Kongu Chronicles: Mathorubhagan by Perumal Murugan


It is the family name that lives on. It’s all that lives on.” – Tywin Lannister

Acutely conscious of the fleeting nature of human existence, man has always striven towards immortality. From envisioning and building the Brihadeeswarar Temple in Kaveri Delta to busting the backside off in a remote research facility among snowy mountains 200m beneath the surface of the earth, human beings’ fundamental urge to create something of value in their name that would hopefully stand the test of time has been one of the biggest drivers of human progress of all kinds. But not all of us are great Chola emperors or even hardworking experimental physicists at CERN/LHC. So what do we, the ordinary mortals, do? Do we perhaps resign to the fact that our names are not worthy of living after we are gone? No, of course not. We beget children. We extend our lineage. We make sure our family name (or its equivalent) lives on.

The need to extend the lineage at an appropriate age with capable heirs is a duty, a sacred inviolable one, in agrarian communities beholden to their land—like that of Kongu Vellala Gounders of Tamil Nadu. Unsurprisingly ‘fertility’ is regarded as the highest virtue in these communities; and ‘barrenness’ is the lowest the land or a human being could sink to. No one remains single long into adulthood or childless long after their wedding (out of choice, at least) and those who do, for whatever reason, risk becoming social outcasts for they are perceived to be facing the wrath of Gods.

This value system is being increasingly challenged in the Gounder community with the massive urbanization of the Kongu region. More and more Gounders are moving out of their villages and finding out, to their utter disbelief in some cases, that barren land is just as valuable, if not more, in the present circumstances. But more than 80 years ago, when the country was still under colonial administration, the situation was wholly different in a village community near Tiruchengode. That is where Perumal Murugan’s novel Mathorubhagan (2010, Kalachuvadu Pathippagam) is set.

Kali and Ponna, the central characters of the novel, after they marry at a young age, remain childless for 12 years in a community as I have mentioned earlier values fertility more than anything. The childless couple endure sly ridicule and not-so-sly social ostracism on a daily basis. Ponna being a woman suffers more but Kali is not spared either. With no one else to turn to, the lonely couple turn to Gods. From the Murugan of the 60th step of Tiruchengode Hill to the Pillayar who resides at the top most point of the hill, unreachable to most people, no God in the array of Gods that adorn the hill is ignored. Unfortunately, all to no avail. At one point, after risking her very life by circumambulating the vaRadikkal (barren woman’s rock) believed to bless childless couples with a progeny, Ponna breaks down in front of the Pillayar deity on top of the hill.

A society which places such high value on fertility is prepared to allow certain discreet transgressions in its other regulatory codes under extraordinary circumstances so that some of its productive members don’t become social outcasts. (Or, worse, rebels.) We have abundance of examples of this kind right from the Mahabharata itself where Kunti and Madri bear children with the help of celestial devas. Even earlier, when Vichitravirya dies without fathering a child, thus leaving the Kuru clan without heirs, Veda Vyasa is roped in to grant sons to Ambika and Ambalika.

A somewhat similar transgression is said to be allowed on the evening of the last day of 14-day Vaikasi Visakam Ther Festival at Tiruchengode. A childless woman, if she so wished, could have sexual intercourse with any willing anonymous man from the festival crowd, considered to be a form of Shiva himself who gave the left part of his body to Parvati and is worshipped in the Tiruchengode temple as mAthorupAkan (one part woman), in the darkness of the night. If she conceives a child in this way, the child is regarded as the blessing of the Lord himself (sAmi piLLai). [1]

When everything else fails, Kali’s mother herself privately asks him to send Ponna to Tiruchengode for the Ther Festival on the 14th day, leaving Kali speechless. When Kali later tells Ponna of this custom, hoping she’d flatly refuse or better still berate him for having the cheek to ask her to go through something like this, Ponna simply says, “If you’d tell me to go for the sake of a child, I will”. That destroys Kali. Though Ponna immediately realizes the effect of her words on her husband and tries to assuage him, it was too late. A gap has fell between them and the distance grows. (Literally so.) The novel ends with a suggestion of a dramatic moment that takes your breath away.

Perumal Murugan writes in a measured, almost hypnotic, prose. I’m embarrassed to say that this is the first work of his that I read. The harrowing plight of Kali and Ponna is treated with the extraordinary lightness of touch without ever dropping to the level of sentimentality. Little needs to be said of the author’s command over the language spoken in the Kongu region—in which he has academic expertise in addition to his lived experience—and his knowledge of the anthropological details of the Kongu region is nothing short of encyclopedic. But what makes the characters come alive is the humor, the kind that elicits not so much laughter but quiet internal chuckle, kusumbu as it is called locally, very particular to Kongunadu.

Though the novel provokes in the reader several questions about masculinity, fidelity, the intricate link between land and woman in Gounder community, the ever changing caste dynamics on the ground, family myths that regulate the conduct of its members, village festivals that act as a kind of safety valve to periodically release pent up emotions, the need to belong which always comes with a set of standards to adhere to etc., it does not dwell on them. In a village community where no one has done so much as crossing the river and going to the neighboring Coimbatore jilla (except Nalluthambi Chithappa who lives the rebel’s life, embraces his outcast status unlike Kali and Ponna and raises uncomfortable questions), there is complete consensus about community values. [2]

Perumal Murugan seems to have convinced the story makes all the points he wants to make. He is singularly focused on Kali and Ponna which gives the novel a certain urgency of short stories. After suffering some wildly unwieldy novels of late, I am not complaining. I finished the novel in two sitting and thought about the day my cousin was born seven years after his parents got married. The whole extended family erupted in joy in the ungodly hour at the hospital veranda. My grandmother was in tears muttering repeatedly to herself that she could die in peace now. My aunt was practically a goddess. Looking at my uncle on that day, you could have sworn he was the king of the world. Or he’d just built the Brihadeeswarar Temple or confirmed the existence of Higgs boson himself.

[1] Apparently the whole thing about childless women having sexual intercourse with any anonymous men from the festival crowd is fictitious, there is no evidence of such practice ever existed for real in Tiruchengode.

[2] However, 80 years later, economic reality has forced reconsideration of several of these time-honored values. Gounders of yore are praised for making the Kongu region cultivable; that came with certain values. Gounders of today (and, more importantly, others) are industrializing the same region. It will be interesting to see the effect that is going to have on the prevailing value system.


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