Imphal Review of Arts and Politics

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Cover of "The Goat Thief"

Tamil Writer Murugan’s Short Stories Shine with Moments of Magical and Mythical Glows

Book Title: The Goat Thief

Author: Perumal Murugan

Translated by: N Kalyan Raman

Published by: Juggernaut Books

Genre: Literary Fiction, Translated Indian Literature


Book summary:

Perumal Murugan is one of the best Indian writers today. He trains his unsentimental eye on men and women who live in the margins of our society. He tells their stories with deep sympathy and calm clarity.

A lonely night watchman falls in love with the ghost of a rape victim. A terrified young goat thief finds himself surrounded by a mob baying for his blood. An old peasant exhausted by a lifetime of labour is consumed by jealousy and driven to an act of total destruction. Set in the arid Kongu landscape of rural Tamil Nadu, these tales illuminate the extraordinary acts that make up everyday lives.

About the Author:

Perumal Murugan is a critically acclaimed and much loved Tamil writer and poet. He was written novels, short stories, poetry anthologies and a collection of essays. Many of his novels have been translated into English to wide acclaim. The Goat Thief is the first collection of short stories translated into English.

About the Translator:

N Kalyan Raman is a writer and translator. He has translated and published 11 works of Tamil fiction. His translations of contemporary Tamil poetry have been widely published in journals and anthologies. He writes essays and review articles on literature, politics and cinema for a variety of publications across India. In 2017, he received the prestigious Pudumaipithan award for his contribution to Tamil literature through translations.

My Review:

The Goat Thief by Perumal Murugan, translated by N Kalyan Raman is a collection of ten short stories, each one unique in the way it sets out to establish a mood. The stories are crafted exquisitely, teasing readers with their interplay of mood, setting and cast of characters, their dilemmas and reminiscences.

The stories in the collection are rooted in a rural ambience but more than the setting in terms of the geography, what stands out is how each story take on a life force of its own with moments that are partly magical, part mythical but bringing the author’s flair for placing the mood of the story as it unfolds piece by piece and the situations and emotions the characters find themselves in.

As much as the stories are a delight to read, Murugan’s preface to the collection is a joy that bubbles over the pages: he talks about the peculiarity of crafting a short story, comparing it to drawing a kollam:

‘After spending a long time sweeping and cleaning the front yard, you pick up the kollam powder, and the idea that strikes you at that moment will take shape as the kollam. The simple one drawn with just four dots by a hand that weaves and crosses between the can be beautiful as never before. The grand one that is as wide as the street and drawn after hard practice over long hours can turn out to be an unsightly mess. Looking at the finished kollam from a distance, you may feel that something is amiss. A stray flower, picked up and placed at the center, can erase the flaw and bring perfection to your doorway. It could be that nothing you do brings satisfaction and you move on, resigned to what seems fated for the day. It’s the same with the short story.’

Two of the stories: The Well and Sanctuary have the village well as the setting where most of the action is set. The main characters in both are an adult and a few children. Both examine the careless innocence of childhood but they play out distinctly from one another with the former story hinting at an undercurrent of an evil that children can be capable of, something that is often not addressed. Sanctuary stays firmly in the innocence of the young, the daring of adventure and the longing for youth while The Well has a horror like element. These two stories with a common setting tell you all that you need to know about Murugan’s writing: that he will weave a spell around you and not let you off easily.

There is the stench of uneasiness and abhorrence in shit, a story that revolves around a manual scavenger as seen from the eyes of a few entitled youth who live with the careless abandon and untidiness of young men living together. Their daily lives are affected when something goes wrong with the septic tank, which calls for the entry of a manual scavenger. Told strictly from a point of privilege, the story unpeels off the social inequality and inhumanity that deems that certain people clean the shit of people who don’t care enough to be clean themselves but judge others.

Musical Chairs with its theme of perceived communication in a marital space takes readers into the subtle power play between a middle-aged couple that plays out over a chair in their home and what it signifies to them both. The title story will leave you with some tense moments alternating between an almost thriller of sorts and one of vivid imagery in its writing.

Murugan’s use of near impossible situations to portray characters struggling to make sense of their lives and the situations they are in shines through in two of the stories. The Wailing of the Toilet Bowl is about the acute loneliness of a character who has been relocated to a city and who stays on her own the entire day waiting for her husband to come back from work, the loss of human connections she is going through and her discomfort over household features that are meant to be a sign of progress and comfortable living. The Night the Owls Stopped Crying describes the lonely watch of a night watchman on duty with elements that you least expect.

This is a collection of stories that is diverse and yet connected by one common strand: the author’s craft that pulls you into each one of them. Some of the stories will make you smile; some will leave behind thoughts that you would want to ponder over while some will leave you a bit unruffled. Recommended!

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