Book Review: Amma – Perumal Murugan’s book is a moving portrait of a mother by her son

Faizal Khan
He also confesses to changing his views on family to become a "family-loving man" because of his mother's constant distress and worries about her own family.

His mother was called Perumayi. She was the youngest daughter of an ordinary family and lived an ordinary life. Perumayi lost her mother early and worked as a domestic help and waited tables in a restaurant before her wedding at 16 years of age. She became pregnant a year later and gave birth to a stillborn boy.

Perumayi, who had two more sons, managed her fields, goats, cows and buffaloes beautifully. Her husband was an alcoholic, so she worked hard to send her sons to college. Towards the end of her life, Perumayi suffered from Parkinson's disease.

Perumal Murugun's essays about his mother are images that are thrown between the eventful years of her life-like the life between the smiles in pictures of a family photo album. There are 22 essays, two of them written at the time of her death. More than half of the remaining came out of a writer's residency in New York two years ago. First published in Tamil as Thondra Thunai (Invisible Companion) last year, it was translated into English a few months later under the title Amma.

Murugan, whose last books in English translation were sequels to the controversial One Part Woman-Trial by Silence and A Lonely Harvest published together in December 2018-insists in the preface that Amma is not a biography of his mother. "These essays dwell on various moments from the vast expanse of my memories of her," he writes. Many of those memories revolve around village life that Murugan's readers have learnt from Poonachi: Or the story of a Black Goat, a damning indictment of the system, or Pyre, about the curse of the caste system.

The book is also an ode to the hardworking woman who selflessly nurtured life and land against all odds like his characters Seerayi and Ponna in Trial by Silence and A Lonely Harvest, respectively. Murugan allows us to understand the strength of his women characters from the portrait of his mother that he paints in Amma. Perumayi was a mother who cared for the others around her. When Murugan was 15 years old, she coaxed him to sleep in a separate cot next to hers, ending years of curling up next to her stomach. She walked him to school and back everyday. Even when books were piling up in their home against her wishes, Perumayi, who never went to school, was proud of "the boy who reads".

There is plenty of insight into the early years of Murugan's journey as a writer as well. "I wrote many poems in my younger days. They were filled with empty dreams and fantasies… An incident from when I was a first-year undergraduate student changed my perspective. It involved Amma and the goats," writes the author. The well-described farms in his novels, too, derive inspiration from his mother's well-cultivated fields. He also confesses to changing his views on family to become a "family-loving man" because of his mother's constant distress and worries about her own family.

The book is filled with stories of ghosts, customs and beliefs, and temple priests. Murugan credits his way of thinking to his mother's intricate examination of an issue from various angles. "Always fearful of the future, she worried that something untoward might happen," he says about his mother who sounds like a writer herself even though she couldn't read or write.

Faizal Khan is a freelancer

Book details

Amma

Perumal Murugan; translated by Nandini Murali & Kavitha Muralidharan
Westland
Pp 191, Rs399