Unless you have read Poonachi, you will never know how even a goat can make you shut your eyes and sigh. Poonachi, or the story of a black goat is written by Perumal Murugan and even though it is a fable, it leads you right into the heart of nearly every kind of experience that exists today.
This short book has goats with names of their own and has heroes, villains, mothers, sisters, brothers, friends, strangers, and lovers with humans ably performing their supporting roles. Thus, we meet not just Poonachi but also Semmi, Kalli, Kaduvayan, Peethan, Porumi, Uzumban, and Poovan besides others and the way their relationships come together to weave this story where humans are simply addressed as the old man, old woman, or someone’s daughter or some official.
The story begins with an old man wishing he had ‘a goat to graze on the green grass. By chance, this bit of dung had come into his hands. How was he going to raise it to adulthood?’ His wife decides to give a name to this ‘black lump glittering in the lamplight in that pitch-black night’ and calls her Poonachi and we get to read plenty of goat-perspectives on the way life unfolds for them. There are goats with aspirations, goats who see, think, and come to their own assessments, for instance, Poovan telling Poonachi that ‘death can come to a buck kid at any time. We die for meat. We die for sacrifice. I live for moments like these, when I get to be with you, even if only by chance.’ By the time one reaches the end of this fable, one knows that these goats have seen it all – from lush pastures to famines, have hopped on three legs from lust to love and back, and have known what it is to yearn for freedom – and are finally ‘weary from having experienced all the sorrows of this world.’
It will not be fair to compare Poonachi with any of the famous animal characters in fables that are known and read all over the world. We have been reading about Eeyore or Winnie or any of the other characters of A A Milne, or the mole-fox-horse trio of Charlie Mackesy, and yes, plenty of roosters, lions, peacocks, and wolves in fables loved by both children as well as adults. Poonachi has silently made her entry into this charming world of animals saying things that humans read, nod, think, and mutter, ‘True. This is true! I agree.’ Even Mesagaran, the clay deity of the people of the semi-arid land around Odakkam hill, will agree, though Perumal Murugan might have the final say on this. Poonachi never turns out to be ‘this cursed thing entered our house, she has cleaned out all the live animals from here. Now she will wipe out the humans too, just wait and watch,’ as the old man thought when things were not going the right way for him. As readers we smile as she hesitantly stumbles into the mysteries of love, and we shed a silent tear as she experiences the torments of love lost. Her stoic acceptance of the way her future is revealed, her reactions and reasonings – this goat makes sure that everything remains in sight. And in her insights. Like any other memorable character in the history of remarkable fiction, Poonachi too makes it easy for history to retain her as an able representation of a life well told. I agree with the old man in the story when he fondly pulls at her flapping ears and says: ‘Aren’t you lucky to come and live here?’ Indeed, I’d say, Poonachi has done everything to stay in the conversations of readers for a long time.
If one must search for reasons to like a book, Poonachi gives every reader plenty. The socio-economic matrix, governance cloudbursts, relationship mysteries, customs and traditions, cultural implications, and even human-animal quotient make their entry and we get to look at them from the goat’s point-of-view which isn’t as confusing as it sounds. It is clearer because goats aren’t like sheep always looking down… they are forever with their heads up and looking at the world boldly. Even the emotional quotient of the fable is high with scenes where the drama gets highlighted, and we flow with the intensity. Every element must be welcome in a tale, and as the old man mutters towards the end when the drought blitzes into their life, ‘even an enemy should be welcomed with courtesy. If we drive away the rain that brings us wealth and prosperity, why will it ever visit us again?’
I must admit that I have gone through the translated version and have read in some reviews that a lot of locally known and appreciated references were lost in translation… and this is not to say that N Kalyan Raman has done a bad job as I loved the English text anyway. But I am sure the original text in Tamil must be having locally relevant nuances that would have added to the punch of whatever happens in the fable.
Title: Poonachi – or the story of a black goat
Author: Perumal Murugan
Publisher: Westland Publications
20 July 2022