An exclusive excerpt from Perumal Murugan’s new novel, Estuary
This is Murugan’s first novel in an urban setting
Here’s an exclusive excerpt from Estuary by Perumal Murugan:
If you show him some affection, he will talk to you,’ she said at times. ‘All you have for him are instruction and interdiction. What can he say to those? You snap at him all the time.’
Did any of his seven questions sound snappy? On the nights when sleep played coy—which was most nights for Kumarasurar—he would analyse each of these seven questions.
‘Are you well, aiyya?’ was certainly not snappy. He did not even use ‘da’ with his son. He said ‘aiyya’. One had to begin a conversation by asking if one’s interlocutor was well. So, the first question could not be faulted.
‘Did you go to class, aiyya?’ was the next question. He only meant to ask whether Meghas had finished his work for the day. Perhaps Meghas thought this was a veiled suggestion that he was likely to play truant. So, this was a problematic question. He could consider changing it. How? ‘Did you have college today?’ This could imply that the college often went on strike. ‘Did class go well today?’ Wouldn’t that mean class did not usually go well? Should he leave this question out and stick to six questions? He did not want to reduce the number of questions. Should he replace it with something else entirely? He couldn’t think of an alternative at the moment. He would retain it as a placeholder till he could figure out a substitute.
‘Have you eaten, aiyya?’ was the third question. It was a standard enquiry. It was customary to ask this question to show one’s concern for the other’s well-being. Perhaps he should explore the follow-up questions for which this one offered scope: ‘What did you eat?’ ‘What did you have for breakfast?’ ‘How about lunch?’ ‘Did you like the food today?’ Meghas would be forced to articulate in more than a single, or demi, syllable. But this presented a dilemma. What if Meghas said he didn’t like the food at the mess? The thought of his son eating unappetising food would torment him. Besides, Meghas might use this as a springboard to say he wanted to move out of the hostel and into paying-guest accommodation.
Kumarasurar had always been firm that Meghas should stay in the college hostel, which had regulations and curfews. If he stayed in private accommodation, no one would be able to keep tabs on what he did, where he went or how long he stayed out. He was at an impressionable age. If he chanced upon intoxicants, he would get addicted at once. As his parents, Kumarasurar and Mangasuri had to be careful. And Kumarasurar would have to be careful with his questions too. A qualitative question could have unforeseen ramifications. He decided to avoid these.
‘Do you have enough money, aiyya?’ was a question he asked because he worried for his son. A father could only prove his solicitude by offering money. He was the breadwinner and had to provide for his son. So this question could not be avoided.
The next question had its defects, Kumarasurar thought. ‘Have you washed your clothes and hung them to dry, aiyya?’ Meghas was an only child and had been adored all his life. For as long as he had lived at home, he had never had to lift a finger. His mother had taken care of all the chores at home and his father had run all the errands outside. Meghas had had little to do other than focus on his academics. He had not learnt how to wash his clothes or spread them out on a line to dry. He could not know how to fold them and stack them in a cupboard, or how to iron them before use. But washing one’s clothes was important. It had to do with hygiene, and therefore with health.
Sometimes, Kumarasurar was tempted to add questions like, ‘Have you bathed, aiyya?’ ‘Do you scrub your clothes while washing, aiyya?’ ‘Were your stools normal today, aiyya?’ He had acted on this impulse a couple of times, only for Meghas to hang up on him. Since Kumarasurar was determined not to provoke Meghas, he had already decided to do away with follow-up questions to the fifth query. But even the main question suggested Kumarasurar did not place much faith in his son’s sense of cleanliness. What could he do about this?
‘Are you studying, aiyya?’ could not be avoided. This wasn’t a question which sought an elaborate reply. It was important to remind Meghas of his duties as a student of engineering. It was a father’s responsibility to ensure that his son was constantly reminded of his duties. He would not shirk his paternal obligations, and those necessitated the sixth question.
The last question, ‘Shall I hang up, aiyya?’ could not be replaced with anything else. He did have to seek his son’s permission to hang up. If he simply signed off with, ‘I’ll talk to you later,’ he would worry that Meghas might have had something to say and that he had cut him off prematurely. He had to retain this one too.
So, his seven questions were unavoidable.
Excerpted with permission from Estuary by Perumal Murugan, translated by Nandini Krishnan, published by Westland/Context, July 2020.