‘Estuary’, his new novel, is a rare light offering from Perumal Murugan

Rihan Najib | Updated on July 17, 2020 Published on July 16, 2020

A watchful eye: The novel paints a realistic and touching portrait of parental anxiety in a hyper-competitive age   -  ISTOCK.COM

The novel paints a realistic and touching portrait of parental anxiety in a hyper-competitive, technology-saturated age

*Estuary is the first to have an urban backdrop, set in a town named Asurapuri

* Murugan returned to writing in 2018 with Poonachi

In the foreword of his latest book Estuary, Perumal Murugan notes how its writing deliberately veered away from popular commandments on what ‘good’ writing — precision and economy of language, for instance — entails. Justifying the long-winded commentary in the book (translated from the Tamil original Kazhimugam by Nandini Krishnan) as pertinent to the narrative, he writes, “Deviance has been the starting point for various arts.”

Estuary / Perumal Murugan / Eka/Westland / Fiction / ₹499


Deviance may have been the principle that guided the author’s hand, but the resulting novel scrutinises the nature of compliance — its causes and consequences. It deftly explores how obedience of the individual is the keystone upon which rest more complex systems such as the education of a populace or the governance of a State. Obedience shapes the institution, which, in turn, shapes one’s life and choices.

However, in keeping with Murugan’s stated aim, Estuary departs from his previous works in several ways, not least of which is its setting. While the rest of his books play out within a rural, agricultural context, Estuary is the first to have an urban backdrop, set in a town named Asurapuri. The novel follows Kumarasurar, a 40-something small-time bureaucrat in the statistics department, whose teenaged son Meghas is transitioning from high school to university. The travails of Kumarasurar and his wife Mangasuri to ensure what they imagine is a secure future (read medical or engineering education) for their son forms the central concern of the book.

When Meghas asks for a new phone, decidedly expensive and fitted out with the latest features, Kumarasurar is plagued by apprehension. Torn between wanting to provide for his son while protecting the adolescent from what Kumarasurar, in all innocence, perceives as the prime temptation of the age, he descends into a spiral.

Meanwhile, as Kumarasurar staves off the purchase of the phone, he is preoccupied with finding an engineering college for his son and visiting various institutions with Meghas to ascertain their quality. Like the rings of hell in Dante’s Inferno, each college the pair visits turns out to be increasingly regressive, advertising a harshly coercive environment (to the delight of most parents). One gives bridles to prospective students so that they can direct their attention and gaze exclusively to studies. Trying on the contraption, a dissatisfied parent asks, “They filter the noise from the students’ ears, they focus their eyesight, but they don’t do anything to seal their mouths. Why is that?” In another college, its caning policy is the chief draw: “The authorities announced they would use canes that only caused internal injuries with minimal visibility”. Meghas rejects the colleges and opts for one with a more relaxed and liberal environment, much to the dismay of his parents.

Estuary paints a realistic and touching portrait of parental anxiety in a hyper-competitive, technology-saturated age. But the novel has a disjointed, meandering feel, taking on multiple issues beyond modern education and tech-savvy teens, such as the lumbering, bureaucratic State, a trigger-happy armed force unleashing itself on protesters at the behest of a government obsessed with photo-ops, and the internet being a gateway to wonders and terrors. As a result, certain aspects of the narrative seem underdeveloped — such as the rules within which Asurapuri’s inhabitants, known as asuras, function. There is a passing reference to caste violence and to ‘devas’, but without further discussion about their relationship with the asuras. There are also occasional barbs at a narcissistic king whose character outline remains inchoate.

Murugan, the principal of an arts college in Namakkal, Tamil Nadu, is renowned for his novels and poetry primarily focusing on the Kongu region, training a scholarly eye on its vocabulary, geography, mythologies and social practices, in particular — caste. Books such as Seasons of the Palm (2000) and Pyre (2013) chronicle how life for people from so-called lower castes is organised around the demands and humiliations of the caste system, enforced and sustained through unbridled violence. In 2014, the author was hounded by right-wing groups for his depiction of extramarital sex in One Part Woman, a book that was received well by critics and lay-readers alike when it came out in 2010. Murugan stopped writing after the attacks, returning in 2018 with Poonachi, another arresting tale, told from the side of the marginalised. His body of work has been defined by its unflinching sketches of caste discrimination and poverty. An everyday menace lurks just out of the frame in his stories.

In that sense, readers accustomed to Murugan’s works would find Estuary remarkably light. The menace in Kumarasurar’s life are the stories of sundry vices heard on his morning walks and the fear of being shamed by neighbours and the wider community. The book presents contemporary anxieties and familiar figures — doting mother, stoic father, home loans. It’s also rare to find a Murugan book with a happy ending.

While Estuary doesn’t make for the most enjoyable of departures from an established oeuvre, it cements Murugan’s reputation as a writer who distils the ordinary to reveal extraordinary possibilities.

Rihan Najib is a Delhi-based writer

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Published on July 16, 2020
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