With Pyre longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, its author talks about the real events that inspired the book, and how he can only write in solitude

Read interviews with all of the longlisted authors and translators here

Publication date and time: Published

How does it feel to be longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023, and what would winning mean to you? 

I couldn’t initially believe that my Saroja and Kumaresan had gone to such great heights. But the next moment, I felt that bound by love, they were capable of scaling greater heights. I conveyed my wishes to them. To me, success means the recognition that my language receives.

What were the inspirations behind the book? What made you want to tell this particular story? 

I was compelled to respond as a writer following reports on honour killings in Tamil Nadu after 2000. The reports made me deeply sad because it also reminded me of other similar stories. It was a strong feeling to write through the grief. The novel was thus born.

Inter-caste marriages are one of the reasons for honour killings. There are different angles to it. One angle is that the male belongs to the dominant caste in the social herirarchy and the female to the oppressed caste. I was able to create a story using this angle.  

‘Thalai muzugiruven’ (to rinse one’s hair) is a term traditionally used in the region where I live. This means doing the rituals associated with death after the passing on of a person and completing it by washing oneself in a river. This metaphorically means that all the earthly bonds with that person are forever concluded. One should move on and carry on with the daily duties of life. To tell someone who’s still alive that they will ‘wash one’s hair’ is a threat to ‘kill them’; it is a warning that the person will be considered dead.  Parents use this traditional term when they come to know of their children’s love affairs. A traditional term doesn’t come into being easily. Many stories are buried inside the term. I extracted one such story and wrote this novel.

How long did it take to write the book, and what does your writing process look like? Do you type or write in longhand? Are there multiple drafts or sudden bursts of activity? Is the plot and structure intricately mapped out in advance? 

I wrote this novel in three months. Kalki, a popular weekly magazine in Tamil, approached me to write a serialised novel in a dialectical language and representative of the Tamil rural life. I have always been deeply interested in description of the geography, the landscape. Where it is possible, my hands have instinctively taken up the opportunity even before I could think of it. I wondered if I could take this up, description is antithesis to a serial. I decided to bend my fingers and give it a try. If it aches, I will release my fingers. I kept the first draft with myself and sent an edited draft to the magazine. Nothing went wrong. When it became a book, I opted for the first draft that I had held on to. I added descriptions at some places. The novel benefited because the work was also serialised in the weekly magazine.

Since 2006, I have not been writing by hand. I type my work on a computer. After writing something, I give it at least a week and then go back to read it again. I take notes and prepare the second draft. Often, that will be the final version. I very rarely work on a third draft, but I’ve never had to work on more than three drafts.  

I create a work completely in my mind before I write it down. After it is ready in my mind from the beginning to the end, I make small notes on my notepad. I make a note of facts if I feel that I may forget. There is always a 50 percent compatibility between what was formed in my mind and what was later written. The remaining 50 percent will be new additions.

Perumal Murugan

Finally, we decided on the title Pyre. Aniruddhan was not happy about it. He kept complaining about it. I told him some aspects become finer in translation, and some aspects are lost

Where do you write? What does your working space look like? 

A place with no human beings is conducive to my writing. I can write in any place where there is solitude. My writing place is where I can see the trees, birds, sky and space. I have created such a place on the terrace of my house and ‘live separately’ there.

What was the experience of working with the book’s translator, Aniruddhan Vasudevan, like? How closely did you work together on the English edition? Did you offer any specific guidance or advice? Were there any surprising moments during your collaboration, or joyful moments, or challenges?  

I have had good relationship with all the translators I have worked with. Aniruddhan Vasudevan, who translated Pookuzhi [Pyre], is a close friend. After reading Madhoru Paagan [One Part Woman], he willingly offered to translate it when ‘it goes to English’. He did it too. It was his first fully translated work. I had a great experience working with him. It seemed natural for me to travel with him, he had read all my works and had a better understanding of my creative world. He has translated five novels of mine till now. He is well versed in both Tamil and English and has only sought explanation for some dialectical terms that appear in my works. We have a conversation either over email or when we meet in person. I didn’t have to give him any particular advice.

We had deep discussions about how to translate the Tamil title Pookuzhi into English. Pookuzhi is a term that carries a distinct grammatical element unique to Tamil language. It is a euphemism where an inauspicious word is replaced by an auspicious one. It is difficult to bring it into any other language, and impossible as far as English was concerned. We took much time to think of the English title. Finally, we decided on the title Pyre. Aniruddhan was not happy about it. He kept complaining about it. I told him some aspects become finer in translation, and some aspects are lost. ‘It is natural and there is nothing wrong in having a direct title,’ I said by way of comforting him.

Why do you feel it’s important for us to celebrate translated fiction?   

Language is the best among the inventions of humankind. A long history is embedded in a single word. The language holds culture in it, it holds values. It is a magic that holds music, geography, arts and more. In that sense, a translation is a confluence of two magics. It has to be celebrated. All that the world needs today is a pluralistic mindset. Translation is an act of recognising pluralism, it recognises pluralism at all levels – language, culture and geography. So, translations have to be celebrated.

If you had to choose three works of fiction that have inspired your career the most, what would they be and why? 

R Shanmugasundaram was a pioneer in Tamil dialectical novels. He wrote about the life of Kongu region, to which I belong. Nagammal, his first novel, was published in 1942. A tiny novel, it speaks about the life struggles of a widow. Every time I read the novel, it gives me new imageries, new scenes. I see my ancestors through the novel.

I read Atin Bandyopadhyay’s Bengali novel Nilakanta Paravaiyai Thedi (In search of Nilakanta bird) in my young age. There is no other novel that showed an Indian village as completely as this did. I was in awe at how he had turned everyone living in that village into his character. Every time I think of this novel, I feel bad about Tamil lacking a similar novel about a village in Tamil Nadu.  

Chinua Achebe’s Things Fall Apart (Sidhaivugal in Tamil) was a novel that haunted me. It is a gut-wrenching piece of creativity that spoke about the beliefs, rituals, food habits of a human race, and how it is entwined with human emotion. I have always felt close to the characters and life in this novel. It brings to the fore a desire to look keenly at life around us.

 Aniruddhan Vasudevan