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Commitment is defined as “an engagement or obligation that restricts freedom of action” — a vague, yet sufficient explanation. We understand commitment to a cause, to a person, committing suicide, a crime, or simply committing to completing a task by an agreed-upon time. Some of us are more committed than others. But what about commitment to an outcome?

Perumal Murugan gives us two sequels to his novel One Part Woman. They are A Lonely Harvest and Trial by Silence, translated from the original Tamil to English by Aniruddhan Vasudevan. Yes, two sequels. Not in any specific order, but two, side-by-side, to choose whichever trajectory you would like to follow. It could be either or both but, even with both, you will need to choose which one to read first. So perhaps you can begin to understand why the notion of commitment comes into this conversation.

One Part Woman is often labelled a controversial novel as Murugan received a great deal of backlash for his depiction of a religious festival and its traditions in the Kongu region in south India. So much so that in 2015, The New York Times wrote that Murugan had “committed literary suicide. ‘Perumal Murugan the writer is dead,’ he posted on his Facebook page. ‘Leave him alone.’ He instructed his publishers to stop selling his work and readers to burn his books.” A high court in Chennai, however, ruled in his favour, the judge writing, “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.” It is perhaps this journey of death and resurrection that has given Murugan an alternative perspective on commitments and outcomes.

A celebrated Tamil novelist writes two sequels to his own award-winning and vilified novel and allows the reader to choose the trajectory to follow

Like many people, I’m not a fan of spoilers. In this particular case, giving any sort of synopsis is akin to major spoilers, so we’ll keep it as brief as possible. One Part Woman focuses on the intense love of a childless couple, Kali and Ponna, and ends on a cliffhanger when it all falls apart after Ponna, the wife, attends the aforementioned festival. The sequels give you two possible outcomes: one begins with the death of a main character and the other tells the story after the same character survives. Since neither the prequel nor its sequels are character-laden, the absence of even one book makes a great deal of difference and the absent presence lingers.

All three novels give the reader an up-close-and-personal view of a single agrarian family; the books are almost voyeuristic in their intimacy. These are not glimpses into idealised or exotic agrarian worlds which the urban, technology-ridden reader cannot relate to — although the setting and time period (British rule) is certainly far removed from my experience, the insights into relationships, roles, friendship and familial bonds and their associated range of emotions are all utterly relatable. And yes, insights into what commitment in and to a relationship means.

In the prefaces to both sequels, Murugan expressly asks readers to “avoid reading the novel” if they are unable to do so “without any mental blocks.” He also takes pains to emphasise that these are works of fiction — scars from his previous experience, obviously. Yet the narratives flow easily and the characters are drawn with meticulous attention to detail. The stories are less about plot lines and far more about emotional journeys. It is worth mentioning that without knowing how the original language affects the telling — which it must certainly do — I can only take what the translation offers me. Therefore, what may seem jarring or incongruous to one who understands the nuance of Tamil is lost on those of us who rely on its translation. Similarly, explanatory interjections such as “Pacchakizhavi was called that — the green woman — because of the green tattoos she had all over her” might irritate a native speaker/reader, but facilitate those without context, as does the brief glossary at the end.

After one of the sequels in particular — I leave it to you to surmise which one, though it was not the one I had expected — one is left with a lingering heaviness, the weight of which is difficult to shake off. Had I read it second, I would have remained quite mired, but it was a lucky choice. This should not be a deterrent to reading it/them, but rather, an invitation to a rather novel (ha ha) exercise to decide which sequel to read, or the order in which to read the sequels. One realises after deciding on one, that there is no return — an inadvertent commitment to the choice, as it were.

Alternative endings — not sequels — are quite common, especially in films and television series, and some authors have been known to alter an ending after being pressurised by their publisher or readers.

Commitment. I keep coming back to this most intriguing aspect of these alternative sequels. As a reader, I have come to expect commitment to an outcome from the author. If a character is dead, a character is dead. In the fantasy genre — or Shakespeare for that matter — that doesn’t mean they can’t come back from the dead, or simply wear a placard saying “I aten’t ded” (if you know the Discworld series). Nor is anyone exempt from being killed off (especially if you are George R.R. Martin). But such licence is taken within the confines of the story whose parameters are defined by the author, and not as alternative outcomes that a reader can choose.

Even game-books of the ‘choose your own adventure’ sort are confined within their covers, wander where ye may therein. Alternative endings — not sequels — are quite common, especially in films and television series, and some authors have been known to alter an ending after being pressurised by their publisher or readers, usually to a happily-ever-after (most notably Charles Dickens’s Great Expectations). Yet, somehow, there is a sense of finality that rests with the author.

Murugan’s decision to write two alternative sequels can perhaps be understood through the lens of his experience with One Part Woman. He gives nothing away in his prefaces, beginning each one with, “Many readers of One Part Woman (Madhorubagan) wondered what would happen ... at the end of the novel. Eager to see if I could respond to their queries, I wrote two sequels.” Yet in doing so, he also seems to be revealing a willingness to not have the final say in the story by letting not only the characters follow different trajectories, but also his readers. What may be read as a lack of commitment to an outcome can just as easily be read as relinquishing some authority to his readers — an oddly literal take on literary theorist Roland Barthes’s words: “the birth of the reader must be at the cost of the death of the author.”

The reviewer is a writer, editor and educationist with a doctorate in curriculum and instruction

A Lonely Harvest
By Perumal Murugan
Translated by Aniruddhan
Vasudevan
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-0143428343
264pp.

Trial by Silence
By Perumal Murugan
Translated by Aniruddhan
Vasudevan
Penguin, India
ISBN: 978-0143428336
256pp.

Published in Dawn, Books & Authors, June 9th, 2019