Award-winning Tamil author Perumal Murugan is in a busy literary phase. He recently released two of his works.
While Estuary is the literary scholar’s first tale set in a contemporary urban setting, Rising Heat is his debut novel, Eru Veyyil, translated into English for the first time. Meanwhile, his last book, Poonachi, has made it to the longlist of the US National Book Award for Translated Literature.
Estuary—which was originally released in Tamil as Kazhimugam—is set in Asuralokam, and its characters are all ‘asuras’, or demons.
While the story’s setting and the physical appearance of its characters are left mostly to the reader’s imagination, its world and those who inhabit it closely resemble people like us.
Kumarasurar is a government employee whose life and emotions primarily centre on the welfare of his wife and teenage son.
His son’s demand for an expensive mobile phone opens up a Pandora’s box of dilemmas and anxieties for Kumarasurar whose mind begins to reel after reading news items about youth accidents caused due to selfies and mobile phones being used to make pornographic videos.
Furthermore, given his meagre salary, he decides not to buy his son the phone, a decision that his wife opposes.
The book deals with several contemporary subjects that are a reality in these confusing times—how education has become a business in today’s world with a cut-throat competition to get into the best schools and colleges as well as peer pressure that impressionable adolescents routinely face in the form of alcohol, drugs and other dangers.
“This generation had its various shortcomings—they didn’t respect older people, they weren’t polite, they couldn’t make conversation, their manners were deplorable—but they knew everything about gadgets.” These lines aptly sum up Kumarasurar’s thoughts about his son’s generation.
It is precisely this generation gap that makes up an important component of the plot. Kumarasurar does not understand and relate to his son’s cohort—their movies, actors, politics, TV programmes, Facebook and WhatsApp—most of all, their obsession with the internet, wasteful sophisticated technology and gadgets.
Finally, when he decides to leave town for a few days to visit a friend, the change in scene gives him a fresh perspective, and he realises that appreciation can make one’s world a swirl of sunshine. “If you looked at the world with dirty eyes, everything would look dirty.”
The book is also a powerful comment on parenting, and reiterates the fact that how we raise our children, particularly boys, affects them and our lives so deeply.
Murugan’s other book—Rising Heat—though first published in 1991, remains as relevant today. It is a poignant story of a young boy, Selvan, who witnesses his ancestral farmland being acquired by the state to be developed into a housing colony.
As he grows, Selvan witnesses his extended agrarian family bearing the socio-economic consequences of this event. His family members are forced to move into smaller lodgings, and over the years, they undergo dramatic shifts, as the pressure of their situation leads them to greed and jealousy.
“Memories and events would remain buried, and concrete structures would be built over them. The fragrance of the soil would be sealed with concrete. It would deny the land even drops of rain. Where were so many people going to come from? To whom were they going to sell these homes that they were building? The more he thought about it, the more perplexing it was.”
The narrative almost feels personal in parts, as Murugan’s own ancestral lands were also taken away for development.
In a sense, while Rising Heat has a distinctly local flavour—its setting is a rural backwater in Tamil Nadu that is being transformed into a suburban small town through rapid industrialisation—Estuary is mostly global in its treatment.
However, the themes highlighted in both the books could easily apply to almost any situation or geography. Further, Murugan’s writing in Estuary, even though it uses a lot of repetition, is largely straightforward.
The writing in Rising Heat, on the other hand, feels more intense and nuanced with detailed long-drawn descriptions, like much of Murugan’s earlier works. The stark contrast between his latest novel and his first, which he wrote at the age of 25, simply goes to show his evolution as a writer over a period of about three decades.