This book is one of the most brilliant pieces I’ve read on what society and people in general expect out of an individual. The extent to which defects in ones character are ignored if you have the prerequisites for staying a respectable citizen are wonderfully portrayed. Although it deals with many other issues, this is at the core of the books message. How Kali and Ponna, a barren couple in a rural area, are judged and reprimanded for their every move and must give an explanation for it all, while those with heirs are under no such obligation.
In a surprisingly feminist response from the people around them, both Kali and Ponna have to face the brunt of these repeated insults and explanations. Kali is ridiculed for having less strength in his “milk”, being less of a man and having to explain his need for keeping his land. Ponna has to justify her working in fields despite being barren, constant pressures by her maternal family and in laws and having to hold back her maternal urges toward others’ children.
Societal judgement is not the only thing portrayed though. It shows the inherent need in every human to fit into society despite being shunned and ridiculed. The protagonists even though reclusive by the standards of the village society, do yearn for companionship and seek it if offered. They similarly oscillate between wanting to be parents and giving up on trying altogether. A war between needs is seen whenever they think of their unborn children. Faith and its unquestioning nature is also wonderfully translated, something often lacking in translated woks. The characters are never mocked for their faith and blind assumptions that there barrenness is due to some curse by a god.
Through it all, another thought also comes through. Indian society is much more open than we give it credit for. There is no shame in the sex and the need for sex in both men and women in the book. Even the ridicule of the other villagers is based on openness about sex.
The climax of this book is what I believe caused such repercussions for the author. It features an old practice among the villagers that shows societal approval for sex outside marriage for that one night, since on that night, “all men are gods” and the sex is a blessing. This is why the title is one part woman, since the god that presides over this is named one part woman in the local language.
It was an overall amazing experience reading this book for me, but if I had to pick flaws ,I’d say the translated version has too many short sentences which sometimes stop the flow. Also, there’s no real conclusion to the plot. It’s an open ended story. We do not actually know what happens, though it is hinted. There’s also very little character development of Ponna as compared to Kali. These, however are minor flaws in an otherwise beautiful book.
Rating- Read to get a glimpse into society’s expectations. A short simple read. So even if the writing style is not for you, it’s a short beautiful read.
P.S. – do see this video which deals with similar views on how society automatically believes you’re a success if you have any one good thing going on, but aggressively demonises you if you don’t.