Set in South India during the British colonial, One Part Woman tells the story of a couple, Kali and Ponna, who are unable to conceive, much to the concern of their families―and the crowing amusement of Kali’s male friends. Kali and Ponna try anything to have a child, including making offerings at different temples, atoning for past misdeeds of dead family members, and even circumambulating a mountain supposed to cure barren women, but all to no avail.
It’s not just the physical world Murugan describes so vividly — the way a cow clears its throat, for example — but the rural community, a village of 20 huts and a thousand ancient resentments, where there is no privacy and your neighbor’s suffering can serve as your evening’s entertainment ... At times, Vasudevan capably conveys the distinctiveness not only of Tamil but the language of a farming people — the insults (Ponna: 'Let her come. I will scoop the life out of her!') and the particular metaphors (Kali is a light sleeper — 'his was a chicken’s sleep'). But too often Vasudevan resorts to bland, anachronistic English clichés — 'testing the waters,' 'leaving no stone unturned.' To borrow a (stronger) expression from Murugan himself, it’s like coming across a small stone in rice ... I’m hoping for a whole shelf of books from this writer...
At its core, this is a novel about loss – for something that has never existed. Murugan is a master of his setting, and the couple are surrounded by reminders of fertility, from the coconut trees growing in dry land to the leaping calf in the barnyard ... On occasion, the novel digresses to the various itches its author wishes to scratch: colonial oppression; caste tensions. But the scenes explicitly devoted to these themes often seem somewhat shoehorned in. Elsewhere, apparently significant threads are woven in, then left untied. The prose is unrestrained and lascivious, and aware of both: Murugan cuts no corners in writing of desire and sex for what they are – a function of bodies – in this case articulated through a predominantly male point of view ... One Part Woman is sometimes shocking, but always in a way that encourages understanding. Murugan – capably translated by Aniruddhan Vasudevan – writes with both empathy and compassion.
Mr. Murugan’s fictional villages are places full of quiet menace, where caste boundaries are protected with violence and social exclusion...When describing the farming communities of South India, Mr. Murugan is neither sentimental nor harsh; he describes it the way an entomologist might describe an insect....clean, clear prose.