THE WASHINGTON POST – Say what you will about goats, but they rarely take offense.
For Indian writer Perumal Murugan, that’s a welcome change. Five years ago, Murugan endured such violent protests against one of his books that he and his family were forced to flee their home. The novel in question, “One Part Woman,” dared to imagine a religious rite involving radical sexual freedom. Hindu fundamentalists burned copies of his book and initiated criminal proceedings, insisting it be withdrawn.
The antagonism shook Murugan so profoundly that he told his followers on Facebook: “Perumal Murugan the writer is dead.”
Happily, authors in India and around the world rose to Murugan’s defence, and in 2016 an Indian court unequivocally confirmed his creative licence.
The judges’ verdict, which included a rousing survey of the history and importance of freedom of expression, concluded, “Let the author be resurrected to what he is best at. Write.”
And so now, Murugan has risen again. With goats.
“The Story of a Goat,” translated from Tamil by N Kalyan Raman, jumps nimbly from fantasy to realism to parable.
How much it resonates with you will depend on the breadth of your sympathies and your interest in adult tales that include the thoughts and feelings of animal characters. The effect is not so much escapist fantasy as existential reflection.
Murugan’s plot involves a poor old man and his wife – neither named – who live in an arid farming village in southern India. In the opening scene, an extraordinarily tall stranger walks up to the old man and announces that he has been wandering from village to village looking for the right person to receive his black baby goat. “She is no ordinary kid,” the giant man says. “She is truly a miracle.”
So far, so fairy tale, but the story drifts back into the quotidian details of village life. The old man takes this tiny kid home. His wife names it Poonachi and devotes herself to the difficult job of keeping such a small, sickly creature alive.
They don’t have much to spare, but the effort revives them both. “It had been a long time since there was such pleasant chit-chat between the couple,” Murugan writes. “Because of the kid’s sudden entry into their lives, they ended up talking about the old days.”
You may be tempted to think this novel doesn’t interest you, doesn’t relate to the sophisticated architecture of your experience, but the elegance of Murugan’s simple tone will lull you deeper into his story.
If there’s something remote about the work of subsistence farming and the friction of a small village, there’s also something hypnotic about the rhythms of such a life.
Murugan knows these farmers. They love their animals with a clear-eyed devotion that our sentimental regard for pets only thinly resembles.
The early scenes of tiny Poonachi wandering in the field and cavorting with other goats are as soft as cashmere. For a time, Murugan seems to be working in the stable of Dick King-Smith, who gave us the children’s classic “Babe.”
The narrative even seems to shift toward the Hundred Acre Wood. Murugan never goes full-on Winnie-the-Pooh – these animals don’t actually speak – but we begin to hear Poonachi’s funny thoughts and animal concerns.
But beware: This little goat confronts the bloody events of a real farm. (Parents will quickly realise that “The Story of a Goat” is not for young readers.) Poonachi’s attraction to another kid and her hatred of the yoke are translated into human language only lightly covered in goatish fur. Simple as her concerns are, they stem from a place of real despair.
In the preface to The Story of a Goat, Murugan suggests that he’s “fearful of writing about humans.” But if he still feels stung by the abuse he suffered at the hands of right-wing zealots, he shows few signs of cowering. Woven through this slim novel is an acidic satire about the burdens and humiliations of the over-regulated country in which the old man and woman live.
His portrayal of arrogant officials who intimidate these poor people with a blizzard of regulations and forms will make you pine for the relative graciousness of the DMV.