The Games We Play: The Goat Thief by Perumal Murugan

The Goat Thief by Perumal Murugan is a collection of short stories handpicked by the author from his large corpus of work, and translated into English by N Kalyan Raman.

In the Preface to the collection, Murugan pens some beautiful lines about the craft of telling stories using the short story form.

Whenever I think of writing a short story, I am reminded of the art of drawing kolams practiced in Tamil homes. . . The simple one drawn with just four dots by a hand that weaves and crosses between them can be beautiful as never seen before. The grand one that is as wide as the street and drawn after hard practice over long hours can turn out to be an unsightly mess. . .  It's the same with the short story.

The stories in The Goat Thief seem to follow the same pattern; while some delight, others fail to charm.

The Games We Play

A sustained leitmotif in the stories is that of playing games. In the first story, titled 'The Well,' the protagonist and the well are caught in an obsessive game to determine who possesses more power.

The protagonist desires to unearth the well's secrets. At first, the well seems to yield, but only to trap them in its depths. The protagonist says,

For how long could he continue playing this game? What was this game, anyway? It was only the well's cunning trick disguised as a game.

A similar power play exists between the toilet bowl and the woman protagonist in the story "The Wailing of a Toilet Bowl." Just like the well in the first story is a manifestation of evil, similarly the toilet bowl is an "insatiably hungry beast" bent on devouring her. These stories depict the symbiotic relationship between loneliness and obsession.

Intimate Games

A similar obsession with an object but a different kind of power play exists in the story "Musical Chairs." The title of the story itself has a game motif to it.

The power play in this story is between a husband and a wife, both obsessed with the same chair. The chair is at first a symbol of an intimate bond between them, but increasingly comes to represent their individual loneliness and their growing distance from one another.

He had encroached on her chair little by little. He might even stake a claim on it. . . But she wasn't prepared to give up her chair. The wounds she had suffered to acquire it had not scabbed over yet.

On the lines of intimacy and obsession, we also have the story "The Night the Owls Stopped Crying," where a lonely watchman falls in love with a ghost. The watchman's duty at the farmhouse and his repetitive movements are perceived as a game, which is interrupted by the appearance of the ghost.

In the story "An Unexpected Visitor," the relationship between the child and the grandmother is also described in terms of a game, one of cheerful banter and secret-keeping.

Games and Power 

The collection highlights that human beings often and unknowingly play games — sometimes projecting one's desires, obsessions, and insecurities on inanimate objects — in an attempt to gain power over oneself and over others.

In the story "Shit" (as in "The Wailing of a Toilet Bowl"), where odour is a marker of caste, the narrator remarks,

It was impossible to accept the figure [of the sweeper] as human. . . Unaware that the stench was gnawing at our intestines, how calmly he stood there and bargained with us! 

One must not forget that caste is an identity-marker that is significantly embedded in power play in Indian society and is used to discriminate and ostracise.

The Goat Thief by Perumal Murugan, published by Juggernaut Books, 2017.

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