Damini Kashyap is a Research Scholar in the Department of English, Tezpur University, Assam. Her research interests include Gender Studies, South Asian Literature and Literary theory.
The main aim of this article is to discuss the politics of carnivalesque space and hegemonic masculinity in One Part Woman (2013), the first book of Perumal Murugan’s Madhorugan trilogy. The other two books are Trial by Silence (2018) and A Lonely Harvest (2018). Originally published in Tamil and later translated into English, the trilogy narrates the poignant story of a childless couple, Kali and Ponna, caught in their attempts to beget a child and the repercussions of those attempts. Although Murugan’s treatment of the sensitive subject and its reception by the target audience has been the cause of much controversy in India, there has been limited academic discourse surrounding this trilogy. This article will try to address this gap. One Part Woman (2013) captures the story from the couple’s early attempts at conceiving a child to the wife, Ponna, participating in the final day of the chariot festival at the temple of Madhorubagan, which customarily allows childless women to have sexual intercourse with ‘stranger gods’. Such a union is considered sacred, and if the woman becomes pregnant, the child born is considered a gift of god. Taking this as a point of departure, this article questions and deconstructs the notion of the liberating nature of the carnivalesque space of the chariot festival by revealing the subtle ways in which the apparently fulfilling marital relationship of the central characters is doomed by the male partner’s masculine arrogance. Through the Bakhtinian concept of the carnivalesque and Connell’s theorisation of hegemonic masculinity, this article will show how Kali’s hegemony prevents Ponna from finding a liberating space for herself in the chariot festival. Unable to overcome Kali’s psychological dominance, Ponna ultimately becomes a victim of his hegemonic masculinity. Thus, by highlighting the politics of carnivalesque space and hegemonic masculinity in Murugan’s novel, this article fills in the existing research gap and opens up the text to more critical analyses in the future.
Keywords: Madhorubagan trilogy, One Part Woman, Chariot Festival, Carnivalesque Space, Hegemonic Masculinity.
The noted Indian writer and scholar Perumal Murugan has, in recent years, been at the receiving end of both critical acclaim and controversy following the publication of One Part Woman (2013), the first book of his Madhorubagan trilogy. This book has two sequels: A Lonely Harvest (2018) and Trial by Silence (2018). Originally written in Tamil as Madhorubagan (2010), Aalavaayan (2014), and Ardhanaari (2014), the trilogy was translated into English by the renowned researcher, writer, performer, and LGBTQ activist Aniruddh Vasudevan. He was awarded the Sahitya Akademi Translation Award (2016) for his translation of the first book, which was also included in the longlist for the 2018 National Book Award in the “Translated Literature” category.
One Part Woman is the story of a couple, Kali and Ponna, who have remained childless after twelve years of marriage. Despite a sexually satisfying life, their efforts to conceive a child go in vain. They leave no stone unturned, trying every herb, remedy, ritual, and sacrifice. Starting from her mother-in-law’s bitter concoction, a tarot reading, and the sacrifice and pongal1 offered at the temple on top of the hill, Kali and Ponna do everything in their capacity to become pregnant. The real test of their conjugal life comes when Ponna is urged by their family members to participate in the chariot festival at the temple of Madhorubagan2, the half-female god. Their fate depends on that one night when every single rule is relaxed and consensual union between any man and woman is sanctioned. The ambiguous ending of the novel projects the fate of Kali, who is tricked into accepting Ponna’s participation in the event despite all their reservations.
The depiction of the festival of Madhorubagan, with the ritual of consensual sexual union between strangers, invited controversy for the author, so much so that he had to apologise in public and withdraw all copies of his novel. In 2015, he announced that he would give up writing and posted on his Facebook page: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead. As he is no God, he is not going to resurrect himself. He also has no faith in rebirth. An ordinary teacher, he will live as P. Murugan. Leave him alone.” A series of lawsuits were filed in the Madras High Court; the verdict, which was given in 2016 and stressed the literary and artistic freedom of individuals, came out in his favour. Consequently, Perumal Murugan resumed writing and published two sequels to this controversial novel.
The main aim of this article is to discuss the politics of carnivalesque space and hegemonic masculinity in One Part Woman (2013). In doing so, it questions and deconstructs the notion of the liberating nature of the carnivalesque space and reveals the subtle ways in which the apparently fulfilling marital relationship of the protagonists is doomed by Kali’s masculine arrogance.
This article conducts a textual analysis of primary and secondary texts. Within the broad theoretical framework of gender studies, it uses the concepts of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, space theory, and Connell’s concept of hegemonic masculinity. The article is divided into two sections. The first section attempts to read the chariot festival at the temple of Madhorubagan as an instance of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque. The second section takes on a deconstructive approach and questions the liberating nature of the festival itself, revealing the ways in which Kali’s rigid hegemonic masculinity is a hindrance to the liberating nature of the carnivalesque space for Ponna, thereby defeating the basic nature of the Bakhtinian concept itself.
Bakhtin’s book, Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics (1963), highlights four important characteristics of the term “carnivalesque”: familiar and free interaction between people, eccentric behaviour, carnivalistic mesalliances, and profanation. Carnivals often bring the unlikeliest of people together and encourage their interaction and free expression in unity. They encourage unacceptable or eccentric behaviour while disregarding consequences. Moreover, the familiar and free format of the carnival allowed the intermingling of elements generally perceived as disparate and distant from each other – heaven and hell, the old and the young. Finally, in carnivals, the strict rules of piety and respect for official notions of the 'sacred' are stripped and condemned; instead, blasphemy, obscenity, and debasement are celebrated and everyone is brought down to earth. A common phenomenon underpins these characteristics – subversion. The space of the carnival is essentially a space of subversion, where all established rules and norms are broken to facilitate a free play of will. Freed of boundaries, unaccepting of limitations, it transforms into a place of possibilities and liberation.
The most obvious and apparently innocent understanding of the festival posits it as a Bakhtinian carnival. The feast of the half-female god, Madhorubagan2, comprises almost all of the four characteristics of the Bakhtinian carnivalesque. The first characteristic of familiar and free interaction between people, irrespective of caste and class divisions, is seen in many instances in the novel. For example, Ponna’s father agrees to take Maran and his family in his cart at their request. Maran works as a farm hand in Periyasami’s farm in Veliyur and under normal circumstances, a high-caste man would not travel in the same cart as a low-caste man. Only the feast of the Madhorubagan could induce such a thing.
Once they are at the festival site, Ponna is startled by the behaviour of the people around her. Away from her mother, clad in a beautiful dress, she gets lost in an ocean of strangers.
She looked around for anyone she knew from the village. No one. Any relatives? Anyone she had worked with in the fields? From within her mind, she brought out several faces that she had known since childhood and checked to see if any of the faces in the crowd now matched any of those from her mind’s inventory. None. Even if any face matched, it might not mean anything. Once people entered such a large crowd, everyone becomes a new, unknown face. (Murugan 202)
In such a large crowd, eccentric behaviour almost becomes the norm. Bare-bodied dances of men with clashing sticks inspired a sense of awe as well as fear. The vigour of the glistening bodies is juxtaposed with the sweat from the interlocked bodies. Ponna feels a few suggestive caresses on her body: “While she was thinking about this, she felt a touch on her right arm. She was not able to turn immediately. She felt a lack of desire in that touch….It was merely the body working” (Murugan 205). She has to dodge a number of eccentricities until she finds her god.
The liberated format of the carnival allows ‘unnatural alliances’, as perceived by prevalent norms, which Bakhtin calls carnivalistic mesalliances.
At the peak of the celebration, all rules were relaxed. The night bore witness to that. Any consenting man and woman could have sex. Bodies would lie casually intertwined. Darkness cast a mask on every face. It is in such revelry that the primal being in man surfaces. (Murugan 98)
In a rigid, caste-based society, the chariot festival at the temple of Madhorubagan sanctions free interaction among people of all castes. Kali remembers visiting the festival with Muthu before his marriage and losing his virginity to a girl from a lower caste. Moreover, in normal circumstances, Ponna could not even imagine watching a theatrical performance pregnant with puns and double meanings with a group of strangers. But in the festival, she is shown sitting in close proximity with a group of strangers, young and old alike, and watching the theatrical performance.
The reference to the theatrical performance brings us to the last characteristic of Bakhtin’s carnivalesque, namely, profanation. Carnivals blur the very thin line between the sacred and the profane and celebrate blasphemy and obscenity. When the announcer of the play starts explaining the play’s concept as well as context, his words are constantly interrupted by a clown who finds fissures in every sentence for puns and jokes. His puns straddle the border between sanctity and blasphemy, debasing gods to the level of humans and lifting humans to the level of divinity:
The clown had to rupture all this bombast! He said, ‘This man says the gods and goddess roamed around the villages. But are they jobless like you? Wherever they roam about, they have to come back home eventually. That’s why we have this eighteenth day of the festival. All right, what was it you said about Ammaithazhumbu3, the chickenpox scar?’
The announcer was ready to handle this pun on words. ‘Not Ammaithazhumbu, pa. I said Ammaiyappan4, the mother-father form.’
The clown who was on a roll by now, replied, ‘Oh, you mean your mother and your father? Okay. Didn’t you say something else? Something about Madhiyaanasoru5, the afternoon meal? You were mentioning that you and I didn’t eat lunch, weren’t you?’ (Murugan 213-214)
Creating confusion out of the words signifying the mother-father form and the chickenpox scar, the clown stages a repartee referring to the word of address (the more respectful “pa” and the less respectful “da”) used by the announcer. Then he describes his wealth at length. After this, he persists in asking about lunch. Irritated beyond measure, the announcer keeps clarifying that he did not talk about lunch, madhiyaanasoru, but the deity, Madhorubagan.
The clown switched to mock anger now, and said, ‘Hey! What is this? You are using the “da” too often now!’ Then he lamented his bad fate: ‘Why should I have to struggle with this disrespectful man! All right. So, Madhiyaanasoru means to be half male and half female? So they stay right next to each other? But what’s the use if they can’t touch each other?’
The announcer was now disgusted at these sacrilegious remarks. ‘Chee!’ he said. ‘Don’t say such dirty things on this auspicious day. You will land up in hell for the next seven births.’
‘Oh! So you think you will go to the glorious heaven?’ retorted the clown. ‘When you die, no one will even volunteer to decorate your hearse. People come only when you have amassed some wealth. You have nothing.’
Then he turned to the audience, and continued, ‘In the morning, you will see him buying some puttu on credit from the poor woman.’
Back to addressing the announcer, the clown said, ‘What uncouth thing did I say? I said that male and female sides touch each other despite being so close. What’s wrong with that? You and I came about because they touched, isn’t it? You call this dirty?’ (Murugan 215)
This long conversation between the clown and the announcer is significant in many ways. First, the clown’s words bring the announcer’s lofty ideals down to the level of basic earthly existence. For instance, when the announcer talks about worshipping the half-female god, Madhorubagan, the clown interrupts to ask about madhiyaanasoru, the afternoon meal. When the discussion is about worshipping Ammaiyappan, the clown talks about ammaithazhumbu or the chickenpox scar. Moreover, the clown debunks the concept of human deeds leading to either heaven or hell and instead imagines them completely on the basis of affluence. Finally, by repeatedly insisting on the essential unity of the two sexes for the purpose of procreation, the clown celebrates the true spirit of the deity and derides the veil of propriety that people like the announcer imposes on the earthly enjoyment of basic bodily instincts.
The preceding discussion situates the festival of Madhorubagan in the context of Bakhtin’s carnival. However, there are certain other questions that we need to explore. If it’s a carnival, who is in a more advantageous position – Kali or Ponna? If carnivals ought to liberate individuals irrespective of their social affiliations, does the chariot festival truly liberate anyone in Murugan’s trilogy? If we consider Kali’s perspective as the text’s primary narrative perspective, what happens to the space of the carnival?
To find the answers to these questions, we need to understand the concept of hegemonic masculinity as formulated by theorists like R. W. Connell and James Messerschimdt. Connell defines hegemonic masculinity as “the configuration of gender practice which embodies the currently accepted answer to the problem of the legitimacy of patriarchy, which guarantees (or is taken to guarantee) the dominant position of men and the subordination of women” (77). Connell and Messerschmidt later reworked this definition in their essay “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept” (2005). The following passage from this essay is important for this discussion:
Hegemonic masculinity was distinguished from other masculinities, especially subordinated masculinities. Hegemonic masculinity was not assumed to be normal in the statistical sense; only a minority of men might enact it. But it was certainly normative. It embodied the currently most honoured way of being a man, it required all other men to position themselves in relation to it, and it ideologically legitimated the global subordination of women to men. (832)
These passages illustrate the essential nature of hegemonic masculinity. Wielding enormous physical and/or psychological power over suppressed groups (including women), hegemonically masculine groups become the norm in a social setting. By continually justifying their hold over power, these groups ensure its perpetual retention in their hands. The ideological legitimisation of the global subordination of women by men is the most striking characteristic of hegemonic masculinity. Equipped with the understanding of Connell’s theorisation, the next part of this article looks at Kali’s masculinity from the hegemonic standpoint while also examining its impact on Ponna.
From the beginning of the novel, Kali’s sense of his masculinity is defined by Ponna’s allegiance to him. He takes pride in her devotion to him, and although he consoles her when she menstruates every month, her regular menstruation is a matter of reassurance to him:
When she menstruated every month, she came to sit and cry in the barn. It was consoling to bury her face in his lap. He’d ruffle her hair and say, ‘Let it go. We should be used to it by now’. But she kept hoping things would change. Sometimes, her crying made him cry too. So they cried together, lamenting their fate. Ironically, it made him happy on the inside whenever she got her periods on time and came crying to him. The way his mind worked, she was trustworthy as long as she was menstruating regularly.
Subsequently, he reasoned: ‘Poor thing. How can I be so suspicious because of just one thing she said? She only said it in the urge to do something to have a child of her own. Does that mean I can conclude she would go with any man? Didn’t she come to me complaining about Karuppannan’s advances? She said what she said because of me- she said it for me. She said, “I will go if you ask me to”. And I didn’t ask her to. Then why would she go?’ This made him treat her with affection, and it looked as though the Kali she knew was back. (Murugan 119)
Kali’s ego is soothed only by Ponna’s obedience and fidelity although he knows very well that his sterility is the cause of their childlessness. He does not agree when his mother and in-laws propose sending Ponna to the chariot festival celebrated in honour of Madhorubagan in the hill shrine of Karattur. He feels her going would be a severe insult to his masculinity – if she became pregnant with a child out of that night’s union with a god, he would have to bear the inward, biting, and lifelong brunt of his infertility. His conversation with Muthu regarding sending Ponna to the festival is significant:
‘You tell me. If your wife was childless, would you have sent her with a stranger?’
‘Mapillai. Don’t call him a stranger. Who remembers faces? All men are gods that night. Think of him as god, you might even feel happy about it. Isn’t it a great blessing if our child comes from god? Haven’t you heard people remark, “This child is a boon from god”? Those children were born exactly this way, mapillai.’
‘When you and I went, were we gods? All we wanted was to find some decent-looking women to fuck, didn’t we? Did you ever think of yourself as a god?’
‘It does not matter what we thought of ourselves. If the women get children because of us, we become gods for them.’ (Murugan 139)
Kali mocks Muthu’s proposal, saying, “Really?! All men there are radiant with divinity, roaming around holding their cocks in their hands” (Murugan 139). He dismisses the proposal, calling it an illogical custom of ignorant people that does not have any practical value now. He instead questions whether Muthu would have sent his wife if he were in Kali’s place. Rejecting Muthu’s arguments, Kali then puts forward his own:
‘You are so old-fashioned, Muthu’, snapped Kali. ‘Earlier, a woman could be with however many men as long as they were all from the same caste. Even related castes were fine. But if she went with an ‘untouchable’, they excommunicated her. Is that how it works today? We insist that a woman should be with just one man from the same caste. Then how would this work? More than half the young men roaming about town are from the untouchable castes. If any one of them gets to be with Ponna, I simply cannot touch her after that. I cannot even lift and hold the child. Why do I need all that? I am happy lying around here. I don’t want a child so desperately. Moreover, all of you will call me impotent and laugh at me. So, let it go.’(Murugan 140)
This conversation reveals a striking aspect of Kali’s character. His arrogance regarding his masculinity comes in the way of our understanding of the liberal nature of the chariot festival. Recalling the questions posed before, if the custom of childless women going to the festival in hopes of getting pregnant by stranger “gods” has been socially sanctioned and practised for many years, the stance taken by Kali in this regard is against the sanctioned liberalism of the society because he objects to Ponna having sexual intercourse with an “untouchable” god as, according to him, such an act on her part would pollute him and his entire family. Therefore, a child born out of such a union would be not only unacceptable but also an object of disgust for him. This highlights the dynamics of caste when we consider Kali’s masculinity. He is not ready to disregard the caste hierarchy even when it is socially sanctioned and would help him beget a child that he could call his own. In other words, his masculine arrogance is supplemented by his caste pride.
When he learns about Ponna’s actions, he calls her a “whore” in Trial by Silence (2018), in which he survives his attempted suicide. He is unable to forgive her and considers her action as an unhealable wound to his marriage and life. If we look at the second book, A Lonely Harvest (2018), we do not find his presence at all as he has already succumbed to his attempts to kill himself. Irrespective of his survival, what we can surmise is that his hyper-masculine arrogance crushes both himself and his loved ones. In such a context, the apparently liberal space of the carnival becomes suffocating for both Kali and Ponna. It does not prove advantageous for anyone, unlike the old vellapillai woman in their village who had two children by copulating with gods during the chariot festival.
If we take Kali’s perspective as the narrative perspective, the carnivalesque space of the festival does not pose as an immaculate paradise. Although this third space overthrows the socially established hierarchies and encourages mesalliances, it proves detrimental to people like Ponna because even in such a liberal space, Ponna is not able to overthrow Kali’s influence from her mind. In her search for the god, the first face that comes to her mind is that of Kali. In every gesture and movement of the men that she comes into contact with, her first point of reference is Kali. Thus, even in the liberal space favouring carnivalesque mesaliances, Ponna is not free of Kali’s dominance. Therefore, we can say that the narrative overturns the apparently innocent understanding of the carnival at the hill shrine of Karattur as a liberal third space and instead posits the same as one that upholds the ideological hegemony of Kali over Ponna and inflicts psychological violence upon her. Finally, by insisting upon childbirth as a necessity and society’s relaxation of norms to allow this ‘essential’ function to take place, the narrative continues the patriarchal discourse that bestows divinity upon men who can impregnate women.
This discussion problematises the dynamics of space instrumental in the performance of individuals’ identities in a carnivalesque setting. Intriguing us with pertinent questions regarding Kali’s performance of his hegemonic masculinity, it deconstructs the notion of the liberating nature of the carnivalesque space and reveals subtly powerful ways in which the apparently fulfilling marital relationship is doomed by the male partner’s masculine arrogance. Unravelling an interesting dimension of human psychology and performance, the first book of the Madhorubagan trilogy, One Part Woman (2013), provides us an engaging deconstructive read.
1. Pongal- a southern Indian dish of rice cooked with various herbs and spices that is also a ceremonial offering.
2. Madhorubagan- name given to the androgynous deity of Shiva/Parvati
3. Ammaithazhumbu- chickenpox scar
4. Ammaiyappan- the mother-father form of the androgynous deity
5. Madhiyaanasoru- the afternoon meal; lunch
Bakhtin, Mikhail. Problems of Dostoevsky’s Poetics. University of Minnesota Press, 1984.
Bhabha, Homi K. The Location of Culture. Routledge, 2017.
Connell, R.W. Masculinities. 2nd ed., University of California Press, 2005.
Connell, R.W., and James W. Messerschmidt. “Hegemonic Masculinity: Rethinking the Concept.” Gender and Society, vol. 19, no. 6, 2005, pp. 829-859.
Foucault, Michel. “Of Other Spaces: Utopias and Heterotopia.” Architecture/Mouvement/Continuite, 1984.
Morris, Pam, editor. The Bakhtin Reader. Arnold, 2003.
Murugan, Perumal. A Lonely Harvest. Gurgaon, Penguin Random House, 2018.
---. One Part Woman. Gurgaon, Penguin Random House, 2014.
---. Trial by Silence. Gurgaon, Penguin Random House, 2018.