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.