Perumal Murugan has been a teacher for nearly three decades. His literary career, too, has spanned the same period he spent on campuses as a teacher of the Tamil language. From a junior lecturer to principal, the acclaimed Tamil writer has seen how young people have built their futures block by block. And, how some have destroyed theirs.
In his new novel, the One Part Woman author is well positioned to expose the disharmony between the aspirations of a student and the parents. Estuary, the English translation of Murugan’s 2018 Tamil novel Kazhimugam, is a reflection of contemporary society where the students are at the mercy of the establishment. The author dissects the deep distrust in the young within a system that views development as an obedient tool of tradition.
Set in fictional Asurapuri, the novel focuses on a middle class family. The father, Kumarasurar, is a supervisor at the statistics department of the government. His wife Mangasuri is a homemaker. Their son, Meghasur, is a young college student. The residents, known as Asuras, live as the subjects of their King, but are taken care of by a government. The novel begins one midnight when Kumarasurar receives a call from his son—nicknamed Meghas— who wants money to buy an expensive mobile phone.
Meghas’ midnight demand sends Kumarasurar on a roller coaster ride of emotions, filling him with suspicions about his son’s intentions. The novel then travels a few years back to the school days of Meghas. While the family prepares him to become a doctor, Meghas has other plans. He begins to display an interest in engineering, assembling a computer for the home on his own and explaining the workings of a smartphone to his parents. We also get a glimpse of the father’s intransigence when he locks up parts of a computer sent to his office for modernising office records.
While he scoffs at the use of a computer in his office, Kumarasurar swiftly agrees to a college using bridles to discipline its wards. The bridles, which come in plastic, brass and iron—even silver and gold to suit the demands of rich parents—are meant to guide the students by filtering noise and focusing eyesight. “We refer to our students as rats. We treat them as one would treat rats,” says one of the teachers during a college tour attended by Meghas and his father.
Kumarasurar is also pleased when robot Asuras enforce discipline on the campus at another college. In yet another, its proprietor replicates his success as a buffalo farm entrepreneur on a new college campus, assuring effective handling of crowds. Meanwhile, Meghas settles for a college that doesn’t have a dress code and has a multicultural campus, to the displeasure of his parents.
The tensions in a family in which the paths of progress are defined by differing values are palpable in the story of Meghas. The parents are ready to dive into the dubious schemes devised by colleges to reign in their students. At the college where bridles are used on students, the administration is proud to announce that the state is considering using them among the public. “Protests, disruption of normalcy due to protests… you-name-it. The government is considering free distribution of bridles. It should be evident that our college has great foresight,” says a professor.
The story of Meghas, named by Kumarasurar’s grandfather after the clan’s deity Meghasura—the son of Ravana—revisits the mythological war between the Asuras and the Gods. “A demon called the Internet has been unleashed on Asuralokam,” laments Kumarusar. The gods have sent technology this time to defeat the Asuras.
Perumal Murugan; translated from the Tamil by Nandini Krishnan Westland
Pp 241, Rs 499
Faizal Khan is a freelancer