A South Indian couple struggles to conceive a child.
Kali and Ponna have been married for 12 years, but they can’t seem to have a child. They’ve tried everything: They’ve been to see palmists and astrologers, made offerings at various temples, and made all sorts of promises to all sorts of gods. Their families have even begun to urge Kali to marry another woman. He and Ponna are tired of the whisperings of their neighbors, tired of the isolation that the childless are reduced to. This is the first novel by Murugan, a celebrated writer of Tamil in India, to be translated into English. It’s poignant, funny, and painful and will expose readers of English to a region and class they likely haven’t seen represented in literature: South Indian farmers. Kali and Ponna’s last hope seems to be the festival for the god Maadhorubaagan, who is half male and half female (hence the book’s title). On the 18th night of the festival, sex between unmarried men and women is permitted. But the prospect of losing Ponna, for one night, to another man—even though, by the rules of the festival, that man will be considered a god—is horrible to Kali. When, instead of refusing, Ponna tells Kali, “If you want me to go for the sake of this wretched child, I will,” their relationship becomes strained. Murugan has an ear for the gentle absurdities of marriage as well as sympathy for his characters’ woes. Still, the prose can be awkward, though it isn’t clear how much of that awkwardness can be attributed to the translator, Vasudevan. Sprinkled throughout the novel are certain idioms, like “he was merely testing the waters,” that seem unlikely given the setting.
Poignant and sweet, the novel suffers only from a certain roughness in the prose; something, it seems, has been lost in translation.