Book Review – Amma by Perumal Murugan

Swapna Narayanan

I have an aunt. An aunt who is strong, gritty, determined and unfazed. But this is, as I see her. However, she does not necessarily see herself in that perspective. 

She compares herself to some strong and at times ‘too good to be true’ standards and finds herself wanting on many counts. A comparison that is often done by many other Indian women. 

My aunt is not alone there. 

I recently read the English translation of the Tamil author Perumal Murugan’s book – Amma and could relate to so many women I know in my life who probably deserve a book dedicated to them.

Perumal Murugan’s mother is blessed. She had a son who could see her strength, resilience and hard work and chose to share her story with the world. 

The book is a set of essays that showcase his mother and her agrarian life. He penned this book after her demise. While the book seems to have acted more as a medium to vent out his grief, it has come out as a very truthful, objective and fair account of her life as a woman who had seen and borne a lot.

With a deep awareness that I, being a city bred woman, need to know more about an agrarian life – notwithstanding the frequent trip to a small village in Kerala that I take often, the synopsis of the book immediately got me hooked to it. And, I must add, the ongoing farmer protests across the country and my urge towards getting some more perspective into their lives, did act as a trigger for me to buy the book.

The book walks the reader through the life of a farmer and gives a deep insight on the customs, protocols, seasons, and rituals that define their lives. His deep yet clearly written descriptions of the day-to-day account in a field prints a clear visual imagery in the reader’s mind.

Every woman has her own fair share of struggles. More so if she was born in an era where things were not open, and the diktats and standards of the society were highly limiting. 

Yet who is to stop a woman.

Murugan clearly brings out that facet through these essays.

Amma was undaunted and had her priorities well set. In spite of leading a life of hard work, sweat and toil right from a very young age, Amma was clear what she wanted and never shied away from working towards it. 

Her childhood was never secure. Losing her mother early, having a wayward father, and a sibling with whom she did not have a strong bonding, she saw her husband as someone who will give her the much-needed security.

But then, as is often the case, it was not to be. 

Yet, she built a life with him, gave birth to two kids, nurtured them to the best of her abilities, handled her alcoholic husband, revered and protected her patch of land, built a house etc. and moved on with the cycle of her life, during the course of which she realised that the anchor she was looking for outside was actually well within her. 

Amma was a strong woman with her head in the right place. While she believed in conforming to the societal norms, she was also clear as to when it came about making choices, she will choose what is right for her family’s life and sustenance.

One instance that Murugan quotes in the essay – White Sari – is inspirational and I hope many women do read that. This incident occurs during the sowing season of July and August – a key event in a farmer’s life. Amma is a widow by then and the customs define that the first sowing of the seeds are to be done by a girl child. If that is not possible, a woman could do it. However, a widow cannot do it as it would lead to a failed crop.

Compliant that she was, with sons who had no inclination or knowledge of agriculture and having no girl child at her house, she tried her best to get someone to help. When her multiple efforts did not bear fruit, she chose to break that taboo and personally sowed the field. She took the choice to sow her land rather than leaving it un-sowed.

But as is common in our world – one action by a woman will always elicit multiple reactions and even opinions by society! Villagers flocked her home and raised their views, opinions, questions and concerns that were akin to offering condolences on the death of a loved one. A crop in this case.

Not only did Amma field all those visits and questions, the crop turned out to be great. Not a single seed failed to sprout because it was sown by a widow! 

There are many such nuggets and instances in the book that showcase Amma’s evolution along with the changing times, with some deep self-introspection and opening up of her mind. Her acceptance of her daughter in law, Ezhilarasi, with no animosity in spite of her disapproval and reading a foreword written by her is, according to me, a perfect ode to this evolved woman.

Amma may be Perumal Murugan’s mother’s story but it does contain within it some aspects that could be the story of many a woman in our world. You will see a glimpse of your mother’s tenacity, or your aunt’s will power or a friend’s mother’s immense strength somewhere in these pages.

I saw. 

I saw many a woman in my life and their fights, struggles and travails in these pages. 

A simple read that brings to the fore the life of a mother – a fighter, a nurturer, and an achiever by her own standards. 

*All images used in this article are either Eyra’s own design or widely and freely available on the internet.*

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