Pyre, originally written in Tamil, is longlisted for the International Booker Prize 2023. Read an extract from the opening chapter here

Saroja and Kumaresan are in love. And in danger. After a whirlwind romance they marry in a small southern Indian town, before returning to Kumaresan’s family village. But the newlyweds are harbouring a dangerous secret: they belong to different castes, and if the villagers find out they will be in grave peril. 

Faced with venom from her mother-in-law, and pointed questions from her new neighbours, Saroja struggles to adjust to a lonely and uncomfortable life. Kumaresan throws himself into building a business, hoping to scrape together enough money for them to start over somewhere new. But as vicious whispers encircle the couple, will their love be enough to keep them safe?

Written by Perumal Murugan and Aniruddhan Vasudevan

Publication date and time: Published

The sun was blazing overhead when Saroja and Kumaresan stepped off the bus. 

Beyond the tamarind trees that lined the road, all they could see were vast expanses of arid land. There were no houses anywhere in sight. With each searing gust of wind, the white summer heat spread over everything as if white saris had been flung across the sky. There was not a soul on the road. Even the birds were silent. Just an ashen dryness, singed by the heat, hung in the air. Saroja hesitated to venture into that inhospitable space. 

‘Step down with your right foot first,’ Kumaresan had said to her. She was now unsure whether he had said this in jest or if he had meant it. By habit, anyway, she had descended from the bus with her right foot first, but she was not sure he had noticed that. The courage she had gathered until then suddenly vanished, leaving her feeling uneasy. When her feet touched the ground, she had prayed within her heart, ‘May everything go well.’ She could not think of a specific god. She only knew the name of Kumaresan’s family deity, Goddess Kali, but she would not have been able to confidently recognize the goddess’s idol in the temple. The only Kali she knew was a goddess with widened eyes, terrifying teeth and her tongue sticking out. She could not pray to that Kali, who only inspired fear. 

Kumaresan had already walked quite some distance. Saroja quickly found her bearings and trotted ahead to join him. Shifting the heavy bag to his other hand, he looked at her. Nothing here appeared new to him. He was used to navigating this place even in the dark. He always walked with a spring in his step when he was here, and he felt the same way now. But she was new. She seemed like a lush crop of corn—perhaps a little withered and dull right now, but easily refreshed with just a drop of rain. He noticed her struggling to keep pace with him, so he slowed down, conscious of how briskly he’d been marching ahead. The very sight of her took away his anxiety and brought him some calm. He could sense that, as a girl from a crowded city, Saroja was probably terrified by the emptiness of this place. 

He looked at her face. A lock of hair had escaped her plait and swayed against her cheek. He longed to gently tuck it behind her ear. He tried to control himself, but his heart’s desirous reach could not be checked. His gaze still on her, he smiled and said, ‘At midday, not even a crow or a sparrow ventures out in this heat. This is not a big city like yours, just a little village. But wait and see. You will be amazed at how many different people live here. Don’t worry about a thing. I am here.’ 

Perumal Murugan

Had all these years of love and affection meant nothing? Why hadn’t they come looking for her? Despite her fears of being separated from Kumaresan, she would have been somewhat comforted if someone had come after them, even if it was the police.

Kumaresan had rehearsed his strategy several times in his head. He believed that everything would go according to plan; it had to. He had thought long and hard about all possible contingencies and modified the plan accordingly. And though he was well aware that any scheme can unravel no matter how foolproof it might have seemed at first, a blind courage propelled him on. 

Saroja clutched his shoulder and continued to shuffle ahead, making sure her legs didn’t get in the way of his. Smiling faintly, she wondered if he would have taken her smile to mean, ‘I have no one besides you. I have come placing all my trust in you.’ Perhaps he did. He somehow already understood all her movements, like someone who had known her intimately for a long time. Her grip on his shoulder slowed him down and held him back, but he savoured the pleasure of her warm grasp, and kept walking. 

They were on the main road that led from Senkundroor to Odaiyur. To get to Kattuppatti, they would have to walk another mile. He kept explaining the different routes and places to her. The chatter helped him keep his anxiety in check. Though she was aware that he was describing the village’s layout and other things, her attention began to drift. She had exhausted herself thinking about what might have transpired in her town, and now her mind was muddled with questions about what could happen here. All night, her imagination had terrorized her with the thought that policemen would intercept them any minute and take her away from Kumaresan. Even now, she was seized by that fear, and she kept looking about warily. 

When nothing untoward happened during their journey, she wondered if her family had said good riddance to her and disowned her. Perhaps they were relieved and happy that she had not taken anything with her, that she had walked out in just the sari she was wearing. Was that all there was to it? Was that all there was to everything? Had all these years of love and affection meant nothing? Why hadn’t they come looking for her? Despite her fears of being separated from Kumaresan, she would have been somewhat comforted if someone had come after them, even if it was the police. Now all she had was the emptiness of knowing no one was looking for her. After all this, could she ever go back there? And would anyone embrace her and welcome her back if she did? They would just say, ‘You left. Couldn’t you just stay away?’ 

But if she did choose to go back home after all of this, she would feel less fearful if she went with Kumaresan. In any case, he wouldn’t let her go alone. He had already said enough to dispel her fear and boost her confidence. She held on to those heartfelt words he had uttered: ‘If you can trust that from now on I am everything for you, then come with me.’ Even if she came to lose everything else, as long as she had him it was enough. ‘I am everything for you,’ he had said to her. When she repeated it to him several times like a chant, he had laughed. It was a laugh of approval. 

He had already explained to her that once they reached the village, he would do most of the talking, and that no matter what his mother or the others in the village asked her, she need speak only a word or two in response. He had repeated this to her several times—both when they left Tholur together on the bus, with her head resting on his shoulder, and when they resumed their journey after they got married—to make sure she understood clearly. 

 Aniruddhan Vasudevan

‘Whatever I say, amma will listen to me,’ he reassured her many times in many different ways. ‘She will worry about what others might say, but everything will be all right soon. Don’t be afraid.’ 

Saroja nodded like an obedient child, hanging on to Kumaresan’s every word. Although it was uncharacteristic of her garrulous nature not to talk, she realized how important it was to act according to his wishes while in the village. Later, when things had settled and she learns how things worked here, she could probably chatter as much as she wanted to. But until then she had best follow his instructions. 

He even told her that he had hinted at these possibilities to his mother already. Apparently, the last time he was in the village, she had said to him, ‘What do you say? Shall we start looking for a girl for you?’ 

‘No rush,’ he had replied. ‘We can talk about this at leisure some other time.’ 

‘You live in a different town. Please don’t come back here dragging along a girl from a different caste,’ she had said, fixing her gaze on him. 

Laughing, he had responded, ‘So what? If I don’t find a girl for myself, you think you will? I am the one who has to live with her.’ 

His mother had not said anything more on the subject. He believed he had given her enough to think about. When he took his leave, she had merely grunted a non-committal ‘Hmm.’ He had had such conversations with her a few times already. Now he assured Saroja that his mother wouldn’t be entirely shocked. 

‘Can anyone who looks at your face not like you, my dear?’ he asked her. ‘They will instantly be won over to your side. They might even forget me. “Look at this foul-mouthed fellow’s luck!” the boys will say.’ 

Every time he called her ‘my dear’, she quivered in delight. Even though she couldn’t tell if he actually meant it or was saying it in jest, it still made her secretly happy in her heart. The expression in his eyes was always very earnest, without any hint of exaggeration in them. If she said, ‘You are fooling me,’ he would surprise her with his response: ‘Are you the kind of girl that gets fooled?’ His very words embraced her and carried her along. 

Kumaresan turned on to the mud path that forked away from the road. ‘This is the royal highway that leads to our village,’ he said and looked at her. 

‘What do you mean?’ she asked. He sometimes scared her with such grandiose language. Sometimes she simply could not understand what he said. When he spoke very fast, it sounded like a whole new language to her and she would wonder if he was just being mischievous. 

‘A royal highway,’ he explained, ‘is when they lay out soft flowers for a king and his queen to walk on. Now you and I are the king and queen.’ He laughed. In the heat of the day, it looked to her like the path ahead of her was strewn with long, slithering white snakes whose heads or tails she could not discern. Was this really a royal path? She felt a rush of affection for him and for the way he could joke and laugh even at such a time of anxiety. 

The dust on the path stuck to their feet, searing their soles. She pulled the loose end of her sari over her head. 

‘Don’t cover your head like that; remove it,’ he said. ‘In these parts, covering the head is a mark of mourning. Here, use this.’ He spread a small towel over her head. Once they decided to get married, he had started saying things like ‘Don’t do it that way. It will be misunderstood there,’ and ‘This is how they do it there.’ It continued even now, but she still did not know what to do and how exactly it would be perceived. She was fearful about how the villagers would interpret her actions. Every time she wondered if she would have to transform herself completely, the heaviness in her gut grew. If she had to learn everything afresh, she might as well become a child again. But who would raise her then? Was Kumaresan ready for such a prospect? She kept touching her head to make sure the towel didn’t slip off.

Pyre by Perumal Murugan

Read more about the author and translator