The life of a goat

The topmost review for Perumal Murugan’s Poonachi: Or the story of a goat is just one line: “I’ll write the review when I stop crying”. When I picked up ಮಲೆಗಳಲ್ಲಿ ಮದುಮಗಳು I knew I was going to be on it for more than a month. It’s 712 pages long, and I can’t get through more than 20-25 pages per hour. At that rate, I’d be at it for between 5-7 weeks. After close to 2 weeks, I am almost at the 40% mark. Given this, and that the neck might allow some metro reading, I picked up Poonachi’s kindle version to read on the commute. Bad idea.

You don’t notice it, but you feel the emotions when reading, and they show on your face. At times you glow, at times you well up. There is that beauty in it. In the simpleness of it. The name itself is odd. Poonachi is what you’d call a cat, not a goat. But the old woman sees the tiny goat kid which looks like a kitten and is reminded of her cat that passed away some time back. There seemingly is nothing here: A goat that lands up with an old couple and grows up with them. The goat’s story is part of the world where she grows up, where the rains are failing every year, where no vehicles seem to exist – the Govt officer comes riding a horse, a rich man owns a bullock cart. But there are terrorists, there are procedures and there are number tags for livestock. It’s an interesting world where when they have to travel to their daughter’s village they have to walk through the countryside dragging their goats along. At many points it reminds you of Ishiguro’s “The Buried Giant”. There’s so much looking into the past. But that’s when you see it from the old couple’s perspective. But the story isn’t that.

There is so much of “The Tale of the Princess Kaguya”. I wonder if the story will lend itself to an artistic interpretation a la Kaguya. But we don’t have much of an artistic film industry that can think beyond songs and dances. I digress.

A buck goes into heat, goes around sniffing the tails of the does. The herds watch, amused. They untie him the next day. He has his day of fun. At the end of the day he goes home with the doe to her herd’s pen. The next day a man, a boatman, turns up, carrying his tool. He castrates the bucks while they have no idea what’s happening, cries about the sin he’s committing, taking liquor as payment to drown his guilt in. The bucks go through their short lives wondering what happened that day, having their spirits completely broken. Later, in their daughter’s village, Poonachi meets Poovan, a billy goat and falls in love with him, only to be dragged back home by the laughing humans.

The book is very allegorical, and always the best allegories are those that can stand on their own if you forget that characters and situations are stand-ins for something else. And this is where Poonachi works. You feel for the goat, you understand her life, you get the idea of lack of agency, you get the idea of hierarchical authority, that the life of the goat reflects that of women at so many levels. This is also Perumal Murugan’s protest and survival story against the current environment where everything you say or write is fodder for an outrage industry. And still, you can’t help crying for the goat, laughing with it as it grows up and finds love first with the old woman, and then with Poovan, the billy. And this is what eventually makes you love the book.

As the translator says in the end, this is an animal story for adults, something that is rare and has books like Animal Farm as the shibboleth.  The translation is spot on, and this should be the standard for how translations should work. It isn’t that the language is kept simple, it’s that you can feel the Tamizh in the translation, in the adas, the ayahs, the Mesagarans and the general flow of conversations. Kudos to N Kalyan Raman for that. I wish I could read Murugan in Tamizh, but apart from the speed issues I have with the script, having no formal schooling in the language I expect I would struggle with the meaning of words. But this is something I want to try once. It should be far easier reading a 150 page novella set in current times than a 1000-page பொன்னியின் செல்வன்.

Personally, this reminded me of Em and The Big Hoom and The Shadow Lines in how deeply I felt about the story. There are those books that you love, and then those that you live and feel through. This was easily among the latter, not something you come across too often. Read, laugh, and cry with it. Not for public reading, unless you don’t mind looking silly and misty-eyed in the open.


Neat little cubbyholes for your realities

I approached Nandini Sundar’s “The Burning Forest: India’s War in Bastar” with a fair degree of triumphalism. Here I was, in the comforts of my home in Bangalore willing to read about and, eventually, hold an opinion on a conflict in far away Chhattisgarh.

For most of the duration the conflict raged there, through the latter part of the noughties, I was living in the US and any reports came in through the media. There were the pro-Naxalites, in the form of Gauri Lankesh (when Naxalism was trying to rear its head in Karnataka), and Arundathi Roy, who people were convinced was loose a few screws. Having read her “God of small things” I held that she probably knew what she was talking about. My opinion was along what Sundar describes as the standard urbanite view of sympathising with the Maoists’ cause but not agreeing with their violence. Which is kind of a standard stand to take with most rebel causes. “What do you think of the LTTE?” “Well, they exist because of what the Sinhalese did, but I don’t agree with the violence they are wreaking”. Fair enough.img_4380 Continue reading “Neat little cubbyholes for your realities”

Abachurina Post Office and Tabarana Kathe

At the very beginning, in a 3 page preface, KP Poornachandra Tejaswi starts with a methodical takedown of the Navya school of literature. Among the reasons, the main ones are that it has become stale, dominated by academicians and professors with no scope for others to enter, and that it has failed to address the life of the common man living in villages. With that, he starts off marking a separate territory that he calls ‘protest literature’ along the lines of Ram Manohar Lohia.

The ones I’ve read by him tend to be light, even while addressing critical environmental issues. I expected satire, dark humour. There is very little of that.


Abachurina Post Office, the first story, starts off about Bobanna who’s a ‘temporary’ post master for a temporary post office. He doesn’t maintain much discretion with the mail, conducting open sit-togethers to write and read letters for the illiterate. Other posts are put in a kind of bulletin board where anyone can take a look and pass on the message to the intended. Things turn bad when he sneaks off a post card with a nude picture meant for his boss and he just can’t resist doing the wrong thing, read perverted thing, whenever the opportunity presents itself. Things turn really bad when a letter to someone about his daughter makes it to the ‘bulletin board’ and becomes the talk of the town. There’s so much to see here – Bobanna’s desperation, his mother-in-law’s control, the gradual breakdown of his family. This is almost RKN territory, but a lot darker, about how these innocent small town/village guys aren’t that innocent after all. Continue reading “Abachurina Post Office and Tabarana Kathe”

When Breath Becomes Air


I had been avoiding reviews of this book, as they tend to go all hyperbolic. And it can do bad things to expectations. They probably had already when I picked this up.

Paul Kalanithi was a literature major, he was then a neurosurgeon, and then he contracted lung cancer and died in 2 years and wrote a book in the meanwhile. It felt almost miraculous, all these things coming together. And I use the word miraculous in a crass way. I refused to believe. I still expected a book about the grandioseness of life, meaning, a lot of philosophy, deep insights on mortality. I expected to be swept away by the sheer enlightenment and perspective it would give me. Continue reading “When Breath Becomes Air”

One hundred years of solitude

I won’t call this a book review, even though it will get categorized as one. There are some books which are beyond reviews, where all you can do is experience it and sit down and experience it more. Sometimes when you take a nap while reading it, it can play out in your dreams. More experiencing.

At some point I thought the book was about some Latin American politics and maybe I would not get it. Towards the end I kinda knew it was much more. It was all about humans and humankind itself. To say that the book is tragic would be an understatement. It’s built on the one word – solitude. Whether you are the kind who spends 3-20 days at a stretch celebrating and growing fat, or the kind that goes to war just for pride, or tours the world as a sailor tattooing every little inch of your body, there is one word that describes all – solitude, they either live through it or withdraw into it at the end.

The magical realism that he’s said to use in the novel adds that sense of mystique to the whole thing, somewhat like ‘Naayi Neralu’, just that here it is more of there for you, while in the latter you are not expected to have made up your mind on it, and can end up question it every few pages.

After those half a dozen generations, I felt myself plodding towards the end, weary and wondering when I’ll come to the end of it. It’s not the writing style, it’s the whole setting he creates right in your mind, of the village of Macondo that starts of as a tiny hamlet visited by gypsies, their only contact with the outside world, moving through generations, one with a war fought for pride, one with a banana boom, one with 4 years of non-stop rain after the boom. Towards the end when the times of the war and the gypsies seems like a long time ago (and it is!) the people in the town have no memory of those either, and the booming town starts resembling a desolate place waiting to be washed off. There are massacres which no one talks about, which makes you wonder how much of it was true or false, a rain that goes on 4 years playing with the minds of the people in the town. The Buendia residence itself, the house which starts off from a small one, expands, falls apart, falls lonely mirroring the family’s fortunes.

The parchments of a gypsy and their deciphering forms a constant background as someone or the other from each generation locks himself up in a room (which is mystical in its own way!) and tries to decipher them. The gypsy himself keeps coming back from the dead as a ghost to talk to the one working on them, slowly fading away until the whole set becomes clear when the 100 years of that family line he talks about is complete. The revelations form the last few paragraphs of the book.

This is not a book to be read, but to be experienced. No two characters are alike although the names keep repeating through the generations. Each one goes through life with a different set of experiences, but born alone, living alone (even through revelry or family), and dying alone, but the experiences seem circular as they mirror those from previous generations, as if they don’t learn from them.

P.S: Also, found this interesting discussion on the book, read it when you have read this book, not before!

P.P.S: This blog turns 7 today!! (Rather my blogging turns 7, this particular space is just around 2 years old, you know what I mean)