The short story is a strong but difficult medium. In many ways it is more potent than a novel because it can leave an impact with few words, consuming little time. An observant writer can concoct many stories using everyday themes and images, telling extraordinary tales about ordinary people, evoking emotions and reactions from a diverse readership. In the preface to The Goat Thief, prolific Tamil short story writer, Perumal Murugan, talks about his own tryst with the skill of story writing and how he came to evolve his own style and rendition.
The Goat Thief is a collection of short stories, translated from Tamil, that exhibit the writer’s expertise in this genre. He weaves words to create images and tickle your senses with awe, fear, compassion, recognition, in many places shame, anger, and desperation, and as Murugan says, “mild sorrow.” Murugan explains in the book preface that the ten stories in this collection are about “exception.” The preface contains his elaboration on the concept of exception, which roughly translates to be being different and alienated. He writes, “It’s my nature to feel concerned and affectionate towards those who are exceptions.”
The translator of Murugan’s stories, N. Kalyan Raman, observes that most of the characters in these stories are “afflicted by an acute sense of displacement.” When you don’t feel belonged, you are isolated, lonely, and then the voices in the head become larger than life, and the fine line between the real and the perceived diminishes. Be it the young bride from the village making sense of her isolation in the house of an insensitive husband, or the youthful night watchman craving social contact, or the couple competing for petty possessions; their imaginations fill the gaps in their lonesome existence, oft more frighteningly than the run of the mill woes of their lives.
Loneliness is a central theme in many stories – the old woman babysitting a grandchild, the village bride making sense of her new urban surroundings, the sweeper mending the septic tank, the uncle playing with the children but unable to let go of his fears, the student on a vacation in the village yearning for childhood pleasures, and the man who cannot sleep, and of course, the goat thief– the lonely characters are trying to fit in, while being aware of their isolation!
Murugan’s narration is full of life, colours, and details from rural South India. He is unabashed in his writings, oft picking up subjects and stories that can make you squirm but which also compel you to read on. The most enticing tales are those that no one dares to tell; our greatest fears are the fodder for the best stories. In the recesses of the mind, in the caverns, and the vessels, a lonely, divergent, distant, different soul can create stories that only a writer with the impeccable pen and calibre of Murugan can bring to us. The Goat Thief is a collection that a discerning reader can revisit to savour layers of emotions, imagination, and description that Murugan has effortlessly narrated.
The only misgiving I have for this collection, is the loss of words and grammar in the process of translation. But then without this translated collection, Murugan’s stories would not have reached such a vast English-speaking audience.