In an email to a friend, I wrote:
I am just about wrapping up a book titled Amma. It is Perumal Murugan's book that has been translated from the Tamil. The translation is not the stellar quality that Murugan's work deserves though. But still the narration, his Amma and family and community that he writes about are all so real and relatable.In the friend's reply was a comment/question: "what prompted the book choice"
Where do I begin?!
As I became aware of the world around me starting in my tweens, I began to understand that there were plenty of "others"--the differences of religion, caste, income, skin complexion, ... And people were signaling hierarchy explicitly and implicitly based on these, which were also often inter-related. People even lived in different places because of these differences! My curiosity to make sense of these added to my discomfort over the privileged position that I was afforded.
The stories that I read rarely ever addressed these issues. Instead, most of the Tamil literature was about kings and queens of the past, or set in the context of the struggle for independence from the bastards. Occasionally I chanced upon something by Pudumaipithan or Jayakanthan, whose writings laid bare the problems that I wanted to know more about. Once in a while, a movie like Elipathayam or Yarukkaga Azhudaan helped me make sense of the context in which I was growing up.
Graduate school provided me a window into these but strictly from a social science perspective. Complementing that, there were short stories and full-length books in plenty--in the English language and set in American contexts--that were all about the human condition. There were art movie houses that screened American and European works about the lives of people in all the complexity.
Into my middle age, I became more and more interested in understanding the human condition. Intellectual approaches did not help. They didn't reach into the emotions as much as fiction, movies, and music did. It was heavenly when non-white Americans too began to educate and comfort me.
I kept an eye out for anything from the old country too--if ever they rose to the occasion. Even if they were only tshirts! It was consoling to read others who lamented about "how completely the continuity of Indian life has been severed. A single generation of English education suffices to break the threads of tradition and to create a nondescript and superficial being deprived of all roots—a sort of intellectual pariah who does not belong to the East or the West."
Meanwhile, it seemed like Indians were becoming obsessed with material economic growth, cricket, and masala movies, and all the tamasha that never ends. Book-reading had become an endangered human habit. To hell with art and creativity!
And worse was when people in India decided that any writing that was critical of the privileged would not be tolerated. I was shocked at how much Wendy Doniger was attacked. It was even more atrocious when a local--Perumal Murugan--writing in the vernacular was driven out of his job and writing; Murugan exclaimed that "Author Perumal Murugan has died" Right then I placed an order for his book that created the controversy:
The book never arrived and my money was refunded.
Since then, during my visits to India, I have scanned the bookstores for One part woman. No luck. I did find one gem during my last visit.
A couple of weeks ago, I read in The New Yorker a review essay about Murugan's latest book in translation: The story of a goat. Which reminded me about my unfinished business.
At my favorite bookstore in Chennai, I was again confused by the chaos, and sought help. "Where do you have Perumal Murugan's books?"
He led me to a shelf. One part woman. Next to it was Amma. I picked up both.
"Do you have his story of a goat?"
"It is out of stock. We have placed an order," he replied.
I didn't choose the books; they chose me.