Book Reviews

One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

I read the Penguin India edition of this book for the Indian Lit Readathon and was approved for the Grove Atlantic edition (releasing this October) on NetGalley an entire month after I requested it.

Goodreads synopsis:

One Part WomanAll of Kali and Ponna’s efforts to conceive a child—from prayers to penance, potions to pilgrimages—have been in vain. Despite being in a loving and sexually satisfying relationship, they are relentlessly hounded by the taunts and insinuations of the people around them. Ultimately, all their hopes and apprehensions come to converge on the chariot festival in the temple of the half-female god Ardhanareeswara and the revelry surrounding it. Everything hinges on the one night when rules are relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. This night could end the couple’s suffering and humiliation. But it will also put their marriage to the ultimate test. Acutely observed, One Part Woman lays bare with unsparing clarity a relationship caught between the dictates of social convention and the tug of personal anxieties, vividly conjuring an intimate and unsettling portrait of marriage, love and sex.

Review:

Perumal Murugan is from the same Indian state I am from. That and the fact that this book was heavily challenged by caste-based groups when it first released made me pick it up. One Part Woman is a compelling story about how in some fringes of the Indian society, people are ostracized if they cannot have children.

A more mellow (but annoying nonetheless) form of this takes place in Indian metropolitan cities with educated families. One thing I’ve observed in my family is how couples are consistently hounded and harangued by the elders of the family to have children. As soon as a couple gets married, the first and most common question directed at them is “any good news?”. The good news being a pregnancy. And God forbid they say they don’t want children. The interrogator’s sharp intake of breath and unsolicited advice on why you actually should have kids will make you want to avoid any social gathering like the plague.

Kali and Ponna’s world is an extreme form of this. Perumal Murugan has accurately portrayed how the fringe societies of Southern India are. If you don’t have children, get ready for society’s mockery, unsolicited advice from elders, and suggestions from random people about rituals you can perform at temples to have children.

About three-quarters of the book is about all the problems Kali and Ponna have faced because they weren’t able to conceive a child–not being invited out anymore, taunts from neighbors, and insults about Ponna being unlucky because she can’t get pregnant. In the end, their mothers come up with a solution. They decide to send Ponna to a chariot festival where inhibitions are low and any man and woman can have consensual sex. The rest of the story is about how this affects Kali and Ponna’s relationship.

One Part Woman is an excellent story that holds a mirror up to Indian society’s obsession with having children. Do read it if you want an accurate portrayal of Southern India and see how religious beliefs and conventions can hurt love and marriage.

Favorite quote:

“Why do you think we have and raise children? For them to grow up well? No. We do it because we seem to need it for ourselves. That is why we have children and raise them. And then in old age we complain that those children are not taking care of us. This is plain madness.”

Rating: 4 out of 5

 

~ Shruti

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9 thoughts on “One Part Woman by Perumal Murugan

  1. Thank you for a really insightful review about an ongoing social problem. I always have a great deal of respect for women who decide they would rather pursue their career and not have children.

    Liked by 1 person

      1. It’s a very deep stigma that runs through all societies, I think. So long as women are valued primarily for their ability to breed, rather than being able to fully contribute and make decisions regarding the wider community, everyone – including men – are losing out. But, of course, especially the women:(…

        Liked by 1 person

  2. Great review! This sounds like an insightful read about marriage and societies demands for having children. As someone who is getting married next year, I can already tell some people in our families are definitely going to be asking this question a lot. I never realized that society has such a big role in why couples have children so quickly after marriage as going against the norm is so ostracized.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. Wow! I never actually read the blurb or knew about the storyline but now that you have explained, I really want to read it ASAP. This “any good news” line is really horrific. But I always thought that this condition was more prominent in north India as compared to the south? I always considered them to be more educated. But no matter which region it is, there are some issues which will remain prominent, God knows till when.

    Liked by 1 person

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