In the village of Punjai, the ordinary is magical. A boy can’t wait until the two bullocks are broken in before he rides them. There is a widow who emerges like a ghost from the village pond every day. And a delusional old man relives the Chola age, like it were just yesterday, sitting at the tea stall. There is the devadasi Panchali, too, who volunteers to play Draupadi in a ritual disrobing at the temple. In Na Muthuswamy’s telling, the mundane shines with meaning and mystery. The book is brought to a powerful close with his iconic play ‘England’, which examines the nature of our struggle against colonial rule. It mocks the inequality that followed Independence; freedom came but not to all.
Muthuswamy’s writing draws on the ancient folk performative texts of Therukkoothu as well as the idiom of contemporary theatre from across the world. His lyrical prose, distinctive gaze, layered narrative, memorable characters, the overlapping of dream and reality, and the intense atmospherics of his storytelling make Muthuswamy’s body of work perhaps the best that contemporary Tamil fiction has to offer.
Masterfully translated by David Shulman—one of the foremost experts on Indian languages, and author of Tamil: A Biography—and S. Ramakrishnan, Bullocks from the West is a fine introduction to one of India’s most powerful writers today.