-shop owner in Tholur who offered Kumaresan a salaried job. He asks:


Which caste is Soda Shop Bhai from? Wasn’t he the one who offered me the job? If he hadn’t have done that, how could I have made some money? Which man from my caste came to my aid?


The castes of the lovers, or whether one is higher than the other, are not revealed, probably because author Perumal Murugan wishes to focus on the fact of difference, rather than the detail, to enhance the story’s universal appeal.

The theme of difference is further reinforced by the juxtaposition between town and country attitudes, illustrated by an argument between Kumaresan and Marayi. To survive—and perhaps Murugan is making the point that bigotry thrives in poverty—she has had to rely on help from the village and therefore must accept its values. She says:


The village is more important to me than you. Do you think you can live alone, without anyone’s support?


Clearly, staying in the better-heeled environs of Tholur would have been the preferable option. There is also a chance for the lovers to move to another town but they do not take it. Saroja plays a very passive role in the couple’s plans. Her apathy is both frustrating and contributes ultimately to their downfall. It is also the key to the tragedy. The lovers wish to liberate themselves from the structure which frustrates their happiness. Sadly, it is so ingrained in their psyches that they cannot summon the imagination or courage to break free.

This is a depressing conclusion to which Murugan gives no solution, only a warning. As Saroja considers:


Isn’t it enough that I am suffering now? Should I give birth to a daughter and watch her suffer too?


Without change, this kind of intolerance can only continue down the generations.

Jane Wallace is a Hong Kong-born journalist and author living in London.